As a therapist working with people affected by someone else’s personality condition, I’m often asked the question, “How do I know if my partner is a narcissist or if they have Asperger’s?” This is an interesting question. I did some research in order to give justice to this topic.
For one thing, both are on a spectrum. Narcissism is a personality condition that ranges from mild to severe. In the most severe instances, the person demonstrates sociopathic tendencies or antisocial personality.
Autism also resides on a spectrum. It is a neurologically caused developmental condition. Prior to 2012, people with mild symptoms, considered “high functioning,” were identified as having Asperger’s syndrome. With the publication of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), this label disappeared, replaced by autism spectrum.
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.
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).
Here is a table depicting some of the similarities and differences between the two conditions. Can you see your loved one’s symptoms in either column? Could it be your loved one displays symptoms of both?
|High-Functioning Autism (Asperger’s)||Narcissism|
|Does not understand social interaction||Manipulative|
|Does not do 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 damage they cause even though they can be hurtful and selfish||Hurts other people’s feelings and doesn’t care|
|Lacks empathy, 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|
If Someone You Care About Is on the Autism Spectrum
If you are in a relationship with a person on the autism spectrum, it is helpful to know how to take care of yourself. Here are some tips:
- Be in the right “head space.”
- Take charge of your own life. It is helpful to be flexible and adaptable.
- Understand you have to do things on your own. Your partner will probably not be able to do the things that are important to you—at least not in a satisfying manner. Rather than getting upset by this, I recommend practicing acceptance. It is liberating to understand the situation and adjust yourself accordingly rather than expecting the situation to adjust to you.
- Realize you can teach a person on the autism spectrum how to be different. This will require patience and perseverance. Do not be satisfied with the status quo; instead, get in there and help your loved one learn how to relate to you in a healthy way.
- Recognize that if your partner hurts you, it is not intentional. Don’t take it personally and don’t be surprised. They do not do this to be controlling, feed their ego, or fulfill a personal need for superiority.
- Research and study autism and learn what you can to have compassion for your partner.
If Someone You Care About Has a Personality Condition
If you are with a person with a personality condition such as narcissism, then you may have similar unfulfilled relationship issues, as well as the added bonus of emotional abuse. Following are some suggestions for coping with this type of relationship:
- Observe the person’s behavior, don’t absorb it.
- Understand that people with narcissism do not cooperate or collaborate well; you will have to learn to be independent in this type of relationship.
- Do not expect the person to ever have empathy or compassion for you.
- Develop healthy, happy connections within other relationships. Don’t expect them in your relationship with the person with narcissism.
- Recognize that your partner may derive pleasure from hurting you. Why may be difficult to understand. Study the concept of “narcissistic supply” and you will discover that people with narcissism are “fed” by the reactions they get. It may help the person feel in control, superior, or powerful.
- Realize you may not be able to teach a person with narcissism how to be different. No matter how much patience and perseverance you have, you may discover nothing works to change the other person. You can only change yourself.
- Research and study personality conditions and learn to have compassion for yourself.
- Goulston, M. (2011, November 17). Just listen – Don’t confuse a narcissist with Asperger’s syndrome. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-goulston-md/just-listen—dont-confus_b_316169.html
- Kellevision, (2015, August 6). Psychopaths, autism, empathy, and mirror neurons. Retrieved from http://www.kellevision.com/kellevision/2015/08/psychopaths-empathy-and-mirror-neurons.html
- Oberman, K., & Ramachandan, V. (2007, June 1). Broken mirrors: A theory of autism. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/broken-mirrors-a-theory-of-autism-2007-06
- University of California, San Diego. (2005, April 18). Autism linked to mirror neuron dysfunction. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/04/050411204511.htm
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