social skills


Are Geeks Narcissists? A PLOS ONE article asks the question . . .

In a recent PLOS ONE journal article, researchers Jessica McCain, Brittany Gentile, W. Keith Campbell posit that perhaps geek culture is a way of sustaining a narcissistic self-view.

Geeks with Swords (c) JE Robison
While I agree that it might look that way on the surface, I think their conclusion is wrong; founded upon an incorrect or incomplete understanding of geeks and geek culture. With all due respect, I suggest that perhaps the authors made an all-too-common mistake. They interpreted observations of self-focused behavior as narcissism, when they were actually seeing autistic traits; either autism or the much more common “broader autism phenotype.”  As a result, the article as it stands is harmful to autistic culture, and geek culture, because it perpetuates a wrong stereotype.

The article focuses on the geek community’s outsized interest in online gaming, massive multiplayer games, role playing games, and science fiction, or comics or fantasy.  Games and conferences have grown so large that they’ve become major cultural events.  And people naturally draw conclusions about those who attend, and how they may be different from others in the community.

It’s well known that we geeks get lost in our own worlds, and in fantasy worlds of various sorts. The question here is, why does that happen?  If a person is fully aware of the wider world, but chooses to ignore outside signals and focuses on himself that is narcissistic.  If we do that because we are oblivious to much of what goes on around us, and we are blind to the signals of others, that is an autistic spectrum trait.

Most autistic children experience bullying and mistreatment, growing up.  That is an unfortunately consequence of acting differently, and being insensitive to other kids.  As they get older, autistic kids often withdraw from social contact, even as they desire it.  They may gravitate to online communities, where they are less likely to appear different or disabled, and in fact may seem exceptional due to their intense focus.

To a large extent, that explains the path autistics follow into gaming and fantasy.  It’s founded on isolation and social disability, and narcissism has no part of that picture.  Yet narcissism is often assumed by observers, incorrectly.   That is a natural reaction for a person who is not autistic. They see various signals from other people, and it never occurs to them that an autistic person next to them might be oblivious to the same signals.  So when the autistic person fails to respond as they do, they assume his lack of response is deliberate and informed, when in fact it’s not.
In comparison, narcissism is saying “I see you, but I love myself more than you or anyone else.”  That is seldom the situation for autistic people, who tend to suffer from the opposite – chronic self-loathing and poor self-esteem.  When it comes to self-focus, autistic people do so because they are not fully aware of the people around them, because they have a communication disability.  That is the essence of autism. 

After reading this essay in original form, BU Psychology Professor Catherine Caldwell-Harris pointed out that geeks (or nerds as others say) are also drawn into online worlds and gaming in part because they have strong systemizing tendencies, which are traits of the broader autism phenotype. Cambridge researcher Simon Baron Cohen has written a lot about systematizers and that kind of thinking.

My experience as an autistic adult informs my interpretation of geek cultural observations.  As an autistic person I know all too well what it’s like to miss the signals others around me see, and suffer as a result.  Am I suggesting every geek is autistic? Of course not.  What I am suggesting is that a great many geeks have some autistic traits and a considerable number are on the spectrum.  And I’m sure a few are narcissistic too, but I believe autism is the best explainer of the behaviors described in the paper.

We should be very careful about applying labels like narcissist to large swaths of the population. It’s particularly noteworthy that the approaches one would take to deal with narcissism are fundamentally different from what one would use to address autism. Treating autistics as narcissists will not only be counterproductive, it will be harmful.

Thanks to my wife, Maripat Robison, author of the forthcoming memoir I Married A Geek for bringing the PLOS ONE article and its fundamental errors to my attention, and inspiring this response.  As for the scientists – I bear you no ill will but I urge you to think how the targets of your future articles will feel about your words. 

John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He’s the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and the forthcoming Switched On. He’s served on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He’s co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. 

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.

(c) 2007-2011 John Elder Robison

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The Most Important Autism Awareness You’ll Ever Use

My good friend Dana Baxt Smith pointed me to this piece by “Dr. NerdLove”. First off, it’s got some great points:

  • Any individual has the absolute right to socialize with, befriend and date whomever they want — which may or may not include you. Maybe you’ve been misunderstood, maybe he or she is being unfair or even bigoted. That and roughly $4 will get you a gallon of gas (in the U.S.). You can like and be attracted to whomever you want — you just don’t get a vote in the other person’s decision.
  • Girls and women have reason to be particularly cautious. They’re more commonly targeted by predators who want to hurt them in various ways. A typical predator tests potential victims by crossing their boundaries in little ways — joking about sex, violence, rape and the like, approaching too close and even touching — and seeing how well they defend themselves. If the victim-to-be doesn’t respond firmly, he (or sometimes she) escalates.
  • That’s exactly why we have basic social norms include things like what you talk about, when and how you shake hands (your main if not only opportunity to actually touch someone you don’t know well) and how you approach someone (whenever possible, no closer than maybe a yard/meter for someone who’s not already a good friend or date — oh yeah, and not from behind or the side either). They’re not necessarily written down and may not even be spoken to you in so many words, but you’re expected to know and abide by them.

    For example, as personal safety expert Gavin de Becker has pointed out in his The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, not everyone is thrilled with the idea of someone getting their contact or other personal information from any source other than them directly — not even their own public profiles. (In my experience, people vary widely on this.)

  • There’s another set of norms — how you perceive and respond to things. Since girls and women are especially likely to “let you down easy” by using body language, hints and excuses instead of telling you directly that they want you to leave them alone, rightly or wrongly they’re going to expect you to pick up on these signals and act just as if they had been explained in so many words.

    Among other things, if someone — particularly a girl or woman — just doesn’t respond to you after you’ve contacted her a couple of times, likely she doesn’t want to hear from you. The less you know each other, the more likely that’s what it means. (For example, someone you don’t know at all, or just met, versus an acquaintance versus a friend versus a boyfriend or girlfriend…but some people will even “ghost” or “Irish Goodbye” a close friend or boy/girlfriend if they feel something is wrong and feel that discussing it would be too uncomfortable. Ask me how I know!)

  • So, the other person — especially a she — is going to notice how well you conform to these norms, and will judge you accordingly.

    Yes, she knows that not everyone who follows the rules about boundaries is a good guy, and not everyone who breaks them — especially the lesser ones, such as stepping too close — is a predator. Thing is, they are related, a bit like wearing dirty clothes and being a sloppy person, so it’s a good place to start. Also, many if not most girls and women prefer to err on the side of safety — better to risk avoiding a good guy than trusting a bad guy.

    From your perspective, if someone decides they don’t like you it’s a lot tougher to reverse than if they
    do. Why? Well…if you don’t like someone, how much are you going to want to be around them — and hence give them a chance to change your mind?

Fair enough.

The next question is: Once you (including an Aspie, male or female!) feel your alarm bells going off around a guy, what’s safe to assume…and to do?

When discussing socially awkward guys, Dr. NerdLove says [all emphases in original]:

“[B]eing anxious or socially clumsy or inexperienced isn’t the same as being creepy. Someone who is socially awkward will occasionally trip over somebody else’s boundaries by accident because they may not necessarily understand where the line is in the first place.”

Well and good!

“A socially awkward person frequently realizes that they [mess]ed up almost as soon as the words are out of their mouth and will often freeze up or try to verbally backpedal; a creeper who is using ‘socially awkward’ as an excuse on the other hand, [may] rely on others to do their defending for them.”


“You can almost always track the exact moment they realize that they’ve done something wrong by the way they desperately try to backtrack, apologize and generally try to reassure the other person that they didn’t mean to and they’re so embarrassed and are kind of freaking out and, and, and…”

Not so much. It depends.

Remember Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous mention of “unknown unknowns”? Those are things you don’t know that you don’t know!

Knowing right after the fact where the lines are drawn isn’t so great by any means. But at least then you still get a chance to do said freezing up or backpedaling. Otherwise, if you don’t know, you can’t freeze, backpedal or give any other sign of regret — especially if the other person is being subtle and “nice”. And if someone else puts in a good word for you, it looks like you’re “relying” on him or her to defend you because, after all, you didn’t even know any defending needed to be done and hence didn’t do any.

So this is much more a matter of case by case judgment.

Here’s an example — and pace Dragnet, not even the names have been changed to protect anyone.

Dana and I met as college freshmen; in fact, we lived on adjoining floors. As she posted on Facebook some months back, at least once she retreated to her room…where I followed her. I even waited patiently outside her door so when she came out, we could resume our conversation.

Problematic? Damn straight it was. Awkward? In spades.

And did I freeze or (in this case, physically) backpedal? Nope.

And I’ve since apologized to her.

Creepy? No, because I never even knew that I shouldn’t have done that. I darn sure should have known — that’s what made it so awkward — but I didn’t know. I did not intend to bother her (even though that was the result).

What does this have to do with someone’s right to avoid somebody whom she feels uncomfortable around? Nothing.

Thing is, people — perhaps especially women — tend not to just think “Oh, I just don’t want to be around this guy.” Many, if not most, people go on to judge the other person’s intentions.

And that’s where we come to FedoraBeard vs. Hot Topic Girl. As Dr. NerdLove describes it, a customer visited Hot Topic, saw a clerk he liked, got her name from a mutual acquaintance and then tracked her down on Facebook. He private messaged her — this part is important — multiple times despite a lack of response from her. Finally, she blew up, “read[] him the riot act” as Dr. NerdLove put it — and then copied and posted the conversation publicly*. Including both of their names.

She excoriated him for, among other things, persisting despite not getting a response from her — even though she also said that her delay in responding was due to moving and not having her new Internet connection right away.

Was she within her rights to ignore and even block him? Of course. Was his behavior questionable, even outright weird? You betcha.

Did she need to blow up at him? Not in my opinion.

My read on his behavior is that it’s at least possibly, if not likely, awkward. Among other things, he seemed genuinely confused that she neither answered nor blocked him. A true predator generally would have been quite a bit smoother about it.

In my experience, some people — of both sexes, incidentally — seem to believe not only that silence, and/or gentle hints, understatements and other “soft nos,” is warning him off…but also that the acceptable next step is screams, curses, threats and the like.

I beg to differ. Have more people not heard of the golden mean…in this case simple, direct and courteous communication?

For that matter, this isn’t just a matter of courtesy. As self-defense expert Marc “Animal” MacYoung has pointed out in his (and Chris Pfouts’) Safe In The City: A Streetwise Guide To Avoid Being Robbed, Raped, Ripped Off, Or Run Over, it’s not a good idea to just blow up at someone who makes you uneasy. If he is in fact a violent sort, it just paints a target on your chest — giving him an excuse to hurt you.

(And any witnesses, who are less likely to have noticed the guy’s provocative behavior than your verbal attack, may see his “response” as provoked if not justified.)

Not to mention that it exposes you as someone (1) whose bark is worse than her bite and (2) who doesn’t know where the boundaries are — and thus can’t defend them.

There’s a better way. As Thomas MacAulay Millar points out, even if a “soft no” is (in his opinion) perfectly well understood by most men, an explicit refusal warns the bad guys off by showing you’re a hard target: “Clear communication against the undercurrent that ‘no’ is rude and should be softened is a sign of the willingness to fight, to yell, to report.”

(By the way, Aspies, other socially awkward folks and others should check out Mr. Millar’s post: It includes some good, concrete clues to detect “soft nos”.)

The key here is, as MacYoung has pointed out elsewhere, to be more like a growling dog than a barking one. No one ever says “your growl is worse than your bite” for a reason. And — especially if a simple, direct “no” is seen as aggressive — you can growl and still be courteous.

In fact, de Becker has given us a script that we can utter to people we want to leave us alone:

No matter what you may have assumed until now, and no matter for what reason you assumed it, I have no romantic interest in you whatsoever. I am certain I never will. I expect that, now that you know this, you’ll put your attention elsewhere, which I understand, because that’s what I intend to do.

That puts you on the record as crystal-clear, firm and courteous…and hence not provocative.

[*] Dr. NerdLove provides part of the conversation…right up until, and not including, said riot act reading itself. Interesting, huh?

Also, he seems to believe she posted the conversation herself…though others have said she might have instead given it to a friend who then posted it.

Bottom line: All of us — particularly men — need to tune in to subtle cues going both ways. And yes, that goes for socially awkward guys, too — and Aspies.

Learning these cues is a topic for another day. However, I’ve written up a separate guide to help boost other people’s comfort level around you. For a free copy, drop me a line!

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