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Why the Concept of Self-Identity Can Present Challenges for Autistic People

Updated: Jun 17

Understanding who you are is important for personal growth and social interactions. For autistic people, figuring out their identity can be especially tough. Factors like difficulty in describing personality traits (alexipersona) and challenges in understanding others’ perspectives (theory of mind) play a big role.

Additionally, many autistic people mask their true selves to fit in, which can complicate forming a consistent and true self-identity.

This article looks at these challenges and offers tips for both autistic people and the wider community to support positive self-identity.

What Does Identity (or Self-Identity) Mean?

Identity is defined as “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual” (Merriam-Webster). Put simply, it is knowing who you are.

This understanding is important for personal growth and social interactions, allowing people to navigate their lives with a clear sense of self. If you don't know who you are, life is likely going to be more complex.

Alexithymia and Alexipersona

Some autistic people experience alexithymia – a lack of words to describe their emotions.

Attwood and Garnett introduce a related term – alexipersona – meaning "a lack of words to describe personality characteristics".

One reason autistic people might struggle with the concept of identity could be alexipersona. Not being able to name, identify, and describe something makes it hard to truly understand.

Theory of Mind and Masking

Another reason autistic people might struggle with the concept of identity relates to theory of mind. Theory of mind is the ability to understand others’ perspectives (putting yourself in "someone else's shoes").

Autistic people can struggle with theory of mind, and this affects their social interactions, relationships, and communication. It can also lead to masking, where autistic people conceal their autistic characteristics in an attempt to fit in with societal expectations.

When autistics mask, they can present different versions of themselves to different people in different scenarios. Masking can be exhausting and difficult to maintain, leading to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Masking can make it challenging to develop a consistent and authentic self-identity.

Strategies for Autistic People

Developing a sense of self for an autistic person takes time, but one positive step can be to seek out communities with other autistic people and find safe spaces where they can unmask and express themselves freely and safely. Building connections with others who understand and share similar experiences can be incredibly affirming.

Seeking out positive autistic role models can also help.

Strategies for the Non-Autistic Community

Creating neuroinclusive spaces, such as accommodating workplaces and social environments, is a significant step towards helping autistic people understand and express themselves more freely.

Rebecca Duffus, writing for the National Autistic Society, explains, "we need to be actively promoting autistic pride and creating communities where autistic young people can understand their strengths and have their needs catered for". We believe this applies to autistic adults too.

Education is also a positive step; the more neurotypical people understand autism (and more broadly, neurodivergence) the more accepting and inclusive they can be.

By addressing these challenges and implementing supportive strategies, we can work together to promote a healthy and positive sense of self-identity for autistic people.

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