Introversion, Autism, And Avoiding Stigma

I find fascinating the suggestion that introversion might have some relation to autism because before my diagnosis the elements of introversion resonated with me, and I found it a useful tool to manage certain social stresses, both in terms of how I dealt with them internally and how I justified my reactions to the world and to other people. Introversion was my only toolkit.

I’m not sure I’m convinced introversion actually relates to autism, but the language of introversion certainly helped me explain to people what my limitations were, in a social communication context, before I learned that the language of autism was far better and far more responsive. So I’ve been doing some reading of people debating “introversion versus autism”.

Dictionaries tend to define introversion as something along the lines of “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life” or “the state of being concerned primarily with one’s own thoughts andfeelings rather than with the external environment”.

Introverts discussing introversion tend to describe it more in terms of what energizes them versus what enervates them as an introvert.

An introvert prefers to spend time alone in order to recharge their inner being. An introvert may appear to be shy to others, but that is not necessarily an accurate label. Being among groups of friends, family and even strangers can be wonderfully stimulating and joyous occasions. Interacting with people and attention to multiple sources of stimuli tends to draw down an introvert’s energy causing them to eventually withdraw to spend time alone to re-energize. Small talk and pointless conversations tend to draw down an introvert’s energy rapidly.

The way in which introverts describe this experience seems to be why some people think there’s a possible connection between introversion and autism, despite the confusing fact that autistic people aren’t all introverted. This sort of suggests to me that it’s less about a possible connection, or about introversion being on the spectrum, than about a bunch of people deeming themselves or their loved ones introverted when instead they actually are probably somewhere on the spectrum.

I was especially struck by this idea when I ended up on a mommyblog whose page title revealingly differs from its post title: “Why I Won’t Take My Introverted Son To Be Evaluated For Autism”.

After providing what she calls a “laundry list” of common autistic features that her son definitely displays, she decides that her son instead is simply an introvert without any discussion of what defines introversion. Further, she argues that the fact that her son talks a lot at home and engages with his sister means he can’t possibly be autistic.

What gets me, though, is the bit where she just throws autistic people under the bus.

To consider him autistic would … minimize his natural temperament and strengths. …

I’ve read this again and again and I can’t for the life of me identify how this is meant to be read. Maybe he is simply introverted (although I really do doubt it). That’s fine, but how, exactly, would her son instead being autistic “minimize his natural temperament and strengths”? Those things would still be there.

Does she think that what in her son is “natural” and “strong” if he’s introverted suddenly becomes “unnatural” and “weak” if he’s autistic? How else are we supposed to read that line?

It reminds me of the agitation I felt when I wrote about the father who, because he hates labels and believes life is only and entirely about one’s own “free will”, refuses to call his son autistic, instead preferring only to say that he was diagnosed on the spectrum. There is something about the idea of being autistic that seems either to offend people or to make them afraid.

The only thing being minimized by avoiding either a potential diagnosis or use of the word itself is the future of someone who in fact might be autistic.

The one positive thing I can say here is that maybe this woman’s son at least will grow up with the gift of the language of introversion, a language that, while inadequate to the task when I discovered it later in life but still before my autism diagnosis, did give me ways to protect myself against some of the impacts of unknowingly being an autistic person.

Maybe he will find some insulation there. Maybe he will find some navigational tools.

It’s still better, though, to find out if you have the right toolkit, the right language. Fearing that being autistic will brand your child with some sort of lifelong stigma, or, more weirdly, suddenly convert their natural temperament and strengths into something unnatural and weak?

That is the stigma in action.