High-functioning autism, Asperger’s syndrome and the highly-sensitive person (HSP):
We can acknowledge all of the following:
Some people identify with being on the autism spectrum and some identify with having Asperger’s syndrome and some are living with HSP.
Some see HSP as being part of the autism spectrum as well, while others delineate clearly between the two.
Some feel comfortable describing themselves as living with high-functioning autism, while some don’t warm to this term.
Some see autism and Asperger’s as the same thing and some distinguish between the two in specific ways. Asperger’s is now technically considered to be part of the autism spectrum, and it may be that descriptors and categorizations change again in the future.
Some feel they are autistic with a measure of ADHD as well.
Some don’t see autism as a straight-line spectrum but as something like a nebula, a mandala, a diverse field or a colour wheel.
There are many other ways to see and to talk about these ways of being, as well.
The way people with autism, Asperger’s or HSP see or describe themselves doesn’t matter. What matters is what has meaning for the individual person – what they identify with. Further, their view of themselves might change over time.
In terms of quality of life, getting to know oneself is key. Getting to know who you are, why and how you do things provides essential perspective and supports well being.
Sensitivity – the common denominator:
Some feel that all these ways of being have something in common, and that is sensitivity. It might be the case that what we’re seeing are varying degrees of overall sensitivity. In the case of autism, it might be that individuals are extremely sensitive – far more sensitive than anyone would usually be able to imagine is possible. It could be said that behaviours are ways they discover to protect themselves. Behaviours might well develop in order to cope with what to them is severe bombardment of sensory stimulation causing complete overload.
Sensitivity to most things…
Autistic people, those with Asperger’s and highly-sensitive people are often sensitive to noise and certain sounds. Bright lights, glare, and flashing lights can also be an issue. In addition, clothing tags, tight socks and uncomfortable clothing in general can be intolerable. Also crowds, grocery stores and shopping malls and hustle and bustle provide their own sensory challenges. Further, the individual might find specific tastes, textures and certain smells perhaps including perfumes, cleaning detergents, or specific foods offensive. Some cannot abide being touched – or touched in certain ways.
There are many, many others as well, such as sensitivity to vibrations, Fridges, air conditioners, heating systems, trucks on the road, footsteps, the subway running underground, and elevators – even if down the hall – generate vibrations that might leave the autistic or highly sensitive person feeling anxious, distracted and unsettled. In addition, there can be sensitivities to tones of voice, body language, and to rhythm and meter.
And, there can be sensitivities to specific words. Autistic people, those with Asperger’s and highly-sensitive people often have a very complex relationship with language, words, verbal and written expression.
The list goes on. It could be said that any and all forms of stimulation are something to be dealt with. And as the stimuli ramps up, the going gets tougher.
Depending on who you are, sensory perception is heightened to different degrees:
Sensory perception is just heightened – and heightened to different degrees, depending on the person. For some people with autism, sensory stimuli can lead to complete overwhelm and loss of function. On the other hand, that same stimuli might leave a highly-sensitive person struggling but still able to cope. Or, a person with autism might avoid social interaction due to the challenges required to navigate social situations at all let alone successfully, whereas a highly-sensitive person might love engaging socially despite being sensitive to certain aspects of the experience.
The sensitivity is described as living with no filter. It’s every day and all the time. The clothes feel wrong, the furniture feels wrong, the design feels off. In other words, it’s experienced as physically abrasive, or mentally distracting, or emotionally burdensome to whatever degree – or all of these – and more. Consequently, managing the environment is key.
From the outside, strategies developed to cope with stimuli look different:
The impact of the environment often leads to an emotional reaction, accompanied by the instant urge to control the environment in some way or get away from it, often as fast as possible.
The behavioural expressions associated with “getting away from the stimulation” are varied indeed. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which autistic people, those with Asperger’s and HSP differ. They react differently to the environmental stimuli. Furthermore, they develop different strategies to cope with it.
The emotional load from noise alone can ramp up to intolerable levels of stress for some depending on their way of being. The escalation can leave the person feeling bereft, exhausted and overwhelmed. They might feel like they want to retreat into the quiet to recover. Sometimes, the reaction can be a meltdown, again expressed in ways specific to the person.
Often, people just manage better by staying in the quiet. They might prefer to stay in the quiet all they can in order to decrease stress levels and manage more effectively. And, they discover and set up ways to buffer themselves against the environment. They use noise cancelling headphones or wear sunglasses, hats or clothing that has them feeling safer and more protected.
One less thing to have to think about…
Some prefer to wear the same clothing every day, and there can be many reasons for this. Trying to deal with sensory overload on an everyday basis requires a ton of effort. Also, it also consumes much of the available attention. Not having to spend time or energy trying to figure out what to wear can just make life a little bit easier to manage. Not only this, but wearing clothes that feel protective might well become priority #1. Selecting clothes for other reasons might become a distant second.
However, this is not to say that autistic people, those with Asperger’s or highly sensitive people lack any fashion sense. Far from it. Many are extremely passionate about fashion, art, design and aesthetics. They simply choose to spend their energies on things besides their choice of clothing.
Concluding that some “feel empathy” while others don’t might be a matter of perspective…
Some maintain that people with Asperger’s and HSP can feel empathy while people with autism can not or do not. However, many autistic people do feel for others very strongly. Too strongly, as it goes. They feel a lot, they feel too much. As a result, they feel compelled to buffer themselves from the pain or sad stories of others. This might look like a lack of empathy. But what they might actually doing is taking key steps to protect themselves from over-stimulation.
Socializing and interaction:
Some say that those living with Asperger’s want to make friends and socialize but struggle to figure out how to do so. And they maintain that autistic people are much less inclined to be social and prefer to spend most of their time alone.
Again, though, it’s not so clear cut. Many people with autism can feel very lonely at times and wish that more social interaction were possible. However, they simply feel limited for reasons both varied and complex. On the other hand, some autistic people enjoy wonderfully fulfilling long-term friendships. It can also be the case that some people with Asperger’s look on social interaction with indifference, and prefer to engage in their interests. And, again, the Asperger person’s idea of meaningful social interaction just might be specific to them.
Socializing – under the right conditions…
It’s too bad that some people with autism might start to think that they are “anti-social” or “bad” due to how their social lives seem to be going. Before getting to know themselves as autistic, it’s all too easy to feel this way. They might draw these conclusions from automatically applying the social norms of the majority to themselves when those norms simply do not apply.
It can be demoralizing to keep hearing how humans are “social beings” and to keep having it hammered home that health suffers unless people engage socially with others. It is perhaps more accurate to say that social engagement under the right conditions contributes to health. Given the right conditions, many people with autism might well feel more comfortable interacting with others.
As the autistic person comes to know him or herself, it can be a huge relief to discover that they are NOT “bad” or “anti-social”. Instead, they come to acknowledge how they generally just step back from social engagement in the bid to manage their stimulation levels. Stepping back can mitigate anxiety, stress or overwhelm. Knowing why they choose to withdraw can contribute to a sense of well-being and increased quality of life.
Routines, habits and lists…
People with autism, Asperger’s and ADHD/ADD often develop routines. These can be experienced at times as supportive or limiting, depending on varieties of factors. Sometimes the person develops the routine to help them manage complex demands and this can be a good thing. But when the situation improves or changes, they find it hard to update the routine in order to function better in the current conditions.
Routines can turn into habits, while other habits can exists that are not related to routines per se.
Specialists of sameness and change…
People with autism and Asperger’s often become good at managing, manipulating and tweaking sameness and change in the bid to more effectively control their environment. They are motivated to do this in order to function better.
As such, the development of routines and certain habits can be seen and experienced as supportive and protective.
Also, many create lists or checklists to help get through the day. Some develop epic checklists and charts which again can serve valuable functions. However, it is possible that whole weekends or vacations can be given over to the development of these lists. This might not be an issue in itself, but may limit opportunities to do other things one might want to start or finish.
There can be the tendency to disappear into world of detail that is list-making. Again, this has its benefits, since some find that engaging in list-making can be a protective maneuver. People do things for their own good reasons.
Cognitive and language development:
Some also say that cognitive and language development are delineated when it comes to Asperger’s, HSP and autism. Some maintain that in Asperger’s and HSP, cognitive ability and language develops normally while autistic individuals have a struggle.
It can be the case, though, that many individuals identifying with autism never felt impaired in their cognitive or verbal expression. On the contrary, they grew through childhood into adolescents and adults with highly developed cognitive abilities and language skills. For some, they displayed cognitive and language abilities well above average. Some might call this high-functioning autism, some might call this Asperger’s, and some might just call this autism. It’s a matter of what the individual identifies with.
A “milder form” of autism?
Some say that Asperger’s is a milder form of autism, while others just think of this as high-functioning autism. As mentioned, many people with autism don’t warm to the idea of “high-functioning” autism. Some say this is because they feel the term does not effectively convey the degree to which they have to struggle every day. In addition, they do not feel the term acknowledges the overall life-consequences of living with their autism as they do.
For them, they do not experience their way of being as “high-functioning”. At the same time, they may appreciate their strengths and the benefits they enjoy from being autistic. Nevertheless, they can not ignore the challenges. Every day has its hardships and the fallout can negatively impact key aspects of life long-term. As a result, they can not accept the term “high-functioning”. It simply doesn’t fit.
Each person is truly unique:
Autism, Asperger’s and HSP all present as highly complex mixes of characteristics, expressions, traits, tendencies and ways of being, sensing, feeling and thinking.
All these are manifested differently by each unique specific individual.
Appreciating the value of diversity:
If globally, humans describe “normal” as being the ways that “most people” think and feel, then people with high-functioning autism, Asperger’s and HSP simply experience and make sense of the world differently compared to “most people”.
They think and feel differently. As a result, they contribute to what many are coming to recognize as neurological diversity within the greater population. Neurodiversity is one of the expressions of diversity possible on this planet. It is as necessary and valuable as biological, species and ecological diversity.
Diversity is key. It is our greatest strength on our planet as a whole.
Where diversity flourishes, there is increased health, abundance, creativity and ingenuity. There is strength, greater varieties of solutions, and increased opportunity. There is resilience, quality, and richness. There is increased freedom and outright interest.
Humanity is not meant to be a mono-crop, but more of an Amazon jungle…
Every kind of unique plant, insect, bird, mammal or fish has its place. Every living being has something key to contribute. And every expression of this diverse life needs the right conditions in which to thrive.
All varieties of plants and animals require different, specific conditions within which to best thrive. So do different varieties of people.
It is clearly time for humanity to wake up to the essential value of diversity. It is for us, as a species, to truly honour, respect, nourish and protect diversity.
It has come to the point where the health of the planet – and consequently our very lives – depends on this.