A common and sometimes unspoken myth about autistic individuals is that they are self-absorbed. Some non-autistic folks complain that the autistic people in their lives always find a way to turn the conversation back to themselves. Others imply or state outright that autistic people are egocentric or even narcissistic.
The myth is deeply rooted in autism’s history and involves misunderstandings of the different ways that many autistic people think, socialize, and experience the self.
While an autistic person’s ways of relating to others and to the world around them may appear self-centered or self-absorbed, egocentricity and preoccupation with oneself are not characteristics of autism. In fact, more often than not, an autistic person living in a neurotypical world has low self-esteem and does not always have a strongly formed self-concept.
Let’s look at three reasons for the development of the self-absorbed autistic person stereotype.
1) The idea of autistic self-absorption dates back to the origin of autism
The word autism has “self” built right into it, so this stereotype is rooted in the very beginning of the concept of autism. The Swiss psychiatrist, Paul Bleuler, coined the New Latin term autismus around 1910 to describe what were mistakenly thought to be symptoms of schizophrenia.
“Autism” comes from the Greek autos, meaning “self” while ismos refers to an action or state of being. So “autism” literally means a kind of intense self-absorption.
Bleuler meant for “autism” to refer to “autistic withdrawal of the patient to his fantasies, against which any influence from outside becomes an intolerable disturbance.”
2) This myth, like many autism myths, is based on incorrect judgments of autistic behaviour
Unfortunately, Bleuler’s notion of autism continues to inform views on autism today. And like many other incorrect or over-simplified ideas about autism, it is based on a non-autistic person’s judgment of autistic behaviours and says nothing about the reasons behind the behaviours themselves.
Autistic people, while usually described as introverted and tending to get “lost in their own world,” can be extroverted and quite socially-motivated. And those who retreat inward do so because they are overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the world around them. Autistic brains are built for deep, detail-oriented processing of information and do not focus on one or two main stimuli in the way that non-autistic brains do. There are pros and cons to both forms of information processing, yet we live in a world that far prefers the second way.
As a result, social and cultural events, entertainment, and even cities themselves are designed with the non-autistic brain in mind. This often leads to an environment that is too loud, too bright, too harsh, too hectic, and too fast-paced to allow for a sense of safety and equanimity for autistic people.
In short, the need to retreat is triggered far more quickly and easily for most autistic people when compared to non-autistic people. This leads to behaviours often seen by non-autistic people as “running away to their own world.” While a non-autistic person might see “self-absorption” in this tendency to retreat, the autistic person finds deep, almost meditative focus and a rich cognitive landscape when they are alone or with a small group of close friends.
Retreating to their studies or special interests is often experienced by autistic people as comforting, even blissful, and intensely satisfying. Many autistic individuals are also often driven by an altruistic desire to help humanity, and their special interests may be in medicine, psychology, science, social justice, engineering, or other topics that they wish to help improve for the benefit of all.
3) The autistic self-concept is often very different than the non-autistic self-concept
Imagine a scenario where two people are having a conversation — one individual is non-autistic while the other individual is autistic. The non-autistic person might describe a difficult situation they have recently experienced, perhaps in at attempt to receive advice or just a listening ear.
While many autistic individuals are described as wonderful listeners, and indeed many autistic people end up in helping professions that require finely tuned listening skills — like therapists, psychologists, and social workers — some are more inclined to share their own stories or anecdotes in response. For example, autistic individuals might respond by talking about a time when something similar happened to them.
This may come across as turning the conversation and attention away from the non-autistic person and toward the autistic person, but this is almost never the intention or motivation of the autistic person.
For the autistic person, the self is often viewed more objectively, as an object that can be held up for close examination or as a kind of ongoing qualitative experiment. And they often study their experiences (or the cognitive and emotional impressions resulting from those experiences) very carefully, analytically, and with more attention to detail than non-autistic people are accustomed to.
Autistic people would likely speak just as passionately about the experiences of others if they had the same level of direct experiential insight into others’ lives and minds as the autistic person does with their own.
In most non-autistic circles, however, being so analytical about the self or being overly forthcoming with one’s life experiences is seen as odd, unwanted, or…self-absorbed.
As with most things, it’s all about perspective.