I have written in previous blogs about an autistic personality. These are the combination of behaviors and emotional patterns that persist over time with some variations being accrued due to environmental factors. You could say that people, in general, operate within a bell shaped distribution with aspects of their personality varying from their peak behavior depending on circumstances. Behaviors in this regard are probabilistic, being more akin to tendencies than ingrained traits. I have found that this variability is less noticeable in autistic individuals. Indeed, autistic individuals seem to be more consistent in their personality characteristics. You are rarely surprised by how they behave in certain situation, – they are not hard to predict. For many, it is as if they have rules in their minds. If the situation is A, then do B; or if the situation is C, then do D. It is a series of if-then rules. This is reminiscent of the observations made by Temple Grandin in her book, “Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships”. In this book, Temple expands on her idea of using commandments as a way of gauging a proper response to any social situation.
With age, we all develop ways of making responses habitual and our personality thus becomes more stable. For neurotypicals, changes accrued to the environment can be controlled by manipulating the same. We are indeed masters of our environment. This is not the case for autistic individuals whose only option may be to demand constancy of their environment. Many of the behaviors exhibited by autistics, especially if maladaptive, are strategic niche specialization. They represent a way of grabbing attention to conditions that they can’t control and can’t communicate effectively. The situation reminds me, to some extent, of the behaviors exhibited by the youngest child in a very large family. The youngest child won’t be able to call attention to himself/herself by following the same mold as the older children. He/she can only call attention upon themselves by more physical means, often expressing more rebellious maladaptive behaviors.
Maladaptive behaviors in autism thus may be a response to a stressful environment. A neurotypical person who grows in an environment where the parents are constantly yelling and fighting may exhibit similarities to an autistic individual whose environment is constantly assaulting them. Sensory hypersensitivity makes many environmental stimuli noxious to the autistic individual. This leads to a downward spiral wherein children experience more difficulties in socializing, adjusting at school, increased anxiety, limiting their engagement in treatment, etc.
Maladaptive behaviors are not something to be ignored or explained away as being part and parcel of autism. They are more often than not a cry for help. When maladaptive behaviors are expressed by an autistic individual, examine for any precipitating causes. In my own experience these behaviors often reflect an underlying comorbidity which is in need of treatment. The internet offers a large amount of helpful literature. Autism Speaks has developed a tool kit that may be of help in many cases. Also, please become more informed by reading my book Autism Updated (see below for reference).
Casanova MF. Autism Updated: Symptoms, Treatments and Controversies. Amazon Publishing, 2019.
My good friend Stephen Edelson edited a book on self-injurious behaviors in autism which is a worthwhile read.