Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Autism, Personality and Identity


Contraption by Donna WilliamsWhen we think about autism related developmental, behavioural and learning challenges we usually think about sensory perceptual disorders, sensory integration issues or hypersensitivities, about gut, immune or metabolic disorders, dyspraxia, speech and communication disorders or mood, anxiety or compulsive disorders. But personality and identity may figure equally as much for particular people in determining their reaction to their autism.
We all have around 4-6 of Oldham’s 16 recognised personality traits – Ptypes. 

Each of these come with their own unique motivation and distress patterns meaning that different personalities will respond very differently in how they adapt to an ongoing sources of challenge, frustration, isolation or trauma.
Certain conditions can hone or inhibit particular personality traits, pushing these into the range for Personality Disorders.

So, for example, a sensitive, clingy child on the autism spectrum who becomes chronically bullied or mollycoddled may progressively develop Avoidant or Dependent personality disorders. An already confident, self assertive child on the autism spectrum who is overindulged, over zealously praised at all opportunities and overprotected and made excuses for may progressively develop Narcissistic personality disorder. An already solitary or hyper vigilant child on the autism spectrum who is continually watched, feels socially invaded or pursued may reactively develop Schizoid personality disorder or behave in a socially paranoid and compulsively self protective manner (ie Exposure Anxiety). A conscientious, controlled and perfectionist child on the autism spectrum who feels hopeless, disconnected, estranged, overwhelmed, may progressively divert these feelings into a compulsive pursuit of control and achievement, as seen in Obsessive Compulsive personality disorder.

Once the personality trait/s of a person with autism progresses into the range for personality disorder, this is commonly seen as ‘part of their autism’ and until addressed in its own right can exacerbate the degree of that person’s ‘autism’. But because Personality Disorders themselves are not formally diagnosed until the teens or adult years, there is little or no recognition of children on the autism spectrum who are at risk of continuing forward with personality disorders. We need to at least develop the language to address this, to be able to say ‘your child is presently displaying what might later fit x, y, z personality disorder/s so lets put these changes in place to help them rebalance and avoid this’.

There are other complications when it comes to the interplay between autism  and personality. Because one’s autism can compete with expression of the person’s personhood, carers may either presume the child has failed or is unable to fully develop their own personality, that the child is essentially ‘just their autism’ and believe that until their autism is ‘overcome’ or cured, that the child’s true personality doesn’t stand a chance. Imagine what a fait-a-compli this can become. And imagine what it does to personality recognition, reinforcement and development to have one’s personality presumed to ‘just be part of their autism’. And worse, this can mean the carers are waiting on a different personality, one they deem ‘normal’, the child they had expected, which may not be within the autistic person’s personality framework at all!

More complicating are stereotypes of what personality presentations are and are not ‘autistic’. Imagine the impact on expressing and developing your own personhood when you have become part of (commonly online) community of peers who perpetuate personality related stereotypes of what is and isn’t ‘autistic’ or Aspie.  Identity is a sense of who we are. Personality is part of identity development. The gender balance around us also has the potential to effect identity development.

In spite of the statistics that 1 in 5 sexual abusers are female, with progressive pedophile-phobia in society schools, care services and day programs find themselves with overwhelmingly female staff. Because more males than females are currently diagnosed on the autism spectrum, these female workers and managers are attending to largely male children, teens and adults. In terms of identity development, if a boy has grown up with a single female parent, categorised her as ‘super carer’ and himself as ‘disabled dependent’ (ie developed Dependent Personality Disorder) then he is more likely to then transfer this to the female teacher, care worker, aide. If the only other males are those with his same or greater level of disability, there may be no perceived peer model of who he might otherwise strive to be. Catch 22.

How we see ourselves also changes identity development.
We don’t need a significantly high IQ or demonstrated self awareness to get a feel for how others perceive us. For example, your cat and dog can get a sense of it and most of us would feel their don’t understand much of our verbal language and certainly don’t speak it.
If we over invest in our label as ‘an autistic’ then our condition risks becoming a larger part of our identity than our personality itself. If our carers fixate on our condition and fail to relate to us as a person, we may have both poor personality development and poor identity development. If we have one carer who identifies us overtly and repeatedly as disabled and another who refuses to see us that way, insists we will become functional regardless of disability levels or sees our disabilities as ‘behaviour’ then we may identify accordingly

If we identify with both views then we effectively become split, a split identity, and may fluctuate between these two representations and sets of expectations of ourselves. We may be one type of person at school and completely different at home, with one sibling versus another, with one parent versus another. The problem is that at some point we need to become our own parent in order to be as fully functional as an adult as possible, and if we have a lack of cohesion in our identity, we struggle to get that sense of stability within ourselves.

Dissociation is common in children under the age of 5. Children dissociate from body, mind, emotions when in unfamiliar or overwhelming situations. Because of the ongoing information processing challenges for those with autism, this situation may continue for many children with autism well beyond age 5. Those with autism may not only be more likely to dissociate, depersonalise or experience derealisation than non autistic children but also be more likely to have altered identity development as a result. If their identity does not develop strongly or cohesively then self motivation, self awareness, self parenting, friendships and relationships, ability to organise or stay on track, may all be more challenging.

The sensory perceptual, sensory, cognitive, mental, emotional, communicative, and social challenges of those with autism commonly lead them to overcompensate or self protect. This significantly adds to how children with autism may hide or, conversely, indulge their apparent levels of disability. If we leave personality and identity development on the sidelines, we only increase their challenges.

Among the things we can do to address personality and identity development in those with autism are:

recognition of the developmental impacts of derailed personality and identity development
proactive recognition of subclinical and clinical personality and identity disorders within the ‘fruit salad’ of any person with autism
proactive recognition of the experiences and environmental patterns that contribute to particular personality and identity disorders in people with autism and openness to working with these.
Awareness by teachers, carers and allied health professionals of their roles in working with personality and identity development of those with autism.
Addressing all other areas of the person’s autism (including sensory perceptual, communication, health issues or associated mental health co-morbid conditions) to reduce chronic stress which can contribute to exacerbating natural personality traits into disorder proportions.

Polly Samuel (aka ‘Donna Williams’)
Author, artist, consultant and presenter.

I acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the Traditional Owners of this country throughout Australia, and their connection to land and community.