Autistic Empaths

Sensory Processing Sensitivity on the Spectrum and Beyond

Autistic Empaths is a project and book in the making about sensory processing sensitivity as a trait and how it manifests on the Autism Spectrum (ASD), in Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), ADD/ADHD, synesthesia, BPD, addiction, and other conditions. Sensory processing sensitivity is the official term for what has been called the trait of high sensitivity; people who self-identify with it call themselves Highly Sensitive People, or HSPs. The trait includes increased empathy, depth of processing, overstimulation, and sensitivity to subtleties.

The spectrum is wide - but everyone is not on it

You have probably heard someone say a version of the following: "We are all on the spectrum." Or, "Everyone is a little bit autistic." It tends to be well-meaning, a way of reflecting shared experience and humanity and perhaps social awkwardness. I have said it myself, although that takes a retroactive irony, as it turns out I actually am on the spectrum*.

However, like so many things, well meaning or not the phrase is problematic. 

I think many people who identify as or feel highly sensitive (HSPs) DO share the experience of feeling overwhelmed in a grocery store, or by the prospect of talking to a group of people. Some call this introversion, empathy, high sensitivity, or anxiety. Many people feel strongly affected by their environments and interactions with others and feel the need to recover in silence and solitude.

This is why I try to appreciate the intention of connection behind the phrase, but it feels more like erasure.


By claiming to fully understand and share in all experiences of autism, they are denying the full extent of my own. While their brain may also be more highly attuned to stimuli, unless they are also autistic it is unlikely they take in that information at a rate too fast for their processing to keep pace with. It is unlikely that, when feeling overwhelmed by a group interaction and all the things you have to process simultaneously, they find themselves unable to speak. 

Most people who are highly sensitive are capable of being in the overstimulating world with less of a cost to their physical and mental health**. Being autistic adds the extra-special bonuses of sensory overload, shutdowns and meltdowns, and burnout to the point of physical and functional compromise. It is an issue of degree and of physical neurological response, much of which is still (frustratingly!) not understood from a biomedical perspective.  And - many autistic people are actually disabled and need to be recognized as such to get the resources they need. Embracing neurodiversity does not exclude recognizing limitations and practical needs and the importance of ensuring access to resources for those who need them.

These differences are what gets erased when people say, "we're all a little bit on the spectrum."

I am happy to envelop HSPs into the blossoming community of neurodiversity. Anyone open to sharing and hopefully embracing what makes their way of thinking and being in the world different can be, in my mind, a part of the neurodiversity movement. Looking at the traits that ARE shared by highly sensitive people and autistics is a wonderful way of beginning to depathologize many experiences of people on the spectrum and recognize the inherent strengths. And it truly is a way to connect and understand some shared experiences with those of us on the autism spectrum, but the language is important.

Finding what we have in common with others and how we can use our own experiences to better understand someone else's makes us good people, empathetic humans. Claiming that we know the full extent of what someone else is experiencing is presumptuous and risks further erasing the people we may think we are connecting with. To put it simply, it makes us - autistics - feel like they - someone saying "we're all on the spectrum" - don't understand us, a far too common feeling for autistics to begin with.

Next time, try staying curious. By all means find common ground, and then ask: what is that like, for YOU?

The spectrum is wide, but everyone is not on it.

*I use some person-first language, some identity-first language. Most autistic people prefer identity-first language, meaning they prefer to be called autistic and not "someone who has autism." This deserves an entire post on its own.

**There is a cost for everyone living and working in an environment that their neurobiology is not well suited for. This is why I like to do my health coaching work with clients who are highly sensitive, because it is important and too often overlooked. Important, however, is not the same, and it is not autism.