How Self-Aware are People with Autism?

This question has always bugged me.

I’ve always wondered whether Chris knew about his Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I have asked; he just replies with vague mumbles or changes the subject. What’s interesting though is that whenever he overhears someone talking about his condition saying he is stupid or dumb, he starts getting agitated and cross with everyone. Either he understands people are talking about him and he hates that its about his condition or it’s because he thinks he’s in trouble for something again. Call it Big Sister intuition, but I believe he has a vague idea about his condition mainly due to the fact that I have observed how upset he gets when he can’t do something- out of frustration he will cut the strings on his guitar because he isn’t capable of the proper motor coordination needed to play chords. Also, I believe he doesn’t care (or can’t) that much about it either, as he has never been able to think about himself in relation to other people.

As you’d expect, low-functioning individuals, who have more severe ASD traits, are likely to be less self-aware of their condition compared high-functioning individuals. Michael Lombardo and Simon Baron-Cohen, who both studied self awareness extensively in ASD, mentioned in a study that ASD individuals with more self-awareness had better mentalising skills and less autistic traits, indicating a relationship between self-awareness and ASD impairments

Now we get down to the deeper stuff!

Baron-Cohen and Lombardo (2010) described how the Self in ASD is in paradox. ASDs are both egocentric and self-awareness impaired at the same time! Individuals with ASD often do not understand the “Duality of Self” which is how we can understand how we are similar yet distinct from others at the same time. When asked, individuals with ASD will not immediately represent themselves in relation to others in a social situation. They have a hard time understanding that they are similar to another. They are unable to perceive how another will feel about a situation. They lack Theory of Mind. However, sometimes if you simulate another’s experience through their own, they may be able to understand, especially if that other person is similar in a way to them. I interpret this in terms of my brother being more comfortable with male strangers around his height.

Physiologically, it is found that the ventro-Medial Prefrontal Cortex (v-MPFC) and Medial Prefrontal Cortex is implicated in self awareness. Neuro-typicals, when confronted with self-reflective questions will have higher activity in the v-MPFC and MCC, whereas in ASD the results are atypical. Additionally, Lombardo (2009) found that in a mentalising context, ASD individuals with higher self-awareness were less socially impaired and vice versa for ASD individuals with lower self-awareness.

As I am unable to mind-read, there is just absolutely no possibility of me ever understanding what goes on my dear brother’s head, whilst he cackles to himself drawing toilet bowls. Repetitively.  Have a look below at Christopher’s masterpiece! You can download it as wallpaper for free. I did! ❤


Artist: Christopher.

Read Baron-Cohen and Lombardo’s paper here

4 thoughts on “How Self-Aware are People with Autism?

  1. Imho Baron-Cohen is borderline clueless. His whole perception is based on observational studies. Autism isn’t a defined simple affliction, much less can it be captured in some generalisations. To my mind autism is an (epigenetic) effort of evolution to adapt to the at least 100.000 year old process of socialization mixed with the centered need to survive.

    As i see it , autism, schizophrenia, PD are all expressions of the brain evolving towards a decoupling of the primal survival circuitry dating from time immemorial towards a being that would be capable of being a true human. As is not governed by emotions, instincts but rationale.

    No reasonable being would willingly inflict pain upon another. No computer would hold a grudge, no person lacking the 99% of motivating primal instincts would even begin to consider a war.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I really appreciate your comment. As it stands I guess we are all clueless about most neurodevelopmental disorders because we don’t even fully understand the brain itself. I like your point of view about our evolution towards being a true human. Indeed, if we were to continue prosperous as a human species, we’re probably in dire need of big dose of rationality and it would be cool to think that these “disorders” may actually be humanity’s way forward. But what about the saying that emotions are what makes us human?

      Liked by 1 person

      • that’s my point. Emotions don’t make us human since all mammals have emotions. love, hate, envy you name it and a mammal has it. Even birds have them. In fact imho all animals with the basic structures to generate emotions have them. So how could it possibly be that emotions makes ‘us’ human? What makes us human is the way we can handle emotions, steer them, ignore them. To be humane means you are rationally capable to do things that are for the better, emotions do the opposite. Most ‘good deeds’ stemming from emotion are just a self-gratification system. Most bad deeds are a result of emotion.

        The emotional substrate was the first to evolve, as such it’s one of the oldest structures and therefore the least likely to evolve any further since higher order structures developed to regulate them. With scant success so far.

        Liked by 1 person

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