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December 17, 2013

Neal’s a LOT sensitive

I wrote Friday’s post first because it was pondering Addison and her temperament that first made me want to read The Highly Sensitive Person. But interestingly, almost as soon as I began reading, I stopped thinking about Addison and started thinking about Neal.

If Addison does turn out to be an HSP, I probably shouldn’t be quite so surprised. After all, she is her father’s daughter and in case you were wondering, Neal displays a lot of attributes of a textbook HSP (though in tomorrow’s post, I’ll explain more about HSP variations; you know, just to complicate things). Not that I doubted it, but reading the first couple of profiles of highly sensitive infants and children in Aron’s book certainly confirmed my opinion. I felt like I was been reading all the accounts I’ve heard from his parents and sister of his disgruntled infancy. I’m fairly convinced Jerome Kagan, who pioneered the research on “high reactive” (just one of the many names used to describe the trait) infants, would have identified Neal as such in an instant.

I have never mentioned this on here before (though I drafted a whole blog post about it almost 18 months ago that’s still in editing purgatory) but when we were in marriage counseling, we spent nearly an entire session devoted to a discussion of whether Neal has Asperger’s syndrome (back when it was still called that). Long story short (for once): after a casual consultation with a more experienced colleague, the therapists agreed that Neal fit a variety of the characteristics that could put him on the very high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, possibly “Asperger’s lite” to use their words.

What does autism have to do with high sensitivity? Well, that’s actually very tricky. On Elaine Aron’s website, in an article written in August 2009, she explains that it is perhaps hardest to distinguish high sensitivity from autism spectrum disorders in adult men. However, one of your best indicators should be that “those with Asperger’s still show a lack of understanding of what is going on emotionally in the other person even if they can hold a conversation.”  She further describes an experience with a man with Asperger’s, concluding that “he could experience his own emotions, but he could not read the signs of the emotional experiences of others,” which would stand in stark contrast to HSPs.

Interestingly, though, around the same time that article was published, studies began to question the very pervasive idea that those with autism lack empathy. The “intense world” theory suggested that atypical responses to social situations might be due to an excess of empathy — a hypersensitivity to experience — rather than a lack of it. As far as I can tell, this perspective has only gained support over the intervening years. I wonder, then, if Aron misunderstands the distinction between autism spectrum disorders and high sensitivity.  If this new notion of excess empathy leading to withdrawal in autistic individuals continues to be supported by research, what then becomes the primary distinction between an HSP and someone with an autism spectrum disorder? If you find out, will you let me know?

My best guess is that it has to do with the level of functioning, and in that sense, I think the HSP label probably fits Neal better. It acknowledges that there is something about his innate physical functioning that he probably can’t change, and will at times be ruled by when he experiences over-arousal. Still, for the most part he leads a “normal” life, including having family, friends (1 or 2 at least, unless you count his 3,600+ Facebook fans), and the ability to make a living.

It seems only fair to point out that while Neal can agree that he’s very sensitive to some things (especially tactile stimuli like, you know, his fingernails being too close to his fingers), he is somewhat reluctant to completely embrace this HSP label. For most of his life, his own concept of self has been based around the idea that he is a calm, easy-going person — not one of Jerome Kagan’s high-reactive infants that was prone to become an anxious adult. “When I had no responsibility for anyone else, I was always calm and relaxed,” he tells me.  It seemed only fitting to share with him another passage from Quiet about those short and long SERT alleles I was talking about:

“Similarly, short allele adults have been shown to have more anxiety in the evening than others when they’ve had stressful days, but less anxiety on calm days.” (p. 113)

It would be hard to overstate how closely this resonates with my observations of Neal. Of course, as enlightening as it was to think about Neal in the context of high sensitivity, my most important discovery had nothing to do with him. Stay tuned . . .



  1. Am liking this series! took that parent quiz, and was surprised/interested to hear about the change in autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. FYI: I consider you part of my brain trust.

    Comment by Alysa — December 17, 2013 @ 3:23 am

    • Ooh, I’ve never been in a brain trust before, but I think it suits me! Carry on. 😉

      Comment by llcall — December 17, 2013 @ 6:39 am

  2. I love that book and I really want to read it again (super unusual for me to read a book twice within a few months!). Especially because I don’t think I even remember reading that part about the day/night sensitivity difference and I’d love to read it more carefully.
    I would show a clip of Kagan’s research to my classes and shamelessly conducted his most famous experiment with Kennedy. I should have recorded it!

    Comment by kei02003 — December 17, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

    • You didn’t record it — I would love to have seen that! So what were Kennedy’s results?

      Comment by llcall — December 17, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

      • She showed plenty of appendage movement (can’t think of the technical term…..) which means that as an older child, she’s supposed to be “easy” and calm. And she is technically easy; she’s just also a toddler so her internal nature is waging war against her age right now! And her age is winning!

        Comment by kei02003 — December 18, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

  3. So I’m totally with you on Neal being highly sensitive. I’m thinking about what he said about about being calm when he has no responsibility for anyone else and the quote you shared from page 113. That’s the whole point of being sensitive, I think: his environment and the demands placed on him matter a lot to his internal state. It reminds me about what you shared in your first post about how hsc are more sensitive to the parenting they experience: if they have bad parents, they suffer more than other children; if they have good parents, they can blossom in amazing ways. This is how I interpret Neal’s anecdote: when he can control his circumstances to perfectly fit his needs, he does better emotionally than most. When he’s not in control, he struggles more than most. I see this A LOT in Katie, who is definitely hs. She was a dream of a toddler when she was 2—truly. We thought she was better than every kid we knew because she was so calm and easy to talk down when she was upset (except for with things like uncomfortable clothes, loud noises and big groups, food she didn’t want to eat . . . fits the bill!). Then she got a sister. And her environment was much less quiet and much less controlled and she had much less access to quality parenting (hey, it’s the truth). And then we put her in preschool when she turned 3 and once she adjusted, it gave her the extra dose of routine and control she needed (she thrives on the high structure preschool provides vs. being at home where her younger sister has normal, developmentally-appropriate needs that interfere with the high structure we once had).

    Comment by Victoria — December 19, 2013 @ 1:25 am

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