Autism: Are you being agreeable?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition diagnosed by how a person reacts to his or her environment.  Living things respond or adapt to their environment as a characteristic of life.  Whenever a person exhibits maladaptive behaviors, responses that are either considered abnormal and/or imperil the state of health of an individual, we call it a disorder.

Ever since its initial description in the medical literature, autistic individuals have been described as having significant problems in social interaction, communication, and behavioral flexibility.  These traits have an influence in how a person thinks, how they feel, and how they perceive the world around them. It is therefore unsurprising that even tough each autistic child is different, they also exhibit similar personality domains.

Asperger, when describing his series of cases, preferred to use the term “psychopathy” to describe autism.  The term was meant to underline the unique personality of the children in his series and how the traits could be acquired or modified during childhood. Throughout his life, Asperger’s proposition was at odd with Kanner’s contention that autism was a developmental disorder; one where the risk for the condition started in the womb.  Lorna Wing who translated Asperger’ work to the English literature, opted to avoid the use of the term psychopathy, given its negative connotations.

Modern research into personality tries to encase individuals into different types based on five primary factors: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism (i.e., your level of arousal to stimuli), and openness to experience.  Results of research suggest that autistic individuals show a positive correlation between severity and neuroticism, but a negative correlation to the other domains (Vuijk et al., 2018).   I do not believe that such conclusions are warranted.

Problems with personality assessments are usually voiced when extrapolating their validity outside of western, educated, industrialized societies.  Similarly, I would argue that response patterns in neurodevelopmental conditions do not give the full story when describing personality profiles. Take for example the subjective nature of how we judge somebody to be agreeable.  For most, an agreeable person denotes a pleasant individual, one that is nice and sympathetic. In effect, autistic individuals place a lot of value in the few relationships that they are able to forge, and will be friends for a lifetime – always willing to tolerate the frustrations that these relationships may thrust upon them.  In this regard I could say that autistic individuals, in general, are overly agreeable because they are way too trusting in the goodness of other people.   From a work-related perspective, I would also add that autistic individual are very agreeable as they are conscientious and well organized. They tend to be hard workers and persist in tasks that follow set patterns and that others may find unrewarding. However, there are other patterns of behavior for autistic individuals that could be considered as being disagreeable.

Autistic individuals may behave in set ways, not because they are the most appropriate, but because that is the way that they were taught.  They often fail to generalize learned behaviors which was not trained for different eventualities. They are dependable, but their desire to follow set patterns sequentially may prove counterproductive.  They are very truthful, but often can’t hold their tongue when things are better left untold. They are not being inconsiderate, critical, nor antagonistic, but this is the way that some people may perceive them to be.

Personality is the glitter of our character. It reflects personal characteristics that are open to the interpretation of those around them.  I think that subjective descriptions of personality characteristics can’t be fixed into cookie cutter borders.  To think otherwise is illusory.

I keep reading research news regarding psychological theories that are dependent on the imagination of the investigator.  If the investigator has a great deal of imagination, the work will, unfortunately, be highly cited. These contributions make little, if any, impact on the quality of life of the autistic individual. Let’s keep our focus on understanding the autistic individual and his/her problems, rather than psychoanalyzing the biased mindset of the researcher.


Casanova MF. A perspective on psychological theories of autism.

Those interested in additional information can also use the search option of our main page and enter the term Theory of Mind.

Casanova MF. Autism Updated: Symptoms, Treatments and Controversies. Amazon Publishing, 2019.

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2 responses to “Autism: Are you being agreeable?

  1. Dear Dr Casanova, you state autism happens in the womb in the first few months of pregnancy, why is it that birth trauma such as oxygen deprivation is said to sometimes cause autism? Surely autism is fixed by then?

    My 4 year old son recently diagnosed with ASD, had oxygen deprivation at 8 weeks old, was asleep then woke screaming then went limp and blue, he came round just before his mother`s friend a nurse was about to do resuscitation, I wasn’t there but was told nearly 5 min passed by then. The hospital blamed gastro-oesophageal reflux at the time and it never happened again. Hit his milestones ok spoke on time then symptoms like flapping, echolalia, repetitive behaviour & non reciprocal conversation at 2.

    Could this have caused his ASD, if not could it be brain damage that`s misdiagnosed as ASD? how can I tell the difference? his MRI scan & micro array came back fine. Thank you.


    • I have written about a confluence of factors may propitiate the condition. These factors include genes, environmental factors and timing during brain development. Variability in these factors could account for marked differences in symptom expression. It has been described in the literature as the triple hit hypothesis.
      In the case of your son, there are many accounts of inciting factors after birth that have been related to autism. In many cases, seizures (causing lack of oxygenation to the brain) is the precipitating factor (Dravet syndrome and even febrile seizures). However, regression has also been noticed after brain trauma, viral infections, etc. As an aside, an MRI does not have the level of resolution to detect some of the microscopic changes reported by neuropathological exams in the brains of autistic individuals. Best regards


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