Could Asperger’s Be Another Word for Introversion?

Asperger's and introversion
Asperger’s in adults could be an extreme form of introversion…or not.

Asperger’s syndrome, now referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder, is defined by difficulties in social communication. Adults with Asperger’s find it hard to “read” facial expressions, vocal tone and body language, recognize a joke, identify sarcasm, follow conversations, make eye contact, choose relevant topics of conversations, ask appropriate questions, and so forth. These differences often make social interactions unpleasant, uninteresting, or even embarrassing. As a result, many adults with Asperger’s prefer to limit socializing or even not to socialize at all.

But what if these differences are an outcome of an extreme form of introversion and not a disorder of the brain that unfolds as the person develops and grows, in this case a disorder called Asperger’s?

A new model of introversion argues that Asperger’s is an extreme extension of four factors that are basic to introversion:

  • Social Introversion: Preferring solitude to being with people.
  • Thought Introversion: Being reflective and introspective.
  • Anxiety Introversion: Shyness and repetitive thinking.
  • Inhibited Introversion: Resisting new experiences.

The model proposes that if one follows these four factors along a continuum, the result would be Asperger’s, at the milder end, and autism at its most extreme expression. One can see from these brief descriptions that the four factors of introversion map neatly onto the behavioral descriptions of Asperger’s. Furthermore, it is the presence of these four factors in different proportions that determine whether someone’s behavior is due to a simple case of introversion or Asperger’s. All the factors together in significant proportions lead to the behaviors that we know as Asperger’s.

The model also fits with how Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician, described his eponymous syndrome, that being, an inner rather than outer focus and a disturbance of affective (emotional) contact with other people. The introvert enjoys solitude, prefers short social engagements, works best when alone, and prefers one-on-one conversations, typical characteristics of Asperger’s.

Is It Really About Introversion?

Critics of the Asperger’s/Introversion theory fall into two general camps. One camp argues that the relevant factor in Asperger’s is an innate difficulty reading nonverbal social cues like body language and facial expressions. Because of this, people with Asperger’s prefer not to socialize or at least shy away from extended interactions with people. Thus, they are easily labeled as introverted.

The main point is that an inner, rather than outward focus, along with difficulty connecting emotionally with others cause the behaviors that we associate Asperger’s, not a construct called introversion.

The other camp focuses on the fact that many people with Asperger’s would not easily be described as introverted. They can be boisterous and loud, willing to talk to anyone and everyone, seeking new situations related to their special interests, and behavior oddly and differently. In other words, the opposite of introverted.

Furthermore, this position acknowledges overlap between an extroverted form of Asperger’s and an introverted form. The overlap consists of people who like to talk with others about their special interests, lack a good sense of conversational boundaries, and tire easily from trying to apply social rules and need time to recharge their batteries. These are people with a mixture of introverted and extroverted characteristics.

What to Conclude?

To date, the question of whether Asperger’s is a form of introversion or something completely different has not been conclusively answered and I, for one, suspect that may be answered. After all, introversion, Asperger’s and autism are ideas, and while ideas have practical value for any one individual, for example, the advantages of solitude vs. companionship, they cannot easily be proven to be right or wrong. We instead decide one idea is more useful than another. That may be the ultimate means of deciding whether Asperger’s makes sense as a form of introversion.

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Asperger’s psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. To ask a question or schedule an appointment, please call 415-922-1122.