Are introverts on the autistic spectrum?

I haven’t blogged on psychology so far – it’s not a subject I know much about, academically at least.  But this blog by Sophia Dembling in Psychology Today (thanks to Nic Prigg @nicola_prigg on Twitter) has really set me thinking.

Ms Dembling highlights a recent suggestion by a young research, Jennifer Grimes on introversion.  Instead of thinking about it as part of a spectrum with introversion at one end and extroversion at the other, might these not be entirely separate characteristics?  Instead try thinking about introversion on an autistic spectrum – with autism at one end, introversion at the other, and Asperger’s syndrome somewhere in between.  That’s not to suggest that introversion is a disability, as autism can be, but as a more helpful way of thinking about both it and autism.  It also opens the door to thinking about people who are both extroverted and introverted at the same time.

This carries me way of my depth.  I am familiar with autism in theory, but I don’t now any people with more than mild personality characteristics that I would describe in that way.  But I do know what it’s like to be an introvert – as I am a rather extreme version myself.  This comes out of the various psychometric tests I have taken, as well as a life time of personal observation.  I am very shy, introspective and do like to spend periods of time alone to collect myself.  I also spend a lot less time than most grooming social and family contacts – which means that I have a smaller close social circle than most.

But I can do empathy – and rather well.  In the organisations I have worked with I often take up the role of reconciler and peacemaker, seeing both sides to a dispute.  I usually read between the lines quite well, leading to an ironical sense of humour.  My friendships are stable and long-lasting, and only wither if I don’t devote enough time to them (which unfortunately happens quite a lot).  I can do politics – rather well when I put effort into it.  This is all somewhat opposite to how I’ve understood autism.  I would say the same for other introverts I know too.

So my first reaction is to think Ms Grimes is barking up the wrong tree.  But then perhaps that’s what she means by a spectrum – I’m not autistic, but share characteristics with those that are.  It has certainly set me thinking.  Perhaps a lot of my empathising skills are learned rather than innate? It would explain flashes of extrovert behaviour when my inhibitions are overcome (very rare).  And I do sometimes miss things in social situations too.  Which is no doubt what the what a lot of this is  about – trying to think of old problems in new ways.

The other thing that strikes from this article is how difficult psychology is as an academic discipline.  You are chasing shadows the whole time.  We can’t physically see what is going on in our minds, and be sure what is generating the same symptoms in different people has the same cause.  There is little that objective analysis can grasp on.  But we know the subject is important – a better understanding of the mind is critical to the well-being of us as individuals, and of society as a whole.


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