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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.

Dawn Prince-Hughes Quotes

Dawn Prince-Hughes is an autistic anthropologist, primatologist, and ethnologist. She is an adjunct professor at Western Washington University.

Here are some quotes from “An Exceptional Path: An Ethnographic Narrative Reflecting on Autistic Parenthood from Evolutionary, Cultural, and Spiritual Perspectives” in Ethos, Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology.

To read the entire article, check out:

On being incredibly sensitive:

“Since I can remember — and that is from my own beginning — I have been pierced and pained by the intensity of life. There were many times as a child I believed I would crumble in on myself, my emotional skeleton finally eaten away by the screaming and clutching of a modern society that dissolved me. ‘Normal life’, other people call it.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

“I would sit at my desk at school or on the steps of my house and feel the eating away on the inside of me and the growing pressure outside — on my skin, my eyes, my ears — and I would wonder if I would just disappear. I was sure it could happen and I would cry. I felt as though I was made of stone and pain, as if my frame was a crying fossil…”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

On autism as hyper-connectedness:

“I don’t have a good sense of where I start and end and where the things around me have boundaries. I am always a living part of a living world. I inhabit this living world with everything feeling like an extension of myself, and with myself as an extension of all around me.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

“My struggles with school and its reflection as a training ground for disconnection started early in my life. From the din and pain of kindergarten to the time I quit high school and was then homeless for many years. People would tell me I ‘wasn’t cut out’ for school and normal life and now I know it was because I wasn’t cut out at all. I was just connected. I invoke these particular memories here to begin to reflect on how that connectedness, and antidote to all the cutting and dismembering we are taught through formal education, eventually led to my being an anthropologist, a person, a mother without seams.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

“We are all strange and broken and beautiful in our own ways. We are each so afraid of disconnection and yet it can’t be easily escaped; some say it is an inevitable state of being and, perhaps, the price of consciousness. That fact makes our connections to other living things all the more important to cultivate. There is beauty in our difference and also beauty in our sameness: sameness with other animals, sameness with one another. We feel the loss of so many things: falling forests, disappearing animals, the loss of each other as we move far and fast in our culture.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

“I think back to our original ancestors. If they were, as I believe, like me in their way of being, their needs were simple after the eating and drinking: to be loved, to be appreciated for their special abilities, to want to leave something meaningful behind them.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

On the deficit model of autism and autism being a disability only in a particular context:

“Knowing that there is much illusion in the world I feel sure that my way of being is only a disability of context, that what have been labeled symptoms of autism in the context of my culture are inherited gifts of insight and action.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

“I knew I would be honest when [my son] asked questions, that I would make sure there were no final answers to anything, and because being broken is, to a large degree, dependent on context, I would protect him from the elements of this culture that would wound him wrongly.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

On motherhood as an autistic mother:

“At times, though, the prospect of being a modern mother would overtake me. Soon before my son was born my fears about being a different kind of mother came back to me. Surrounded as I was by the same culture that had always pointed out my potential failings as a single entity, I now saw evidence everywhere that motherhood in the material and disconnected world was something every mother needed guidance to survive.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

“Even more for [autistic] mothers like me than those of the ‘normal’ [neurotypical] type, there are very frightening pitfalls; for example, the kind of wild sensitivity autism can bring to the surface at K-Mart is like unto an elemental force. Discomfort and bewilderment in certain settings like that can engulf people like me with such ferocity that people who don’t understand its effects might well believe they are dealing with some escaped animal.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

On being an autistic mother to an autistic son:

“The way [my son] is connected has been as terrible a thing as it has been wondrous. When he was trying to save a spider at the library when he was in kindergarten, urging it to climb onto his hand to put it outside, some teenage boys came over and killed it. … He cried for days about the death of the spider and his helplessness to save it. A year later … when I came out to see what he was doing, he proudly showed me that he was escorting baby spiders, the size of pinpoints, over to the bush one by one so that they could find a better place to live. He was still whole.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

“Late in kindergarten, though, he came home from school crying because he was different. Through his tears he told me that he cares about things the other kids don’t care about.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

“I had hoped that the beauty I have shown him about his difference would carry him through … It soon became clear, though, that he was learning, through the flooding of his senses, in a time and place too loud and bright and complicated, that human people can be dangerous. Even though I explained to him that they are also wondrous and beautiful, I can’t argue with what he was beginning to understand.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

“Unfortunately, the chief danger and distance he was learning is that people can tell you that what you are isn’t what you should be. I knew that the children at school were teasing him for talking to plants and bugs an rocks. His teacher told us he had a learning disability and had some attention deficit problems. He was starting to not be able to sleep at night and had anxiety attacks. Where he had always been an easy child he started to throw himself to the floor and scream over the smallest challenges. He started to be unable to go to restaurants because the lights hurt his eyes and the normal noise of conversation hurt his ears … He developed strict routines and would fall apart if something unexpected happened. He started to develop tics. He was becoming contextually autistic.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

“I have home schooled him for the last three years and he is bright and flourishing. He is contextually open and interested in the world and the people close to him, his family and friends that mirror his gifts and help him make meaningful sense of being a human person … Where he had started to be self-conscious of his connection to all the things around him, he now once more takes me by the hand to share the world.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes

“Now that my son is nine, we share our sense of wonder that we should be a part of so much. We will be walking and see a leaf fall from a tree. ‘I felt that like it slipped off my finger and slipped down my spine to the roots of my feet,’ I will tell him. His hand in mine he’ll smile and nod.”

Dawn Prince-Hughes