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High Sensitivity 101

Understanding Highly Sensitive Children and Neurodivergence

Hi, I'm Jill!

I’m a mama-in-training of a highly sensitive son. I love yoga pants, dungeness crab season, and working from my San Francisco flat in my PJs. My mission? To help other mamas raise a thriving highly sensitive child without losing their ever-lovin’ minds!

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Want to find out if your child's sensitivity means something more?


Maybe you recently learned your child is highly sensitive and are starting to hear the term neurodivergent here and there. Neurodivergent is a term that has become popular in the last couple of years, but what exactly is it? Well we are here to give you the key to understanding highly sensitive children and neurodivergence. 

It can be tricky to navigate all of these new terms and understand all of their unique differences and how they apply to your child. Our blog post is here to help you gain a better view on what these terms mean, how they apply to your child, and what you can do as a parent to support them.

Understanding Highly Sensitive Children and Neurodivergence

Understanding the Highly Sensitive Child

Imagine a world where every color shines brighter, every sound rings louder, and emotions run deeper. This is everyday life for a highly sensitive child. These kids are wired differently – their nervous systems are finely tuned antennae, picking up on nuances most miss out on. They also feel emotions deeper than other people, making their highs even higher. It’s not all sunshine; this heightened sensitivity means everyday environments can sometimes feel overwhelming and that negative emotions can feel especially distressing.

Traits of a Highly Sensitive Child

A highly sensitive child isn’t just shy or cautious. Their uniqueness lies in a complex blend of characteristics, distinguishing them from their peers. They’re the kids who notice the subtle mood shift in their friend before anyone else does. Or those who feel deeply moved by stories or music. They also may cover their ears during loud movies or may feel disoriented by large crowds.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity: Understanding High Sensitivity

Another term that may be used to describe the experience of a highly sensitive person or child is sensory processing sensitivity (SPS).  Sensory processing sensitivity refers to the tendency of highly sensitive people (HSP) to absorb more information from their environment compared to the average person. This trait leads HSPs to experience life more intensely due to their deep processing capabilities. 

The Impact of High Sensitivity on Daily Life

Daily life for highly sensitive children (HSC) is similar to walking through a world turned up to eleven. The hustle and bustle that we tune out automatically becomes front and center for them:

  • Loud classrooms can seem chaotic rather than energetic,
  • Crowded places might trigger anxiety instead of excitement,
  • Even clothing tags can become unbearable irritants rather than minor annoyances.

But here’s where their superpower lies: they experience joy as intensely as they do stress. Their acute perception makes them empathetic friends, creative thinkers, and conscientious beings.

It’s crucial then, for parents and educators alike to recognize these traits not as hurdles but as gifts needing careful nurturing.

Unique Strengths of Highly Sensitive Children

Let’s illuminate the extraordinary abilities that highly sensitive kids possess. Yes, you heard it right – superpowers.

Heightened Perceptiveness

Ever noticed how some kids can read a room better than adults? That’s because highly sensitive children are wired to pick up on nuances most miss. They catch those little shifts in tone or facial expressions, making them empathetic friends and thoughtful individuals.

Creativity Overflowing

Their minds are like fireworks – constantly bursting with ideas and colors. Why? Sensory input doesn’t just come; it dances, creating vivid inner worlds where creativity knows no bounds. Whether it’s art, music, or storytelling, these kids see beyond the ordinary.

A Thoughtful Approach to Life

In a world that often values speed over depth, highly sensitive children remind us of the beauty in thoughtfulness. They ponder deeply about everything from why the sky is blue to how they can help their friend feel better—turning each question into an opportunity for learning and connection.

  • Sensitivity Is Their Superpower: Remember this – sensitivity isn’t something to ‘overcome.’ It’s a trait packed with strengths waiting to be nurtured.
  • An Eye for Detail: Missed by others but not by them. These details often lead to deeper understanding and appreciation of the world around them.
  • The Power of Empathy: Being able to step into someone else’s shoes naturally makes highly sensitive children compassionate allies.

To all parents out there navigating this journey: your child’s sensitivity is indeed unique, but think of it as their greatest asset rather than a challenge.

Key Takeaway: 

Highly sensitive children experience the world intensely, making everyday situations overwhelming but also allowing them to enjoy deep joy and empathy. Recognizing and nurturing their sensitivity turns potential challenges into powerful assets.

Understanding Neurodivergence

Neurodivergence refers to variations in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. It’s a perspective that views these differences not as deficits but as natural variations within the human population. Some common examples include Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), and many more.

The Intersection of High Sensitivity and Neurodivergence

Let’s chat about how being highly sensitive tangles up with neurodivergence. Understanding highly sensitive children and neurodivergence can be a daunting but it is vital to understand the intricacies of how high sensitivity and neurodivergence relate. High Sensitivity has some similarities with neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD, ASD, and SPD. However, that does not always mean someone who is highly sensitive is neurodivergent.  Furthermore, someone who is neurodivergent can still be highly sensitive in addition to being neurodivergent.

Key Takeaway: 


High sensitivity has some commonality between neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD, ASD, SPD, and more. Despite these commonalities, those who are highly sensitive are not considered neurodivergent just based on high sensitivity. Remember, high sensitivity is a term used to describe a trait present in some individuals and is not a diagnosable “condition”.

Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Brief Overview

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a condition characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech difficulties, and nonverbal communication alongside unique strengths and differences. As its name suggests, those with autism experience a spectrum of severity and variety of these symptoms and many people with autism express having vastly different experiences than others with the same condition.

Distinguishing Between ASD & SPS

  • Social Interaction: While both autistic individuals and highly sensitive individuals may find social situations challenging, the root causes differ. For instance, autistic individuals may struggle to interpret non-verbal cues, leading to misunderstandings. On the other hand, a highly sensitive child could become easily overwhelmed by noisy, crowded environments, making interactions difficult for them.
  • Routine/Repetitive Behaviors: Individuals with autism often show a strong preference for routines and exhibit repetitive behaviors which can provide a sense of comfort or control. Additionally, highly sensitive children do not typically display these patterns of behavior. Instead, they may react strongly to changes in routine because of the overwhelming sensation change brings. 

Understanding ADHD

At its core, Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a brain-based disorder that affects concentration, impulse control, and decision-making. Children with ADHD might seem restless, may struggle to pay attention for extended periods or act impulsively without considering the consequences. It’s not just about being “hyper” or “unfocused”; it’s about how their brains are wired differently.


You might wonder how ADHD connects with being highly sensitive. While they are distinct experiences—ADHD is  characterized by hyperactivity-impulsivity issues or difficulties maintaining attention. SPS, however, is characterized by deep cognitive processing of both emotional & physical stimuli. Both involve heightened neural responses leading to overstimulation. This means children who navigate these waters feel more deeply than others—a trait that requires empathy and specialized guidance from those around them.

  • Symptom Overlap: Both may exhibit similar symptoms like distractibility or emotional intensity which can complicate diagnosis without careful consideration.
  • Navigating Daily Life: Understanding this overlap helps us tailor environments conducive to thriving—for instance reducing sensory overload for a highly sensitive child or creating structured routines for one with ADHD.
Key Takeaway: 


Those with ADHD and highly sensitive individuals have many differences, but they both experience heightened neural responses to sensory stimuli that can create overwhelming situations for them.

Differentiating Between SPS and SPD

Although they sound similar and can share some similar qualities, those with Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) and those with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) have slightly different experiences.

Remember, Sensory Processing Sensitivity, or high sensitivity, is all about deep thinking and feeling. Those with these sensory sensitivities, experience bright lights or loud noises as extra intense because their brain processes them more deeply than most. It’s not just about senses though; it’s also about noticing subtleties others miss and feeling emotions strongly. SPS is a way to describe the unique way that some people experience the world.

Then there’s Sensory Processing Disorder. SPD is a diagnosable condition that psychologists give to those whose sensory sensitivity impact their day to day life in debilitating ways. Here, sensory input doesn’t get organized correctly in the brain leading to reactions that seem over-the-top compared to what’s happening around them. Imagine trying to concentrate while hearing every little sound around you at full volume all at once — annoying right? That could be every day for someone with SPD when facing regular sensory experiences. Those with SPD do not experience emotions more strongly as a result of their condition. 

FAQs in Relation to Understanding Highly Sensitive Children and Neurodivergence

Is HSP a form of neurodivergence?

No, HSP isn’t classified as neurodivergent. It’s a trait where individuals process sensory data and emotions deeply.

Do HSP have autism?

HSP do not by definition have autism but some people that have autism may also be a HSP. 

Is being a HSP a mental illness?

No. Being highly sensitive is more about deep processing than an illness. It’s just how some brains function.


Understanding highly sensitive children and neurodivergence can be tricky. We peeled back the curtains and dove deep into what exactly high sensitivity means and how neurodivergence comes into play.

The key takeaway? While HSCs aren’t neurodivergent by definition, they can have similar experiences to those who are neurodivergent. Also, anyone who is neurodivergent can also be highly sensitive! So at the end of the day, your child could be a combination of highly sensitive and any of the neurodivergent conditions described above.

For every mom out there feeling like she’s decoding messages from another dimension entirely: you’ve got this. It’s not about changing your child, but finding the right ways to support them in their unique experience. In nurturing their strength and rejoicing in their individual talents, you’re not merely aiding them to cope—you’re enabling them to radiate brilliantly.

Understanding Highly Sensitive Children and Neurodivergence

Jill Gilbert

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