The complexities and contradictions of an autistic extrovert

This is a sort-of-but-not-really continuation of this post.

Some people might think that an autistic extrovert is an oxymoron; a contradiction in and of itself; something that can’t possibly exist in the real world. After all, if one considers the etymology of the word ‘autistic’, it comes from the Greek autos, or ‘self’. And it can be a struggle to comprehend that others are different; that they have different viewpoints and different narratives, let alone to understand those viewpoints and narratives. This contrasts with the etymology of the word ‘extrovert’, which derives partly from the Latin word for ‘outside’.

So how can one person be both trapped within themselves yet draw energy from other people?

It’s a contradiction that I live with on a daily basis. And I suspect I’m not alone.

There has always been a dichotomy between how I present myself to strangers, and how I act around people I know well. I’ve had a variety of explanations for this over the years: shyness, lack of confidence, lowered inhibitions when drinking…! I always explained myself by saying that people think of me as quiet, but I’m actually a loudmouth when you get to know me.

All of which are probably accurate, to some extent.

In hindsight, though, what was happening was that I had subconsciously adopted the persona of an introvert. Adopting this persona meant that different social skills were expected of me; that I could hide my differences behind the mask. But I couldn’t sustain the act with people I knew well, or when my inhibitions were lowered through alcohol, stress, or exhaustion. In those situations, I reverted back to type.

My false conviction that I was an introvert was probably fed by the cod-psychology questionnaires that were popular throughout my teenage years and the early part of my adult life (including with some employers). It wasn’t until I started the autism assessment process that I realised that there was a significant overlap between some of the answers that indicated ‘autism’ and those that indicated ‘introversion’. But – for me at least – the reason behind the answers was different; driven more by the challenges of being around people than the need to be alone.

This conviction was reinforced by a lot of the reading I did immediately post-diagnosis. The stereotype of the autistic individual sitting in their own little bubble didn’t feel ‘right’ to me, but that seemed to be the prevailing wisdom about what it means to be autistic. I didn’t have the confidence or knowledge at that point to challenge that.

Then I started to realise a couple of things. Firstly, that I was much happier when I was around other people. I became afraid of being alone; scared of what monsters I might find in the darkness. Secondly, how much my sensory sensitivities impacted on my natural instinct to seek out large groups of people.

I started to think that I may not be an introvert after all. In fact, I became convinced the opposite was true. But how to reconcile the two words describing different needs: self and other?

I actually don’t think there’s a contradiction at all.

My understanding of ‘introversion’ and ‘extroversion’ is simply that these words describe someone’s energy source. An introvert needs time alone to recharge their internal batteries, whereas an extrovert gains energy from being around other people. It doesn’t dictate how someone relates to others, so it’s possible to be an autistic extrovert in the same way it’s possible to be a shy extrovert, or an outgoing introvert.

But, as with most things autism-related, it isn’t quite that simple.

At a high level, and as an extrovert, I need to be around people. If I’m not, my internal energy levels become depleted quite quickly. Isolation can have a significant detrimental impact on my mental health.

However, although being around people increases my energy level, at the same time it can – somewhat paradoxically – deplete my energy level. If I am in large groups, the sensory impact can become overwhelming very quickly. Even on a one-to-one basis, the effort needed to maintain a conversation and process information can drain energy.

Conversely, sometimes I find myself ‘overcharged’; either because the sensory inputs are too much or because I’ve just had too much social time. That’s when I need to retreat, to drain my battery a bit before carrying on with my daily life.

The analogy that comes to mind is listening to an MP3 player while trying to charge it using an ineffective charger. The electricity used can be greater than the amount taken in through the charging process. In that example, the battery may never recharge. So it’s a matter of finding the right balance where the battery is able to charge whilst energy is still being expended (but without blowing the fuse).

And I may want to be around people, but as someone with autism it’s always going to be a bit of a struggle. However much I learn and understand about myself, I’m always going to have the triad of impairments that are the hallmark of this condition: I am always going to be, in some ways, different from most of the people I encounter. Making social connections is always going to be more difficult for me than for someone who is not autistic.

I have found that – however much I may wish to be in the middle of a large group of people – small group situations are probably the optimum for me. Such situations lack the intensity of a one-to-one conversation but reduce the risk of sensory overload. It’s different if I know someone well; then, a one-to-one conversation is purely energising. That doesn’t happen as often as I would like, though, so small groups are probably the way to go, at least for now.

As a person with autism, there’s no doubt that my life would be easier if I were more introverted; if I could recharge by being alone. I wish I wasn’t quite so reliant about the social connections that I so desperately need but find extremely difficult to maintain. That – for me – is the real complexity, and the challenge, and the sorrow of being an autistic extrovert.

But that is who – and what – I am. And I’ve spent too much time behind the mask of introversion to want to pretend any more.

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