HSP vs Autism: Differences and Similarities

The main difference between autism and HSP is that while autism is a neurodevelopmental disease, HSP is only a personal trait. However, there is more to be said about these two conditions. In this article, we will compare Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and Autism in more detail. We will look into their unique characteristics and consider their overlaps and differences.
Frederika Malichová

Frederika Malichová

Neuroscientist at the University Of Cambridge.

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HSP vs Autism

HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) and Autism are different. While autism is a neurodevelopmental disease, HSP is only a personal trait. We might observe similarities, including problems with overstimulation of emotional reactivity, but it is important to be aware of the differences.

What Is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or autism, is a neurobehavioral spectrum condition. It usually starts throughout the development of the individual and gets diagnosed around the age of 3 [1]. Globally, around 1 in 100 people have autism, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 54 children have autism [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].

Symptoms of autism include problems with communication, or a lack of social skills, such as the ability to relate to people and the world around [1]. In addition, we also observe obsessive repetitive behavior or interests. For example, autistic people may spend an excessive amount of time putting things in order or they may use the same sentence many times [7]. However, as it is a spectrum condition, the symptoms may vary from person to person.

It also encompasses other conditions in which individuals have problems with social interactions and communication [2, 3]. Such examples can be Rett syndrome, Asperger syndrome, typical autism, and others [2, 3, 7].

The exact cause of autism is not known, although research suggests genetic interactions and also the environment playing important roles in the disease [8, 9].

What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a person who carries a trait called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). This trait manifests as heightened sensitivity to both environmental and social stimuli and may lead to intensified reactions to the surroundings [10, 11].

HSP is not a condition or a disease; it is a personality trait. Around 15-20% of the population are HSPs and have a sensitive nervous system [10].

HSPs are affected by small changes in their environment ranging from bright lights, strong scents, loud noises to even emotions of others [10]. These small changes may elicit an enlarged emotional response, and life experiences are lived with a deep level of connection [11].

Often, HSPs may have problems with multitasking and may become overwhelmed when there is too much stimuli happening at once [11].

However, HSPs have stronger empathy and artistic tastes and skills, which can be perceived as great advantages [11].

What Is the Difference Between a Highly Sensitive Person and Autism?

A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and an individual with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may seem similar due to their heightened sensory experiences, but they are distinct in several ways.

Although HSPs and autism may appear similar due to the heightened sensory experiences, they are rather different.

HSP is considered a personality trait with greater reactivity to both external and internal stimuli. This reactivity leads to greater vulnerability, however, is not considered as unhealthy or problematic.

Autism is a proper neurodevelopmental condition in which the individual also is hypersensitive to internal and external stimuli, but diagnostic criteria must be met in order to be diagnosed with autism.

In summary, individuals with HSP and ASD have heightened sensory experiences. However, the nature, context, and implications differ significantly.

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Frederika Malichová

Frederika Malichová

Frederika is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Cambridge, where she investigates new biomarkers for Frontotemporal Dementia and other tauopathies. Her research has been published at prestigious conferences such as the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2023. She obtained her BSc in Biomedical Sciences from UCL, where she worked closely with the UK Dementia Research Institute.