Narcissism or Asperger’s? How to Tell the Difference

Young person with shoulder-length hair lies on stomach in park using laptop computerAs 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
Not sensitive Insensitive

 

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.

References:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sharie Stines, PsyD, therapist in La Mirada, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 14 comments
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  • Glenn

    Glenn

    November 14th, 2017 at 6:47 AM

    Interesting question for sure. I love the comparative chart that you have listed above because looking at that you really do notice the big differences between the two; whereas if you are just looking at someone with their surface behaviors, you might think that they are one and the same. This is a great tool for breaking those similarities down and seeing where the real differences are.

  • Lynne

    Lynne

    March 15th, 2018 at 7:32 AM

    Yes I agree. Putting the list side by side made it easier to compare. Big thanks for that. I was a slow learner as far as see my hubby as a narcissist. Looking back the signs were there to be read. The internet wasn’t so easy 15 years ago so I did think it was me, being unwell added to my stress. Now I know for sure I’ve fibromyalgia and I’m dealing with it alone. I’m also 100% sure he’s a narcissist. So in recent years I’m stronger than ever and able to stand my ground. This brings out the worst in him ,but at least I’m no longer his whipping boy. I still get caught out from time to time but not often. I’ve a small group of friends so this support helps. Im family minded so it’s been difficult to put myself first ,but im learning. So good luck to anyone who’s in the same situation as myself. You need to free yourself and only you can do it. This doesn’t always mean divorce but you do have to develope self worth in spades.

  • Pryce

    Pryce

    November 14th, 2017 at 8:34 AM

    For the narcissist it is always about themselves and in a very selfish manner

  • Tatiana

    Tatiana

    November 15th, 2017 at 11:20 AM

    I feel like you wrote this just for me. I want to be able to do more observing and not inhaling and absorbing that behavior, but you can probably tell that this is of course what I do. I let the way that others treat me and respond around me dictate how I then think and feel about myself. I know that this is the wrong thing to do but it is a powerful thing that certain people have over me, and try as I might, it is a habit that I have yet to be successful breaking.

  • Elizabeth

    Elizabeth

    December 20th, 2017 at 8:43 AM

    What should we do if our loved one possesses traits of both? For example, my husband does understand social interaction, uses silent treatment and guilt to manipulate me, and I have learned that I can most definitely not say no. However, he’s very one-dimensional and not connected to his feelings. He’s clueless about the damage he causes. And then on the flip side again, he definitely sits on the pity pot and blames others.

  • Robin

    Robin

    March 14th, 2018 at 6:15 PM

    Elizabeth he is a narcissist, I lived with one for 38 years and he almost destroyed me and his family in the process of trying to be in control. It took me 18 months of visits to a psychologist before I could really step back and see what was happening, that’s how much he screwed with my brain. I have a 32 year old daughter who still lives with me and has high functioning autism, her personality is nothing like his was. His was all about him, him, him, her’s is more about where she belongs in this world and the bubble (as she calls it) she lives in and has to step out of to face what goes on in the rest of the world. He was a great one for untruths, it worries my daughter to not stick with the truth. Educate yourself on both afflictions, I found my final answer on a site called ‘First Wives World’ if I may add this here, it was like a weight lifted from my shoulders after reading the piece of information where someone else had suffered under a narcissist. I hope this helps a little to work out where your are at. Good luck but definitely question his actions in your own mind if you feel they are not right.

  • marie

    marie

    May 22nd, 2018 at 12:07 AM

    Can I please get a clarification here?
    Is the author advocating that partners of aspies should stay? I really struggle with this because codependents are urged to draw boundaries with people who do not meet their emotional needs. Clearly, aspies struggle with meeting the emotional needs of their partners. But what I’m getting here is we should be more understanding and more patient in dealing with aspie partners because their shortcomings actually point to a developmental disorder.

  • Jason

    Jason

    September 4th, 2018 at 9:50 PM

    It all depends on the person and those are on the autism spectrum are difficult to understand.
    Speaking from my own experience there is nothing I want more than to meet the needs of a partner and join with them spiritually. I haven’t had the courage to put myself back out there since an adult diagnosis because I want to get things right and don’t feel I’m ready. If you can sense this in a partner and you see enough of them to love them then it’s worth a try. Find out if he feels the way I do.

  • Mel

    Mel

    June 1st, 2018 at 2:29 AM

    I think you are barking up the wrong tree – your first mistake is to assume aspergers and high functioning autism are the same thing – THEY ARE NOT! And from that point you are going down the superficial hill that most people go down when they do not have the skill, experience or knowledge of autism.
    Bottom line? Narcissism IS high functioning autism where intervention has failed and been fooled by a child desperate to survive and appear ‘normal’ as they approach teens and social survival starts to become paramount. Narcissism is nothing more that a set of hooks for the unsupported autistic mind to function.

  • Sabrit

    Sabrit

    September 10th, 2018 at 6:06 PM

    “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.” Mel, how is your reading comprehension?

  • Isa

    Isa

    June 23rd, 2018 at 2:27 PM

    Very good, helpful article. Finally someone who understands and indicates the right direction to deal with it. Thank you.

  • Robin S

    Robin S

    June 24th, 2018 at 6:15 PM

    I really don’t believe the previous person is correct. As I said previously I have a daughter (unmarried) who has high functioning autism, I have another daughter who doesn’t have autism, but has two children with it. A daughter who was recently diagnosed in the same autism range as my unmarried daughter, and a son who is much lower on the spectrum and yet another daughter in that family who is normal. Why this happened no one has an answer. All these children DO NOT exhibit full blown narcissism as my ex partner did. I have read a lot about autism and still have a lot to read to try to understand it. Aspergers is now spoken of as high functioning autism and is not labeled as narcissism. Yes these two afflictions are both on the autism spectrum, but are somewhat different. Narcissism is about control and lack of empathy and the worst are psychopaths, whereas high functioning autism tends to display quite a high intelligence driven towards a single aspiration of what interests them the most. There have been and are many famous people on this list, look it up. Yes they may not realise that their emotions confuse the more normal people, but they do have a certain amount of empathy. If they don’t then they are definitely in the narcissistic range. I have included a link if I may that may help with some understanding of the situation. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/narcissism-vs-aspergers-how-can-i-tell-the-difference-1114174 . Research I have found has moved me forward in my understanding. But when researching have an open mind and don’t just research one article, there is a lot of rubbish on the internet, but there is also some very good information that can improve the knowledge of anything you want to learn about and especially the autism spectrum.

  • Freja

    Freja

    August 17th, 2018 at 4:42 AM

    I am so glad I am not the only one struggling with this ‘diagnosis dilemma’. I am a 47 yo woman who has recently realised she is autistic and currently seeking a diagnosis. Asperger’s is simply the term used to define high functioning autism – they are diferent only by degrees. It is my understanding that autism is a developmental / ‘brain wiring’ difference and narcissm is a personality disorder. Yes both types are ‘egocentric’ and lacking in empathy but it seems to me the motives and methods are almost completely opposite.

    I was born into what seems to me to be a family of narcs and was terribly bullied, abused and scapegoated both as a child and as an adult – in the end I had to cut contact with my whole family. I now realise this constant bashing I experienced was in part because I was such an easy target as an autistic person and also a constant thorn in their sides because 1. I can not lie or hide my thoughts, opinions or feelings – what you see is what you get. Narcs want to be adored and to maintain control; if they pissed me off, I would not be able to hide it OR let it go. 2. I am VERY easy to wind up, tease and upset which absolutely delights the more sadistic narc. 2. I do not understand manipulative behaviour and fall into the same traps over and over again, even with the same person. 3. I do not play head games or understand why people play them, I therefore frequently end up being ‘the loser’ in social situations. Because my family were nasty game players, I became more desperate to fit in and then easier to use and manipulate. 4. I do not accept any kind of social heirarchies – to me everyone is just a human being. I cannot be subordinate to anyone, not even to try and ‘fit in’ or to ‘climb the ladder’. Narcs are all about the power and putting poeple in their place – i.e. underneath them. If I do not ‘go to my basket’ willingly, then I ahve found that the verbal attacks would become more and more hostile until eventually I would be physically attacked. 5. While I absolutely LOVE being right and will happily crow about it when I am, I am actually more interested in finding THE TRUTH than in being right and I can readily admit to being wrong or making a mistake. My family will do ANYTHING to avoid being wrong and to pass the buck – something I also take umbridge with. 5. I am obsessed with fairness, transparency and understanding ‘the rules of play’. I cannot help but point out any inconsistencies or double standards and am unable to take them in my stride or let them go. I do not understand why people do not ‘play fair’ or how anyone could willing hurt or gain pleasure from deliberately hurting another human being.

    I found this article really helpful and clarifying but because of my own autism, I still find it incredibly difficult to distinguish other people’s motives, especially when they seem to frequently chop and change. I was convinced my husband is a narc and left him because of it. I ahd to return to him and now think he is in fact autistic but had a very narc mother and grandmother who he learned to relate from – in other words he plays by their rules because that is all he knows. (He had no father or siblings and was very isolated growing up.) I wonder if perhaps Aspies who grow up with Narcs can take on some on their traits because they mimic to try and fit in. Any thoughts?

  • Robin

    Robin

    August 21st, 2018 at 2:03 AM

    Hello Freja, I understand there are four levels of autism. Here is a link that gives quite a good explanation: autismspectrum.org.au/sites/default/files/Vic/The%20DSM%205%20Autism%20Spectrum%20Disorder%20criteria.pdf
    if I may add it to this reply.
    My daughter was diagnosed as Level 2, which describes her as socially unable to mix. This means being around people she doesn’t know causes her anxiety she can’t control, so to counteract this she retreats back into her safe place. She likens it to living in a bubble and when she steps out of that bubble and she can’t handle it, anxiety takes over. The anxiety she feels is not what normal people feel, where one can calm oneself to a certain degree. She experiences uncontrollable anxiety, apparently something that is unique and at different levels for those within the autism spectrum. When I read the report in the link, it certainly described her situation. I then went looking for more information so I could understand what I was dealing with better, and found the information about her bubble situation, explained in a different way, but meaning the same thing. This was a huge step for me in understanding how she felt. Life is much better now, I know not to expect her to do things straightaway, but to work up to them.
    I felt by explaining the above, it could help in knowing what level you’re on to know how to handle it. I found it very difficult to find someone that would diagnose adult autism. What prompted me, was that I have another daughter with three children, two recently diagnosed with autism. One 12 years and the other 6. I contacted her psychologist and asked if they tested adults. No, but was referred to another phone number. No again. So I did some ringing around different psychologist and was finally given the contact details of one that did. There was a wait to get in but in the end it has been well worth it. This is something perhaps to think about in trying to find a psychologist that will test adults, and what level you are on.
    Your life so far sound very much like you have been at the mercy of a number of narcissist. Its easy for me to say you need to get a different perspective on life. It has taken me several years to rid my ex from my brain. Reading about psychopaths and narcissists and the way they think was a help to me. It was actually a turning point in my life. There were a couple of sayings I came across that made me think, and I found they helped me as well. I have listed them here with a bit of an explanation, and perhaps they may be of help to you: a person is not responsible for how another thinks (in other words, do you expect others to be responsible for how you think? No. Then don’t be responsible for what they think); I am not my brother’s keeper (in other words everyone has a brain, what we do with that brain counts. If someone is doing something stupid, you cannot jump inside their brain to stop them, they need to use their brain to stop themselves, the responsibility is not yours.) With the last one, yes we can offer advice, but it still goes back to the individual to think for themselves. I hope I’ve explained it so you can understand what I am trying to say.
    Another idea, is to step back from your life and look at it from an outsiders point of view. As if you were a spectator, and watch the things other people do. I found it very beneficial. I did this to get my head around my ex (who was a psychopath) and asked myself, would I walk past him in the street, and the answer was yes. Do I really like this man, no. Does he do horrible things, yes. Is he manipulative, yes. I did this often to remind myself what I was dealing with.
    I think we get very lonely when living with these types of people, and we look for comfort, something they are incapable of giving. Perhaps stepping back from your family, husband and anyone else in your life, and trying to feel if they have good vibes (as my autistic daughter says) may allow you to find those you want in your life and those you don’t. I suggest walking away from those you don’t, and don’t give in to the guilt trip that you feel bad because you haven’t seen them, or some other guilt you feel. They are capable of approaching you. See if this happens, but be really careful when it does.
    You only have one life you can live, no one gets a second chance. I made that decision and I’m the happiest I’ve been in all my life. I don’t have a partner, I don’t need one, my brain is now at peace not screwed up by someone else trying to manipulate it. I do what I want now and make my own decisions without having to factor someone else in that wants to be negative.
    As regards your husband, step back, take a good look, you will soon work out if he’s worth it or not. Narcissists have a way of getting you back, it’s called guilt. There are many genuinely nice men in this world, but they don’t continually go on that life is all about them.
    I apologise for this being so long, but its a huge subject with a lot of traps for the unwary.
    An afterthought, research the effects of heavy metals and food additives. A load of these can affect decision making and make humans sick in many ways. I was somewhat ill mentally and physically. I was able to return to almost good health after eliminating pre made and eating fresh and foods with no additives. I hope I’ve now got an extra ten years up my sleeve.
    A hug for you because I think you need one, and I hope you can rise above all this to a better life.
    Robin

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