By Professor Tony Attwood and Dr Michelle Garnett
One important task of adolescence is to develop a sense of identity, or a concept of self, but as one autistic teenager said, “I don’t know who I am, I cannot communicate my inner self with those I want to. I am unable to communicate on a really deeper level.” When we asked Danny, another autistic teenager, to describe his personality and the personalities of people he knew, he replied, “I don’t know what the names of personalities are.” These quotes illustrate one of the different ways the autistic mind works, specifically, despite often high intelligence and fluent speech, there is a struggle to understand and describe who they are to other people, including themselves.
A term that we have created to describe this characteristic of autism is alexipersona, or a lack of words to describe personality characteristics. A common characteristic associated with autism is a noticeable paucity or lack of words to describe the personality characteristics of another person or themselves unless the self and personality has become a passion and therefore seriously researched. An autistic teenager can usually categorize objects and facts, especially concerning their interests, according to a logical framework but has considerable difficulty developing a framework for people.
The difficulty is a very specific one and tends to represent a delay in the development of the skill, rather than a complete absence. Very young neurotypical children first divide people into one of only two groups or character dimensions, ‘nice’ and ‘not nice.’ The next stage is to accept that someone can have several personality characteristics. The typical child can describe his or her teacher as ‘She can be kind, but then she can be mean sometimes.’ A person can be perceived as having more than one personality attribute. In primary school typical children start to understand which of their peers are ‘good’ and ‘bad guys,’ whom to approach and whom to avoid. They also learn to adapt their behaviour according to the personality or character of the person they are with. As most children become teenagers, they increase their vocabulary to describe different personality attributes and broaden their concept of personality. For example, in adolescence, friendship is not based on proximity, possessions or physical abilities but on aspects of personality such as being funny, caring, and trustworthy. The child has matured beyond using visible characteristics to describe people to an innate understanding of someone else’s mind and an innate ability to describe that mind. The ability that enables these developments is “theory of mind.”
Theory of Mind ability
“Theory of mind” is the ability to innately, without conscious effort, infer another’s thoughts, expectations, beliefs, and intentions. These difficulties have also been referred to as ‘mind-blindness.’ We know that difficulty with ‘theory of mind’ is a key reason for the social communication difficulties that are inherent in being autistic. It is now also recognised that for autistic people, ‘mind blindness’ also applies to their own minds, as well as the minds of others. That, is, it is more difficult for an autistic teenager to self-reflect and come to conclusions to understand their own experience of themselves in terms of their personality characteristics, social persona, and abilities. There is considerable research showing that many autistic teenagers also struggle with their gender identity. This difficulty with self-awareness, or anosognosia, will inhibit the development of self-identity across all dimensions of self.
Fortunately, many autistic people can develop ‘theory of mind’ abilities. Many of the activities and information in social skill programmes for autistic children focus on increasing ‘theory of mind’ skills. Other autistic teenagers and adults recognise that they do not innately have strong skills in this area, and they work hard to acquire them. We now understand that an autistic person tends to have ‘theory of mind’ delay, rather than a deficit. Developing ‘theory of mind’ abilities is likely to assist the person’s development of sense of self.
To explore and develop a sense of self-identity, it is also important to extend an autistic person’s vocabulary of different personality types and to develop a framework for understanding different personalities.
For many autistic children and adolescents, the comments and judgements of peers have often been derogatory, rejecting and humiliating. There is a risk that those critical rather than complimentary comments become the foundation of the concept of self and a belief of being defective. We have found that the concept of self for autistic teenagers and adults tends to be very negative and fragmented and a significant cause of feelings of low self-worth and depression.
Constant bullying and humiliation by peers can lead autistic people to believe that they really are defective in the ways described by the predators of the school. As Faye, an autistic woman and public speaker, said, ‘If you are told each and every day by your peers, your teachers and your family that you are stupid, you learn pretty quickly that you are stupid.’ This can lead to beliefs about the self that are judgmental and critical, such as ‘I must be stupid,’ ‘I am defective,’ and ‘There is something undeniably wrong with me,’ which can both make the person depressed and keep them depressed. In contrast, typical adolescents, when criticized by peers, are more likely to have several close friends who can quickly and easily repair their emotions and emerging beliefs and provide reassurance and evidence that the negative suggestions are not true.
Autistic teenagers tend to be natural philosophers and, in exploring their sense of identity, may engage in subjective and solitary self-analysis and exploration of existentialism at a deeper and broader level than their peers. This may include recognising that you are different to your peers and wondering why. A potential explanation may be to consider whether you have the conventional characteristics and interests of your gender and to explore potential outcomes for changing gender. Further information on gender identity may be obtained from the Internet and gender identity support groups.
At some stage in childhood, an autistic child recognizes that he or she is different to other children. There may be four psychological reactions to that realization, namely depression, escape into imagination, denial and survival by imitation or camouflaging. When the reaction to autism is to achieve social acceptance by acting, using a pre-determined script and designated role, autistic people may camouflage their social difficulties but not be true to their real selves or understand who they really are. Their personality is determined by their role in a particular situation and by imitating socially successful people. An autistic adult who is a retired professional actor said that: ‘It was only in my adult years I developed my identity.’ During his childhood through to his young adult years, he did not know who he was other than a repertoire of roles. An autistic teenager may create one false persona after another, as explained by an autistic teenager: “I don’t have a personality; I mimic people”. They become a chameleon, as in the quotation, “My personality changes a lot around different people”. The sense of self is contextual. The construction of personality is from the fragments of the people with whom they want to create a connection and acceptance.
The authentic self
When a neurotypical adolescent or adult is asked the question, ‘who are you? Their reply tends to describe their social roles, for e.g. I am a daughter, and/or aspects of their personality, for e.g. I am kind and conscientious. An autistic person is more likely to define themselves by what they know and do, usually valuing intellectual rather than social abilities.
During a recent recording of the YouTube ‘Ask Dr Tony’ videos, the following question described the issue of removing the mask and revealing the true self.
“Hello, I’m a 35-year-old female who was diagnosed autistic two years ago after the diagnosis of my oldest son. As much as the diagnosis was a revelation to me, the more I learned about the social mask I’ve been putting on for years and how it’s negatively affected me, the more I want to discard it. My problem is that I do not know what lies beneath, so to speak. How do I go about finding out my real identity?”
We suggest slowly removing the mask, initially with those who are likely to be supportive and trusted. There may be creation of an explanation for those characteristics of autism that other people may find confusing. For example, “I’m the sort of person who talks and talks about horses. I become very excited. However, I’m not very good at reading signs of boredom in someone. If I’m boring you, please stop me. I do not want you to feel uncomfortable”.
We strongly encourage gradually removing the mask to reveal and explain the authentic self because the alternative is the risk of depression from mental energy depletion from maintaining a false self and anxiety regarding social performance.
A study by Cooper, Smith and Russell (2017) found that while the autistic participants in the study reported poorer mental health, having a positive autistic social identity appeared to offer a protective mechanism. We need to facilitate positive autism identities, and this may be achieved by accessing autism advocacy groups which focus on the positive traits associated with autism and the strengths of their identity.
Nita Jackson, a young autistic woman, advises other autistic people:
You’ve got to accept yourself for who you are – however tough this may be. Being in denial will only hinder you. Acknowledge your syndrome, research it, and remember that anyone who is unkind to you because of your difference isn’t worth it in the first place. This is easier said than done, I know – I’m not completely there yet! Accepting yourself, therefore, is the key to personal success… And, most importantly, be true to yourself because, ultimately, you only have yourself to depend on. (Jackson 2002).
Where to Now?
Our online course Succeeding with Autistic Teenagers contains a section on developing a positive self-identity for autistic adolescents. We also discuss the psychological, emotional, and physical changes for autistic teenagers, Internet gaming, issues such as managing a meltdown and sleep, friendship, sexuality and gender identity, and preparation for employment.
Cooper, Smith and Russell (2017) European Journal of Social Psychology 47
Jackson 2002, Standing Down Falling Up Lucky Duck Publishing pp.16-17