Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Introversion and Autism

I’ve been reading some interesting books lately, on introverted people. Introverts have long had a ‘bad press’, it seems this goes back to when Freud (himself an extrovert) had an argument with Jung and Adler, two other (introvert) psychiatrists, and from then on depicted introversion as a negative, unhealthy trait, associated with narcissism and/or rejection of the world. Introversion has been seen in pathological terms ever since, especially in Western culture. The outgoing, gregarious, extrovert type is still often seen as the type to aspire to, and parents sometimes pressure their children to fit this model. That extroverts outnumber introverts about three to one doesn’t help either.

But introversion is far better understood than it once was. It’s now known to be not a matter of neurosis, but an inborn temperament, decided by the response to stimuli taking different pathways in the brain. These paths are now being mapped, and the strengths and benefits of introversion are becoming better accepted.

Whether you’re introvert or extrovert isn’t about whether you like other people or not, or how socially skilled you are. Introverts are sensitive to over-stimulation, feel drained by crowds and lots of noise, and need to be somewhere quiet and alone in order to recharge their ‘batteries’. They’ll also go inwards to sort out any problems or stresses they have, and have a rich inner life, though it often won’t show on the surface. They think long and deeply about all manner of things, though this may not be obvious, and they’re often seen as shy or unfriendly, or even unintelligent. Introverts don’t typically dislike people, but they may restrict who with and how they mix, and are usually content with having just one or two good friends.

Extroverts, on the other hand, are energised by social contact and lots of external stimulation. They like to meet and get to know lots of people, and often have a wide circle of friends. They need sensation and external input to recharge, “like solar panels”1 as one author puts it, and can feel lonely and under-stimulated without it. When they have a problem, they typically prefer to talk it over with someone else, and like to ‘know a little about a lot’, their strength being breadth rather than depth.

It’s said that you can tell the extrovert from the introvert not by how they behave at a party - introverts can get quite skilled at presenting a good front - but by what they say when they leave. An introvert will say “Whew! Time to go home and rest.” An extrovert will say “That was fun! What shall we do next?”

I have known for some time that I am a thorough introvert. On the Briggs-Meyer personality test, for example, I’m an INFJ. Plus I fit the classic description of introverts as described in these books. I’ve experienced a lot of flak for this – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been underestimated, misunderstood and misjudged. I’ve often been scolded for being ‘anti-social’, ‘shy’, ‘snobbish’, or accused of ‘sulking’ when I withdrew. Or it would be suggested that the answer to my problems (any problem!) was that I ‘should talk to people more’ or ‘stop hiding away’. My need for solitude has been seen as pathological, an unhealthy thing. As a result, I’ve sometimes forced myself to socialise till I’m about ready to drop from exhaustion, and seen myself as ‘lesser than’, because I couldn’t be like other people.

So does being autistic automatically mean being an introvert? It’s true, we often have a need to withdraw from the world, at least temporarily, due to sensory overload or social challenges, and many of us would probably identify as introverted, on the basis of the descriptions I’ve read. And the extrovert description fits many NTs like a glove – the love of talk and chatter, the throwing themselves into partying, the tendency to ‘sample’ conversations, topics and knowledge like a smorgasbord, or the ability to cope with far more stimulation than any autie could ever handle.

But the introvert/extrovert axis cuts through gender, race, age, nationality and just about every other category you can think of, and could possibly cut through the neurotype boundary too. So theoretically, there could be some, perhaps many, extroverted autistics2. (Plus of course there are definitely many NTs who are introverts, or these books would never have been written!)

So what might an extrovert autistic look like?

I’m thinking here of the autie who tends to charge into groups, loves to be around people and get to know them, and who, especially when young, can sometimes come across rather like a super-friendly, bouncy puppy, all eagerness but no finesse! Autistic extroverts may get their social ‘refueling’ from being with people they trust and have something in common with, rather than simply ‘the world at large’ – this could be their family, other auties, their church or other religious group, a group who shares their special interest, or something similar.

It’s possible at least some of these extrovert auties, if knocked back too many times, might end up rather bitter and disappointed and negative about the world (as do many of us), and retreat from it. But their basic personality trait would be unchanged, and so they might suffer from ‘energy withdrawal’, if they can’t find a congenial group of people to be around. So these auties might conceivably be in a worse state than more introverted ones, who are able to recharge through being alone.

It’s worth remembering too, that few people are extremely one or the other, so you might have some introvert traits, and some extrovert ones. One of the books even postulates a category called ‘centroverts’ or ‘ambiverts’, who fall pretty much in the middle. These people are able to understand both introverts and extroverts better than each type will understand the other, and can provide some much-needed balance and even mediation between them.

The big thing is to understand that one type isn’t better or worse than the other, and that the world needs all sorts. Whether NT, autistic, or a halfway ‘cousin’, an introvert, extrovert or centrovert – we all have something to contribute to the world, and the right to be whatever we are, and have that true self be accepted.

1 pg 20, Laney, Marti Olsen; The Introvert Advantage, Workman Publishing, New York, 2002.
2 One word of caution if you decide to read more on this subject – the writings are not really autism-friendly. One book for instance, on introversion in children, discusses how some confuse introversion with symptoms of autism. The author warns against “pathologising” introvert children - the unspoken subtext being “…but it’s okay to pathologise autistic kids, because they’re really weird.” She also reiterates the misunderstanding that autistics “aren’t interested in other people”. So get what you can out of it, and realise that not all of it will apply to you, whether introvert or extrovert.