Autism & Narcissism: The Connection & Differences
Narcissism is a personality disorder characterized by grandiose self-identity, difficulty with or lack of empathy, jealousy and trouble with criticism, and preoccupation with success.
These traits, related to interactions with others, have some overlap with some autism symptoms, especially in people who may have only mild autism symptoms. These individuals have often developed coping mechanisms to deal with social situations.
Autism is a developmental disorder, meaning it develops in childhood, whereas narcissism is a personality disorder that often develops from late adolescence to adulthood in which the person fixates on a specific way of seeing the world. While there may be some overlap between the two disorders, like sometimes lacking displays of empathy, there is little to suggest that these two conditions are associated with one another.
What Is Narcissism?
Although many people use narcissist as an insult, thrown at someone they think is being selfish, there is actually a clinical diagnosis behind some of this behavior. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is rare, but some people do meet the diagnostic criteria to be called narcissists.
Symptoms of this condition, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), include:
- Significant impairment in interpersonal function, like intimacy and empathy.
- Substantial impairment in sense of self, typically with a grandiose sense of importance.
- Belief that one is special or unique to the exclusion of others.
- Lack of empathy or “theory of mind” (recognizing that others have emotions).
- Intense jealousy of others.
- Preoccupation with feeling successful and the people they admire.
- Obsession with fantasies of unlimited success, ideal love, power, brilliance, or beauty.
- Requiring excessive admiration.
- Failing to respond appropriately to others’ expressions for attention.
People with narcissistic personality disorder may appear condescending, rude, oblivious, disdainful, or even abusive, with exceptions for those they admire and want to please. They can also be charming, insightful, witty, and hard workers.
Narcissism is a personality disorder, which is defined as an enduring pattern of inner experience of the person’s surroundings that differs significantly from the actual world around them.
There are four areas that are used to measure personality disorders, typically with two of these being the main patterns or symptoms:
- Impulse control
- Interpersonal functioning
These patterns are stable across work, social life, family life, and other areas. Typically, these patterns begin in adolescence or young adulthood. Psychologists or other mental health clinicians diagnose this condition based on the DSM-5 and other clinical diagnostic criteria.
Many people with NPD do not seek treatment unless the disorder begins to significantly impact their lives and they have few or no coping mechanisms to manage the stress and instability they experience.
The underlying causes for narcissistic personality disorder are complex, but most mental health professionals believe it is a combination of biological and genetic factors, social factors, and psychological factors. Treatment is long-term cognitive or behavioral therapy.
How Does Narcissism Relate to Autism?
Some individuals report that symptoms of autism in adults, especially those with “high functioning” autism (or the formerly designated Asperger’s syndrome,) are similar to symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.
There are overlapping traits for people on the autism spectrum who appear to have few struggles with communication and socialization, so these people may be labeled as narcissists. While there are some comparable symptoms, autism is a developmental disorder, so there is a different underlying cause. Other symptoms of autism are not part of the narcissism diagnosis.
Autism & Narcissism: Some Similarities With Different Underlying Causes
A report from 2014 suggested that some forms of autism could be very similar to narcissistic personality disorder, to the point that narcissism may be a level on the autism spectrum.
Symptoms of autism that are similar to narcissistic personality disorder include:
- Self-centeredness that is inappropriate to cultural expectations or the individual’s age/ or developmental level.
- Treating people as objects or preferring objects to people. This often involves a focus on limited interests and interactions with others.
- Failure to develop emotional relationships as expected for the person’s development.
- Hostile dependency on safe relationships.
- Poor empathy, expression of empathy, or theory of mind required to understand other people’s inner worlds and sympathize with those differences.
- Trouble reciprocating others’ emotions or expressing emotional caring.
- Poor self-awareness, or poor ability to develop remorse or learn from mistakes.
The clinicians claiming this overlap noted that people with narcissistic personality disorder tended to appear normal or very functional in environments where they were accepted, supported, and did not experience stress. The claim states that this seems similar to people with Asperger’s syndrome, or Level 1 autism, who can appear “normal” because they have developed coping mechanisms for socializing, communicating, and learning.
These symptoms certainly do overlap, but it is important not to lump narcissistic personality disorder and autism into the same category. Again, autism is a developmental disorder, and it is more often diagnosed in early childhood, between 1 and 4 years old. Signs that the child’s development is different, slowed, plateaued, or even regressing begin to appear. These include lack of eye contact, hyper-focus on one or a few interests to the exclusion of everything else, lack of interest in socializing with family or other children, failure to acquire language skills as appropriate for their age, lack of facial expressions or interest in faces, and other signs.
Few Medical Studies Examine the Overlap Between Narcissism & Autism
While it is possible that someone with autism may also have narcissistic personality disorder, the assumed overlap may be more of a symptom correlation than a relationship between the conditions. A medical study reported that neurotypical individuals with narcissism have a tendency to self-enhance, or have a grandiose view of themselves without thinking of others, and this is a core symptom of the disorder.
In contrast, people who have milder autism symptoms tend to:
- Overcompensate for feeling inadequate, especially in social situations. Struggles to understand social interactions may lead others to perceive them as arrogant or egotistical.
- Have trouble acknowledging that they made a mistake and are hypersensitive to criticism. At the same time, they may be overly critical of others.
- Have an inability to play or interact with others as children. This asserts itself in attempts to dominate or control the situation, which can continue into adulthood without diagnosis and behavioral therapy.
In contrast, people with narcissistic personality disorder are characterized as having a poor sense of self, but this does not involve anxiety around socializing.
The developmental ages at which these conditions are diagnosed are important. Autism is more often diagnosed in young children, although adolescents and adults may have mild enough symptoms that they are not diagnosed for years. On the other hand, narcissism does not change early childhood development; it appears later in life.
Support Groups for Loved Ones of People on the Autism Spectrum or With NPD
It is possible that narcissistic and autistic traits are related genetically, so they may be passed down through families. Some anecdotal evidence from clinicians notes that children with autism rarely have parents with autism, but one parent may display more narcissistic traits. However, there is currently very little research on potential overlap between autism and narcissism. The links are anecdotal.
Autistic children benefit from being diagnosed by a pediatrician as early as possible and then getting prompt and intensive help from a behavior therapist. People with narcissistic personality disorder also benefit from behavioral therapy, but their diagnosis will come much later in life.
Support groups for family and friends of people either with autism or narcissistic personality disorder can help you understand your loved one’s condition and cope with stress. Here are some support group or therapy search options:
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a help page, so you can find mental health, behavioral, and other types of therapy near your city. Therapists may specialize in helping family members of those with autism or NPD.
- Autism Speaks offers a resource page listing support groups for parents, siblings, and friends who have a loved one with autism.
- Psychology Today provides a search page to help you find a narcissism support group near you.
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