I am writing this to tell you about a new perspective, neurodiversity, as a way to think about both high sensitivity and autism (otherwise quite different). The perspective applies to other brain differences as well, but it is especially appropriate to focus on autism because April is Autism Awareness Month. The neurodiversity viewpoint was brought to my attention by friend and colleague (and HSP), writer Jenara Nerenberg, as it is the subject of much of her work right now.
The Neurodiversity Perspective
To be very clear, the brain research continues to find high sensitivity and autism quite different, but they also have something in common. High sensitivity and autism spectrum are terms that describe differences—differences in brains that make them not typical. The neurodiversity “movement” wonders why the majority of brain differences (not due to injury or infection) can’t be seen as simply variations in human experiences rather than some of them being disorders? A disorder means someone is impaired or suffering, and we have made it very clear that people are not impaired or suffering simply because of having a highly sensitive brain. Likewise, many of those on the autism spectrum (or diagnosed with ADHD) also feel they are wrongly viewed as having a disorder when in fact their particular trait (brain difference), even if unusual, can make important contributions to the world. They do not feel impaired or that they are suffering. They feel they are just different.
This problem of disorder versus difference is the exact struggle we are having around high sensitivity—trying to explain ourselves to the majority, who are without the trait and who sometimes perceive it as a weakness or even a disorder. Can we extend ourselves to those who feel they are in a similar predicament? Can we envision a middle group that is “neurotypical” and those not in the middle as simply “neuroatypical” or “neurodivergent,” as Jenara pointed out to me? Since HSPs are 20% of the population, more or less, we are certainly not in the middle and typical. But maybe the bottom line is that every brain is different, and some more different than others.
I personally am not denying that some neurodivergent brains lead to real impairments that are very disabling and nearly impossible to surmount, although some speaking from the neurodivergent perspective may disagree and see everything as simply divergent and never a disorder. This has caused others to oppose the neurodivergent perspective, arguing that failing to see “disorder” could mean failing to provide useful treatment. There are always two sides, yes?
Two Sides, but One is New and Less Heard
The main thing is to listen to the question raised by the idea of neurodiversity: Can we allow diversity without so quickly diagnosing a difference as a disorder? As Jenara asked me on the phone, “Why must we always pathologize difference?” Can we recognize that most brain differences, even if they do create some challenges, have offsetting advantages, offering humanity the benefits of this neurodiversity? That is certainly the case with high sensitivity.
Further, as with high sensitivity, Jenara points out, “the expression of neurodivergence is another case of differential susceptibility.” In a nurturing environment, both in childhood and where they work, neurodivergent individuals often exceed others in certain areas. For example, those with ADHD often have “hyperfocus,”—the subject of Jenara’s New York Magazine article —which manifests as being able to make greater progress than others on a problem, even if not being very well organized in other ways. But without skilled parenting in childhood or if, as adults, they are in an environment that does not suit their trait —including one in which they are labeled, shunned, or ridiculed—their functioning really is impaired. Why not improve that, as we hope things will improve for HSPs?
So the benefits of neurodiversity are real, including the diversity provided by high sensitivity, but to take advantage of these benefits society will have to contain the prejudice and diagnostic “name-calling” and even bullying that comes from seeing diversity only as impairment.
How HSPs Could Look at It
I want to be very clear, one more time, that I am not saying that highly sensitive people are the same as those on the autistic spectrum, as some have argued. But some people will be both highly sensitive and autistic, and just to spell it out, some will be only highly sensitive or only autistic, and some will be neither. Everyone’s temperament consists of more than one trait (or brain difference). HSPs can always have other traits, such as high sensation seeking. Still, in important ways research finds that the usual brain functioning of HSPs and those on the autistic spectrum IS different.
What I hope I am saying is that I would like us as HSPs to rethink this issue enough to extend our understanding and sense of community to all of those who experience discrimination or marginalization due to neurodivergence, in the same way society has learned—though still in progress—to extend their caring to those who experience prejudice in other categories. As Jenara says, “We live in a neurotypical-dominant society.”
Ranking versus Linking, Again
We are going to notice disagreement and conflict around this issue of neurodiversity. I hope that we as HSPs can try to cool the anger that can arise when extreme positions are taken. (“We’re completely normal!” versus “You are clearly suffering from a disorder.”) Our culture seems to be taking extreme sides in many areas.
Remember, people take extreme positions because they feel threatened. Some have built research or clinical careers around their positions. Others feel their self-worth has been very wrongly attacked. I would like to see HSPs cool some of this by listening courteously to both sides, especially to their underlying very human needs, and not just to those “on our side.”
That is, for the sake of the larger human picture, can we help the world by role modeling more linking and less ranking? (I’ve written about these two instincts in several places, including here and here.)