Is There An Autistic Personality? Part II

In which I continue my unscientific search for common features of the autistic personality.

In Part I of this series, I noted several discordances between autistic characteristics, as I see them, and standard personality types. I believe these will prove to be the keys to understanding (hey, wait, don’t keys “unlock”? – add that to the list – literalmindedness!) how an autistic person (especially an adult) might be identified in a reliable fashion.

As so often happens with speculations such as the one I recently made, “Is There An Autistic Personality?” I have discovered that things are not as simple as I had hoped. I do believe I am on the right track, and I will keep pondering this question.

What I have determined, however, is that if there is, as I believe, a personality style that is a tell-tale sign that a person is autistic, it will not be based on the “Emotional Style” described in the fascinating book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, by Richard Davidson with Sharon Begley, Hudson Street Press, 2012.

I will tell you why, and I will tell you more about this book, which offers much insight into how the human brain creates and processes emotions.

As I delved into the details of the book’s description of the six dimensions of emotional style, I ranked myself with some fun questionnaires provided by the author. As I did so, I thought about other people I know, both autistic and not, and how they might fall along the continua that were presented.

My conclusion is that, as with many other characteristics, autistic people probably have just as much variability as do neurotypicals. The quizzes were designed to produce a number between 1 and 10, and here is how I rated myself (I am fully aware the results might have been influenced by how I want to be, but I did do my best to be objective!).

  • Resilience: 6 – slightly slow to recover
  • Outlook: 8 – mostly positive
  • Social Intuition: 10 – extremely intuitive
  • Self-Awareness: 9 – highly self-aware
  • Sensitivity to Context: 9 – highly tuned-in
  • Attention: 4 – slightly unfocused

I believe these rankings are fairly accurate (I would be interested in the reaction of people who know me well!). Yet, there is nothing here that screams “This is an autisitic person!” In part, this may be because I have worked hard over the years to change some of these dimensions, and probably I have succeeded. As one of the commentators on my previous post, Lucy MB, pointed out, one could get very different rankings by transporting oneself back in time.

The author of this system is quick to point out that none of these characteristics is good or bad in and of itself. “Only if your Emotional Style interferes with your daily life and constrains your happiness, only if it prevents you from reaching your goals or causes you distress, should you consider making an effort to change it.” [page 12] He also adds that “Civilization couldn’t flourish without different emotional types, including the extremes – we need all types.” [page 11]

And, one of the major points of the book is that we can change our brains. The author cites [page 10] a study conducted by Alvaro Pascual-Leone of Harvard University, to support his contention that “the amazing fact is that through mental activity alone we can change our own brains.” [page 11] This is fun for me because I know Alvaro, and have spent many hours in his TMS Lab in Boston, as a subject for studies done by his research associates.

To circle back to the connection with autism (if any), the author states [pp. 54-55] that “Self-Awareness … can be beneficial in several ways. It appears to play a crucial role in empathy…” and “High Self-Awareness can also extract a cost, however. Someone … who observes the pain of another will feel that person’s anxiety or sadness in both mind and body…

I know that I am a highly empathic person, and most autistic people whom I have asked about empathy feel that they share that characteristic. Speaking for myself, and supported by others who agree with me, I believe that the myth that autistic people are not empathic arises from the observations of others who see us responding with little or no outward emotion. What in fact happens is that when we see another person, or a non-human animal, in distress, we are so overwhelmed by emotion that we shut down emotionally so as not to experience the pain.

I oversimplify, of course, because there are other aspects of the dynamic, including our own experience of what happens if we express our emotional distress. More likely than not, we were told that what we did was wrong. So, we may choose, if only intuitively, to avoid any reaction so as not to be scolded or punished for it.

Empathy: a topic for another day!

Part III: On Beyond Brain Plasticity

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