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Narcissistic Personality Disorder & Autism (4):

Hypersensitive Narcissism and Hypersensitivity in ASD

Coined by Elaine Aron (1996), the concept of high sensitivity, or sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), has gained attention in both academic discourse and public perception. Individuals characterised as highly sensitive are often depicted as having a unique disposition, easily overwhelmed by stimuli, and deeply attuned to aesthetic experiences.


Jauk et al. (2022) found that high sensitivity can be accompanied by a sense of uniqueness or specialness, thus, turning a characteristic which could otherwise appear as unfavourable into something great, i.e., idealising aspects of one’s own personality, while recognising that it can be a burden. This might also be accompanied by feeling a need or even a right to be treated differently than others because individuals identifying as highly sensitive tend to see themselves as substantially different from others. This differentiation implies specialness or uniqueness. These characteristics are similar to two main features of narcissism – self-importance and entitlement (Krizan & Herlache 2018).


Structural models of narcissism distinguish grandiose from vulnerable narcissism (Wink 1991).[1] Both characterised by psychological entitlement that is related to antagonistic aspects of narcissism (Weiss et al. 2019). A subtype of vulnerable narcissism is hypersensitive narcissism, characterised by introversion, defensiveness and covert self-aggrandisement.


The link between hypersensitivity and hypersensitive narcissism

Jauk et al. (2022) found that high sensitivity and hypersensitive narcissism (as well as more general narcissism) might be closely related and overlapping constructs: they both were related to low self-esteem, reduced personality functioning, higher symptom load, as well as higher likelihood for mental disorder diagnoses. Besides both constructs were most strongly associated with neuroticism and introversion. The researchers also observed an unexpected correlation between ease of excitation and entitlement rage. (However, associations with indicators of personality and psychopathology were more pronounced for hypersensitive narcissism than high sensitivity.)


Highly sensitive individuals might not generally show narcissistic tendencies, but the ones with a sense of own fragility, with an attitude that discomfort must be avoided do exhibit aspects of vulnerable narcissism and vulnerable-based entitlement. This might relate to social conflicts (e.g., via the entitlement rage) and/or social disconnection, and in addition it might also amplify the degree of psychopathology associated with high sensitivity.


These findings show that individuals with high vulnerable narcissism are more likely to exhibit most maladaptive aspects of high sensitivity – such as, e.g., high sensitivity to potentially unpleasant stimuli, and a tendency of withdrawal.


One might wonder why it is important to identify narcissistic elements in the construct of high sensitivity – which can be seen as an attempt to “pathologise” high sensitivity. Juak et al. (2022) emphasise that they try to regard neither of the constructs as pathological or “normal” in nature, but instead try to study them as what they are; including both more adaptive aspects and more problematic ones. The researchers believe that only a perspective considering both desirable and undesirable qualities of one’s personality allows individual growth (as, e.g., in Jung’s (1950) concept of exploring one’s personal shadow) and considering the role of narcissistic self-regulatory mechanism in high sensitivity may provide the possibility for that.


High sensitivity and autism

High sensitivity correlates with autism as well (Liss et al. 2008). Exploring potential overlapping features between ASD and NPD, it is important to consider that individuals with ASD have problems in sensory perception, integration, and processing. This can result in either heightened or lowered sensory thresholds (APA 2013). High sensitivity (measured by the Highly Sensitive Person Scale) shows associations with autistic traits, particularly in such factors like ease of excitation and low sensory threshold. These aspects reflect a heightened sensitivity to external stimuli, akin to characteristics observed in individuals with ASD.


Donna Williams (2006) explored possible relationships between NPD and sensory-perceptual issues:  

“[NPD] is associated with having unreasonable expectations of getting especially favourable treatment and expecting automatic compliance in having expectations met. [NPD] is also associated with a lack of empathy, and those with this type of personality are… unwilling to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others. It may, therefore, be reasonable to assume that an [autistic individual] who also had narcissistic personality disorder as part of their ‘fruit salad’ may be more likely than some to throw a tantrum if he or she experienced sensory hypersensitivities and perhaps more likely to experience these without such emotionally extreme states. Someone with this type of personality might, theoretically, also be far more intolerant of the needs of others in insisting that disliked or unfamiliar sensory experiences be removed, regardless of the enjoyments or needs of others in these experiences. If someone with this type of personality took the compliance of others to be a reflection on his or her ‘specialness’, then by contrast, someone seeking to help such a person get used to undesired sensory experiences could be taken to be denying acknowledgement of that ‘specialness’. Reintroduction of the same or similar sensory experiences might, theoretically, then meet resistance not simply to the sensory experience itself but to what these dynamics might emotionally stand for in this powerful dynamic.”

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It has been suggested that:

- clinicians should assess narcissistic self-regulatory strategies in individuals who present as highly sensitive;

- those working with individuals who consider themselves highly sensitive, or readers who recognise aspects of high sensitivity in themselves should critically evaluate aspects of high sensitivity mindset – especially those associated with ease of excitation – with respect to the extent to which they really benefit the individual, or they promote a pseudo-stabilisation of the self by employing narcissistic strategies (Jauk et al. 2022).

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[1] Wink (1991) referred to vulnerable narcissism as ‘vulnerability-sensitivity’, associating it with introversion, defensiveness, anxiety, vulnerability to life’s traumas.

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