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Joined: 25 Aug 2013
Age: 64
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Location: Long Island, New York

08 Dec 2021, 9:53 am

No, Being Autistic Is Not the Same as Being Highly Sensitive
Article co-authored by Rachel Samson, M.Psych and Erin Bulluss, Ph.D

The internet is now the primary residence of popular or “pop” psychology; concepts and theories about human experiences, supposedly based on psychology that find acceptance among the public.

Both autism and high sensitivity have found their way into this arena with thousands of pop psychology pages, websites, videos, articles, and social media accounts. Often these focus on areas of overlap between autism and high sensitivity and suggest these might be the same thing with two different names.

While there is certainly a major overlap in sensory processing experiences of both Autistic and highly sensitive individuals, specifically sensitivity to sensory information, this does not mean they are the same thing.

As clinical psychologists with a special interest in neurodiversity—one who is Autistic and one who is highly sensitive, our clinic receives a high volume of referrals for clients who are highly sensitive and/or Autistic and who are seeking formal assessment or informal help in untangling their particular flavour of neurodivergence.

Often undiagnosed Autistic people seeking our services have absorbed misinformation and identify (or have been identified) as highly sensitive, resulting in missed diagnosis and, subsequently, a lack of access to required supports. There can be a reluctance to let go of the identity of being a highly sensitive person and embrace Autistic identity instead, due to stigma and misunderstanding surrounding autism. Therefore, creating a barrier to self-acceptance that limits mental health and wellbeing.

We also hold concerns about highly sensitive people being misdiagnosed as Autistic by professionals who are not trained in assessing temperament and high sensitivity, which may lead to poor self-understanding and mismatched supports.


Sensitivity is a heritable and evolutionarily conserved temperament trait.Temperament is defined as biologically based individual differences in reactivity and self-regulation.mIt is estimated that around 30 percent of the population is highly sensitive. High sensitivity presents equally in males and females and has been observed in over 100 species, including humans, monkeys, dogs, fish, and insects.

The scientific term for sensitivity is sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), though people are often more familiar with the popular psychology terms highly sensitive person (HSP) and highly sensitive child (HSC).While we talk about “high sensitivity” as a category, research shows SPS forms a continuum from low sensitivity to high sensitivity.

High sensitivity is considered a phenotypic marker of an underlying greater biological sensitivity to the environment and a more reactive central nervous system. Individuals across species vary in their sensitivity to the environment, with some individuals being more strongly affected by their environment and others being less affected.


Sensory Processing

While sensory processing is the main similarity between autism and high sensitivity, there are some differences in how this presents. While highly sensitive individuals tend to experience hyper-reactivity to sensory information, Autistic individuals may have either a hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory information, a combination of both, or neither.

Capacity for Empathy

High empathy is also frequently included in lists of characteristics and anecdotes of the HSP, reflecting the underlying reactivity to the environment and subsequent ability to notice subtleties.

Many Autistic people relate to the experience of high empathy. Because historically it was believed that Autistic people characteristically lacked empathy, many Autistic people instead relate to descriptions of high sensitivity. Now we understand that Autistic people do not inherently lack empathy; research shows on the neural systems level, activation of the empathy network is comparable to that of non-Autistic people.


Nature of Phenomenon

Both autism and high sensitivity are examples of neurodivergence. Sensitivity is a temperament trait that occurs along a continuum; high sensitivity reflects heightened reactivity to the environment and thus heightened experiences.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental divergence that is either present or not. Differences in brain structure and connectivity result in qualitatively different ways of experiencing oneself and the world, including heightened experiences.


The prevalence of autism is currently estimated at around 2 percent of the population. While many people believe the actual prevalence might be higher due to misdiagnosis and missed diagnosis, it is very unlikely that the accurate prevalence of autism would be over 20 percent of the population, which is the proportion of the population of a variety of species that research has consistently identified to be highly sensitive.

Processing Style

Human brain imaging research using fMRI has shown an association between high SPS and increased activation of brain regions involved with depth of processing.High sensitivity is associated with a depth of processing, meaning relevant information may take longer to process and feel more intense.

On the other hand, Autistic people have both a higher perceptual capacity and hyperconnectivity across brain regions, meaning a greater volume of information from the environment is processed at any given time, whether directly relevant or not. This indicates a breadth–as well as a depth–of processing in Autistic people.

Impact of Environment

While Autistic people have more fixed but idiosyncratic neurodevelopmental trajectories and require lifelong accommodations to flourish, the developmental trajectories and outcomes of HSPs are strongly influenced for better and for worse depending on the environment.

Research has shown that highly sensitive individuals have poorer developmental outcomes and an increased likelihood of behavioural and psychological difficulties in stressful and unsupportive early environments. Conversely, in supportive and highly nurturing early environments, highly sensitive people have the capacity to flourish and may have better developmental trajectories than less sensitive individuals.

In contrast, Autistic people require supports and accommodations to thrive in modern society. Where there is not the capacity for the environment to adapt to and accommodate the needs of the Autistic person, the environment is then disabling and significantly impacts and limits the functional capacity and wellbeing of the Autistic person.

By understanding the conceptual and experiential differences between autism and high sensitivity, rather than simply focusing on the similarities, we can recognise these are two distinct–yet potentially co-occurring–neurodivergences that both add to the necessary neurodiversity of humankind.

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

It is Autism Acceptance Month.

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman


Joined: 23 Feb 2020
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Location: Alpena MI

09 Dec 2021, 4:34 am

I have a really hard time buying into that "highly sensitive person" thing. NTs have a spectrum too, from highly sensitive to highly insensitive. At the statistics I have read saying up to 33 percent of the population is highly sensitive, I'd say that is more a normal state of being than some sort of disorder. In the in the early part of the 1900s there was a fashion to be "highly sensitive" because somebody had a theory that this was a more "highly evolved" type than less sensitive or reactive people. I think this is a resurrection of that fad. The emotional types were supposed at that time to belong to body types. ... -mesomorph
pseudoscience BS.


"Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.” Samuel Johnson

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Joined: 1 Jun 2017
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09 Dec 2021, 5:41 am

According to my therapist, I'm both. It fits my experience so I think she's right.
Yes, my brain is processing enormous amount of information really deeply all the time and I can't really control it, rather I can try to manage it not to get insane.

Let's not confuse being normal with being mentally healthy.

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Joined: 4 Feb 2014
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09 Dec 2021, 7:04 am

Just your luck you have a brilliant mind :)