kenneth roberson, ph.d

Narcissism Or Asperger’s: Which One Is it?

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Asperger’s syndrome and narcissism may appear one and the same but they are very different, driven by a completely different cause.

The taker can only take those parts of ourselves that we give away.

Jenna Ryan

I see people with Asperger’s syndrome as a bright thread in the rich tapestry of life.

    Tony Attwood



I am often asked, “How can I tell whether my partner has Asperger’s or narcissism? Is there a difference?”

While a great deal of overlap exists between these two conditions, there is an important difference. Narcissists don’t care if they hurt you or your feelings. People with Asperger’s do, they just don’t realize they are doing it.

Both narcissists and those with Asperger’s appear self-absorbed and neglectful of others, interested only in themselves and caring little about others, but what drives these similarities is much different.

Narcissists ignore and disregard other people because they think they are more important than anyone else. They have little interest in, or concern for, others. People with Asperger’s, on the other hand, may appear self-absorbed but this is because they don’t realize they’re acting this way. They see things from their own point of view and can’t imagine someone else thinking and feeling differently.

Crippling insecurity is at the root of narcissism. The person reacts by acting completely the opposite, hoping this will cure the terrifying sense of complete failure that motivates their grandiosity and self-absorption. People with Asperger’s may, and often do, feel inadequate but what causes their apparent self-absorption is not a desperate attempt to conceal their inadequacy but their limited ability to understand that other people are different from them, think differently, feel differently, have different interests, goals, etc.

To help you better understand what prompts each condition, here is a comparison of the behaviors that are common to each.


Asperger’s                                                                   Narcissism

Little understanding of the hurt                                Hurts other people’s feelings and they cause others.                                                                                                 doesn’t care.

Not sensitive.                                                                 Insensitive.

Not driven to blame others.                                       Blames others compulsively.

Has empathy but can’t show it.                                 Lacks empathy. Intentionally hurts                                                                                                                              others

Wants structure, predictability, and                        Thrives on chaos, unpredictability, order.                                                                                                                   and disorder.

Doesn’t understand social interactions.                  Controls and manipulates people.

Can accept limits.                                                         Refuses limits and will retaliate if pressed.


Narcissism is a deficit of caring for others. Asperger’s is a deficit of social awareness. This difference has important implications.

As Mark Goulston, M.D. has noted, “…it is neither fair nor reasonable to treat someone who is just not sensitive (i.e. they are not doing it intentionally) as if they were someone who is insensitive (i.e. they are intentionally not sensitive).

This said, I do want to be clear that Asperger’s and narcissism may, and often do, appear one and the same. Given their problems with social awareness, adults with Asperger’s are prone to act insensitively. They mistreat others, often without regard to the damage they cause and what they should do to repair it.

As the partner of one person with Asperger’s said to me,

I feel assaulted verbally daily with little regard to how I feel. It’s exhausting, completely exhausting, that we can’t have a normal interaction instead of the verbal and emotional abuse I get. He’s completely oblivious to the fact that I have feelings. I hurt. I need support. I want to be loved, appreciated and respected, and that happens all too infrequently.

But the insensitivity of someone on the spectrum is not for lack of caring, concern, or even a desire to change. Incomprehension of the needs and feelings of others is the root cause. The good news is that with understanding, education, and support, someone with Asperger’s can learn to appreciate and treat others the way they want and deserve to be treated.

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.