Highly Sensitive and Neurodivergent: Complementary Superpowers


Leif looking down at his three-year-old niece, Olivia, November 2011.

My late brother-in-law, the neurodivergent architect Leif Weaver, was like a soulmate to me. We were friends for half our lives. We got lost backpacking in California, conjured a total eclipse in France, kayaked in Maine, and planned a hundred years of projects together.

Jacaranda, the painting that Leif hung in his hospital room.

During his final illness, Leif hung one of my paintings in his hospital room. He said its energy helped him heal.

When Leif passed away, I helped my sister finish the house Leif built. So many of the custom features Leif designed were tailored to his sensory sensitivities, and I made aesthetic choices which supported his vision.

I’m a Highly Sensitive Person; Leif was autistic. I didn’t share all of Leif’s sensitivities—or his superpowers—but I could see them from here.

Highly sensitive people, unlike autistic people, tend to be good at reading social cues. We pick up on people’s emotions, and intuitively understand how to respond thoughtfully. (This is called cognitive empathy.) Highly sensitive people may be deeply affected by all kinds of sensory stimuli, and we prefer deep conversation to small talk.

We’re perfectly designed to be a bridge between autism and neurotypicality. Because we are sensitive to things like light, smells, noise and crowds, we can often intuit what overwhelms an autistic person, even if they can’t articulate the problem. Through our powers of nuanced observation and cognitive empathy, we understand how to make other people comfortable.

And when neurodivergent people are understood, their superpowers blossom.

Read about how my sister and I finished the house Leif built, and how he designed it for sensory accessibility and health.

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