Resolution, Not Conflict

The guide to problem-solving.

Do You Think of Narcissism as an Autistic Spectrum Disorder?

“Of course not!” you might say dismissively. Not so quick. Better think again. And check the similarities that others are noticing. Read More

Very intriguing article

This is a really intriguing article. My ex-husband was highly narcissistic and autism runs in his family. I can see now the similarities between ASD and narcissistic behavior. What a thought provoking piece, thanks for writing it.

I'm so glad ...

I'm so glad @Avid that you like this post.

I've been wanting to write on this topic for a long time and finally this evening just sat down and did it. I've just speculated on the connection up to now, so I was pleased that my sleuthing tonight on the web turned up others with similar thoughts. Now, hearing your example, I'm all the more sure we're on to something.

Autism vs Narcissism The

Autism vs Narcissism

The difference explained:

When you consider that the autism spectrum tends to skew heavily in favor of men, and that narcissism is an equal opportunity condition in men and women, I do not think they are on the same spectrum.

narcissism equal in both genders

Just curious. It's been decades since I studied psychology. Women have fewer genetic defects then men, because of the double x, right? Narcissism in women doesn't usually last forever from what I've seen--nor doesn't manifest itself as often so extreme and so dangerous to others, as it can be in men--and history sort of bears this out. Having kids plus strong societal pressures can somewhat neutralize it over time in women, can't it? Plus we're too small to do as much danger as someone like Julius Caesar or Genghis Khan.

population specific

I suspect that the quantity of genetic defects is population specific. Populations that are not geographically or social-intentionally isolated, presumably would have more defects than more diverse populations. So, I don't there is a basis to predict this with reference to an at-large man versus an at large woman.

Danger is relative. Much danger exists shot of conquerors. I would be reluctant to agree that narcissistic women are always/necessarily less dangerous than narcissistic men.

Sam V. versus Cleopatra, for example.

I am not at all certain that narcissism abates with women as they age or is controlled by social means.

are female narcissists as dangerous as male

Are narcissists as bad as psychopathic personality disorders? Even so, female psychopaths tend not to do as much damage, maybe thanks to their smaller size (and if estrogen levels OK). If Elizabeth the First had been male, would she have been as bad as her Dad Henry VIII? She was pretty murderous all by herself, but a far cry from her father. Or is this just my own subjective, prejudice? I confess to thinking of men as another species at times, and am sure my male co-workers feel the reverse:) I worked my whole life in a male-dominated environment, where one's macho image is measured by how much SO2 one could suck up without reaching for a gas mask. Most of the guys I started work with are dead and I have the scars of many tumours and cysts removed. Macho kills, but is it narcissistic or wrought from the need to fit in or feel tough and competent? It's nuts, in any case!

Male/female narcissists

My hunch, as someone who has known narcissists of both sexes, is they do as much harm as each other regardless of their sex. The damage to others is often not physical (though there ARE narcissists who abuse physically) but psychological. . .narcissists play with the emotions of others, treat them as expendable, never apologize, manage to make the victims look bad and themselves good, etc etc. I don't think it's got anything to do with how big or small someone is physically, or whether they have enough oestrogen or not. And I don't think that social expectations, societal expectations, dampen down the narcissism of a narcissistic woman, either.

And here is a Tudor enthusiast talking (!): There is quite a lot of evidence now that Henry VIII, tyrannical though he was before, became much more so (and much more murderous) after he sustained a serious head-injury while jousting in January 1536. It was just after this that he became completely convinced (in lieu of any evidence) that Anne Boleyn had been unfaithful to him: a case of real paranoia. As I understand it, it is serious injury to the frontal cortex part of the brain which can result in such extreme changes in personality. Eric Ives discusses this in his biography of Anne Boleyn; there are doubtless other good books on the subject. . .So was Henry VIII a psychopath? I don't know. He had absolute power (as all kings did in those days) and he had a certain personality which was then exacerbated by a blow to the head: a bad combination.

No, because Narcissism (or at least, NPD) is a cluster B personality disorder!

There is a world of difference between NPDs and Aspies! When you meet an NPD you'll often be swept off your feet by their charm. They can convince you they're your soul mate if they want to. They could be the most exciting person you've ever met. An Aspie, on the other hand, will be odd, at least. They might not meet your eyes. They might speak their thoughts. You won't be entirely comfortable around them, but they won't feel dangerous. They're socially clumsy, not suave like an NPD, and tend to be obsessed with detail, while NPDs are watching the big picture so they can be ready for their next move. There's always an agenda with NPDs.

There's more than one type of empathy, as I'm sure you know. Cognitive empathy and affective empathy are different. Cognitive empathy allows one to understand a situation, to tell what a person is feeling from their behavior and facial cues, and the ability to infer what another is feeling from recent events. Aspies lack cognitive empathy so can't read or predict the feelings of others easily. However, NPDs have plenty of cognitive empathy. They understand others' feelings, and use them to manipulate those around them. Emotional empathy involves caring about what another is feeling. NPDs typically can understand what another person is feeling, but they simply do not care. Aspies tend to have plenty of affective empathy, and will feel deeply, once they can understand a situation.

Aspies generally hate hurting people, and are incapable of anything approaching manipulation. They are certainly not capable of the long term control of others as practiced by NPDs.

Aspies tend to be rigidly rule-bound. They need their routines. NPDs make it up as they go along, and break rules without noticing.

Aspies prefer to keep a low profile, while NPDs crave admiration and praise, and use people just for narcissistic supply.

Aspies usually have difficulty lying. NPDs can be pathological liars.

There are so many more differences. Given the social danger posed by NPDs, and the isolation often suffered by Aspies, to conflate the two, here, in a public forum, seems irresponsible. There is plenty of research on both conditions. There is no confusion here.

Yes to What Barbara Said!

This is a very thought-provoking article, and a great academic discussion. However, I think Barbara makes a great point about the very important distinctions, as anyone who has ever been targeted and abused by a narcissist will attest. Perhaps both are able to put their best feet forward when they wish, but narcissists do so with predatorial intentions. Narcissists not only lack empathy; they lack consciences. They leave a long trail of victims, for which they feel nothing but contempt.

I recently learned that Jim Jones (of the Jonestown massacre) got his start as a heroic advocate against segregation and promoter of social equality. He set up large soup kitchens to feed the poor, insisted in a racially integrated church, and ingratiated himself to very high level politicians. Yet, he physically, sexually, and emotionally abused his followers, then physically coerced them to their deaths. Narcissists/sociopaths are remarkable in their capacities to deceive and create followers, while those with Asperger's often struggle to establish normal friendships.

I agree that narcissism and Aspergers have major differences.

I agree that narcissism and Aspergers have major differences. That is why they should continue to be seen as separate clinical entitites, just as Aspergers and autism are radically different clinical entities.

My point is that they also share deficiencies in the abilitly to hear others' feelings and concerns. That is why I suggest that they be considered as related to autistic spectrum disorders.

NPA and Aspergers

NPA is one of the personality disorders, and people with Aspergers seem to have consciences, if somewhat askew, so that's a big difference between the two conditions. One psychopath told me that he knew the difference between right and wrong, but had difficulty deciding which he wanted to do-- the right thing or the wrong. Normal people are compelled to do what they perceive as the Right Thing and are overcome with guilt if they're wrong. People with Asperger's can't always see that they've done the wrong thing, but they seem to want to do the right thing, if they only knew what that was and only IF they want to do it at all--good or bad. They don't seem to rejoice in getting away with anything bad like psychopaths do, so they own a conscience--just no sense, maybe?

What is similar and what is different?

I think that part of the difficulty in comparing "disorders" is that the labels are overly broad.

While I have worked with narcissists who believe "the rules don't apply to me," others who are extraordinarily self-absorbed and suck the air out of the room with making everything all about them can be totally conscientious and rule-abiding. By the way, the first was male and the second all women. Hmmm...gender differences in presentations of narcissism?

Maybe we need to narrow the definitions, with narcissism being an all-about-me stance with minimal listening to others, and psychopathy being the tendency to ignore rules?

I don't have answers here, just questions.

Why did you bring psychopathy into the duscussion?

Neither NPA nor Autistic Spectrum have anything to do with Psychopathy. It is a distraction in the conversation.

A very important point

The question about how psychopathy came into the conversation is a pivotal one for me. Many people who think of narcissists, and especially of narcissistic men, assume that npd's are typically "bad" people. Like "bpd" "Npd" = bad person.

"Malignant narcissistis," who overly hurt others, probably are a blend of narcissism plus sadism and/or psychopathy.

Other narcissists are so focused on taking care of, which they often see as defending, themselves that they are unaware and care little about the impacts of their actions on others. So while the impact is to hurt others, which makes their behaviors look psychopathic, the underlying experience is of just trying to, in their perspective, take care of themselves.

I agree that if someone is enough self-preoccupied and poorly-attuned to others get to labeled Aspergers, he or she probably does not have enough superficial social skills to get enough social capital to do damage to others.

People with narcissism for instance are likely to get elected to public office. Highly unlikely for Aspergers folks.

It may be that psychopathy is a trait that has different genetic elements from the self-absorbption factor. At the same time, psychopathy does often seem to co-occur within people who also are severely narcissistic. Another way of saying that is that maybe severe narcissism is what happens when the two disorders coincide.

What's important in my view here is to segregate out the narcissism (i.e., self-abporbtion and relative deafness to others) from lack of conscience and willingness to hurt others, i.e., psychopathy. Not all narcissisits have the second trait. The ones who do give the more pure narcissisits (and I've seen many of these) a bad rap.

This is all in answer to your important question of "why did psychopathy enter the discussion?"

Great discussion

This is a great discussion, and I really appreciate Dr. Heitler's and others willingness to engage about the topic. Barbara's insights have helped me tremendously, as well.

It occurred to me after reading Dr. Heitler's most recent comment that those of us who seek answers and read so voraciously in the aftermath of narcissistic abuse might be more likely to have encountered a malignant narcissist. I know in my case, the woman engaged in very calculated and quite brilliant smear campaigns against multiple innocent people, while amazingly making herself look like the victim. She pretends to care deeply about vulnerable people in order to draw them in as followers, extract enormous amounts of admiration, time, and money from them, and when they are no longer useful or it serves her agenda, she turns on them with a venom and character assassinations that are very effective due to her social power and willingness to lie. I truly worry that she will drive someone to suicide someday, yet she will somehow paint herself as the victim when it happens.

It seems there is so much overlap between at least some narcissists and sociopaths that it is truly very difficult to know the difference. I appreciate Dr. Heitler's clinical insights relating to how differently classical and malignant narcissists can present. I certainly do not wish to disparage a specific group; I think it is just truly difficult to know how much damage these folks can cause until one has been through it.

Narcissists who do huge damage...

@Kristin05 raises a a very important point about how much damage malignant narcissists can do. That for sure is true.

Now the plot thickens. Are malignant narcissists in fact people who have co-occurring underlying aspects of three syndromes?

1) narcissism (self-preoccupation with minimal ability to hear others),
2) sociopathy (the rules don't apply to me) and also a third disorder, namely,
3) borderline personality (excessive emotional reactivity, particularly anger)?


Since all of these diagnostic criteria are subjective (it seems to me as a layperson), the devil is identifying criteria for a diagnosis that is broad enough to be descriptive and useful, but narrow enough to be relevant. So, necessarily, there will be people covered by a diagnosis who do not present every element of the diagnosis.

I sympathize for BPDs and BPDs who do not possess every characteristic (especially the more extreme characteristics) of a diagnosis. But, I also understand, no matter the reasons for the actions, a lot of people are harmed by conduct that both they and from what Heinz says, the BPDs, would prefer to avoid.

I suspect that is important for a treatment perspective that a diagnosis does not shame -- but it is equally important that a diagnosis be broad enough to capture inappropriate/harmful behaviors that occur in a statistically meaningful portion of the cases. After all, isn't it these harmful behaviors that make a set of behaviors a disorder?

It has been suggested in other discussion groups in which I participate that "high-functioning BPD" has become the "nom de guerre" of sociopathy -- since there is no way a person who is named s sociopath is likely to seek treatment or garner any empathy. (I don't know whether sociopathy is a covered condition under typical mental health insurance.)

Maybe, the composite "punch-list" that you identify is just what people mean when they describe at least the more extreme "high-functioning BPD(s)"?

the joining of conditions

Thanks for this post:) It does clarify the issues as separate and joint conditions.

With respect, I disagree

With respect, I disagree that these two conditions share deficiencies in the ability to hear others' feelings and concerns. An NPD will have no difficulty reading your feelings and responding to them, and even anticipating your concerns, if they wish to engage you. As you point out, Vaknin views narcissists, including himself, as able to interact with high levels of social skills in situations where impressing someone they look up to is important to them. As he says: narcissists appear sociable and socially even highly capable when they are interacting with someone whom they regard as having potential to fulfill their desire for admiration, power and other “narcissistic supplies.” This shows that NPDs CAN in fact hear others' feelings and concerns.

There is no evidence that people with Asperger's can do this, ever, even if they see a reason to do so, and their lives are crippled by this deficit.

Here's a link to another article in Psychology Today that I think is useful in explaining the reason Aspies are socially avoidant.

As you write,: "once a narcissistic person has begun to devalue the other, self-absorption and deficits in ability to experience empathy emerge." (Pardon the digression but this behaviour isn't restricted to NPDs! Any neurotypical person is capable of this - of cutting off or turning away from another when annoyed or frustrated, and unconsciously devaluing the other.) But "the narcissist switches between social agility and social impairment voluntarily. His social dysfunctioning is the outcome of conscious haughtiness and the reluctance to invest scarce mental energy in cultivating relationships with inferior and unworthy others. When confronted with potential Sources of Narcissistic Supply, however, the narcissist easily regains his social skills, his charm, and his gregariousness."

I have had experience of two people with NPD, one overt and one covert. Both were extremely able socially, to the point of being charismatic. They seduced others into their respective agendas and caused immense personal and harm and social damage. They then withdrew and became cold and unavailable. I fear falling into any such situation again, and I am wary of shiny, glib people, and of anyone labeled a narcissist by others.

I have met quite a few young people and adults with Asperger's or signs of it. They are almost helpless socially, and at great risk of social exclusion and isolation, as well as being preyed upon by anyone lacking a social conscience. Even well meaning people read their clumsiness as deliberate insult and respond to them as if "of course they know what their doing!" They don't, but Narcissists do know what they're doing when they withdraw.

My concern is that readers will respond to labels. It would be very unfair if those suffering Asperger's were tarred with the same brush as NPDs. Asperger's suffers have consciences, and need support in the community. NPDs have no consciences and their victims need the support.

I have had to write this in a hurry and hope I haven't crossed any lines of courtesy. No offence is intended by my thoughts, but I feel these things very keenly, having experience of both disorders.

Lots of thought-provoking points...

Thanks for this lush comment with regard to lots to think about!

What especially strikes me is the bad rap that narcissists get. They're right up there with bpd in terms of being seen negatively, not just by you, but generally in the psychological world.

I have more sympathy for them since I have begun to think of them as being not Aspergers, for sure, but the stop on the line just before Aspergers. I am seeing how there's something missing in the awareness of others for some narcissists (the type for instance who talk on and on with no awareness that their turn has expired). For some narcissists the ability to hear and tolerate others' thoughts and feelings is the issue; they do hear others, and yet something seems to be missing so that what they hear does not seem to matter to them, or even just makes them mad or defensive instead of empathic.

For instance, one very socially charismatic narcissistic fellow in my practice would get angry whenever his wife said she felt sad. He would hear her as criticizing him, as saying maybe that he wasn't attentive enough instead of that she was sad because of something unrelated to him. That's the self-referential, everything is about me, stance.

So I agree with you that narcissistic individuals hear others. The problem is what happens next. They misinterpret what they hear, or they may use what they hear in order to more effectively get what they want for themselves rather than to be genuinely responsive...

The common belief that people with npd have no conscience though is one of those traits that for sure is reality for some narcissisitic folks, and for others not at all there.

The bottom line that I keep coming back to is that these labels are too broad, and people are too complex, for our diagnostic categories to quite fit the realities. Still, they're useful...

Autism spectrum is a neurological condition! NPA is not!

You are mixing very different apples & oranges. Autism spectrum is a neurological condition, with accompanied sensory senitivities, gatrointestinal problems, and numerous safety concerns in dealing with the world. AS people are treated with numerous forms of therapy which no one would even consider for someone with NPD. These conditions are not the same, do not have the same causes, and have very different treatment protocols! Stop comparing those with AS to narcissists! They are not remotely the same!

Autism is neurological--NPA is not

Anonymous on June 14, 2014 - 1:46am wrote:

"...Autism spectrum is a neurological condition..." Is there proof that Narcissism isn't a neurological condition? It's one of the personality disorders, is it not? And people with Borderline Personality disorders, psychopaths, etc., do have abnormal frontal lobes brainwaves. It's been awhile since I've studied psychology---1993, I think, but I remember that researchers did find abnormal brain waves in the frontal lobes in those with anti-social personality disorders.

People with mere bad habits can change their bad habits---but those with psychopathological conditions can't REALLY change their instincts, can they? Or can they? It's different from being addicted, isn't it? Or is it now considered part and parcel of the condition?

I think this distinction could be important. Someday, neurosurgeons may be able to fix someone's antisocial personality disorder just by zapping a kink in neural structures---or injecting some really neat neurotransmitter substances to make up for any perceived lack of same.

Maybe something more definitive can be done for those with brain damage at birth. Wouldn't that be nice?!

I agree that the labels are too broad.

I agree that these labels are too broad. It would be useful to define terms!

Wha's the difference, as used here, between Narcissistic Personality Disorder and narcissism? I've been writing under the assumption that we were talking about NPD. I see narcissists quite differently, for example, most small children are narcissistic, but don't meet the criteria for the personality disorder, and are able to consider the feelings of others when they're pointed out. Similarly, one of my neighbours seems narcissistic in that it's always all about him. He'll drop in when passing to cheerfully tell us what latest interesting and impressive thing he's been doing. He's never interested in what we're doing except to reflect back on himself. However, he's not at all exploitative, manipulative nor aggressive. He's cheerful, friendly, very able and helpful. He follows subtle social cues. He has no partner, and might be difficult to live with given that it's all about him, but he's not personality disordered. He leaves behind him a trail of neighbours helped and community projects completed, not the trail of destruction left in the wake of an NPD.

Would you agree that narcissists with a small 'n' are harmless? And that people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are not? I think the bad rap that NPDs get is deserved. Their victims are usually badly damaged, and while I too can feel compassion for the NPDs I've known, I can't help but feel more for their families and friends. The NPDs are protected by their world view that everyone is scheming and struggling for the top positions, and if they lost, it was because they were outsmarted. Their victims are struggling to understand how their loved one could lie to them, and lie to everyone else about them.

I have a question about NPDs being the stop on the line before Asperger's. Are we in agreement that of the following two types of empathy, each disorder has only (or mostly) one to the exclusion of the other? That NPDs have cognitive empathy but lack affective empathy, and that Aspies have affective empathy but lack cognitive empathy? If so, I would hazard that these stops wouldn't be on the same line at all, as this crucial difference - that Autists lack cognitive empathy - distinguishes them from Neurotypicals, and the lack of affective empathy distinguishes Cluster B personality types from others.

This difference would explain the Aspie who talks on and on about his or her obsession: they miss cues, fail to understand cues when pointed out, and have nothing else to say, anyway. (I feel it's important to remember that to warrant a diagnosis of Asperger's, an individual has (or had) to experience significant impairment in day to day functioning. It's not just a description of someone who talks too much about themselves and forgets birthdays.) The NPD who talks on and on - well, they're probably browbeating you on purpose - they KNOW they're not charming you. The small 'n' narcissist who talk on and on may not need a label at all, beyond 'bore'.

I also wonder how an increasingly individualistic society and sense of personal entitlement has contributed to the types of behaviour that are pathologized as Asperger's or narcissistic, or simple projection or transference.

The bottom line that worries me here is that the labels ARE too broad when one behaviour alone can define them. As you write in another comment, different causes can lie behind similar or same-appearing behaviours. I feel that the sufferers of the different disorders and syndromes would be better served by being defined by their considerable differences.

Small and large n narcissisits

Yes, lots of good points in the above comment. I especially like the small n and large N, that is, narcissism as an off-putting but not malicious habit versus Narcissism that is more aggressive. Maybe this is like the difference between basal cell carcinoma which spread on the skin and are visually off-putting but non-lethal and melanoma skin cancers that kill.

The term "malignant narcissist" captures this difference nicely. It refers to a subcategory of the most severe and hurtful narcissists.

I also found your distinction between cognitive and empathic hearing particularly interesting.

Thanks for these contributions!

Sympathy for NPDs.

It's very compassionate for you to have sympathy for NPDs. It reminds me of this old story.
A man was out walking one day when he was brutally beaten and robbed. As he lay unconscious and bleeding, a psychologist, who happened to be passing by, rushed up to him and exclaimed "My God! Whoever did this really needs help!"

Would you prefer the

Would you prefer the alternative ... no compassion and no care about diagnosis stigma?

Kind of funny tory though.

It's a joke!

It's a joke!
Just to reassure you, John, I fully recognise this as far too complex and important a subject to be sarcastic or ironic about it. I like that story because it can open the eyes of people who think only the victim is damaged by anti-social activity. Whoever did that DOES need help!

I know it's a joke but

I find it difficult to laugh wholeheartedly at the joke because too often, in my experience, the bully is given sympathy over and above the help accorded the victim. And ESPECIALLY by psychologists and other mental health professionals. They make such a virtue of never judging anything; some things NEED to be judged.

Bad rap

I'm intrigued that you think narcissists get a bad rap.

My father was almost certainly a narcissist though I only came to understand that this was the word applied to his kind of behaviour after I was grown up. He certainly never had bad rap. He was objectionable at home, abusive, belittling, given to rages and manipulation of all kinds, and never,ever said sorry. The moment he stepped out the front door, he was sweetness and light, regarded as a supportive colleague (at least by some, I never met the ones who felt differently), and ostensibly a good neighbour and socially-conscious citizen. At his funeral, it was all about how marvellous he had been, how full of integrity (!). The sad fact is, he manipulated people over many years to think he was some great person, and many people fall for the charms of such a person. When I had a serious breakdown in my teens and attempted suicide, he managed to convince the psychiatrists that he was a caring father and downright wonderful person and that the basic problem lay with me. So I didn't get appropriate treatment. (It didn't help one bit that our mother, also abused by him, steadfastly stood in his corner, not telling people what he was really like.)

He went to his grave being widely admired and adored. Big rap? No, he got off scot-free, and was hardly ever challenged. He has left a very painful legacy behind and most people who knew him (even people who knew him most of his adult life) have absolutely no idea.This has left my brothers and me (especially me, the main target of his rage, much of which was misogynistic in nature) very isolated. Who is ready to believe US? What narcissists do is, in effect, brainwash most of the people they meet in such a way that they (the narcissists) come up smelling of roses. They are very skilled at character-assassination, and the people they character-assassinate most thoroughly are their spouses and children. They are really quite despicable people and I don't say that lightly.


Dear Sheila,

I was really moved by your comment. It was insightful and astute in the way that only those who have been there can really understand. Despite your father's upstanding reputation, I wondered while reading it if there weren't a good number of colleagues who might have been covertly victimized, but quietly walked away. Narcissists are very good at intimidating their most harmed victims into remaining silent, or isolating them with the smear campaign, as you mentioned. Just my own conjecture, but a thought that I wanted to share. In my experience, most people realize they are no match for standing up to the narcissist, or they are so devastated, they don't have it in them to fight the narcissist.

Drawing from your close experience with a narcissist, and if you have time to answer this, I am curious if you think narcissists can ever really care about anyone in a sincere way?

Thanks again for sharing your insights, and I wish you continued healing.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may quote other posts using [quote] tags.

More information about formatting options

Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.


Subscribe to Resolution, Not Conflict

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?