What’s the difference between someone with Asperger’s Syndrome and someone with narcissistic personality disorder? Is there one? And could narcissistic personality disorder possibly fit on the autism spectrum?
During a YouTube live stream, someone asked me to define the difference between narcissistic personality disorder and autism spectrum disorder, specifically Asperger’s syndrome. I didn’t feel like I knew enough about it to fully discuss it, so I said what I thought and promised I’d do some research and make a video. So here I am, and here’s that video.
Asperger’s Syndrome vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Turns out, there’s been a lot written on this topic, and it looks like that’s because there’s a commonly misunderstood issue at play here. As you’re probably well-aware, narcissists don’t seem to have much (if any) true empathy for people in their lives; that is, they don’t seem to care how their behavior makes others feel, nor do they seem to understand why people feel the way they do about various situations in their lives – they don’t “feel” people, so to speak, in the same way that you might if you’re an empath.
Why the confusion between Asperger’s syndrome and narcissistic personality disorder?
Shared symptoms include:
- The belief that they are special and unique
- Inability to express emotional and compassionate empathy for others
- The belief that they are the center of attention
- Heightened sensitivity to criticism
- Inability to accept responsibility for mistakes or inappropriate behavior.
- There are some key differences between these two conditions.
While people with Asperger’s syndrome tend to exhibit their inability to express empathy in a very blunt fashion, people with narcissistic personality disorder may engage in more subtle displays of their lack of empathy, such as:
- Pretending that they care about someone’s feelings
- Pointing out how a person was wrong when they make a mistake
- Offering criticism with the intent of being helpful
Based on this information, we have to conclude that someone with NPD is probably more devious than someone who has Asperger’s syndrome.
Empathy in Asperger’s syndrome vs. NPD
The issue that’s misunderstood is not related to narcissists, in this case, is related to people who have Asperger’s syndrome. There’s a commonly held but totally incorrect belief that people with Asperger’s syndrome also do not have empathy, but according to my research, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
People With Asperger’s HAVE Empathy, But Struggle to Express It
According to what people who understand Asperger’s syndrome have told me, and from what my research says, people with Asperger’s DO feel things, and they tend to be incredibly empathic. The disconnect is not directly with their emotions, but with the way they express them.
As I understand it, people with Asperger’s tend to have trouble with verbal expression of their feelings and they also tend to struggle to read faces, which may cause them to appear narcissistic. BUT, the difference here is that they DO feel the emotions and, according to some researchers, maybe more deeply than someone who is more neurotypical. (Read more about the different types of empathy here.)
But they can also become quite overwhelmed by these emotions, and combined with the struggle to communicate effectively, this often causes the person with Asperger’s to simply withdraw from the situation – so if you didn’t know better, you might think they didn’t care.
What are the differences between the two conditions?
We can’t discuss the differences without also covering the similarities, so let’s start there.
From what I gather, while both narcissists and people with Asperger’s are both goal-focused (often to a fault) and may appear to not care about the way people feel, one key difference is that your average narcissist really doesn’t care if they hurt you or your feelings (and they may even take delight in doing so), while someone with Asperger’s would truly prefer not to hurt you or anyone else.
As you know, my advice to someone who is dealing with someone with a severe case of NPD is to go no-contact if necessary – especially when the person is abusing you, mentally or physically.
But when it comes to someone with Asperger’s, the best course of action isn’t always so clear. See, even though you might take their behavior very personally and find yourself feeling emotional pain as a result of it if they don’t mean it personally, it’s really not right for you to take it that way. What I mean is that it’s not reasonable (or fair) to treat someone who is just not able to communicate well enough to express their true feelings in a way that you understand as though they are intentionally trying to hurt you – they aren’t in this case.
So, rather than reacting harshly and yelling or talking AT them, try being calm and talking with them, letting them know how their specific behavior affected you and what it caused you to feel or do in response, which you’d prefer not to do or feel. Explain on a logical level, and offer a potential alternative for the next time this situation occurs.
Strengths and Weaknesses
While someone with Asperger’s may be weak in certain areas, they’re strong in others – and they are capable of learning new ways of coping and dealing with people in many cases, and this is especially true if you speak to them in a respectful manner.
That brings me to another big difference between someone with narcissistic personality disorder and someone with Asperger’s. If you DO come to them to express your feelings, you’ll get entirely different results.
While a narcissist will deny any weakness and play mind games with you, often attempting to gaslight you so that you doubt your own mind and your own experiences, someone with Asperger’s is likely to be surprised that your feelings were hurt and have genuine remorse for what happened – they didn’t really mean to hurt you.
The person with Asperger’s is only trying to continue moving toward their goals, and they generally aren’t known to ever want to hurt anyone, especially not someone they care about.
Should NPD be on the autism spectrum?
All of this is contrary to the belief of one British psychiatrist, though, who claims that narcissistic personality disorder ought to be on the autism spectrum. No, I’m not kidding.
In an article in the Pan Arab Journal of Psychiatry, the good doctor says exactly that – simply that narcissistic personality disorder could potentially deserve classification as an autistic spectrum disorder.
Dr. Mansour writes, “There is now significant level of agreement that emotional processing problems like: lack of empathy, poor self-awareness, self-centeredness, poor reciprocation of emotion, poor ability to maintain emotional relationships, anxiety and anger outbursts are more or less central features of autism (10, 50,51).”
So, just reading that paragraph, you’d feel like he’s discussing NPD, right? Nope. It’s, according to him, a description of both narcissism and autistic spectrum disorders.
He also quotes from the ICM-10 listing these features of autism:
- Self-centeredness; inappropriate to developmental level and cultural expectations
- Poor self-awareness, poor ability to develop remorse or learn from mistakes
- Poor empathy or appreciation of others feelings
- Poor ability to reciprocate emotions.
- Hostile dependency on safe relations.
- Failure to develop emotional relationships appropriate to developmental level and social norms
- Treating people as objects or preferring objects over them
Again, this list certainly sounds a lot like narcissism.
Dr. Monsour concludes that “… it is noticeable that people with NPD, do not show a major degree of functioning problems in stress free environment or when they are supported (except that they are perceived as “not pleasant characters” to deal with). However under stress and without support they can become quite dysfunctional in a way not far from what we usually see in Asperger’s syndrome. “
So, what does all that mean? Well, if you ask me, the good doctor may be a little off-base, but what do I know? After all, I’m no psychiatrist, but based on what I’ve learned about these two conditions, I must respectfully disagree with this idea. I believe he is mistaken on the fact that people with Asperger’s lack empathy, as I explained previously, and I think that simple fact alone negates the possibility – not to mention the other differences between the two, which I can cover more extensively in another video if you’re interested.
Question of the Day
So you tell me – what do YOU think? Could this guy be on to something? Or do you agree with those who say that people with Asperger’s are often quite empathic, but lack the ability to communicate their feelings effectively and combined with their trouble reading faces, may simply appear to lack empathy?
Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below – I’d love to get a meaningful conversation going here.
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Related helpful resources for survivors of narcissistic abuse
- Codependency and Narcissism in Relationships: A Toxic Combination
- Narcissistic Abuse Recovery: Find the Light at the End of the Tunnel and Be Brave
- The Narcissist’s Soulmate Scam: Identifying a Love Bomber
- Are you married to a narcissist? 12 easy ways to spot
- Secrets and Self-Loathing: Identifying a Covert Narcissist
- This is the Only Way to Communicate With a Narcissist Effectively
- Narcissistic Altruism: The Gift That Keeps On Taking
- Narcissistic Rage and Narcissistic Injury: What You Need to Know
- Twisted Toxic Love: Inside the Distorted Mind of a Narcissist
- How Did I Fall Victim To A Narcissist?