Many would conceptualize autistic individuals as on the extreme of an introversion continuum. But is this comparison accurate and helpful in understanding the preferences of those on the spectrum?
The Myers & Briggs Foundation continues the work of the psychologists famous for research about personality features. The purpose of the questionnaire titled Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is to identify individual patterns of personality. One of the psychological "preferences" described by the questionnaire is introversion versus extroversion.
Within this psychological theory, introversion describes a preference for spending time within the inner world of thoughts and ideas. This individual prefers doing things alone or with a close person or two. The introvert may be seen as reflective and putting thought into decisions before acting on them. Of note, the conceptualization is that shyness and reclusiveness are not related to introversion.
Although both introverts and ASD individuals may each prefer alone time or small groups, there are many crucial differences.
1. Neurologic Social Abilities
Unlike the introvert, the individual on the spectrum presents with neurologic difficulty in the area of social communication. This struggle may include the back-and-forth of conversation, how to approach others to begin a social connection, the interpretation and expression of nonverbal communication, and the ability to understand social relationships. Although the introvert may gain energy from (show a preference for) alone time and introspection, the individual on the spectrum actually lacks the neurologic ability to efficiently and effectively connect with others.
2. Neurologic Behaviors
The diagnostic criteria for autism also include the presence of neurologic behaviors such as repetitive moving, speaking, or using objects. The characteristics may also include rigid thoughts/behaviors without appropriate levels of flexibility or adjustment to unexpected changes. An additional area of behavior pattern may consist of intense focus on particular topics (e.g., maps, anime) or attachment to objects (map collections, anime collectibles). And finally, the autistic may present with significant sensory processing difficulties (e.g., difficulty tolerating noise, lack of attention to pain, fascination with spinning objects).
3. "Extroversion" in Autism
As noted in the DSM-5 diagnostic manual, the characteristics of autism may be met when the social behaviors of the individual are inappropriately loud, dominating, controlling, inflexible, or aggressive (if due to a neurologic inability to read cues and adjust appropriately to context).
That is, the person on the spectrum may not look like an introvert at all. Sometimes the ASD individual presents as
a) inappropriately loud
b) having a poor sense of personal space
c) demonstrating social approach that is too strong or aggressive
d) speaking in a way that is rude or dismissive of others
e) or showing dominance of the conversation (e.g., controlling the topic to only include his/her particular interest).
As a whole condition, the autism spectrum includes multiple neurologic characteristics that extend beyond (or may present differently) than the psychological preference for introversion.