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Being a Highly Sensitive Person & Autistic

I have wanted to wade in to the potentially controversial waters of high sensitivity and Autism for some time now, following my own diagnosis of Autism & ADHD. There is much debate over the differences and overlap, and the jury I think it still unclear about what is different and what is the same between the two. However, I write from my own personal experience as well as the experiences of others that I have connected with over recent years.

It is impossible to get in to this topic, without first calling out the inherent issue with labelling and categorising people. So let me start by stating that no person can ever be summed up entirely with a label or 'diagnosis'. Yet, if you have been misunderstood much of your life, have had your needs go unmet and received that message your difference is 'wrong' by the society we live in, then a label can help. It can begin to, at the very least, help you understand yourself and to live in a way congruent with your unique make-up. It may also help others understand you - even if that understanding is fraught with stigma and misconception.

My Experience

I identify as both a highly sensitive and neurodivergent person. I have been formally diagnosed as autistic, with ADHD. I am a high masking, non-stereotypical autistic person. This means most of my more 'neuro-spicy' traits have gone unseen. When I first started my healing journey after a lot of anxiety in my 20s, I discovered the trait of high sensitivity and all the research into the trait. I felt overjoyed to finally have my 'quirks' seen and I realised that there was nothing 'wrong' with me after all. I was simply a sensitive soul living in a culture not set up for me. I launched myself head-first in to reading, researching and absorbing everything I could about the trait and had so many 'a-ha' moments, as I reframed my whole life to that point.

The Highly Sensitive Lens

I had always felt different, from very early age. I often suspected that my experience of life was quite different to the majority of those around me. So when I read the list of traits that define a highly Sensitive Person(HSP), I felt they fitted me like a glove. Things like:

  • Being ultra aware of the small things

  • Being more affected by crowds, loud noises and busy environments

  • Feeling the need to withdraw after a busy day, or too much 'people-ing'

  • Being extra sensitive to caffeine and certain medication

  • Being extra 'jumpy'

  • Having a complex inner world and quite happy to get lost in my own thoughts and imagination

  • Being super conscientious and really struggling with making mistakes

  • Feeling deeply moved by nature, beauty, the arts

  • Feeling others feelings intensely and often knowing what they need to feel better

  • Struggling to get things done when there is a lot going on and in particular when there is a time limit

  • The experience of emotions being intense

  • Processing everything on a deep level

  • Becoming overwhelmed by strong sensory input - bright lights, sounds, textures...

  • The feeling of hunger being very intense

  • Having a high sense of what is right and wrong

  • Finding unexpected changes difficult to process

  • Being called 'shy' or 'too sensitive' as a child

I was a big fat yes to all of the above and they still very much apply now. Often along with these traits, the identity of the advice-giver, mentor, healer or therapist forms and this along with our sensitivity, can give off the serious character, or 'old soul' impression to others who, perhaps, don't fully understand us. Part of being a HSP, also can mean being an over-thinker as a results of taking in all that extra information and processing it all much more elaborately. This can make us HSPs very attentive in our relationships and professional roles, as we are always so considerate and thoughtful. Other aspects, sucvh as seeking out only the deep & meaningful conversations, and deeply empathising with others further supports the roles we often take as being the person our loved ones can come to to be listened to, understood and supported. These aspects have really helped me personally in my professional roles and as a parent, but if we are not careful they can mean our identity is solely attached to the more 'acceptable' elements of being HS and ignore that which is not - meaning that we ignore parts of ourself. This is not to say that all HSPs do this, but my own experience has beeb just this, and this is where, for me, Autism came in.

The Autistic Lens

A few years ago, prompted by the inner work I had already been doing, further study AND the experiences of my children, who are both neurodivergent, I started to ask - 'Where does high sensitivity end and Austim begin?', and 'Could I be Autistic?'. So many of the traits of High Sensitivity seemed to overlap with Autism, perhaps worded in a more positive, less 'disordered' way. Things like:

  • Being extra sensitive to sensory input and, at times becoming overwhelmed by them.

  • The difficulty in being around large groups of people

  • Struggling when an unexpected change occurs

  • Picking up on small details

  • The deep mental processing

  • High sense of social and moral justice

  • Feeling emotions intensely

It is true that these aspects feature in both Autism and High Sensitivity, but there were other elements that I started to ask myself about the Autistic profile, such as having rigid interests, repetitive behaviours and the difficulties with in social interaction. At this time I also came across the term 'masking'. Masking is essentially the way an autistic person covers up their traits through learnt behaviours that help them to seem neurotypical. And this is when the penny dropped.

I realised I do have restricted interests - not the stereotypical Autistic ones, but very defined interests nonetheless. On a side note - I actually really dislike the term 'restricted interests' and prefer to see it instead as having passions. My specific 'passions' then, are something that I completely immerse myself in - yoga, philosophy, earth-based spirituality, psychology... And if I'm completely honest, if it's not one of my passions that I am talking or thinking about, I get really bored! I also have lots of 'repetitive routines' that I do each day and am unsettled when I can't do them. In my mind, I see them as helpful self-care routines because they help me navigate life and keep me well. I also recognise differences in my social interaction style. I have somehow managed to get through life to this point largely avoiding eye-contact most of the time, not getting certain jokes and I don't always understand people's intentions, meaning I can be a little naive at times. I realised how much I had been covering up these aspects of myself by compensating with my high ability to sense other's feeling, energy and intuit what they need.

As I have said, I am a high masking autistic woman. This means that I have really mastered the art of completely coming across as neurotypical. It also means I have all the human conditioning of what it means to be an acceptable woman layered on top. What people don't see, is that I find social interaction in groups, particularly with people that I don't know, very uncomfortable. This is especially the case if it is an unstructured interaction with no rules - like a party or impromptu gathering. If this does crop up, I WILL be rehearsing what I could say in my head a few times, just to be prepared. However, if I'm in a role such as when Im teaching Yoga, its okay as I know what I am there to do and what I need to say.

Stigma & Misconception

As you read this perhaps you are experiencing some resistance to what I am sharing and some of that may come from the stigma and misconceptions that still exist with regards to Autistic people. Common misconceptions that still pervade today include:

  • Vaccines can cause Autism - lots of research has shown this not to be the case.

  • Autism is something that happens in kids - just as many adults are autistic, although they often go unnoticed, or misdiagnosed with other things - anxiety, bipolar, etc...

  • Autistic people have learning disabilities - while is true for some, it is only around 1 in 4 autistic people that do.

  • Autistic people can't make friends and don't want to socialise - All people require connection, including Autistic people. This often just prefer this to look different for those with Autism. Autistic people can just as much be outgoing extroverts wanting lots of social contact, as they can be introverted and prefer less people time.

  • Autism is a boy thing - We have a huge bias towards identifying autistic boys, likely owing to the male-dominated research. Autism DOES occur in girls and often looks different to the stereotypical male profile.

  • Autism is due to bad parenting - Autism is a neurological difference and not due to the way you were brought up, although early experiences can interact with Autism but it definitely does not cause it. Of course, Autism can present different parenting challenges, but that goes the same for all children as we are all so unique. It is also likely to be easier to raise neurotypical children as the modern world is largely designed for neurotypicals, and often does not accommodate the differences that come along with neurodivergence.

  • Autistic people like maths, science and have special savant abilities - this can occur, but autistic people have wide ranging interests and abilities, just like the neurotypical population.

  • Autistic people have no empathy - While it may be true that for some autistic people it can be hard to understand how others are feeling, the exact reverse can also be true, with some autistic people having 'hyper-empathy'.

  • Autistic people are rigid and have no creativity - Whilst rigidity can and does occur in autism, hyper creativity and vivid imagination often also features. Many famous scientists and artists that we recognise as making huge contributions to humanity, would likely be identified as autistic today (e.g., Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, Vincent Van Gogh...). Yet, without great imagination and a creative mind, they would have been unable to produce the work they did.

These misconceptions make it harder for people to understand themselves and leaves a lot of people at risk from misdiagnosis, mental ill-health and generally going under the radar. They also perpetuate the stigma that exists when we bring to mind the label of autism, and so it is essential that we break these misconceptions down and increase our understanding of what Autism really is.

Differences between Autism & Being a Highly Sensitive Person

This is a tricky area because there is some argument at the time of writing towards the idea that a lot of the language around High Sensitivity is ableist, compared to the disordered language around autism. Some argue that being a HSP is really just an acceptable, ableist term for Autism. Equally, there are others that protest that the two neurotypes are distinct from each other.

One thought on such differences, is that highly sensitive people are more able to regulate their emotions than autistic people. Perhaps this has some weight. Yet, perhaps HSPs have learnt to mask the intensity of the feelings they are having. From my personal experience, I would say that emotions are a big experience, yet for the most part, I can appear to be dealing with them in an appropriate way (at least publicly anyway). The other interacting factor, is of early life experience. My early childhood, led me to shut off from my body and its feelings as a way of coping with the situation. As such, lot of my adult life has been spent trying to understand my own emotions, how they feel in my body and how to work with them. For how many others could this be true? Another aspect that interacts with this is the message we learn from our culture. What if highly sensitive, autistic girls are covering up their intense emotional experiences because they have learnt the message that outward displays of emotion is not acceptable. This is where the 'be a good girl and don't make a fuss' narrative can crop up for a lot of autistic women.

Another potential area of difference is around social interaction. While HSPs can struggle with social interactions, they equally might not. Whereas having difficulty interaction with others is one of the key defining features of Autism. But again, what if you are high masking? What if you have found ways to cover up what you don't understand, or what feels difficult? Again, at the time of writing the jury is still a little out, although some research has gone into looking at these differences. One such study in 2018, in which Elaine Aron (lead authority in the HSP world) was one of the researchers showed some evidence towards neurological differences between HSPs and autistic people. Whereas HSPs showed higher levels of activation in parts of the brain associated with self-reflection, self-control and calmness, the autistic people in this study showed less activity in these regions, as well as in areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation. What does this mean for someone like me who identifies as both? Without taking a gander at my brain, I am not sure. Yet despite this research, I do believe much more study is still needed into this area. This is particularly so as we learn more about what it means to be autistic and as the way we view the diagnostic criteria for autism evolves. That way we can ensure those that take part in research studies more fairly represent the population in which it is studying.

Final Thoughts

I reiterate the point that no label can ever truly sum you up. We are far too complex for that. Personally, I count myself as neurodivergent and this includes the highly sensitive, autistic and ADHD aspects of myself, as well as the many other facets that make up me.

If in reading this, you feel like you resonate with some of the traits of either high sensitivity, Autism, or both, then I would encourage you to do a little more research, connect with others on a similar path and spend some time really unpicking who you truly are. As always, I am going to stress the benefits of practices such as Yoga, meditation and journaling as tools to help aid this kind of personal growth journey. This is because, if you are extra sensitive in anyway, there is always the risk of becoming overwhelmed with it all. Also reach out and connect with others that are on a similar path, in a way that feels comfortable for you - there are so many people out there doing some amazing work in this field, you just need to look for them.

If you feel called to get in touch with me following reading this article, please leave a comment or email me. I would love to connect with you! Whether this is just to share your thoughts, or ask questions, it is always great to hear from others and I welcome it. Until then, I will leave you with a quote, which I this is a great reminder that we are all different and to not to make assumptions about someone based on labels and misconceptions;

"If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." - Dr Stephen Shore

Nichola Day - Yoga Teacher & Therapist, Digital Creator, Writer


References & Resources

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