Being a highly sensitive person (HSP) is connected with autism in some respects, though there are also many differences, according to a new study led by Dr. Bianca Acevedo of the Neuroscience Research Institute of the University of California.
At first the connection between autism and HSPs might seem surprising, as certain HSP traits, such as empathy and the intuitive ability to see connections that others have missed, would seem to be the antithesis of autism, a disorder which impairs social cognition and creates restrictive, repetitive behavioral patterns. However, autism and HSP traits do overlap in terms of heightened sensitivity to one’s environment, as many individuals with autism can become easily overwhelmed by touch and sound.
According to a May 2019 report by Psychology Today, Acevedo and her colleagues analyzed twenty-seven papers comparing autism, high sensitivity, and other conditions. The researchers referred to high sensitivity by its formal name of Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).
Acevedo and her team identified several key differences between high sensitivity and autism. One is that high sensitivity (SPS) lacks the social deficits that come with autism. Highly sensitive people (HSP) do not have the same difficulties individuals with autism experience in making eye contact, recognizing faces, and responding to others emotional cues. On the contrary, HSPs tend to be highly responsive to social cues, facial expressions, and the intentions of others.
Another key difference between HSPs and individuals with autism that the former may find social interaction even more rewarding than non-HSPs due to their high levels of empathy, while those with autism experience less reward and meaning in social interaction. While the autistic brain is impaired in regions relating to calmness, emotion, and sociability, the HSP brain shows higher-than-typical levels of activity in those areas.
Schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are two other neurological disorders often compared with high sensitivity. However, Acevedo’s study suggests that these conditions are not high sensitivity at all. Schizophrenia, for example, lacks the increased empathy and self-reflection displayed by high-sensitivity people, and has almost nothing in common with high sensitivity when it comes to brain activity. As for PTSD, that disorder shows none of the heightened activity in areas of the brain related to calmness, self-control, or social awareness that highly-sensitive people exhibit.
According to Andre Solo of Psychology Today, the study suggests that, in addition to having little in common with autism or other disorders, being an HSP might be advantageous in many respects, creating a tendency towards “positive, useful, and pro-social behavior.”
The study even goes further, suggesting that being a highly-sensitive person might be an evolutionary advantage: “We suggest that adaptive SPS strategies involving empathy, awareness, calmness and physiological and cognitive self-control may serve a species by facilitating deep integration and memory for environmental and social information, which may ultimately foster survival, well-being, and cooperation."