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Narcissism Or Autism Spectrum Disorder: Which One Is it?

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Autism Spectrum Disorder and narcissism may appear one and the same but they are very different, driven by a completely different cause.

The taker can only take those parts of ourselves that we give away.

         Jenna Ryan

I see people with Asperger’s syndrome as a bright thread in the rich tapestry of life.

         Tony Attwood


I am often asked, “How can I tell whether my partner is a narcissist or instead has ASD? Is there a difference?”

While a great deal of overlap exists between these two conditions, there is an important difference. Narcissists don’t care if they hurt you or your feelings. People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) do, they just don’t realize they are doing it.

Both narcissists and those with ASD appear self-absorbed and neglectful of others, interested only in themselves and caring little about others but the reasons they act this way are much different.

Narcissists pay little attention to others because they think they are more important than anyone else. They have little interest in or regard for others. People with Autism, on the other hand, may appear self-absorbed like narcissists but this is because they don’t realize they’re acting this way. They see things from their own point of view and can’t imagine someone else thinking and feeling differently.

Crippling insecurity is at the root of narcissism. The person reacts by acting completely the opposite, hoping this will cure the terrifying sense of complete failure that drives their grandiosity and self-absorption. People with ASD may, and often do, feel inadequate but what drives their apparent self-absorption is not a desperate attempt to conceal their inadequacy but their limited ability to understand that other people are different from them, think differently, feel differently, have different interests, goals, etc.

To help you better understand what drives each condition, here is a comparison of the behaviors that are common to each.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Little understanding of the hurt they cause.

Narcissism Hurts other people’s feelings and doesn’t care.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Not sensitive.


Autism Spectrum Disorder Not driven to blame others.

Blames others compulsively.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Has empathy but can’t show it.

Lacks empathy. Intentionally hurts others

Autism Spectrum Disorder Wants structure, predictability, order.

Thrives on chaos, disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder Doesn’t understand social interactions.

Controls, manipulates

Autism Spectrum Disorder Can accept limits.

Refuses limits.

Narcissism is a deficit of caring for others. ASD is a deficit of social awareness. This difference has important implications.

As Mark Goulston, M.D. has noted, “…it is neither fair nor reasonable to treat someone who is just not sensitive (i.e. they are not doing it intentionally) as if they were someone who is insensitive (i.e. they are intentionally not sensitive).

I want to be clear that Autism and narcissism may, and often do, appear one and the same. Given their problems with social awareness, adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder are prone to act insensitively. They mistreat others, often without regard to the damage they cause and what they should do to repair it.

As the partner of one person on the spectrum said to me, “I feel assaulted verbally daily with little regard to how I feel. It’s exhausting, completely exhausting that we can’t have a normal interaction instead of the verbal and emotional abuse I get. He’s completely oblivious to the fact that I have feelings. I hurt. I need support. I want to be loved, appreciated and respected, and that happens all too infrequently.”

But the insensitivity of someone on the spectrum can be addressed and overcome through education, training, and support.


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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