Autism, HSP – are they different names for the same, or similar, things?
The simple answer is no, they are very different….
It puzzles me that people ask this question, because in my mind they are two are very different things, but since it keeps popping up on Facebook and in my group for HSP Extrovert Women, I thought it might be helpful to address it in a blog post. I think the misconception stems from the fact that both have been treated very similarly by the general public.
To be very clear, the brain research continues to find sensory processing sensitivity and autism quite different, but they also have things in common, which may explain the misconceptions that many have. High sensitivity (or sensory processing sensitivity – SPS) and autism spectrum are both terms that describe differences—differences in brains that make them a-typical.
The autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) are part of the “Pervasive Developmental Disorders.” In all of these disorders, even if a person is said to be “high functioning,” there is also pervasive impairment in social functioning.
It is important to note here that in recent times, autism is more commonly seen as a healthy trait. This blog is not intended in any way to suggest that people who fall on the autism spectrum have something ‘wrong’ with them, rather the purpose of this blog is to help people who are born with SPS (sensory processing sensitivity), also known as HSPs (highly sensitive person), to answer the question…….. What is the difference between HSPs, and individuals with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder?
It has been argued by many that autism is highly advantageous and should not be classified as a disorder at all; a fair amount of research agrees, including evidence that autism may correlate with high intelligence. However that is a topic for another discussion/blog post.
Both autism, and being an HSP can involve extreme sensitivity to your environment. Any highly sensitive person understands what it’s like to have the world “turned up too loud,” and many individuals with autism have that same experience—especially about seemingly “small” stimuli, like the rub of clothing texture, or an intrusive noise.
Overwhelm is also a common experience for both HSPs and individuals with autism. As children, responding to overwhelm with panic, tantrums or shutting down are all responses shared by autistic and HSP children. HSPs need to be taught good strategies to avoid overwhelm but due to many growing up with parents who had no idea about HSPs, it is usually as adults that we must learn these strategies.
Even though there are a couple of similarities, brain science and research continue to confirm that they are two very different things, in fact recently, a study has shown they are in fact profoundly different.
An exhaustive analysis of 27 papers comparing high sensitivity, autism, and other conditions, was led by Dr. Bianca Acevedo of the Neuroscience Research Institute of the University of California, and the results published (April 2018) in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Journal, which was the first journal in the world exclusively devoted to science, and therefore also the world’s longest-running scientific journal. I have summarised the findings related to SPS and Autism below, but you can read the full study here.
1. HSPs do not suffer from ‘social deficits’
The more serious cases on the Autism Spectrum mean that communication with the individual is almost impossible.
HSPs are the opposite in that they can communicate well and are highly susceptible to picking up social emotional cues – often resulting in them being exceptional communicators.
People with Asperger’s (higher functioning), which is the other end of the autism spectrum, can speak normally, so it is possible to communicate with them, however they still lack the understanding of what is going on emotionally in another person.
This is confirmed by studies of the brains of individuals with ASD and SPS. Those with ASD show less response in areas of the brain associated with empathy, social cues, and self-reflection. These same areas of the brain that are less responsive among individuals with autism, tend to be very active for HSPs, who present high levels of empathy, social awareness, and self-reflection.
Individuals who fall on the Autism Spectrum do not respond appropriately to emotional cues. HSPs on the other hand are the opposite, and can pick up very subtle emotional cues – in fact that is one of our many super-powers!
In the DSM-V, the first criteria for Autism Diagnosis, states there must be “Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts”.
- lack of emotional empathy
- inability to express appropriate emotions Eg surprise, gratitude, sympathy, annoyance
- cannot read the signs of the emotional experiences of others
An example of how this might play out in real life was shared by Dr Aron on her blog post about this topic. Dr Aron was on a backpacking trip and met a man with Asperger’s. He was on the trip with his ten-year-old son, who was suffering because his backpack was far too heavy for him. His father told him it was because he had packed too much. This was obviously the case, but the interesting thing was that the Dad showed no sympathy, or even annoyance with his son. It was not about teaching his son a lesson. That would have involved some complex social-emotional negotiations, which the man’s brain did not have the capacity for. He was also unable to understand that his son was suffering, and had no idea how to resolve this, beyond telling his son that next time he should pack lighter.
HSPs are the opposite of the above example, and rather than deficits in social communication and social interaction, they excel in these areas. They have strong levels of empathy, compassion, and creativity, as well as the intuitive ability to see connections that others miss, due to their ‘sensitivity to subtleties (or the ’S’ in Dr Aron’s D.O.E.S criteria).
2. Social situations are (extra) rewarding for HSPs
HSPs may respond even more strongly to social interactions than others do. This is assuming we balance the stimulation coming from the environment, and our tendency to become overstimulated, and then overwhelmed.
All human beings are hard-wired to find social interactions rewarding. This stems from the fact that it has always been the key to our survival to bond with, help others, and cooperate. HSPs simply find these interaction a little more rewarding than non-HSPs.
For people with autism, there isn’t a sense of calm or any positive feelings involved in social interactions. It’s not as rewarding for them, Acevedo’s study points out. The difference is that while these interactions with another person may get their attention, they simply don’t feel meaningful. The study showed that this has a flow-on effect to their ability to respond appropriately to emotional cues, as discussed earlier.
To be clear, we are not saying that individuals with autism cannot form deep, meaningful relationships – in that sense they are like anyone else. The difference is how rewarding, they find interacting socially, in its own right. It is extra-rewarding for HSPs, it is less so for people with autism.
3. Dramatic brain differences in handling stimuli
The only similarities in brain activity, for people with autism and HSPs, is in attention and reacting (physically or mentally) to stimuli.
For HSPs, there is higher-than-typical activity in areas of the brain related to calmness, hormonal balance, self-control, and self-reflective thinking (the ability to process one’s own actions and feelings and come to deeper conclusions about them). This relates to the ‘D’ and the ‘E’ in Dr Aron’s D.O.E.S criteria (depth of processing and high levels of empathy and emotional responsiveness).
This is in stark contrast to autistic brain activity, which Acevedo’s study found to be less active in all of the same regions.
My belief that HSPs are the future, and their brains are more highly evolved than those with typical brains:
I have long held the belief that HSPs are a more highly evolved version of the human species, and realise that these statements may get me into trouble with any non-HSPs reading this! However the research is starting to support my beliefs!
Due to the heightened brain activity in useful brain regions; a strong association with desirable personality traits; and even a tendency toward positive, useful, prosocial behaviour, the research is now starting to suggest that being an HSP is strongly beneficial for the human race.
The study, mentioned earlier in this post, concludes that the human race may benefit from the adaptive sensory processing sensitivity (SPS or HSP) strengths including empathy, awareness, calmness, physiological and cognitive self-control. These strengths will help with survival, well-being and cooperation of the human species. They are also beneficial because they enable environmental and social information to be deeply integrated and memorised, allowing humans to prosper in future situations of survival.
In a nutshell, being an HSP is starting to show as an evolutionary advantage. One that will help our entire species….!
What did I tell you…? hehe! I am preparing myself for a barrage of negativity for the above statements, but I am ready! HSPs are my superheroes!
For those of you who have read this far, who think you might be an HSP, and are also an Extrovert – you are VERY unique by the way – I would love to invite you to check out my FREE Facebook Group, Highly Sensitive Extroverts: Bright Sparks. It is a wonderfully supportive group of ladies, all on a journey to improve their lives, and support each other in doing so. They are on their way to overcoming challenges, including past trauma, in order to eventually see being an HSP as a Superpower!!
Sources used in this post: