Narcissism is a personality disorder characterized by grandiose self-identity, difficulty or lack of empathy, jealousy and problems with criticism, and preoccupation with success.
These characteristics, which relate to interactions, overlap with some autism symptoms, especially in people with only mild autism symptoms. These individuals often have developed coping mechanisms to deal with social situations.
Autism is a developmental disorder, while narcissism is a personality disorder. While there may be links between the two conditions, clinical research on comorbidity rates is lacking. Therefore they do not correlate.
What is Narcissism?
Although many people use narcissist as an insult thrown at someone they consider selfish, There is a clinical diagnosis behind some of this behavior. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is rare, but some people meet the diagnostic criteria to be called narcissists.
Symptoms of this disease, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), include:
- Significant impairment in interpersonal functioning such as intimacy and empathy.
- Significant impairment in self-esteem, typically with a superb sense of meaning.
- Belief that one is special or unique to the exclusion of others.
- Lack of empathy or “theory of mind” (recognizing that others have emotions).
- Intense jealousy of others.
- Preoccupation with feeling successful and the people they admire.
- Obsession with fantasies of unlimited success, ideal love, power, brilliance, or beauty.
- Requiring excessive admiration.
- Failure to respond appropriately to others’ expressions to attract attention.
People with a narcissistic personality disorder may appear condescending, rude, oblivious, contemptuous, or even abusive, except those they admire and want to please. However, they can also be charming, insightful, witty, and hard workers.
Narcissism is a personality disorder defined as an enduring pattern of the internal experience of the person’s environment that is significantly different from the actual world around them.
There are four domains for measuring personality disorders; typically, two of them are the main patterns or symptoms:
- Impulse control
- Interpersonal functioning
These patterns are stable in work, social life, family life, and other areas. Typically, these patterns begin in adolescence or young adulthood. Psychologists or other mental health clinicians diagnose this condition using the DSM-5 and other clinical diagnostic criteria.
Many people with NPD do not seek treatment unless the disorder impacts their lives significantly. As a result, they have very little, if any, coping skills for dealing with the stress and unpredictability they face.
The underlying causes of narcissistic personality disorder are complex, but most psychologists believe it is a combination of biological and genetic, social, and psychological factors. Treatment is long-term talk therapy or behavioral therapy.
How Is Narcissism Related To Autism?
Adult autism symptoms, particularly stage 1 autism or autism formerly known as Asperger’s syndrome, have been compared to narcissistic personality disorder symptoms by some people.
There are overlapping symptoms for those on the autistic spectrum who appear to have few communication and socializing issues. As an outcome, these people may be referred to as narcissists. While some similarities exist, autism is a developmental illness; hence, the underlying cause is different. Furthermore, the narcissistic diagnosis excludes other autism characteristics.
Autism & narcissism: some similarities with different underlying causes.
According to a 2014 study, autism and stage 1 narcissistic personality disorder is so close that narcissism could represent a stage on the autistic spectrum.
Symptoms of autism that resemble narcissistic personality disorder include:
- Egocentrism that does not match cultural expectations or the age/developmental level of the individual.
- Treating people as objects or preferring objects to people. This often includes a focus on limited interests and interactions with others.
- Failure to develop emotional relationships as expected for the person’s development.
- Hostile dependence on secure relationships.
- Poor empathy, expression of empathy, or theory of mind required to understand the inner worlds of others and sympathize with these differences.
- Difficulty in reciprocating others’ feelings or expressing emotional caring.
- Poor self-awareness or poor ability to develop remorse or learn from mistakes.
The clinicians who asserted this overlap found that people with narcissistic personality disorder appeared normal or functional in environments where they were accepted and supported and did not experience stress. The claim states that this seems similar to people with Asperger’s Syndrome or Level 1 Autism, who may appear “normal” because they have developed coping mechanisms for socializing, communicating, and learning.
These symptoms certainly overlap; it is important, however, not to put narcissistic personality disorder and autism in the same category. Autism, again, is a developmental disorder and is more commonly diagnosed in early childhood between the ages of 1 and 4. Signs that the child’s development is variable slowed, plateaued, or even regressed occur. These include lack of eye contact, hyperfocus on one or a few interests to exclude everything else, lack of interest in socializing with family or other children, lack of age-appropriate language skills, lack of facial expressions or interest in faces, and other signs.
Few medical studies examine the overlap between narcissism & autism.
While someone with autism can have a narcissistic personality disorder, the hypothesized overlap may be a symptom correlation rather than a relationship between the conditions. For example, one medical study reported that neurotypical individuals with narcissism tend to self-enhance or have a majestic view of themselves without thinking of others, which is a core symptom of the disorder.
In contrast, people with milder autism symptoms tend to:
- Overcompensate for feeling inadequate, especially in social situations. Struggle to understand social interactions may cause others to perceive them as arrogant or selfish.
- Have difficulty acknowledging that they have made a mistake and are hypersensitive to criticism. At the same time, they may be overly critical of others.
- Have an inability to play or interact with others as children. This manifests in attempts to dominate or control the situation, which may persist into adulthood without diagnosis and behavioral therapy.
In contrast, people with narcissistic personality disorder have poor self-esteem; however, This does not include fear of socializing.
The developmental age at which these conditions are diagnosed is important. Autism is more commonly diagnosed in young children, although adolescents and adults can have mild enough symptoms that they go undiagnosed for years. On the other hand, narcissism does not alter early childhood development; it appears later in life.
Support services for family members of people with autism or NPD.
Narcissistic and autistic features may be passed down through families genetically. According to anecdotal evidence from professionals, children with autism rarely have parents with autism; however, one parent may exhibit more narcissistic symptoms than the other. Nevertheless, research into the apparent overlap between autism and narcissism has been sparse. Again, the connections are based on anecdotal evidence.
Autistic children are diagnosed by a pediatrician as early as possible and then receive prompt and intensive help from a behavioral therapist. People with narcissistic personality disorder can also benefit from behavior treatment, but they will be diagnosed later in their life.
Family and friends of people with autism or narcissistic personality disorder can benefit from support groups to better comprehend their loved one’s condition and cope with stress. Here are some search options for support groups or therapies:
- The Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) includes a page that can assist you in identifying local mental health, behavioral, and other sorts of therapies. Therapists may specialize in aiding persons with autism or family members of people with NPD.
- Autism Speaks offers a resource page with support groups for parents, siblings, and friends who have a loved one with autism.
- Psychology Today provides a search page where you can find a narcissism support group near you.
Janice is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Special Education. She also holds a Master of Science in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) from Queen’s University, Belfast. She has worked with and case managed children and youth with autism and other intellectual and/or developmental disabilities in home and residential setting since 2013.