What Is The Difference Between Autism And Narcissism?

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Many people wonder exactly what is the difference between someone who is autistic and someone who has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). There are some overlapping symptoms, particularly with someone who has autism but is high functioning versus someone with NPD. Those high-functioning autistic people used to be said to have Asperger’s syndrome, but that label has been replaced with the term autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These are the people who might exhibit similar symptoms to someone with narcissism. 

While people with autism can exhibit similar symptoms to someone with narcissism, there are major differences between the two problems. Narcissism is a personality disorder and autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. The root cause differences result in important distinctions in symptomatology. 

Understanding the differences for each disorder and how that affects the expression of the symptoms, and perhaps more importantly, the reasons behind those symptoms is vital for helping a loved one. You’ll want to know what each condition looks like, how it can affect someone you love, and how these two problems can overlap so you can help your loved one heal. 

What is Autism? 

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes problems with a person’s nervous system and affects their ability to communicate and interact in social settings. The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) describes the condition as a developmental disability. 

The United Kingdom’s National Health System (NHS) says that autism is not an illness or disease; rather it is a condition that causes your brain to work in a different way as compared to the brains of other people. They do, however, note that people who are autistic need support or help with certain things. 

Autism is known to exist on a spectrum. Some people with the condition will need daily care and help performing most activities while others are high-functioning and need little support. Those in the latter category are people who used to be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. That label disappeared after 2012 and was replaced with autism spectrum disorder. 

What Causes Autism? 

What Causes Autism

Scientists don’t actually know the exact causes of ASD; however, they do know that there are likely many factors that play a role in the cause of the multiple types of the disorder. Some of these are environmental, some are biological, and there are definitely genetic factors involved. 

Those people who have siblings with ASD are at a higher risk of having the disorder themselves. It’s also true that some genetic conditions like fragile X syndrome, predispose a person to a higher risk of developing ASD. 

There are also certain prescription drugs that if taken during pregnancy can put the fetus at higher risk of having ASD. Among these are valproic acid and thalidomide, the latter of which is also implicated in severe birth defects when taken during pregnancy. 

It is also true that the critical times for developing ASD are before, during, or immediately after birth. The latter two suggest environmental factors play a role. Additionally, children born to parents who are older are at greater risk for the disorder. 

It’s also important to note that scientists are certain about what does not cause autism. They know that autism is not caused by vaccines, bad parenting, and diet. They also understand it is not an infection that can be spread to other people. 

What are the Symptoms of Autism?

As noted, the disorder occurs on a spectrum so autistic individuals may show a wide range in the degree and severity of symptoms. Symptoms include: 

  • Difficulty relating to other people to the extreme of having no interest whatsoever in other people;
  • Avoidance of eye contact;
  • The desire to be alone;
  • Difficulty understanding the feelings of other people; 
  • Difficulty talking about their own feelings;
  • Desire to avoid physical contact, particularly that which they don’t initiate;
  • Seemingly unaware that someone is talking to them even though they respond to other sounds;
  • Difficulty communicating with and relating to other people;
  • Repeating or echoing words or phrases spoken by someone else or using those words and phrases in place of normal language;
  • Difficulty expressing needs with typical words or motions;
  • Repetitive actions;
  • Difficulty adapting to changes in routine;
  • Unusual reactions to smells, tastes, looks, feels, or sounds;
  • Loss of skills they used to have;
  • Can’t point to objects they are interested in;
  • Won’t look at objects someone else is pointing at. 

You might notice that some of these symptoms appear similar to symptoms of narcissism. For example, narcissists are often uninterested in what other people are saying, they definitely have difficulty communicating with and relating to other people, and they often punish someone with whom they are angry by ignoring them. 

The difference between these symptoms and narcissism, however, lies in the reasons behind the behavior. The autistic individual has difficulty communicating and interacting in social situations because their brain works in a different way. The reason for a narcissist’s behavior is much different. Let’s examine the causes and symptoms of NPD. 

What is Narcissism? 

Narcissism is a personality disorder. This means that it is a way of thinking, behaving, and feeling that is at odds with the expectations of a person’s culture. Because it deviates from the norm, it causes individuals distress, and they have problems functioning within their own culture. 

Narcissism, like autism, is also something that lasts for a long period of time, usually the entire lifetime of the individual affected by the disorder. Like autism, narcissism can’t necessarily be cured, but it can be helped. Narcissistic individuals can learn techniques and coping skills to help them reduce their narcissistic behaviors. 

What Causes Narcissism?

What Causes Narcissism

This is one area where narcissism differs dramatically from autism. While there may be some genetic factors that come into play in the development of narcissism, it is largely caused by some kind of extreme deviation from normal parenting. 

Narcissism can result from abusive or neglectful parenting, but it can also result from overly pampering your child. In both cases, the parents don’t see the child as an independent being who has certain basic needs and rights. Instead, they see the child as an extension of themselves and reflective of their abilities as a parent. 

For that reason, they control and manipulate the child into doing and saying exactly what they want. They don’t let the child become their own person. Because of that, the child is unable to develop a healthy sense of self, which is better known as the ego. This doesn’t refer to someone who is egotistical or vain, but someone who has a healthy ego which helps them internally maintain their self-esteem and set appropriate boundaries so other people don’t abuse them. 

Since the narcissist never develops that healthy ego, they are unable to value themselves or set or respect boundaries. To compensate, they construct a false self that they then use to interact with the world around them. But because this false self is unable to perform the healthy duties of a real ego, the narcissist needs the people around them to feed them admiration and adoration to prop up their self-esteem. 

How Do the Symptoms of Narcissism Differ from Those of Autism?

Most people with severe ASD are readily distinguishable from narcissists. They are very low-functioning who require considerable assistance in their daily lives. People with high-functioning autism — previously known as Asperger’s syndrome — can seem very similar to narcissists, but the difference in their symptoms is often the reason behind their behavior. 

Autistic people, for example, simply don’t understand social interaction whereas the narcissist understands and is trying to manipulate the people around them.  The person with autism can be hurtful and even selfish, but they’re simply not aware of the damage that can cause. The narcissist purposefully hurts other people and they don’t care. 

The autistic person may lack empathy because they don’t understand other people, but they’re not malicious in ignoring the needs of others. The narcissist lacks empathy and is malicious about it. The person with ASD lacks intuition whereas the narcissist uses their intuition as a tool for securing their narcissistic supply. 

Autistic people also tend to be one-dimensional and consistent in their personality. Narcissists flip between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routinely. Narcissists blame other people for their problems and create chaos out of which they seek to gain control. The autistic individual doesn’t blame others and wants a structured, predictable environment. 

You can say no to an autistic person and you won’t get the silent treatment or a guilt trip. That’s not the case with the narcissist. They punish you for saying now, use the silent treatment as a weapon, and will try to manipulate you with guilt. 

Whereas people with ASD are not sensitive meaning they simply aren’t able to perceive your feelings because they are not connected to their own feelings, narcissists are insensitive meaning they perceive your feelings — and their own — and purposefully ignore or hurt them. 

Final Thoughts

Though narcissism and autism can exhibit similar symptoms, that is only the way those symptoms appear outwardly. The reasons behind them are vastly different between the two conditions. Moreover, the root causes are also very different, and that’s why it’s vital to distinguish between the two if the affected individual is interested in receiving treatment. 

Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between autism and narcissism, you’ll like this article which will help you understand how to tell the difference between different personality disorders. There are several comorbidities that have symptoms that overlap with narcissism. 


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Narcissistic abuse takes a terrible toll on your life. I’m Patricia, and my mother is a narcissist, so I know what you’re going through. These blog posts will help you understand narcissism better and give you tips for dealing with the narcissists in your life. Healing starts here!

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