A stable self-image helps us to recognise more quickly and accurately what is important to us in the moment. It is the basis for self-confidence in difficult situations and helps us not to be destroyed by criticism or the stresses of life. It is the basis for a healthy self-esteem and the foundation for inner stability. An understanding of one’s self helps us to communicate with others and improves the quality of our lives.
What are the characteristics of the self-concept of autistic people?
Challenges of transitions
Autistic people have a much harder time with change than neurotypical people. And adolescence is probably the biggest change in a person’s life. Society, demands and the body change. At the same time, it is the time when the foundations of your own identity are being laid. Autistic people often face bullying, feelings of social inadequacy, social isolation and negative judgements from others during this time.
Problems with understanding social interaction are the key symptom of ASD. They affect the way we perceive ourselves in many ways.
- Our self-image is largely shaped by our experiences of interacting with people around us, and if these experiences are often perceived as unsuccessful, then it is more difficult to build a self-image in general, and it is particularly difficult to build a positive self-image.
- Research shows that the higher the intelligence of autistic people, the higher the level of perceived social incompetence. And this incompetence is not always objectively confirmed (i.e. people around them see the situation differently). And the higher the level of perceived social incompetence, the less confidence they have in themselves to judge what is happening (“I am socially incompetent!”) and the more confidence they have in others. So autistic people may rely more on the feedback and judgements of others (because they understand better, they see better) and less on themselves in determining who they are.
- A lack of understanding of social interactions may prevent them from understanding their problems with social interaction. At some level, a lack of understanding of socialisation reduces the ability to recognise that there is a fundamental problem. For example, autistic people may perceive themselves very differently from how others around them perceive them. And if there is no understanding of the problem, there is no way to change things.
- For people with ASD, social life and interaction with others play a smaller role in their self-image than for neurotypical people. When describing their identity, autistic people talk less about social roles and relationships and more about what they normally do in life (knitting, hiking, working).
- It is also thought that feelings of social inadequacy have a negative impact on perceptions of agency – the ability to influence one’s own life.
Difficulties with abstract thinking
Self-perception is to a large extent made up of abstract concepts. This means that not only do you need to understand what ‘introvert’, ‘feminine’ and ‘open-minded’ mean, but you also need to be able to try out such categories on yourself (crazy, yes). So many autistic people may
- Lack the words to describe their identity
- Not have the ability or skill to relate such words to their own experiences.
For autistic people it is particularly difficult to think abstractly about people.
In particular, it is associated, for example, with the prevalence of gender dysphoria in people with ASD. Finally, gender is no less a simple social construct than phlegmatism. Firstly, it is not clear how to apply it to oneself, and secondly, it is not clear why to do so in the first place.
Difficulties with abstract, fuzzy ideas make it very difficult to form a self.
Rigid, black-and-white thinking
Rigid, inflexible thinking, problems with adapting beliefs to changing conditions mean that self-image can also be rather black and white, rigid and with little inherent potential for change.
Masking is what people with autism do in order to mimic society and be in line with expectations. There are many different problems with masking (to start with burnout), but in particular it interferes with the formation and maintenance of a sense of self. People who mask a lot tend to think that they have no identity – just a set of roles. Changing roles prevents the stability of the sense of self, it becomes contextual and therefore highly variable and fragmented. These fragments are usually taken from the personalities of the people around you with whom you want to bond and from whom you need acceptance.
And here’s another sad thought: if you think you need to disguise yourself, you’re signing up to not accepting who you are.
We form our identity by observing our thoughts, behaviours and emotional responses. Without the ability to name our feelings, we have limited ability to analyse them.
Opinion on autism
For people diagnosed with autism, perceptions of autism contribute significantly to self-image. The more positive the perception of autism (more focus on benefits and less sense of helplessness), the higher the self-esteem and the better the self-image. Typically, those who tend to think better of themselves associate autism with giftedness, emotional stability and strength. In general, the more good autistic people find in autism, the more good they find in themselves.
The mind and nervous system of autistic people are organised in such a way that we think analytically, piecing together the big picture piece by piece, not on the basis of intuition and fragmentary ideas, but on the basis of deep, unhurried analysis and logic. And the love of being alone provides plenty of time and opportunity for such introspection. So there is enormous potential for people with ASD to understand their own internal machinery with awareness and sensitivity.
Ideas on how to help yourself develop a sense of identity
Development of a theory of mind
Developing the ability to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings can help you understand yourself better. Social skills training can help with this, or simply regular and careful self-analysis of what is going on in communication and asking for feedback from other participants to check.
Expanding the vocabulary of personality trait terms
The development of a more varied vocabulary for the description of one’s own identity will help to shape it more clearly.
Developing emotional competence
The better you can understand and describe emotions, the more material you have to analyse and build your self-image. You can learn emotional literacy by keeping an emotional diary, for example.
Trying to imitate others and creating false identities has a negative impact on self-understanding. It is therefore important to work on finding your own authentic responses to the outside world gradually, gently and in a safe environment.
Developing awareness in general
The better you are at noticing your own thoughts and emotions and how they relate to your behaviour, the more you can draw conclusions about who you really are. Bottom line: meditation works, as do informal mindfulness practices.