Many readers have responded with strongly emotional comments to my three earlier articles on potential links between narcissism and autism. (see here on narcissism, here on possible links between narcissism and autism, and here on differential diagnosis). The tone of these readers' comments has ranged from appreciation to curiosity to outrage. Of particular interest to me were comments from multiple readers about the co-occurrence of autism and narcissism in their families. The case study below shares one such reader’s personal observations of growing up with a narcissistic mother and a brother with high-functioning autism.
"SKM" responded to one of my prior narcissism/autism articles with an email to me about the narcissism and autism in her family. Her descriptions nicely clarify the nature of each disorder, the differences, and their overlap. To SKM, thank you for your permission to publish your observations.
From SKM: Incidents that suggest to me (SKM) that my mother is narcissistic:
Three themes stand out: It's all-about-me; I'm better than everyone else; and inability to hear my (or anyone else's) perspective.
My mother was the Queen of our home. Telling stories and holding court. While relatively quiet in public, her energy was dynamic at home.
She usually was telling us a story about work - some colleague or manager who was idiotic or in over-their-head. But she wouldn't stop at professional competency. Her behind-the-scenes character assassinations were pulverizing. Everyone was beneath her: my grandparents, her sisters, fellow church parishioners, and even the Celebrity Chefs of the Food Network.
Criticism turned into aggravation if you inconvenienced her. We didn't do anything my Mom didn't want to do. Sure, I think she threw us a bone here and there, but often our disappointment wasn't enough to keep her from maneuvering away from an obligation or promise.
After looking forward to it for weeks, she told me she couldn't drive me to the DMV to get my learner's permit because there was "too much traffic." Traffic, crowds, wait times, etc. were common excuses. She convinced us we didn't want or need something; her comfort came first.
When we're on a phone call, she says "uh-huh" "okay" or "yes" quickly after I finish each thought. She has a sense of urgency.
In-person it's very similar. She'll often respond with something that is off-topic. Probably about her, or a story she's told enough times that it feels like her own.
When my patience wears thin, I'll reply, "That's not what I was saying," or, "Okay, but what do you think about what I said?" Sometimes the redirect works, sometimes not.
My brother's autistic spectrum behaviors:
When we were young, my brother was hospitalized for destructive/inappropriate behavior and emotional outbursts. Most of this happened at school, but I can remember even at 4 or 5 years old feeling like the more emotionally mature one, calming him down during a lightning storm. He was moved to the "special needs" classroom in the second or third grade and permitted back to the "normal" classroom in sixth grade. Four years younger, I was too young to know what was truly happening, but this shift felt like a seismic victory for our family.
When I would see my brother’s social ineptitude I used to chalk it up to the severe bullying he endured. Now I see it as autism, which in turn attracted bullying. Kids tend to pick on a kid who they see as different, on the edge of the pack.
A few years ago, I was reminded again of my brother’s autism. Telling me about a breakup he was going through, it seemed clear that his boyfriend was no longer interested in a relationship for several months prior. But because the boyfriend didn't expressly say so, my brother didn't see it coming.
My brother has almost no memory of our childhood. Still, I look back and see the signs: GI issues/bathroom control, destructive behavior, delayed language development, picky eating, rocking after emotional outbursts, preoccupation with lights/batteries, sleepwalking.
What my mother's narcissism and my brother's autism share in common
Inability to observe social norms in group situations (uncontrollable eating, forgetting to share, no thank you/gratitude, inability to make chit chat socially - especially if TV is on)
Stimming, like repeating phrases, humming, rearranging objects.
Lack of listening skills. If I talk about myself at all, they immediately redirect their focus—her to a magazine, him to his cell phone.
Almost no initiating of phone calls or any communication with me even with big life events.
Impacts on me of narcissism and autism co-occurring in my family
Isolation. We didn't have extended family or friends. My Mother's narcissism pushed people away and I'm sure very few could relate to raising an autistic child.
The future feels… stressful. My resentment towards my parents means I don't want to manage their care as they age (particularly as I've already had to step in to do it for my father's father), but I'm not sure my brother can handle it.
Our family feels distant - each person an island with hundreds of miles of ocean between them.
Dr. Heitler's concluding hypotheses
I draw three main hypotheses from the brain study plus the case study above.
1. Different syndromes.
Autism and narcissism are not all one syndrome. Narcissists generally are not autistic. And folks on the autistic spectrum are unlikely to have a narcissistic personality disorder. Many characteristics of each disorder are absent in the other.
2. A family connection.
Yet the two syndromes do often show up within families. While for sure not always, there do seem to be many cases in which one or both parents of autistic spectrum offspring show what some observers might consider to be self-absorbed, i.e., narcissistic, tendencies.
3. The main overlapping area of difficulty occurs in social interactions—in listening to, understanding and responding appropriately to others.