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Is a Highly Sensitive Person, Neurodivergent?

I have been using the terms neurodiverse and neurodivergent in relation to myself as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) for some time, so when I had a couple of messages from a lady on one of my social media accounts saying that she had never thought to connect the two terms, I had to dig in a little more as it seemed clear to me.


High Sensitivity

High sensitivity itself is characterised by certain traits. If you are not sure, here is an overview, provided by the 'DOES' acronym developed by Dr. Elaine Aron, who is your first stop for all things HS.

  1. Depth of Processing - This relates to the tendency to overthink, seek the deep & meaningful over the surface level stuff and the physiological fact that HSP brains are more active when at rest. We literally are processing at a deeper level much of the time.

  2. Overstimulation - This refers to the predisposition of our extra sensitive senses to become overstimulated and frazzled by too much input. Whether it is a loud crowd, bright lights in a shop, or the scents of a market place, HSPs can find things too much and may need extra time to recoup.

  3. Empathy - This is about the quality of being able to, not just sense how another is feeling, but to deeply feel their emotions as if they were your own. HSPs often slot into roles such as therapist, advisor, carer, mediator and so on, whether in a professional capacity, or simply within their friend and family dynamics.

  4. Subtleties - This aspect of being HS, is the ability to notice the small details. The subtle things that neurotypical folk would miss. This might make you a great bird spotter, a great person to have around when something gets lost, or someone who can pick up on the small shift in body language during conversation.


There are lots more little elements of being a HSP, such as avoidance of violent or upsetting TV, experiencing emotions in a big way, feeling deeply moved by something beautiful, but the 4 main aspects above help give us an overview of the trait.


Now, being HS means being outside of the majority - it is a minority group. The jury is still slightly out as to the exact percentage, but somewhere between 15 and 30% of the human population is HS. Despite society not valuing a lot of the aspects associated with being HS, it is a normal, natural and innate trait. It is part of the vibrant diversity of being human and definitely not a disorder. The trait is also consistently found in many non-human animal populations too. It is simply part of how a population has evolved - likely because it's valuable to have members of the population that are extra sensitive in these ways.


Neurodiversity and Neurodivergent

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for those of us whose experiences, behaviours, physiology and traits fall outside of the typical, or the 'norm'. The words typical and normal, I feel are pretty charged and it is possible that it is increasingly difficult to say what normal is. However let's just go with it on the basis that as a human population, there are people with traits that collect in the centre and are similar to each other, while there are those that fall outside of this - like being at one or the other end of a bell curve.

In this way, then the trait of high sensitivity is a neurodivergent trait. It is outside of what is typical.


Brain Differences in Highly Sensitive People

More recent research supports this idea of HSPs being wired differently. Evidence from the world of neuroscience, shows HSPs have differences in both brain function and structure.

  1. Greater activation in cells called mirror neurons, which fire when empathising with another

  2. Also increased activation in areas of the brain that concern attention, emotional processing and meaning making.

  3. There's also some genetic differences, which show that the way certain neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine and norepinepherine) are processed in the brain is different in highly sensitive people too.


So we know that both in terms of behaviour traits AND in physiology, HSPs are neurodivergent.


Stigma & Misconceptions

I couldn't write this piece without turning my attention to the stigma and misconceptions that surround both HS and neurodivergence in general. In my learning and research about the trait of HS and neurodiversity, I have felt in places an undercurrent of resistance towards placing HSPs within the neurodiverse or neurodivergent community. My feeling around this is that it stems from the very much still present stigma attached to other types of neurodivergence. This is especially true for Autism and ADHD, but also includes other neurodivergent types such as Sensory Processing Disorder, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia and Synethesia.


The stigma attached to these neurodivergent types are largely because they are seen as 'disorders' and are diagnosable mental disorders in the DSM (Diagnistic and Statistical Manual - The tool used for diagnosis). This is not to say that these different types of neurodivergence cannot come along with challenges, or disability - they can and do. But not for all people. For many people with some of these other neurodivergent types, the challenges only come when the world around them expects them to fit into neurotypical standards. There are, at the time of writing, huge amounts of misconceptions still very much held about people who have one or more of the above neurotypes as part of their make-up. For example, the misconception that Autistic people have no empathy, or that dyslexic people are not smart, or those with ADHD can't focus. All worthy of their own blog post! This misconceptions and the stigma attached to these neurodivergent types are rooted in the ignorance surrounding anything that is different. I believe it is important for us all to celebrate, understand and learn more about neurodivergence. Without doing so we let many people down, by making assumptions that may be untrue and harmful, as well as by ignoring the fact that the world is not yet set up for neurodivergent people. This includes the way our schools, workplaces and even our homes and the ways in which we live are set up.


Labels Only When Helpful

My own experience of being HS and neurodivergent is that it is helpful for me to have these 'lenses' which help me to view and understand myself. It is also helpful when accessing healthcare, or other services, so that any support or treatment can be tailored to your preferences and neurotype. Yet, it is always important to keep in mind that we as humans, are not as simple, or straightforward, or as neat as a defining label or a certain tick-box would like us to be. Humans are really complex and there are overlaps, similarities, differences and areas of our experience that merge - as is the case with being a HSP in relation to other neurodivergent types.


To sum up this long winding path of thought on this topic, I shall remind you that being a HSP is a neurodivergence, and it is a normal, innate trait - not a disorder. Yet being neurodivergent, by its very nature often requires different approaches to self-care, lifestyle and mindset. If you are a HSP, or are neurodivergent in another way, and are struggling with some of the challenges that present when you are wired differently in a world designed only for the typical, it is important to look at your self-care. It is essential that every neurodivergent person understand and have access to the right kind of self-care tools, practices and help so that they can be supported to thrive as their unique selves, rather than just getting by.


Are you a HSP/neurodivergent? I'd love to hear from you! Please feel free to get in touch, or leave a comment below!


Reference & Resources:


6 Ways a Highly Sensitive Person's Brain is Different - www.drelaynedaniels.com/6-way-a-highly-sensitive-persons-brain-is-different


Aron, Elaine. The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. New York, Three Rivers Press, 1998


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