Are Aspies Self-Centered?

In his latest post at Inside the Mind of an Aspie, Aspie Guy is up-front and honest about how having Asperger’s makes him uncomfortable with bad news:

I really don’t know what to say. I don’t want to brush the bombshell off like it’s nothing, but I also don’t want to dwell on the negatives and reinforce just how bad everything sucks for this person. So most of the time I just get socially paralyzed and try not to react at all, which makes me look wooden and heartless.

He is spot on here.  Expressing sympathy in a way that leaves the person feeling genuinely comforted requires tact and skill, and it’s not something you want to get wrong, which leaves us standing there silent as we rack our brains for the right thing to say.  And it’s our nature to want to fix things, so if we know the words we say aren’t genuinely helping the person, we  often don’t say them.   On top of that, many of us have trouble expressing emotions.  All too often when I try to express to someone how much I care, my voice gets all stilted and almost mechanical, and nothing makes “I’m here for you” sound hollow and insincere like saying it as though you’re reading an instruction manual.  

He then goes on to write:

Then, sometimes my Aspergers kicks in and I just don’t seem to care. It’s horrible to say, but it’s true – often, my first reaction is to figure out if and how the news will affect me. I may be self centered, but that comes with the Aspie territory.

I’m going to have to disagree with him on this one, if nothing else because my aspie husband is one of the least self-centered people I know.   To be sure, everything from our difficulty expressing sympathy to our pre-occupation with our interests to having poor executive function and forgetting people’s birthdays makes us appear self-centered.  On top of that, our difficulties with theory of mind mean can make it difficult for us to understand someone else’s perspective.

The problem is how he defines self-centeredness.  If someone were to define self-centeredness as simply being focused on oneself, I would have no objection to that, because, well, it’s true.  It takes a lot of mental energy to get through the day and we can get so absorbed in our interests that we forget to eat, let alone call our parents to see how they’re doing.  But he goes one step further and equates self-centeredness with being selfish and uncaring.  And there is nothing inherent to autism that would make someone selfish and uncaring.  

Like so many other traits, self-centeredness in the form of not really giving a rip about anyone but yourself varies widely among different people and different situations, and it’s something that as humans we’re all affected with to some extent.  I have a feeling his reaction to his co-workers illness is not that uncommon, it’s just that he is self-aware and honest enough to admit to it.  We don’t usually have a deep connection with co-workers; that we spend so much time around people we don’t really care deeply about is just an unfortunate reality of modern life.  But even the closest relationships are affected by this kind of self-centeredness.  It’s the reason why parents drop their sick kids off at daycare when they don’t really have to or complain on Facebook that they had to stay up all night with their sick child.  Self-centeredness isn’t an Aspie thing, it is, most unfortunately, a human thing. 

Now, I have absolutely zero beef with Aspie Guy and would highly recommend his funny, honest, and insightful blog.  But the characterization of Aspies as self-centered in the sense of being selfish and uncaring is not only inaccurate but perpetuates one of the most negative stereotypes about autism. 

Some Aspies are selfish.  Many are caring.  Most are some combination of the two.  Just like everyone else. 

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7 Responses to Are Aspies Self-Centered?

  1. suburp says:

    I agree it’s a misconception. My son will say the most absurd things to cheer someone up and in most people’s understanding that’s inappropriate and inconsiderate. But when you have no real connection to what happened to the other person, and you can nothing about it, expressing the usual compassionate phrases just does not come natural to him. He sees the sadness though and a joke seems sometimes the right thing to say…when it’s not.
    I know he will often reflect on the situation though and talk about it later and tell ME how affected the other person must be, so he clearly feels for others, just not spontaneously and with the right words…

  2. Aspermama says:

    There’s definitely a certain logic to wanting to make someone laugh when they’re upset, so I can totally see why he would try to make a joke. I’ve only recently gotten to a place where I can say something sympathetic and not get stuck on trying to find something helpful or lighthearted to say. It’s a tough situation for sure.

  3. bjforshaw says:

    It’s funny that I’m trying to learn to be selfish right now as I cope with depression. It’s so difficult to put my own needs first because I’m naturally compassionate. But I can also identify with suburp’s comment about trying to lighten the mood when somebody reports bad news: that’s my natural reaction too, but I’ve been working recently on techniques for validating and it’s worked so well in a couple of chats with friends about their problems that they have ended up feeling better. Which makes me feel better too, because I hate to see people I care about unhappy. I guess that doesn’t really make me self-centered. Like you said above, the problem has always been expressing my sympathy rather than any lack of feeling for the person’s suffering.

  4. I really struggle with this one. A lot of the time, I try to DO things for people who are going through a difficult time to make up for the fact that I can’t really FEEL what they are feeling. One thing I definitely do feel is guilt for not suffering more when people around me are suffering. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s just that sometimes, I have trouble getting inside other people’s feelings.

    • Aspermama says:

      Oh, I know exactly what you mean that guilt. I find that when it’s something I can relate to or have been through myself, I feel for people very deeply, but when it’s something that I find hard to relate to or imagine I find it hard to know what to feel and I experience guilt over that too. But as you said, not feeling what people do is in no way the same thing as not caring, and doing things for people is a powerful way to express that you do care. Thanks so much for commenting.

  5. Pingback: Aspie Rants on empathy & communication | www.MyZebraSoup.com

  6. Pingback: An Aspie’s Space | aspanswers

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