Are Autistic People Introverts?

Do people with autism enjoy socializing?

Girl standing alone in front of group of girls

Getty

The popular image of a person with autism is a quiet, isolated individual who prefers solitude to social interaction. This is often true, but by no means always the case. While autistic people, by definition, have challenges with social communication, many enjoy social interaction, group activities, and friendships. Because such activities can be exhausting for a person with social communications challenges, however, relatively few people with autism are likely to be described as "gregarious."

What Is Introversion?

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test includes questions that determine whether an individual is introverted or extraverted. These definitions are helpful because they separate shyness and social anxiety from a need to have alone time. While extroverts are described as people who gain energy and insight from social engagement, introverts are described as follows:

"I like getting my energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions that are inside my head, in my inner world. I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with. I take time to reflect so that I have a clear idea of what I'll be doing when I decide to act. Ideas are almost solid things for me. Sometimes I like the idea of something better than the real thing."

In other words, introverts need not be shy or socially anxious. They may very much enjoy spending time with other people. On the other hand, they find it tiring to spend time in large groups, and they may prefer to think things through on their own rather than discussing ideas with others.

A Theory Linking Autism and Introversion

One theory, developed by Jennifer Grimes in 2010, is that introversion is a form of inner versus outer orientation and, thus, is strongly related to autism. In her dissertation, Introversion And Autism: A Conceptual Exploration Of The Placement Of Introversion On The Autism Spectrum, she states that: "[Introversion is] a continuous segment of the non-clinical part of the autism spectrum, and that it is not the same as the inverse of extraversion. When introversion and autism are placed on the same continuum, the nature of the relationship of the traits becomes more apparent... This review of literature [demonstrates] the apparent synonymous nature of the traits despite varying degrees of severity in expression."

Grimes' theory, while it is often discussed and debated, has not been supported by other researchers. Many point out that aspects of autism makes it more challenging to socialize—but that fact does not necessarily correlate to introversion (and certainly doesn't correlate to shyness or social anxiety, though both are relatively common in autism).

Why Introversion Is Associated With Autism

Autism is a developmental disorder that is defined by difficulties with social communication. Those difficulties can range from the subtle to the extreme. People with high functioning autism may find it hard to maintain eye contact or distinguish friendly teasing from bullying, while people with severe autism may be completely unable to use spoken language. Expressive and receptive speech, eye contact, body language, and a command of the nuances of vocal tone are all critically important tools for social communication.

Because social communication is so challenging for autistic people, most are not very good at it and many find it both frustrating and exhausting. That doesn't necessarily mean that they don't want to engage with others—but the process is neither simple nor natural.

  • Even people with very high functioning autism find it difficult or even impossible to "read" facial expressions, vocal tone, and body language. People with autism may be unable to identify a joke, pick up on sarcasm, or know when it's okay to interrupt a conversation. Many people with moderately severe autism have a hard time following rapid-fire conversations or forming responses quickly enough to participate appropriately.
  • Even the most intelligent autistic people must actually learn, through direct instruction or careful observation, how to recognize facial expressions and interpret body language. They may also need to practice their own social communication skills—shaking hands, making eye contact, smiling appropriately, and so forth. Even after years of practice, many people with autism are unable to "pass" for neurotypical (not autistic) because of differences in intonation, movement, or eye contact.
  • People with autism, while they may be very good observers, are not generally good at imitating others. Thus, while non-autistic people "blend in" by watching and imitating others in a social setting, autistic people are either unaware of unspoken social norms or struggle to identify and reproduce the behaviors they see around them.
  • In addition to difficulties with mechanical social communication skills, people with autism often choose unlikely topics of conversation, fixate on favorite topics, or ask unexpected questions. For example, a person with autism who is fascinated by astronomy may find it nearly impossible to stay focused on a conversation about any other topic. In addition, because of difficulties with social cueing, people on the spectrum may be unaware of social improprieties such as asking personal questions about a recent divorce or another person's physical appearance. These differences can make socializing uninteresting, unpleasant, or embarrassing.
  • Finally, most people on the autism spectrum are unusually sensitive to loud noise, bright lights, intense smells, and tactile sensations. A loud restaurant, rock concert, ball game, or dance may be physically overwhelming. Many large-group activities involve at least one if not all of these challenging experiences.

All of these challenges make social interaction (particularly in large groups) difficult and, in some cases, exhausting. As a result, some people with autism may choose to socialize rarely, or in small groups. In addition, many neurotypical people assume that a person who has a hard time socializing must, as a result, prefer not to socialize.

Autistic Introverts

The majority of people with autism can be described as introverts as defined by Myers Briggs. In other words, the majority of people on the spectrum prefer to interact in smaller groups and to have a good deal of alone time. Sticking with small groups and alone time serves a number of functions. Smaller groups (or alone time) can:

  • Offer interactions that move at a slower pace, making it easier to understand and respond to a conversational partner
  • Provide a much-needed break from loud, often chaotic interactions that are common in school settings and entertainment venues
  • Support special interests or allow time and space in which to pursue passionate interests
  • Allow time and space for reflection and planning
  • Allow time and space for recharging energy required for monitoring, analyzing, and responding to social cues
  • Make it possible to avoid potentially embarrassing or upsetting misunderstandings, teasing, or other negative social experiences

While all of these are important and meaningful reasons for preferring small groups and/or solitude, none suggest a dislike of social interaction in general. And, while social anxiety often does co-exist with autism, it is not a "baked-in" part of an autism diagnosis.

Autistic Extroverts

There are many autistic extroverts. People with autism who are also extroverts may find life more difficult than those who are natural introverts. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Few people on the autism spectrum can "pass" as non-autistic. Even the best-intentioned social partners can have negative reactions to someone who moves and sounds "different," especially if that person also seems socially clueless.
  • People with autism often say and do socially inappropriate things without being aware that they are doing so. This can lead to a range of negative outcomes; for children, it can lead to teasing or bullying while for adults it can lead to accusations of stalking or other impropriety.
  • Most people with autism have areas of special interest, and many are so focused on those areas of interest that it can be very hard to talk about anything else. While it's fine to discuss those "passions" in the right context (a group of people with a shared interest, or a club, for example), it's a problem in a general conversation. Some adults with autism feel hurt or insulted when others walk away while they are conversing on their pet subject.
  • Some people on the spectrum have difficulty with physical expectations related to eye contact, personal space, and personal privacy. Standing too close or asking or sharing personal information can feel threatening, and can lead to negative social consequences.

It's important to note that autistic people may appear to be introverted because of their lack of eye contact or awkward body language. This may be misleading: quite a few people on the spectrum are not always aware of the impact of their appearance or actions on others.

How People With Autism Manage Social Interaction

It is challenging to be a relatively social person who lacks the skills required for successful, spontaneous social interaction. To overcome these challenges, people on the spectrum use a wide range of coping techniques. Just a few include:

  • Using scripts and rehearsals to prepare for anticipated social events such as job interviews, cocktail parties, and even job interviews
  • Becoming musical or theatrical performers in order to have a specific, accepted, scripted role to play in a social venue
  • Depending on friends or family to speak for them or to break the ice (this is a particularly common approach among girls and women with autism)
  • Interacting as much as possible with like-minded people who share the same passions
  • Choosing social events and groups that are smaller or less challenging (going to a movie rather than out to dinner, for example)
  • Spending most social time with very close friends or family who are likely to understand their differences, interests, and challenges and are unlikely to pass judgment.

A Word from Verywell

Caregivers and partners of autistic individuals have a special challenge in helping their loved one to navigate social experiences. It may be helpful to think ahead about major social events (weddings, parties, etc.), identify potential challenges, and create and practice scripts to smooth the way. It's also important to check in with your autistic loved one to determine whether that person truly enjoys and wants social interaction. There is a strong bias in contemporary American cultures toward large social groups and daily social interaction—but the reality is that many cultures live much quieter, more secluded lives with great success!

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.