Introversion and Autism

by Ettina

Here’s an e-mail I sent to the author of a book I read:

In your book The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child, you describe autistic people (I use that term broadly, including Asperger’s Syndrome and PDD-NOS) in a way that is, in my opinion, damaging and discriminatory.

I am autistic. I am also introverted. I don’t think I have heard of a single autistic who isn’t introverted. Introversion is a near-universal characteristic of autistic, though of course not all introverts are autistic. Autistic people also have a number of other traits, which are not any better or worse than normal, just different.

You describe autistics in the following manner:

Autism and Asperger’s Disorders. These syndromes reflect a cluster of symptoms that include problems in communication and relating to others, and the display of repetitive behaviors. In the film Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman portrayed a character with severe autism. Autistic children lack age-appropriate friendships, empathy, and an interest in sharing and communicating with others. However, they may have great gifts in specific areas, such as in sequencing numbers and visual processing. Asperger’s Disorder is diagnosed when the child is at a higher level of functioning. Studies indicate various brain areas that are affected, but as yet there is little certain about the causes or the cure for these conditions. Because an introverted child may seem disinclined to socialize, parents may suspect autism… But introversion and autism are very different issues. Introverted children have normal social relationships and form close attachments with parents and with peers. Introverts do not exhibit the repetitive behavior, such as rocking or head banging, that characterizes autism. Nor do innies display the uncanny ‘savant’ quality of, say, being able to recall random lists of numbers that sometimes signals these conditions.

Firstly, it seems like you are echoing medical terminology. I don’t think in a single instance you described introverts as ‘displaying’ some kind of distinctive behavior.

Empathy is used by autism ‘experts’ in a very distinctive, and in my opinion inaccurate, manner. Autistic people care about other people, it’s just that other people don’t make sense to us. At one point in your book, you say:

Right-brained innies may have a high emotional quotient, or ‘EQ.’ They can imagine themselves in another child’s shoes. This is called having empathy.

That kind of ’empathy’ is based on the assumption that others think like you. I used to think other people thought like me, and as a result most people were completely incomprehensible to me. It was only when I realized that I’m autistic, that my mind is actually different from others, that I began to get some real understanding of others. I’m surprised that a person with a minority temperament would actually think this kind of empathy is really useful. No doubt you’ve had extroverts acting like since they don’t like being alone, you must be dying for company as well. That is ’empathy’ as you describe it. It is only effective if you are interacting with someone who is very similar to you – even so, because no one is exactly the same, this kind of ’empathy’ will cause misunderstandings.

Also, I’d like to point out that autistics don’t have some kind of deficit in social skills. We are simply different. I’ve found that non-autistic people have, if anything, more difficulty understanding autistics than we do them. This is not because of some kind of deficit, simply less practice. Only about 1 out of a 100 people are autistic. That means that non-autistics only rarely meet autistic people, while autistics are constantly meeting nonautistic people. In addition, nonautistics hold the power in society. The oppressed group generally understands the oppressors better than the oppressors understand them.

I do not have the need for interaction that most people do. In fact, I find interaction tiring. Is this really different from introversion? I have read that introverts find interaction tiring and need alone time. Decreased interest in interaction seems therefore to be a typical trait of introverts, though more extreme in autistics. Also, decreased interest in interaction is not synonymous with not caring about others. I care very intensely about other people. I love my parents and younger brother very deeply, as well as my pets and my autistic friend. I also care, on a more abstract level, about all the children who are suffering because they are being told that who they are is not lovable and they must become someone else. You describe that problem regarding forcing extroverted behavior on an introvert. Autistics also experience this, often more pervasively.

One thing I’d like to mention is that since many autistics have an on/off tendency in various areas, they may not be recognized as introverts. Rather than being quiet until they warm up and then becoming interactive, an autistic person may jump into interaction, chattering away eagerly until the interaction is over. Conversely, their rest time is longer. This is just because autistics focus intensely and are slow to shift focus. I may interact happily in a party, only to need to spend the next day at home interacting only with my pets. (You say introverts do well with pets. So do autistics, especially with cats. In many ways, autistic people are like cats. I find it much easier to understand my cats than many people.)

Many traits you describe in introverts are also autistic traits. Autistics have similar patterns in memory as you describe – my memory is highly associative, and if the question doesn’t bring up the right associations I don’t remember the answer. Autistics are picky eaters for some of the same reasons you describe in introverts – increased sensitivity to taste and smell, not noticing hunger, etc.

You describe introverts becoming rigid under stress. Autistics who are under constant, intense pressure (as are many, by well-meaning parents and others who want them to function) become very rigid and black/white in their thinking, this is then taken as an inherent part of autism. If they are given less stress, their thinking ‘magically’ becomes more flexible.

I have seen many books, like yours, which advocate acceptance for a certain mild difference while fervently distancing that difference from other related traits which they consider ‘disorders’. It’s an awful thing to push down others in order to get acceptance for yourself. I try to accept all kinds of people. You should, too.

About the Author: Ettina is a young autistic woman who works to make our society more accepting of diversity. This piece first appeared on her blog, Abnormaldiversity, and is reprinted here by permission.



3 thoughts on “Introversion and Autism

  1. Nick Walker says:

    Good email. While we’re challenging stereotypes, though, I’d like to point out that in fact not all Autistics are introverts. I’m an Autistic extrovert, and I’m not the only one (nor the most extroverted one) whom I’ve met.

  2. Jayn says:

    One thing that bugs me is the apparent assumption that being introverted and/or autistic automatically means one lacks interest in social contact. I realise that some people are what I’d term asocial, but that’s not all of us. I crave social relationships the same as any NT–I just a) struggle with it and b) don’t do well in what some people consider to be social situations. I have no idea how many times my husband has made the comment that I ‘was being really quiet at the end’ after we’ve left a bar or similar environment, beyond the number being high. It’s frustrating because he’s always pressing for me to be more social–and I DO enjoy going out with friends–but I often can’t handle the environment for long periods of time. It’s difficult to get the social interaction I desire without tiring myself out, and that’s before all the actual social difficulties come into play.

  3. JJ Tan says:

    Thanks for your post! I think labels like introvert/extrovert are useful but can also be dangerous when we start adopting a label and then try to fit all our behaviors to a certain box. I like Nick’s response that there are autistic extroverts out there, and we shouldn’t overgeneralize that introversion is a “near universal” characteristic of autistics!

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