Introversion and Autism (abridged)

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

I have read a few recent articles about Introversion being placed on the autism spectrum. I realize this can be a scary thought. Saying such a thing places a personality trait outside the realm of what we understand as personality and places it closer to a mental disorder or a disease.

It is similar to some psychologists wishing to put Introversion into the upcoming version of the DSM as a type of mental illness. (And yes, this whole thing still makes me irate. Like really? This idea has only been around since the 1920s and has been a well understood part of human personality for some time.)

I can understand why something like introversion would be a misunderstood concept. It is kind of like being an INTJ on the Meyers Briggs test, and INTJs are of course Introverts. INTJs are rational, systematic thinkers who seem rather emotionless in a world that seems to thrive on emotion and irrationality, or at least it does to the INTJ. No wonder INTJ folk (like myself) are accused of such things as being angry when they are not. Most likely, if an INTJ is talking in a stern voice that person just wants to get a point across. If that person were angry, you would be aware of that fact without asking, “are you angry?” *insert eyeroll*

Really, we are not mad. We promise. We just wish you would listen to reason.

[…]

As for the comparisons of introverts to autistic individuals, I do see some similarities, but not enough to classify introverts as high functioning autistics or high functioning asperger’s babies. We do our best to make eye contact. We all can handle normal conversations. We may not always like change, but we can adapt and we can actually adapt pretty well to a given situation. But like those individuals in the autism spectrum, introverts have a hard time focusing on someone talking if there are other sensory stimuli going on, such as having a TV or radio on. Too much sensory stuff is always distracting for an introvert, which is one of the reasons why we hate loud parties. All those people talking, all that noise, all that movement, color, and lights is just a lot for us to process at once. Our brains get full and we see red notifying us of “sensory overload.” The thing is introversion isn’t about shyness or being misanthropic. It is just about sensory overload and it happens quite easily to us just as how it does for autistic individuals.

Just know that though introverts may have traits that may appear somewhat similar to autistic individuals, it does not mean we should be put on medication or be seen as abnormal or in need of treatment, even if you do think we are a little odd. We should be admired for the traits that we have just as how extroverts are admired for their gregarious personalities. Many of us are creative types, whether that creativity is shown in common ways we think of being creative or through more scientific pursuits, and so we need time alone to create. We are great listeners. We also have a great ability to think before we act or speak. Whereas the extrovert will learn through talking (how on earth they do that, I don’t know but in some ways I admire the dexterity of it), we learn through listening, watching and reading. If we have something important to impart, we will speak. We also enjoy being alone and we never require your constant attention. In fact, we would love it if you would be so kind as to be the center of attention. Please, do talk more and do stand in the center of the room. That means it is less work and less strain for us. And trust me, socializing for us requires way more work than it does for someone who is extroverted and cannot wait to attend that party that we have been dreading going to for a week.

Also important to understand is that though less than half of the population is introverted, not all introverts are created equally. For example, I hate talking in small groups, but I enjoy speaking in front of a class or a large group of people that I barely know. There are introverts out there who loathe speaking in front of a crowd. I am surprisingly at my weakest when I need to have conferences with individual students, which is an act some introverts may look forward to. Conference time is when I ask students to bring 2-3 questions and revisions so that I know what to talk about with them. Otherwise, I would end up asking them stupid questions about their day and struggle through the whole conference when I need to be the one helping them through whatever they are struggling with.

It is also important to realize that perhaps not everything needs a label. But part of being human means trying to understand others and the world and one of the ways we do that is through labeling. It is why people take personality tests like the Meyers Briggs and why people get into astrology.  (I am somewhat obsessed with personality tests like the Meyers Briggs and my INTJ status, by the way. I’ve also gathered that this may annoy some people. If you are one of them, it might be wise to stop reading my blog posts after this one. I also want to say at this moment that none of what I say here should be taken personally.) People want to define what occurs within us and around us to better understand the world and humanity. It is part of our nature. And really, if linking autism and introversion will help us understand the brains of autistics, I am fine with that. I am only concerned with how this linking could affect popularly held views on introverts, even though these popularly held views have always been poor and occasionally downright silly. One of the main differences between the introvert and extrovert brain, for example, is that information simply takes longer to be processed in an introvert brain because we like to literally turn the information over a few times in our heads. (As I understand it, the information has more places that it travels in the brain and therefore just travels farther and takes longer. We are basically weighing how to respond. Extroverts will typically just respond. And there is tons of evidence out there to show how introversion and extroversion is literally just in our heads as this article shows: http://www.livescience.com/8500-brains-introverts-reveal-prefer.html ) Autism is something that we are becoming more aware of and therefore trying to better understand. Once we better understand that, we can come up with better understand what Autism is and how to counteract it, if that is possible and if we want to and perhaps by doing this we can also better understand introversion.

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