Why do some autistic people seem self-absorbed?

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.

The deficit model of autism

Autism research and our shared knowledge about autism have come a long way. However, while great advances have been made, there is still a long way to go. The actual way we think about autism needs a drastic overhaul.

Autism was once categorized as a mental illness that had its roots in early childhood trauma or poor parenting. We now know that it is a genetic neurodevelopmental difference. Most knowledgeable autism experts and researchers are steering away from using words like “disorder” or “illness” to describe autism. They also tend to use words like “traits” or “characteristics” instead of “symptoms” or “signs” of autism.

Historically, though, our understanding of autism has been based on a deficit model. The deficit model continues to be the prevailing one. In other words, most of our understanding of autism is rooted in the negative aspects of the condition, the apparent difficulties, problems, and symptoms that come along with being autistic.

This deficit model is based on a non-autistic (aka, neurotypical) understanding of what it looks like on the surface to be autistic. And, more importantly, this deficit model of autism is based on a neurotypical concept of what is normal and acceptable in the areas of communication, behaviour, social interaction, and responses to sensory input.

Diagnosis of autism is made based on two main categories of outward observations (pay attention to all the negative words, like “deficiency” and “lack” and “restricted”):

  • Deficits in social communication, manifested by:
    • Deficiency in back-and-forth conversation,
    • Less social interaction and absence of interest in peers,
    • Abnormal eye contact (too little or too much),
    • Strange gestures, and/or
    • Deficits in developing and/or maintaining friendships and other relationships.
  • Behaviours or interests that are repetitive or restricted, manifested by:
    • Repetitive movements or repetitive speech (e.g., saying the same word or phrase over and over, humming the same tune repeatedly),
    • Having inflexible routines or distress in response to change,
    • Restricted interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus, and/or
    • Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input (i.e., either indifferent to sensory input like pain or temperature or overly responsive to sensory input like bright light and noisy environments).

As an autistic person, I can tell you that I do not experience the way I communicate socially as a deficit or lack. Other people have made me feel ashamed for my quirks and social differences (many of which I mask — more on that later!), yes, but in a roomful of only autistic people my way of being is not odd or wrong at all. The neurotypicals are the ones who would appear quirky or odd in a roomful of autistic people.

My way of being and communicating socially is odd, problematic, or deficient only from a neurotypical standpoint.

For example, my own back-and-forth conversation might appear “deficient” or “impaired” because I usually display more and longer pauses in conversation than neurotypicals are used to. This is due to the fact that my brain takes more in — cognitively and sensorily — than a neurotypical brain, meaning that my brain has to work harder to sort, filter, and analyze the incoming information. What looks like gaps and oddness to you is just me processing and formulating a response.

Also, I usually won’t say anything unless saying something has a clear purpose at that moment (to share important information, ask an important question, make someone laugh [definitely important!], etc.). From a neurotypical perspective, this might look like something is wrong with me. I’m “too shy” or “stupid” or “aloof” or any number of negative assessments.

There are other autistic people who, in the same scenario, might talk “too much” and for various reasons. It could be an anxious or fight-or-flight type response to the flood of cognitive and sensory information coming in. This FLOOD of information can be literally agonizing, especially if we are stressed or already overwhelmed in some way. For some of us, talking or vocalizing in any way can be soothing.

Another example in response to the diagnostic criteria above: I have less social interaction compared to the average neurotypical, yes, mostly because social interaction — especially in large groups or in new (or loud!) settings — is very draining for me. I need a lot more time to recharge and be alone.

But my experience of the level of my social interaction is that it is just right. In other words, I don’t feel that I require more social interaction, and I am actually deeply interested in my peers. It’s why many of us are interested in psychology and often pursue psychology as a special interest or career choice (more on that later!).

I may not look you in the eye as much as you’re used to, because for whatever reason direct eye contact FEELS very intense and can even be painful sometimes. I can hold your gaze and I can do it well, but it’s because I have been taught that this is what is expected of me in social contexts. But the neurotypical demand for and expectation of near-constant eye contact feels abnormal and strange to me!

From an autistic perspective, the neurotypical world is the deficient one, the odd one, the one that is pathological and makes very little sense. It’s too noisy, too rigid, too set on conformity, too bright, glaring, and disconnected.

It is easy for me to turn the DSM-5’s diagnostic criteria into a list of benefits, strengths, gifts, and unique qualities:

  • Strengths in social communication, manifested by:
    • Deep conversation as opposed to small talk,
    • More meaningful but fewer social interactions,
    • Purposeful eye contact only when necessary,
    • Unique gestures that help relieve tension and stress,
    • Intense social interactions and strong bonds with a select few, and/or
    • Deep interest in others that often takes the form of involvement in social issues, psychology, sociology, and so on.
  • Ability to maintain strong focus and feel very deeply, manifested by:
    • Being able to study or focus on one subject or issue for long periods of time,
    • An adaptive ability to keep strict schedules, allowing for a sense of calm and control in a busy world filled with pressures and expectations, and/or
    • Being intensely connected to everything around them so that everything is more overwhelming, but also more beautiful (Note: some autistic folks experience some sensory stimuli less intensely, but they almost always have some kind of hyper-reactivity to some kinds of stimuli; they may not be sensitive at all to cold, for example, but they will be unable to socialize in a crowded room).