Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021
Autism, Asperger’s and Schizoid People: On the Spectrum
One can only understand people after one has noted the books they read, the pictures they hang on their walls, the diversions they seek and the company they keep. (W.A. Hunt, The American Psychologist, 1951)
Here are two people. What would you say is their problem or diagnosis?
John is 20 years old and has exhibited language difficulties since the age of two. He has always been irritable, introverted and does not seek social relationships with his family or peers. He is sensitive to unexpected change and often reacts aggressively by hitting his head or throwing things. This behaviour caused him to be bullied at school. John knows everything about trains, and has pictures of the London tube maps on his wall.
Anna is 22 years old and works at her local library where she used to spend every weekend as a child. Anna has a degree in computer science. Anna used to get in trouble at school for not doing her homework, as she was only interested in working on her computer. Anna does not have any friends. She only likes talking about computers and her peers don’t enjoy this, so they don’t spend much time with her. Anna does not look people in the eyes when she talks to them, and she often uses a monotone voice. Anna lives at home with her parents.
The answer is that John is severe Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (language problems, doesn’t seek relationships, sensitive to change, single focus) and Anna is high functioning ASD (need for routine, single focus, lack of social skills).
Most people have heard about autism and Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and can describe some of the symptoms of these disorders but cannot clearly differentiate between the two. They may also have heard of the expression of ’being on the spectrum’, suggesting that the symptoms can go from very severe to relatively mild. Furthermore, there remain a number of contentious issues in this whole area.
ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder with symptoms of persistent deficits in communion and social interaction. Sufferers tend to have difficulties with all sorts of interaction and relationships. They may show repetitive patterns of behaviour or interests, and be committed to routines. It has been estimated that around 1 in 100 children has an ASD, with rates five times greater in boys than girls.
There are many misconceptions or inadequate training regarding the causes, symptoms and treatments of ASD. There is also the concept of high-functioning autism (HFA), although there is an ongoing debate about whether that is a valid concept. Individuals with HFA and AS have average or above average intelligence but may struggle with friendship formation. Both AS and HFA do present themselves largely the same way, and as a result may be treated in a similar way. A major difference is that those with HFA show delayed language whereas in AS this does not occur.
People with Asperger’s Syndrome find it difficult to identify and express their feelings, just like those with HFA. They seem to have very low emotional intelligence. They speak without much emotion and often show a need to follow schedules rigidly and intensely, and become obsessively interested in specific topics. As a result, as adults, they may become world experts in highly detailed topics in maths, music or engineering.
Compared with classic autism, children with Asperger’s Syndrome/HFA have IQs that fall in the normal or even superior range. They are often not diagnosed until relatively late.
There have been many major developments over the last 20 years trying to understand the causes as well as the treatment of ASD.
SCHIZOID PERSONALITY DISORDER
This personality disorder is characterized by a pattern of indifference to social relationships as well as a restricted range of emotional experience and expression. Schizoid people neither desire nor enjoy close relationships, including being part of a family; they may have few close friends or confidants; and display constricted affects. They can often appear to be aloof, cold or rarely reciprocating gestures or facial expressions, such as smiles or nods.
Schizoid personality disorder is also characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships. Those with Asperger’s Syndrome have difficulty with empathy and understanding of others, while those with schizoid personality disorder are able to communicate and form relationships but choose not to. People with Asperger’s Syndrome tend to be less withdrawn than people with schizoid personality disorder and the latter will rarely have fixations or a preference for repetitive behaviour.
Oldham and Morris (2000) note five traits and behaviours that are clues to the presence of the schizoid person who has a solitary style:
• Solitude. They have little need of companionship and are most comfortable when alone.
• Independence. They are self-contained and do not require interaction with others in everyday life.
• Sangfroid. They are even-tempered, calm, dispassionate, unsentimental and unflappable.
• Sexual composure. They are not much driven by any sexual needs.
• Feet on the ground. They are unswayed by either praise or criticism and can confidently come to terms with their own behaviour.
These are the cold fish of the personality disordered world: distant, aloof and emotionally flat, often preferring the affection of animals to that of people. They are very self-contained: they do not need others to admire, entertain, guide or amuse them, and they report being free of loneliness. They seem completely dispassionate; they are doers and observers, not feelers; they seem stoical in the face of pain and passion.
Schizoid people often seem detached from social relationships, and to have a restricted range of expression of emotions in interpersonal settings. They are thought of as unresponsive, and appear indifferent to the praise or criticism of others — absolutely nothing seems to get them going.
Baron-Cohen, S., Lombardo, M.V., Auyeung, B., Ashwin, E., Chakrabarti, B., & Knickmeyer, R. (2011). Why are autism spectrum conditions more prevalent in males? PLoS Biol, 9(6), e1001081.
Furnham, A., & Buck, C. (2003). A comparison of lay-beliefs about autism and obsessive—compulsive disorder. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 49(4), 287—307.