People, with or without autism spectrum disorder, have their own unique personality and temperament. Many people may also have diagnosed or undiagnosed behavioral health disorders based upon DSM criteria. In the case of autism spectrum disorder (as with any other disorder), an individual may have comorbid conditions such as anxiety, depression, or any of the numerous disorders in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
In addition to comorbid disorders, temperament may play a role in the way someone functions in day to day life.
Individuals with ASD May Not Have Many Friends
When a child or adolescent (or even an adult) attends a treatment service, such as applied behavior analysis, behavior therapy, or social work services, it may be discovered through client interview, observation, assessments, or other methods that the individual doesn’t have friends or maybe they only have a few or just one friend.
Don’t Assume They Need More Friends
As a clinician providing services to individuals with ASD, it is important not to push your personal (or even previously held professional) beliefs about how people should socialize in today’s world onto your client.
Society often makes it seem that people need to have many friends, attend social activities often, socialize by initiating and maintaining conversation often, and so on.
The Problem with Pushing Socialization onto Someone with ASD…
…Especially Introverted ASD Individuals
There is at least one problem with this perception…
People, with or without ASD, who naturally have an introverted temperament, may not benefit from being pushed or encouraged to make and maintain more friends or to engage in socialization more often.
Research suggests that autism spectrum disorder may often be linked “to an introvert, rigid, passive-dependent temperament with low novelty seeking, high harm avoidance, low reward dependence, and high persistence (Vuijk, Deen, Sizoo, & Arntz, 2018).” This, of course, is not speaking to all individuals with ASD, but there is some support that many people with ASD have an introverted personality with or without the other traits mentioned.
What Does it Mean to Be Introverted?
Being introverted is not just being shy or not talking to other people very much.
Being introverted is often compared to being extroverted.
Being introverted includes the following about one’s general state of being:
- Introverts have a particular way of responding to environmental stimulation, including social situations. Introverts experience greater quality of life and satisfaction when they are surrounded by less stimulation (such as having fewer people around) as compared to extroverts who thrive on more outside stimulation (such as being at a party with lots of people).
- Introverts tend to work through things more slowly and with more deliberate thought than do extroverts. The brain of an introvert and an extrovert is different. Introverts recall things through long-term memory which can result in more complex associations whereas extroverts create their thoughts by taking small bits of information from the short-term memory. This means introverts may take longer to process information and to come up with their response.
- Introverts can get immersed and very focused in on a task.
- Although introverts may be capable of attending social gatherings and engaging in a social situation, they eventually desire to go back home, have some peace and quiet, and relax. Introverts often prefer to socialize with only a few close family and friends. They often listen more than they talk. They can often communicate more effectively through writing rather than through speaking. Introverts tend not to enjoy small talk. In contrast, extroverts rarely have trouble finding something to talk about and can talk to almost anyone.
Everyone is somewhere on the introversion-extroversion spectrum. Some people experience more introversion or more extroversion than others.
Presence of Introversion in ASD
Looking at the characteristics of introversion listed in the previous section, we can see that many individuals with ASD seem to have many of these characteristics, as well.
- Individuals with ASD often get overwhelmed with too much stimulation and prefer less stimulation or function better with less stimulation in their environment.
- Individuals with ASD can focus in on particular tasks at times. Sometimes they spend more time on something than what other people may think is typical of the general population such as spending countless hours on a puzzle or spending days researching a specific topic.
- Individuals with ASD may need more time to complete tasks or to accurately respond as compared to others.
- Individuals with ASD may only have a few close relationships.
- Individuals with ASD may have a space, room, or area that they like to go to to relax and get away from the chaotic nature of the world.
- Individuals with ASD sometimes have difficulty with small talk and conversations.
Introverts Don’t Need to Fit an Extrovert’s Mold
Instead of assuming that everyone – including everyone with ASD – should fit a certain mold which includes frequent socialization, making and keeping friends, improving conversation skills and small talk, and so on, consider whether the person you are trying to help is an individual with ASD who is also introverted in nature.
Even in the school systems, extroverted personalities are often encouraged and reinforced while introverted personalities are rarely acknowledged and generally don’t get considered in the process of curriculum and instructional programming.
Many schools use learning strategies that better suit extroverts, such as group projects or questions from the teacher being spontaneously spoken to the class with those who respond more quickly getting recognition.
Recommendations for Helping the Introverted Individual with ASD
To support introverts (including introverts with ASD), consider the following ideas (Personality Diversity, 2016):
- Allow the individual to have more time to respond
- Reinforce responding even if it takes more time to be displayed as compared to peers
- Allow written responses instead of verbal responses for some activities
- Use technology to benefit the individual – For instance, the individual can respond and participate in an electronic medium such as an online classroom, typing, texting, etc.
- Rather than simply requiring a direct response, consider allowing the individual to respond by writing down or summarizing what he heard or saw in his or her preferred method of communication
- In a group setting, when its important to require participation from all group members do so but do it in a structured format (such as taking turns in a particular order) while giving participants advance notice as to what they will be asked to do in front of the group. This could help the introverted learner feel more comfortable participating.
Take It From Here – Not Everyone Needs More “Social Skills”
So, if you are working with, teaching, parenting, or helping an individual with autism spectrum disorder, remember that they, too, just like everyone else, have a natural temperament that impacts who they are and what contributes to a good life for them.
Many (although not all) individuals with ASD may also have an introverted temperament. By being introverted, they may not need more friends or more socialization “skills” to have a high quality of life.
Truly think about the individual they are before making them work on making more friends or creating a goal to engage in social skills (such as having a conversation with someone multiple times a day).
Consider things like whether their social skills are impairing their quality of life, their satisfaction, or their personal goals and whether improving their social skills would help them to achieve any goals they may have (or that their caregiver thinks may be important for them) as well as what fits with their values.
Personality Diversity: Extrovert and Introvert Temperaments. (2016). Journal of Food Science Education, 15: 73-74. doi:10.1111/1541-4329.12091
Vuijk, R., Deen, M., Sizoo, B., & Arntz, A. (2018). Temperament, character, and personality disorders in adults with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic literature review and meta-analysis. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 5(2), 176-197. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s40489-018-0131-y