Friday, December 14, 2012

How Does Sensitivity Differ from Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, and the "Autistic Spectrum"

August 2009


This article is not meant to supply you with the full details of autism or Asperger syndrome. To find those you can go to some very good websites (for example, or the National Institute of Mental Health website,, where you will find all sorts of information, including the technical definitions of these disorders. These definitions come from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual provided by the American Psychiatry Association. DSM, as it is called, is far from perfect, but does help when trying to sort out a question of this kind.


The autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) are part of the "Pervasive Developmental Disorders." In all of these disorders, even if a person is said to be "high functioning," there is always severe, sustained, pervasive impairment in social functioning, plus highly restricted interests or repetitive activities. And sensitivity to sensory stimulation or sensitive sensory processing is never mentioned in the diagnostic criteria for ASDs. So to put it simply, according to the DSM, the normal temperament trait of high sensitivity, found in 15 to 20% of humans (and apparently all higher animals) would have nothing to do with being a high functioning person on an autistic spectrum.


Why Has Sensitivity Been So Confused with ASDs?

Sometimes--not always--children with an ASD show acute sensitivity to noise, touch, or other sense modalities. Others are impervious to what most people would find uncomfortable, even to serious pain. Sometimes sensitivity and ASDs are confused because the child with an ASD may have little or no ability to regulate emotions, and sensitive children, too, are more emotional than other children. But with ASDs, these behaviors are due to incorrectly processing perceptual stimulation all the time, not just when overstimulated.


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