The difference between Narcissism and Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
It’s a question that I am often asked, “Is my partner a narcissist or does he/she have autism?” There are some similarities between the two, namely a lack of empathy but this isn’t always the case. Narcissists tend to be very selfish and their behavior and focus is driven by what’s in it for them. If doing something will make them look good then they will usually want a piece of the action. They can also be very arrogant, acting as if the standard rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them.
How narcissists behave compared to those on the autistic spectrum
Narcissists tend to think highly of themselves but this hides deep insecurity. They really fear being found out as not being good enough and they counteract this dreaded possibility by acting haughty and superior. They are also highly manipulative and see people as objects to be used to meet their needs. Narcissists are incredibly selfish and will always put their needs before others. In the most severe cases, a narcissistic individual exhibits sociopathic tendencies or behaviour congruent with antisocial personality.
Their biggest fear is being seen as a loser and they do everything they can to appear successful by boasting about their exploits as well as by surrounding themselves with beautiful or wealthy people. They see this external success as validation. If beautiful and wealthy people will associate with them, that must mean they are wonderful and successful. They will often exaggerate their accomplishments or embellish stories to sound more competent and clever than they really are. Their levels of grandiosity know no bounds.
An emotionally neglectful childhood, involving parents who did not empathize, may result in narcissistic traits in adulthood. It has been suggested that this occurs because of under-utilized mirror neurons in childhood, which leads to dysfunctional mirror neurons in adulthood (Kellevision, 2015).
The common trait of narcissists and individuals with autism
They share a common trait with people on the autistic spectrum, and that is often a lack of empathy (there are exceptions). They just cannot figure out the emotions of others. A narcissist will behave in atrocious ways, from being unfaithful to telling you that you can’t do something when they have engaged in that very behaviour. Narcissists are huge hypocrites and they lack the empathy to understand how they make others feel when they are selfish and don’t really care. They have far more important things to do – like focus on themselves.
There is evidence, however that there is a difference between neurotypical people and those living with autism, and males and females in measures of theory of mind or cognitive empathy. However, big conclusions have been drawn based on these differences. Alternatively, other models have shifted the focus away from cognitive empathy and propose that children with autism have overwhelming emotional empathy and thus find it difficult to interact with others; these models are “empathy imbalance” and “intense world” (Smith, 2009).
Research suggests that the reason people with autism may find the social world challenging is more due to the fact that it may be overwhelming to those on the spectrum rather than the previous theory of the social world failing to engage them.
Autistic individuals on the spectrum
Individuals with autism lack empathy for different reasons. They are not self-absorbed or selfish but the wiring in their brain renders it almost impossible for an autistic individual to relate to emotions. It’s not that autistic people lack empathy. Rather, their different neurotypes and experiences may make it harder for non-autisic people to understand them—and vice versa.
Emma Goodall, PhD, has extensive knowledge on autism and experience in the field. Goodall has a diagnosis of Asperger’s, worked for the Ministry of Education and as a resource teacher of learning and behavior (RTLB), and set up an autism and Asperger’s consultancy. In her book Understanding and Facilitating the Achievement of Autistic Potential she discloses her own personal experiences of empathy.
She highlights that the expression of emotions in those with autism is atypical rather than non-existent and typically developing people may misread the emotions. There tends to be less expressive face movement and different body language but in fact, the emotions are felt rather intensely (Smith, 2009).
This intense experience coupled with atypical expression has resulted in others suggesting those with autism do not understand the feelings of others. In fact, another explanation may be that neurotypical developing people may not understand the feelings of those with autism.
Since mirror neurons are part of the brain’s social interaction system—involved with social cues, imitation, empathy, and the ability to decode intentions of others—some scientists have found that people on the autism spectrum have a dysfunctional mirror neuron system (University of California, San Diego, 2005). It appears mirror neurons also play a role in personality condition-related issues.
A comparison of the two disorders:
|High-Functioning Autism (Asperger’s)||Narcissism|
|Does not understand social interaction||Manipulative|
|Does not do the silent treatment||Uses silent treatment as a weapon|
|You can say no||May punish you if you say no|
|Does not do guilt trips||Uses guilt trips as a manipulative tool|
|Does not sit on the “pity pot”||Feels sorry for themselves and envious of others’ successes|
|Clueless about the damage they cause even though they can be hurtful and selfish||Hurts other people’s feelings and doesn’t care|
|May appear to lack empathy due to misunderstanding social norms, but is not malicious||Lacks empathy, and may be malicious|
|Lacks intuition||Has intuition and uses it to get narcissistic supply|
|Not connected to their feelings||Hyper-connected to their feelings|
|Tends to be one-dimensional||Tends to flip into different modes or personalities (Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde)|
|Does not blame others||Tends to blame others|
|Wants a playbook (structure and predictability)||Wants chaos and control|
|Triggered by lack of familiarity||Triggered by ego threats|
|On a spectrum from low functioning to high functioning||On a spectrum from “normal”-range behavior to psychopathy/antisocial personality|
|May not be sensitive||Insensitive|
An individual with autism has no malice, they just don’t pick up on things that a neurotypical person would. A narcissist on the other hand can be cruel and project their inner unhappiness onto someone else in order to feel better about themselves.
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist their behaviour is likely designed to hurt or belittle you. They like to break down their partner’s confidence as a form of subtle control. When they are insensitive and cruel, there is intent. For someone on the spectrum, they will behave in a certain way due to their innate physiology. They truly don’t mean to hurt you but they cannot foresee how what they do will hurt others.
As you can see the two can be quite different. You have every right to be angry at a narcissist but someone with autism does not have the same mean intentions and it’s not about you or a lack of love. If a narcissist is treating you badly, it is most likely a sign of negative emotional projection and isn’t innocent at all.
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you can take their behavior personally but with an autistic partner, it’s best to understand the bigger picture and gain an understanding of their emotional decoding deficits.
Partners with both narcissism and autism
It is possible to be with someone who is both narcissistic and autistic although they would most likely be a very high functioning autistic person. They may do incredibly insensitive things that could be related to their being on the spectrum (eg. like sending you a picture of them hugging a gorgeous person of the opposite sex – could be narcissism or ASD) but will also display very self-serving behaviour and try to belittle you. An individual with autism will not project this negativity onto you and rarely will they go out of their way to make you feel bad about yourself – it’s just not how they operate.
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, look for malicious behaviour. If your narcissistic partner also says things that would upset most people and does this in many different settings, (and seem genuinely puzzled at the negative outcome they receive) they might also be on the autistic spectrum. Narcissists with autism may not have many friends whereas a true narcissist tends to have many friends, although many of their relationships will be very shallow and possibly fleeting).
Please note that there are always exceptions to the rule. The above content explains the usual patterns and norms but of course you also find people on the spectrum with varying symptoms as well as narcissists who are unique in their presentations.
This is a tricky combination as you will find it more difficult to differentiate between behaviour that has malicious intent or behaviour that is due to atypical neural pathways. Either way, it may be useful to engage in therapy to find the best ways to manage with the tricky dynamics that exist.