While sensitivity can manifest in various ways, two terms that frequently come up are “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP) and “Autism Spectrum Disorder” (ASD). These two conditions, while distinct, share some common traits that can sometimes lead to confusion as to how they are different. Let’s explore.
What Is Autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that is used to describe individuals who face challenges in their behaviors, communication, speech, and social skills. It’s considered a developmental disorder that can impact someone’s ability to interact with others.
What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?
A highly sensitive person (HSP) is an individual who is believed to have a more responsive central nervous system which can make them more sensitive to emotional, physical, or social stimuli compared to the average individual.
People with autism and highly sensitive people share a lot of similarities.
These are some of the most common similarities between the two:
- Difficulty adjusting to new environments: Having a hard time feeling comfortable or finding their place when they’re not familiar with it.
- Heightened awareness of stimuli: Being sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings.
- Motivated by personal values and beliefs: Being more likely to seek justice for those who are wronged or harmed.
- Nervous system sensitivity: Experiencing strong responses to external stimuli and stressors.
- Strong emotional reactivity: Being overwhelmed or overstimulated by environments or emotions, causing a strong emotional reaction.
While high sensitivity is a common similarity between highly sensitive people and autism, not all highly sensitive people have autism. Autistic individuals may have high or increased sensitivity, but that doesn’t mean that the two conditions or traits are automatically intertwined. In fact, autistic individuals typically showcase a broader range of characteristics that go beyond just sensitivity. Here are some of the most common differences between autism and highly sensitive people:
Interacting with Others
Highly sensitive people are often deeply attuned to social nuances. Not only are they sensitive to the feelings of others, but they tend to pick up on small details within tone or body language. In short, they exhibit a social hyperawareness that allows them to more easily form deep connections with others.
When it comes to social situations for autistic individuals, they often aren’t as likely to pick up on subtle social cues or may have trouble understanding the function or purpose of certain social cues. They might find it challenging to connect with people and their direct and literal communication style isn’t always well-received by neurotypicals.
While both HSPs and people with autism require alone time to decompress, the self-soothing techniques involved differ. HSPs need alone time to recover from the overuse or overstimulation of their social skillset. They might retreat to a safe, comfortable, quiet place to relax and reduce stimulation.
Autistic individuals need alone time to process their thoughts and emotions, but they self-soothe by engaging with their special interests, performing repetitive movements (stimming), or finding comfort in their routine. These particular self-soothing practices aren’t as prominent in HSPs.
The key difference in processing comes down to this: Highly sensitive people display depth of processing, while people with autism display more breadth of processing. Depth of processing is responsible for the intuitiveness and attunement to others’ emotions, a common trait in HSPs. Breadth of processing involves a wider focus, meaning those with autism tend to take in more than just one intense, specific social instance. Instead their brain works to organize multiple separate experiences at a time.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being autistic or being a highly sensitive person. Both conditions and traits come with strengths and struggles. No matter what you’re struggling with, I’m here to help you navigate it so you can live your life to the fullest. Reach out to me today to set up a consultation.
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