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Could Autism Spectrum Disorder Be Another Word for Introversion?

Asperger's and introversion
Autism Spectrum Disorder in adults could be an extreme form of introversion…or not.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is defined by difficulties in social communication. Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder find it hard to “read” facial expressions, vocal tone and body language, recognize a joke, identify sarcasm, follow conversations, make eye contact, choose relevant topics of conversations, ask appropriate questions, and so forth. These differences often make social interactions unpleasant, uninteresting, or even embarrassing. As a result, many adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder prefer to limit socializing or even not to socialize at all.

But what if these differences are an outcome of an extreme form of introversion and not a disorder of the brain that unfolds as the person develops and grows, in this case a disorder called Autism Spectrum Disorder?

A new model of introversion argues that Autism Spectrum Disorder is an extreme extension of four factors that are basic to introversion:

  • Social Introversion: Preferring solitude to being with people.
  • Thought Introversion: Being reflective and introspective.
  • Anxiety Introversion: Shyness and repetitive thinking.
  • Inhibited Introversion: Resisting new experiences.

The model proposes that if one follows these four factors along a continuum, the result would be Autism Spectrum Disorder, at the milder end, and autism at its most extreme expression. One can see from these brief descriptions that the four factors of introversion map neatly onto the behavioral descriptions of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Furthermore, it is the presence of these four factors in different proportions that determine whether someone’s behavior is due to a simple case of introversion or Autism Spectrum Disorder. All the factors together in significant proportions lead to the behaviors that we know as Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The model also fits with how Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician, described his eponymous syndrome, that being, an inner rather than outer focus and a disturbance of affective (emotional) contact with other people. The introvert enjoys solitude, prefers short social engagements, works best when alone, and prefers one-on-one conversations, typical characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Is It Really About Introversion?

Critics of the Autism Spectrum Disorder/Introversion theory fall into two general camps. One camp argues that the relevant factor in Autism Spectrum Disorder is an innate difficulty reading nonverbal social cues like body language and facial expressions. Because of this, people with Autism Spectrum Disorder prefer not to socialize or at least shy away from extended interactions with people. Thus, they are easily labeled as introverted.

The main point is that an inner, rather than outward focus, along with difficulty connecting emotionally with others cause the behaviors that we associate with Autism Spectrum Disorder, not a construct called introversion.

The other camp focuses on the fact that many people with Autism Spectrum Disorder would not easily be described as introverted. They can be boisterous and loud, willing to talk to anyone and everyone, seeking new situations related to their special interests, and behavior oddly and differently. In other words, the opposite of introverted.

Furthermore, this position acknowledges overlap between an extroverted form of Autism Spectrum Disorder and an introverted form. The overlap consists of people who like to talk with others about their special interests, lack a good sense of conversational boundaries, and tire easily from trying to apply social rules and need time to recharge their batteries. These are people with a mixture of introverted and extroverted characteristics.

What to Conclude?

To date, the question of whether Autism Spectrum Disorder is a form of introversion or something completely different has not been conclusively answered and I, for one, suspect that may be answered. After all, introversion, Autism Spectrum Disorder is ideas, and while ideas have practical value for any one individual, for example, the advantages of solitude vs. companionship, they cannot easily be proven to be right or wrong. We instead decide one idea is more useful than another. That may be the ultimate means of deciding whether Autism Spectrum Disorder makes sense as a form of introversion.


Dr. Kenneth Roberson

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Click below to ask a question or schedule an appointment.

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