This is the second part of an article on the differences and overlaps between being highly sensitive and autistic (which I see as two types of being neurodivergent). The first part of this article – my journey figuring out that my quirks and sensitivities are not just high sensitivity – is here.
And this one is about family.
In that post, I said:
My mother is highly sensitive, but clearly not on the autism spectrum; whereas my dad is on the spectrum, but not necessarily a highly sensitive person (in Elaine Aron’s sense). My brother is neither. I’m both.
I would say that gives me some interesting personal perspectives and insights on these issues.
Highly sensitive traits
Here are some HSP traits that I would say I share with my mother:
We’re both just calm, like to spend time in a chill way – e.g. reading (she’s a librarian, I’m a writer, among other things).
We both like calm music and mellow food, and largely vegetarian – don’t enjoy killing animals for no strong reason. (I’ve now started eating meat from trusted sources, but for health reasons – after long rational deliberation.)
We’re both oriented towards other people quite a lot and I’d say more empathic than average – like, my mother would often cry from seeing the news, for example (yes, that doesn’t contradict being autistic – tho it’s quite interesting how that combines with my autism traits; I wrote about that here, in part).
Autistic traits that overlap with highly sensitive traits
I would say the main one is sensory sensitivity. That’s why I thought for a long time that I’m a highly sensitive person, and that’s all that makes me atypical. Highly sensitive people experience sensory overload, as do many autistic people (funny enough, my father actually doesn’t seem to).
The other one might be what looks like introversion, or a preference for low-stimulation activities that may be solitary (such as reading, programming, painting, playing music, etc.).
And I would say that’s it. I have both strongly.
The difference between HSP overload and autistic meltdowns
I’m actually not sure whether there is a qualitative or quantitive difference, as I assume that I experience both.
However, from watching non-autistic HSPs in action, my impression is that yes, they get overwhelmed, but they don’t get paralysed – they don’t get shut down to the point where they aren’t even able to verbalise what’s wrong or know how they’re feeling (which wasn’t that rare for me before I got my diet and lifestyle straighter).
I also have the impression that HSP overwhelm follows a different timeline – it seems to be more of a smooth curve – like a hilly landscape in Ireland – whereas autistic meltdowns at least in my experience are more like the rugged, rough volcanic rocks in the Negev (Israel/Palestine). Meaning, you think you are walking straight, but suddenly the stone beneath your foot slips up and you’re … in the crater.
And it can take quite a while to figure out what happened.
It can also be a hard (but extremely worthwhile) project to over time reconstruct the typical trigger patterns, in order to know what to avoid (and when).
I don’t think the non-autistic HSP would have a need for that – though I may be wrong; but I tend to think their triggers are fairly obvious to them, like noise, crowds, too much commotion.
For me things such as what colour combination and type of lighting is used in a supermarket and how the shelves are spaced can make a difference between going in and coming out OK, and going in and rushing out before I have finished the shopping totally irritated, unable to get out of that irritation and later exhaustion / thin-skinnedness / emotional hiccup for hours, worst case having to sleep it off.
Until recently, I wasn’t even aware these shifts were related to sensory overload – I just knew (and all my friends and family knew) that my emotions could flick like a switch in unpredictable moments.
This is not the way HSP overwhelm works.
The difference between HSP “calm activities” and autistic voracity
My mum loves reading books.
But she reads a chapter per day.
When I want to know about a topic, I will get a full stack of book and not cease searching them before I feel I know the answer.
My dad is like that, too. He wants to solve a problem – he can’t stop until he has; literally, we’ll be up at night thinking about it, getting up in the middle of the night taking notes; and if the problem happens to have no logical solution (such as, say, an emotional problem or a problem involving unpredictable factors) … well, we’re sort of in serious trouble.
My mum isn’t like that. She’ll read a bit about an interesting topic, then go about her usual activities and chit-chat about whatever the day brought (not about everything she learnt today, until the other person is out of energy for listening – poor her, as she’s usually the victim of having to listen to my dad’s lectures on astrophysics and mine on topics ranging from Ayurvedic medicine through every type of Eastern philosophy and anthropology topic to Jungian depth psychology to … now she has to listen about autism).
If that makes the difference clear.
Interestingly, my dad has one life-long area of knowledge he’s passionate about (science: physics and electronics); whereas mind tend to shift in a rhythm of weeks (which is probably why I haven’t finished any of the PhDs I’ve started enthusiastically), though every time I give my all to it and bore people out of their mind – for a period. I’ve read that that’s a tendency more frequently found in female aspies (no idea if true).
Though in fact, there probably is one overarching passion that I have, which is an underlying spiritual seeking.
(I deliberately use “passion for knowledge” and not “special interest”, because – well that’s what it feels like and in my opinion is; regardless of whether it’s in a field that’s recognised as worthwhile by the mainstream or not. It’s also a word that doesn’t devalue this tendency.)
Here are some that I share with my dad:
According to my mum, we always have to analyse everything to death.
Meaning, probably, that whatever the current “problem” or interest is, we go into it in so much depth that it would bore the non-autistic person out of their mind, or tire them out. In fact, for me, physical exhaustion is usually the limit to knowledge thirst and creative pursuits (or starting to see double, when I’m reading).
My dad is smarter, or perhaps my mum helps, by making daily life based on routines – forcing us to eat and sleep at regular hours. That helps a lot. When I live alone, I struggle and end up staying up at night when I get engrossed into something, not cooking, not doing housework, not caring about perceived banalities like clothes, shopping, etc.
Speaking of practical activities, it is known that neither my dad nor me have ever bought clothes for ourselves (well, almost). For my dad, either my gran or my mum buys them. For me – well, yes, I’m 33 but it’s true – friends or family give me clothes when they deem me looking shabby. I’m not intrinsically motivated to buy them before I literally have nothing to wear because everything has gaping holes (that’s my perceived limit of social acceptability I guess).
It is known that at the family table, my dad will always drop food somewhere. While we’re both dexterous with technical things and sports, I share this tendency to slight clumsiness (to spill stuff over self, admittedly; it runs in the whole aspie branch of the family – last christmas my uncle sat down at the table with what was practically a bib over his white shirt knowing we’d be eating beetroot soup); the worst is changing in change rooms in stores, I always hit myself or break something; don’t even mention cooking, which requires multitasking …
We also need to fiddle and play around with stuff, which drives the other family members nuts. In my dad I believe it finds an outlet in manually assembling electronics; in me in painting, sculpting, improvising on every available musical instrument (tho with limited musicality) and giving people manual therapy sessions.
The neurotypicals in the family don’t seem to share this need to always be moving, touching, interacting with the physical world. For me it’s like a thirst, if I can’t do it I go nuts (and probably start showing “autistic symptoms” like having to compulsively touch certain objects, or nervous tics that I can suppress but it costs me and I forget myself).
I could write more, but that’s it for now.
Can you be autistic without also being highly sensitive?
While I tend to think that most autistic people are in reality more sensitive at least to some (specific) types of stimuli than the average, that sensitivity again seems to have a different shape and curvature than in HSPs.
My dad doesn’t seem to have strong sensory sensitivities the way I do – he can handle crowds, supermarkets, long and noisy gatherings (so long as nobody minds his style of talking, by which strangers may get offended); and people who are less than empathic – he essentially expects the same straightforwardness and focus on logical argument/truth that he delivers.
So I would say – you can be autistic without showing the typical HSP profile.
I’m actually not completely sure about this, but I assume there will always be an increased sensitivity to stress in autistic people – whether that comes from sensitive senses, or simply from the burden of social miscommunication (or the burden of constantly trying to avoid it, if you’re masking); but not of the “well-rounded”, balanced and relatively predictable type that one is familiar with from HSPs.
I tend to think that to be autistic, you have to be literally “highly sensitive” to one thing or another, but this sensitivity can be far more specific and narrow and untypical than the more global and gradual sensitivities of an HSP.
HSP and autistic sensitivity combined
Having both HSP and autistic sensitivity I think for me is like … two projector foils that are overlaid on top of another; the autism slide is a somewhat rugged and quirky pattern of areas of passion/obsession and sensitivity and areas of neglect and clumsiness; that one has sharp contours and contrasting colours.
On top of that is the HSP foil, which is more like a soft, flowing cloud-pattern which is more or less monochrome (perhaps shades of blue shifting into shades of green). It has some structure (every HSP’s high sensitivity focuses on particular areas, too, and everyone is unique) … but … well, it’s more like a global modifier and softener than something that defines contour.
If that makes sense to anyone – that’s the best metaphor that I can think of for the moment.
I haven’t mentioned my neurotypical brother at all.
There is perhaps a reason for that – since he’s “grown up” and refuses to engage in the rough-and-tumble games that I was pulling him into well into my late 20’s; and by the way, I couldn’t understand why he stopped when I’ll probably have the need for that kind of play all my life; now I tend to see it as another part of aspieness; at least the only other adult I’ve seen initiate fun and tease fights with adult friends was another female aspie – … anyways, since he’s grown up, well, I really have a hard time relating to him.
He doesn’t share the empathic and sensitive “listener” and “supporter” nature of my mother – means he won’t tolerate me rambling about my odd stuff or listen to me over-analysing my emotions and cognitive processes; and I really don’t know how to talk about everyday subjects. He also doesn’t share in my dad’s hyper-intellectual and pensive nature – again, no talking theories on why the world is as weird (or sometimes – both my dad and me have an obsession with this – unjust) as it is. No heavy existential topics.
So, essentially, I don’t know what to do (except play-punch).
Thinking I should be making this a project, perhaps with the help of my parents, as it is sad. Despite being generally very happy in the company of other aspies and HSPs (I’ve realised all my friend are at least one of those), I believe I do need to gradually work out a “bridge” to the “mainstream world”, somehow, in my adulthood.
This seems hard though when this human world feels both illogical (to the autistic part of me) and insensitive (to the HSP part).
Seriously, my only solution has been faith, Buddhism, and love.