The Highly Sensitive Person is NOT an Ableist Sham

Since the mid-nineties when Dr. Elaine Aron released her book introducing the world to the highly sensitive person, highly sensitive people (HSPs) have begun a movement of empowerment. HSPs are finding their identities and place in the world as the people we are. I say “we” because I am one and I can speak from a lifetime of experience.

But lately, there is a troubling trend taking place that we need to be aware of. A countermovement of invalidation, suggesting that we are something we are not. People, on the outside — non-HSPs, who do not understand the highly sensitive dynamic, labeling us as something other than highly sensitive.

I recently read one such article opining that we are nothing more than narcissists under the disguise of high sensitivity. This one is easy to debunk because there is an obvious difference in the way each group practices their interactions with other people. In this area, the difference is stark and opposite.

Having said that, I don’t dispute that there are a small group of people who are both. The archetype of highly sensitive narcissist does exist. But their numbers are small; most people in question fall under one category or the other.

Now there is a new form of mislabeling found here. The author suggests that highly sensitive people are simply undiagnosed autistics. And that the concept of a highly sensitive person is a farce meant to lift shame from upper-middle-class white women.

Being branded as an ableist because I identify as a highly sensitive person is the height of discrimination itself. Let’s address the major points made in this article one-by-one.

Myth: HSP is Not a Bonafide Diagnosis

The highly sensitive concept is relatively new. Its recognition as its own phenomena started in the mid-nineties when Dr. Elaine Aron released her book on the subject. It has taken on a life of its own as people begin to see parallels in the HSP traits described and their own traits. HSPs finally found a community in which they could mix and share with people like themselves.

Two and one-half decades is very short in the scientific world. More research needs to be done before a skeptical medical and scientific body will totally accept it. Let alone society at large. This is a common occurrence.

Take autism, for example, the term “autistic” goes back to the early 20th century, when Eugen Blueler associated the term to schizophrenia. According to the National Autistic Society website, Leo Kanner first coined the condition as a diagnosis in 1943. Through its relatively short life, it has evolved to a more descriptive and unique diagnosis unto itself.

Autism’s history of its diagnosis is much longer than the onset of high sensitivity awareness. As we have with autism’s diagnosis, we must give it time to catch up.

Myth: The Description of a Highly Sensitive Person and an Autistic Individual Are the Same

In the beginning and even today, there is misdiagnosis in autism itself. Some of those misdiagnoses include anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mood disorders, personality disorders, intellectual disability, psychosis, personality disorder, and depression.

It’s very easy for those who only have a fleeting acquaintance with the condition to label it as something it is not. While one is not mutually exclusive of another, it remains its own diagnosis.

The same is true of the highly sensitive person. There may be some self-described HSPs who truly are masked autistics. But let’s not make the reckless assumption that all HSPs are all masked autistics. This type of flawed logic has been posited down through history, on all kinds of conditions, by alleged pundits who fail to look at the details. Those who study and who personally live the HSP experience are in a better position to see the reality of high sensitivity in its own realm.

Myth: Elaine Aron is Likely a Masked Autistic

I really can’t speak to this because I am not Dr. Elaine Aron. And neither is the author of this article. I am more likely to believe a scientist who has spent decades studying the phenomena as well as its effect in her own life, than anyone else. It is certainly a stretch to believe that a non-HSP who has only read a few articles and one study can make an accurate assessment of Dr. Aron’s status from a distance.

Myth: The Highly Sensitive Model Suggest that Autistic People are Not Beneficial to Society

Untrue. This suggestion goes contrary to one of our most prominent traits, that of extreme empathy. HSPs have a great deal of compassion for other groups of people because they are so empathic. This means that we take idealistic pleasure in discerning a person’s characteristics based on their individuality. We believe that all people should be recognized and understood for their own uniqueness. And that everyone has good qualities, even if you have to dig to find them. In fact, we take that trait so far that it is very easy to set ourselves up for abuse because we so strongly “feel” for others. One of our negative traits is that we can be taken in by toxic people because we do so strongly try to relate to them and want to believe in the best of everyone.

Autistic people bring a unique perspective that brightens up a bland world. So do HSPs. They each have their place.

Myth: HSP Exists Because Our Society is Ableist and the Stigma for Autism is High

I don’t doubt the stigma for autism is high. It is high for anyone who does not fit into a norm. That in itself is not sufficient evidence to make the assumption that high sensitivity as a concept is not real. In fact, invalidating its existence to an HSP feels ableist in itself. Discrediting someone’s essence is the first and most damaging step to discriminating against that person or group.

I have no doubt that there are some people who identify as highly sensitive that may be autistic. Crossover is very possible since both have a neurodivergent origin. But this does not, in any stretch of the imagination, mean that recognizing yourself as an HSP is discriminating against autistic people. We simply want to be recognized for who we are, in the same manner as they are. In the same manner as anyone else.

The Highly Sensitive Person is not an ableist sham. It is very real, and like every new concept, will face its share of deniers and opposition. But to call it an ableist sham is a prejudicial ploy to strike at a very real condition with its own peculiarities, strengths and weaknesses. And, most definitely does not stand up to the criticism leveled at it as social injustice.



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Monica Nelson

Monica Nelson

Author: Mere Sense, a Memoir of Men, Migraine and the Mysteries of Being Highly Sensitive — Writer: and — Creative — HSP