Highly Sensitive Person vs Sensory Processing Disorder

I’ve been basically dying to make this post for a long time:Picture 34

See, I told ya.

The more I read online about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), and the somewhat related, Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) concept, the more I needed to explain the distinction between the two. I’m finding that people are diagnosed with (or more frequently, diagnosing themselves) with SPD, when really, they are more HSP.

So let’s begin by identifying what these two things are:

1. SPD, aka Sensory Processing Disorder (which I write about for pretty much every post) is a neurological problem where the brain’s sensory system does not function correctly. Meaning, when you perceive something in the form of sensory info, the brain is all “WTF.”

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SPD involves your SENSES, your vestibular system, proprioception, motor control, balance, and spatial awareness. There is a dysfunction in the actual processing of sensory information.

 

2. HSP, aka Highly Sensitive Person, is a “character trait” created by Dr. Elaine Aron. As much as 20% of the population, she believes, has this trait which makes them a highly sensitive type of person. What does this mean though?

HSP’s are very in-tune with their environment. They are overwhelmed by the world in general, specifically emotional situations, and they often struggle to watch or read violent/upsetting things. They are considered shy, quiet, introverted, and anti-social. They are deeply moved by music, art, nature, and all things beautiful.

Here’s the important part: HSP’s also have a problem with sensory info, as it can overwhelm them. They can be sensitive to noise, light, touch, taste, etc. They can become overstimulated and need to withdraw from the world to recoup.

This trait for sensitivity is so closely related to Sensory Processing Disorder, that Dr. Aron also refers to HSP as SENSORY PROCESSING SENSITIVITY. 

Good grief! Now you can see why Sensory Processing Disorder and Highly Sensitive Person are often confused.

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Here is – what I believe to be – the difference:

I think Highly Sensitive People DO NOT have issues with balance, motor control, or body-spatial awareness. Their sensitivities are usually less, but more specific, meaning, they might be sensitive to a certain type of food, or a certain texture of clothes. The bulk of their sensitivities are more abstract, emotional sensitivities.

Their sensory system is probably not dysfunctional, rather, their brains are in a constant state of hyper-awareness and the world can become all too much…all the time. They are sensitive.

If a person is deeply disturbed by emotionally charged situations, or too much socializing, or being in a crowded room, I do not believe they have SPD. They are a HSP.

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To make things more confusing, people can be BOTH SPD and HSP. I know this because I am both.

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Now you’re thinking “Kelly, you’re crazy. You’re a crazy girl.”

And I’m like: “yea. YEA I AM.”

It’s ok to be both. I have both, and I’m decently ok.

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I have learned to separate  what I’m feeling and experiencing with SPD and HSP. I know the bulk of my overstimulation is SPD, and I know the sensations I feel that are a result of too much sensory junk because I feel spacey and unbalanced. I need to do my sensory exercises and sleep it off. This is SPD.

I also know when I am overwhelmed and upset by other things, like being around an angry person. I am overwhelmed by their intensity and I cannot separate myself from them emotionally. I need to get away from them and distract myself, or their emotions will make me ill. This is HSP.

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What bothers me, and what I feel is not ok, is to assume a diagnosis of SPD when really, you’re just:

“I’m don’t like arguing or the smell of mustard. Country music makes me angry. I am introverted. I have SPD.” No, bro. You are probably a highly sensitive person.

“Loud noises make me cry, as do sudden bright lights, and I can’t spend more than an hour in the supermarket because I feel spacey and floaty. I don’t like to wear any clothes because they all make me want to crawl out of my skin, and I’m always bumping into things like a drunk weirdo. I have SPD.” Yes, bro. YOU PROBABLY DO.

Moral of the post: If you feel like you have Sensory Processing Disorder, GO TO AN OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST. Get yourself a proper diagnosis. BUT, before you do so, look into Highly Sensitive Person traits, and perhaps you will find that you are more of an HSP and not SPD. It will save you a lot of trouble (and money). SPD is a disorder, HSP is a sensitivity/trait.

Here is the website for Highly Sensitive Person info: hsperson.com

As usual, feel free to post comments/discussion/ sappy love messages in a reply to this post.

Peace Out homies xoxo

kelly

 

 

 

 

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39 comments

  1. Thanks for clearing that up. I like to think of HSP as the Internet: all information all the time with almost no filter to sort through it. I’m not sure if I’m that sensitive to the environment (there are still things I don’t notice) but I’m definitely aware of physical details about myself that no one else would think about. And my sensitivities are definitely emotional at their core.

    Interestingly, I only get sensitive to light and sound and start being really clumsy or when I’m really stressed.

    1. The internet as a metaphor for HSP sounds pretty accurate! haha
      Regarding your sensitivity increase under stress, that’s actually really common. The brain has more to process and deal with when you are feeling stressed out or having anxiety. Everything then becomes magnified – your state of awareness increases, all because you’re under stress and every little thing will make your brain go, “WHAT WAS THAT? WHAT IS THIS! WHAT’S OVER THERE?!”

  2. I just have to say, again and again: Kelly, I LOVE your blog. You crack me up every single time. As always, well done (same goes for the previous post – funniest artwork ever).

    Rachel 🙂

  3. This is great! I wonder if I have a combination of the two as well. My balance isn’t as bad as some, but I do tend to run into door frames, knock my foot again anything and everything, and I get that floaty feeling a lot. Would that mean SPD is a factor?

    1. Hi Annetta, sorry for the late reply. For some reason I’m only seeing your comment now! In any case, you could very likely have a combination of both SPD and HSP. I would say that if you are finding that you are consistently knocking into things or getting “floaty” or an uncomfortable feeling when you are in a busy environment, then yes it sounds like an SPD issue. HSP is more emotionally-based, I feel. For example, I am DEEPLY impacted by the emotions of other people or an environment, and this has nothing to do with my SPD.

      It can be a bit confusing, but it’s important to sort it out so we aren’t blaming one issue for a problem when really it’s another issue entirely.

  4. Nice post. I’m a 37-year old man that has just recently discovered the concept of HSP, and that I am 100% one. Thanks for taking the time to explain, in a conversational way, the difference between HSP and SPD.

  5. This post is soooo interesting and awesome😄. It makes me wonder if I’ve SPD or if I’m a HSP. I’m more sensitive to certain senses but not VERY sensitive. Like, I get distracted by literally anything I see but I can tolerate bright lights. I also have poor coordination and I suck at sports. Is it possible that I might have SPD?

    1. hey – check out my reply to you on your longer comment. I think it was on the School for the Sensory Sensitive post. I tried to answer your question about HSP/SPD there. Basically, I think you do have SPD, even if it is mild!

      1. Thank you so much! I did read your reply but just needed an opinion if you do think I have SPD 😄. Keep up your great work 😄.

  6. Hi Kelly, Wow I’m so relieved to have found you and your blog. I have a beautiful 21 year old daughter who has been showing lots of signs that are extremely concerning to me as her mother and which is greatly affecting her, myself, and my youngest daughter age 9. At first i thought my daughter might have OCD because in the past few years she has been very controlling of me and her sister. I’m going to run down a list of stuff that’s been going on and hopefully you can help me sort this out and help point me in the right direction.
    * She says she feels my energy and asks me to move my hand from the right side of the steering wheel when shes in the car with me.
    * Sleeps till 2 or 3 in the afternoon
    * Always asks me to swallow when im talking.
    * Everything has to be straight and in order. No doors left open.
    * Cannot handle background noises such as me or her sister watching tv quietly while she studies.
    * Has to have the lights very bright at night in the house
    * All of this fits my daughter: HSP’s are very in-tune with their environment. They are overwhelmed by the world
    in general, specifically emotional situations, and they often struggle to watch
    or read violent/upsetting things. They are considered shy, quiet, introverted,
    and anti-social. They are deeply moved by music, art, nature, and all things
    beautiful.
    * Doesn’t know how to make friends, very lonely
    And lots of other things, but hopefully with this you can give me an idea of how to try to get some help.
    Thank you and God Bless you for your Blog!
    Teresa

    1. Hello Teresa!! I’d so glad you’ve reached out to me regarding your lovely daughter. I’ll get straight to the point: Your daughter is showing signs of HSP, as well as some OCD, as you stated, however I think the underlying issue for her may be anxiety. HSP’s are prone to suffer from overwhelming anxiety being they “feel” the world so much. I’m thinking her control issues (keeping things in order, asking you to swallow when asking, controlling the lights) are directly related to obsessive compulsive behavior originating from being anxious. This anxiety keeps her mind and body in a heightened state of awareness, hence her not being able to tolerate background noises and such.

      As for the socializing/friendship issue, I would tell your daughter to reach out to types of people that are often HSP’s (book club, artists, hikers, gardeners, musicians, etc.). At the same time, don’t force her into socializing because she may find the interaction and lack of control very overwhelming. I know this because I experience the same thing. I know that when I spend time with people, I usually must limit my time with them, or be in a place that I feel comfortable in. Generally, people are super understanding and will have no problem if your daughter says to them, “Hey, I can only stay for an hour or so today, just wanted to let you know ahead of time!”

      Additionally, if you haven’t already, perhaps you should look into having your daughter visit a counselor/therapist once a week/month for some guidance. There are support groups online for HSP’s (I am part of the Facebook group!) and there are some great books out there, namely, The Highly Sensitive Person written by Elaine Aron. All these resources will help her (and you and your family) understand her and make life easier all around. Finally, if your daughter feels comfortable enough, she can always reach out to me personally here on my blog, or on my fb page, or through email.

      I hope I was of help to you – take care, and thanks again for writing to me and for supporting my blog.
      xoxoxox Kelly

  7. A lot of people als confuse hsp with autism (!) + there are people who confuse SPD with autism. Most of us have all the characteristics for a diagnosis of spd, but that’s only one part of the whole problem. I totally get how annoyed hij are with this. People that actually need help like with SPD are nog being taken seriously, or people who need it don’t get the correct diagnosis, and as a result, the help they actually need.

  8. I was so upset about it that I made a YouTube video on the subject. Although I didn’t think I would ever do something like that. 😀

  9. I think hsp is a subclass of spd. Spd has 3 types hypersensitive , undersensitive an sensativity seeking. The type hypersensitivity is exactly like hsp. My son has hypersensitivity spd and hsp and his occupational therapist says the spd is the clinical diagnosis and the hsp is the psychological diagnosis of what he has.

    1. This is an interesting perspective regarding the SPD/HSP relationship, but I wouldn’t be so quick to group hypersensitivity SPD as being exactly like HSP. As I wrote in the blog post, SPD is sensory-based, while HSP is not. I can understand why your son’s occupational therapist said that SPD is clinical and HSP is psychological, but still, HSP is a more like a personality trait rather than a psychological disorder. SPD on the other hand, is definitely a neurological disorder. We often see them together because “sensitivity” is the general problem with both. Thanks for the comment!! 🙂

  10. Nice and interesting post. There are many overlaps and similarities with some of these; SPD, HSP, OCD, ADHD, Autism. It’s been a long road for me with several discoveries and I’ve learned about many things along the way. I have a relation to a few of these, HSP/ADHD/Autism and now just when I thought I couldn’t possibly have anything else/more I strongly suspect I have SPD, that is if this will even qualify as a diagnosis – I’m afraid we’re not there in my country. I have briefly brought it up, but only the sensitivity problems not as an actual diagnosis as I haven’t read up on the actual disorder. Even the team that works to help me with my Asperger says; “That’s your Aspergers, it’s very common for autistics to have those kind of issues with sensitivity”.

    More and more I realize even I myself have possibly misunderstood my sensitive symptoms, as strong as they can be. I’ve thought of it more as a HSP thing, which is manageable if you just don’t get overstimulated or too emotional. I discovered I was a HSP (at least I thought so) a good year before I got my Asperger diagnosis, and I read up on the trait for probably a years time. Now I’ve found that I struggle despite of that. Sometimes visual things like people in my pheriphal vision can make my skin itch, and I can barely touch things with my hands, and I just need people to not speak because it is like little needles poking me all over my body.

    People facing me or looking at me makes my face become warm from the intensity of their gaze, and them moving about me or lightly bumping/brushing against me makes my skin itch. I just want to rip off my clothes as I hate wearing them, without them I feel so free and airy. It becomes quite handicapping and all I can think or feel is the intensity of all the sensory things that I process which all feel like I am not experiencing them in a normal way, but really oddly and almost like sensory things are hostile toward me or my skin and body too frail.

    My first diagnosis was at 20 and that was ADD. As I continued searching for my difficulties and differences (we’re a family of ADHD people and some HSP I was still the black sheep by far) I found out about introversion in like late 2013, then that lead me to HSP in early 2014. I settled with this and felt no more need to search for anything else. But this year recently I got Asperger which describes me even better. However almost more than social issues I feel what gets in the way more, is actually sensory dysfunction, this is what I would say is what really pains me the most. I can feel this even by myself, not just with people. I realize if it was not for that I think I could manage the social and organizational difficulties, but with the sensory stuff on top I just want to be in a dark room with total calm.

    I am medicated for ADHD and I have a special team as well as a group for my ASD, and I am now less sure of the HSP although I am the dreamy type and like sensually pleasing things, but that could just be personality. What I am very convinced of now is SPD as it seems a real thing now and as it turns out if I am honest this is what bothers me the most, even more than the ASD/ADHD stuff, which I am actually learning to manage and adapt to with knowledge and support. I rather enjoy it because it turns my life to something more acceptable for me, and more enjoyable. The sensory dysfunction is rather hell, and can actually prevent me from socializing even when I want to, which is surprisingly more now than it used to be in the past.

    So despite my ASD I now want to work on socializing, and the SPD prevents me. My autism team actually doesn’t know that, so they might, logically, think that I struggle so socially because of my ASD. Same goes for my work place and family. The truth is I don’t struggle that much socially, but saying so seems counter-productive to the help I now get because of my Asperger (life-changing). But it’s not strange either. I worked on my social skills intensively in my 20s (now 28) to fit inn or “train away” whatever I thought was wrong with me, that I just needed practice and it would go away. And I wanted to improved so I pushed a lot. I also feel I know myself well now and even better with the knowledge of ASD and having learned to manage my ADD symptoms.

    So really socializing wouldn’t be that hard if it wasn’t for SPD. I think I may have to say this to get them to take that possibility seriously, alas I am afraid they will say a) it’s not a diagnosis here b ) whats that c) thats part of your Asperger. This is a good team but they brush it away because ive already found so many things wrong with me, if i add another they will think im never happy and just looking for more excuses. At least I feel that way. 🙂

    1. Hey Thomas – thanks for your comment. From the information you wrote, I would agree with you regarding your sensory dysfunction being the primary problem you’re facing. The team that is currently helping you are correct in saying that sensory problems are common with people on the autistic spectrum and/or with aspergers. However, if you find that socializing and communicating aren’t really your main issues, or they get worse when you are overstimulated, then I would suspect maybe you do not have aspergers afterall – SPD could explain all your symptoms. You sound very insightful and I wish you the best of luck. Keep encouraging your team to consider SPD – one day, it will become as accepted as autism (hopefully)!

  11. Thank you for this great information. We have three kids and our oldest is 20 and a sophomore nursing student. She has always been very bright, responsible, overly mature, very bossy and can be intolerant. We ended up having her treated for chronic migraines in high school and the neurologist put her on effexor. That initially helped, but after a couple years things started getting worse (emotionally unstable, with inappropriate emotional responses, laughing and crying uncontrollably, etc) so we had to start the nightmare withdrawal process. She has been completely off for 6 months. She still has days (especially around her period) where she just wants to stay in bed, feels sad and cries over little things all day, and feels intolerant/mean to her friends. She labels herself as crazy, but I really think that being highly sensitive just adds fuel to her anxiety. She gets straight As in college and yet we worry about her so much and hope she will be a functional adult that can handle the everyday stresses of life. My husband and I worry that we did something wrong while raising her. The more I read about HSP the more I want to talk to her about it when the time is right. Thanks for your great info!

    1. Hi jennifer – really happy to hear you and your husband are on top of your daughter’s sensitivity issues, rather than dismissing them like many parents tend to do. I would definitely recommend reading the book, The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. It will be eye-opening and very helpful. Don’t wait to talk to your daughter about it – it’s always best to keep exploring and talking about how to make sense of these issues as soon as possible. Also, you didn’t do anything wrong with raising her, I can assure you of that. HSP is part of her biological personality. Also, if she would ever like to email me for any reason, please tell her she can do so any time. I’m glad my post was able to help you – thanks for writing to me. Best of luck – xoxo

  12. Hi Kelly! I came across your blog by chance, while trying to define the difference between Highly Sensitive people and Sensory Processing Disorder. Here’s why: I’m a pediatric Occupational Therapist who’s been testing and treating children the past 30 years (!). I work in a highly specialized hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark, and have a vast amount of experience. My now-pensioned colleagues brought Sensory Integration testing and treatment to Denmark from the very first courses in the U.S. So I have seen how theory and practice have changed throughout the years. I’ve been “pondering” the question of whether a child has SI-problems or is a highly sensitive child the past few years.
    I, myself, have “discovered” that I am “highly sensitive”. Not that I didn’t know it before, I just didn’t see the whole picture, as it were, and didn’t know it had a name. I always told people that “I’m wired differently”. Anyway, after I did the “required reading” about highly sensitive people, and getting the “A-HA” experience and knowledge about myself, which definitely has been an eye-opener, I haven’t made it the focus of my life. However, like in the U.S., the literature and courses have spread like wildfire, and there is massive confusion with the different definitions and diagnoses these days.
    Previously, Occupational Therapists used Jean Ayres theory and test for Sensory-Integrative Dysfunction to help diagnose and treat children with SI-problems. Now, the description (or “diagnosis”) is Sensory Processing Dysfunction. I have a feeling that the words themselves are creating confusion as to what-is-what and who-has-what. The parents of the children I treat ask me to explain the difference. It’s been difficult….until right now, when I read your blog! Another A-HA experience!! So here goes: I believe High Sensitivity (as I feel it in myself) is NOT psychological, like you say, but is definitely NEUROLOGICAL!!! Like I said, it’s a question of how you’re “wired”. That is, various stimuli are registered quicker ,more intensely and more exactly than they are for other people. F.ex. I’m always the first to ask if it smells like smoke in a room, where most everyone else begin to comment on the smell at least 10 minutes later. Also, I have a tendency to say that something “stinks”, while others may just think it “smells”. There are a million other examples, as described in the various books.
    When a child has Sensory-Integration Problems, he has problems INTEGRATING the various sensory information leading to adaptive environmental interactions, which is a very complex activity in the central nervous system. With the newer terminology, a child may have Sensory Processing Disorder. Here, he has problems PROCESSING sensory information. Sensory processing includes receiving, modulating, integrating and organizing sensory stimuli, leading to a certain behavioral response. Difficulties with integration and processing as the underlying problem can show themselves as behavioral, motor and/or learning disabilities, and can be treated by an occupational therapist.
    So. My conclusion is that there is a clearcut difference between the description of being “highly sensitive” and the problem of having sensory processing disorder.

    1. I couldn’t have said that any better myself. I completely agree – and I’m glad my blog post helped inspired your “A-HA” experience! It’s wonderful to hear that people such as yourself are learning and helping as much as you can in the field. It’s a relief to me especially, considering I grew up in the early stages of the world of sensory issues where so much was misunderstood. Thank you so much for your comment! Take care of your sensitive self! xoxox

  13. Hi—this is a great description! I have some sensory issues (mostly regarding misophonia and synesthesia), and it looks like I’m a HSP. 🙂 Thanks for the awesome article!

  14. Great article! Very informative and entertaining. My daughter has recently been diagnosed with SPD and lately I’ve wondered if it might have some connection to my own sensitives – avoids crowds and loud or busy scenes, reactive to synthetic smells, highly sensitive to emotions, can’t watch the news, don’t deal well with criticism or negativity, feel like a reclusive introvert sometimes, love my children but often want to hide from the chaos, etc. However, HSP makes a lot more sense. 20% of the population is significant. I’m not alone!

  15. As someone who was just diagnosed with SPD (at 47!) and who is waiting for her neuropsychology referral to go through, I’m glad I found this site.

    It’s weird to have *reasons* for being, well, how I’ve been my whole life. I just thought I was a bit odd (and had very tolerant friends and family). I’m apparently very high-functioning, but I guess I hit a wall a few months ago — long story — and am now not-so-functioning at all.

    Am very curious to see what’s around the corner for helping me cope, other than crazy amounts of anxiety, earplugs, eye-masks and pillows over my head. Am also surprised to see that my life-long (increasingly bad) vertigo/balance issues might be related. Is there anything that DOESN’T come from this sensory weirdness?

    1. Hi there – glad you’ve found my blog! And to answer your question….nope, this sensory weirdness will never cease to get increasingly weird. The thing is, you will adapt and learn to embrace the weirdness, and it won’t be so odd after a while. xox

      1. Thank you, and I hope so. Right now it’s just exhausting and scary, partly because I’m trying to stop repressing everything as severely as I’ve been doing for the last few decades.

        Every now and then I get a flash of the fact that it’s also (somehow) kind of a blessing, but right now I’ll admit it mostly seems like a bit of a curse. I think I’m at the bargaining stage. 😉

  16. Dear Kelly

    I am researching HSP and SPD for my doctorate in the UK. The SPD strand have recently moved away from the concept of ‘disorder’ to ‘difference’ as it is a natural part of ‘neuro-diversity’. Anne Marie Lombard of http://www.sensoryintelligence.co.za (and UK) also incorporates both in her positive approach to sensory sensitivity, which is very helpful.

    I agree that the emotional sensitivity element, of sensory processing sensitivity appears to be what distinguishes the HSP from the Sensory Processing Difference group most but there is considerable overlap and much more research required. In the meantime, I would recommend the sensory intelligence approach for both groups.

    with kind regards

    Linda Falkner (HSP and Educational Psychologist)

    1. That is interesting. As far as comparison and correlation goes I would also ask how the neuro atypical like people with ASD relate to HSP and SPD. It seems unlikely that there are three different things, more likely that there is a “spectrum” of sensory sensitivity.

      1. I agree Thomas. Much more research is needed to clarify issues. I am hoping to screen a large number of teenagers as part of my research which should give some pointers.

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