Last month, I did an Enneagram typing interview for an autistic friend. Before the interview, we had an open discussion because she wasn’t sure her autism would allow her to self-type, even with the help of my interview questions.
Her concern was that what she really thinks and what motivates her might be too heavily influenced by the adjustments she has made as a result of her autism and her efforts to behave neurotypically.
In the end, the interview was a success, and she was able to identify herself. But we learned many interesting things along the way. I’ll share what we discovered in this single case study, but first, an overview.
What is Autism?
Autism is a broad range of related neurological conditions that are intertwined and difficult to pick apart. Autism isn’t a single condition, and every autistic person presents slightly differently.
There are seven basic factors in the autism spectrum, including pragmatic language skills, social awareness, montropic mindset (the ability to focus deeply and sometimes obsessively), information processing, sensory processing, repetitive behaviors, and neuro-motor differences. To be classified autistic, you need to have neurological conditions in several of these categories. If you have issues in only one, your diagnosis will be something other than autism.
Gradient or Spectrum?
It’s common to hear the phrase “on the spectrum,” but most people erroneously talk about the autism spectrum as if it were a gradient. This inaccuracy causes a lot of confusion. Like the color spectrum is made up of different gradients within each color, the autism spectrum is made up of different gradients within each of the seven distinct categories outlined above. Having a single condition doesn’t put you “on the spectrum.”
To use a color spectrum as an example, being red doesn’t make you more or less “on the color spectrum.” It makes you red. This is the same for each element present on the autistic spectrum.
An autistic person has several of the factors listed above and can have light to intense manifestations of these factors making for a complex picture. It is important to keep in mind that no single condition makes a person autistic.
How Does Autism Overlap with the Enneagram?
A central tenet of the Enneagram is the concept of self-typing. This means I can’t tell you what Enneagram type you are - you need to identify yourself. And the key question for someone with autism is:
“Do your autistic challenges (and subsequent adaptations) make it impossible for you to recognize your internal motivations?”
This is a tricky question. It is seductive to assume that the two are separate and that being autistic doesn’t preclude self-awareness, self-reflection, and an ability to recognize your motivations. But as outlined above, there is a wide and deep spectrum of autistic conditions. It is dangerous to generalize, and it is fair to say that in some cases, autism may have little to no impact on Enneagram self-typing and in other instances, it may make self-typing impossible.
A Case Study
I did an Enneagram typing interview with my autistic friend, who is literally a rocket scientist. She’s brilliant, funny, engaging, and yes, a bit quirky. I’ve known her socially and professionally for over a decade, and it never occurred to me that she was autistic. She explained that she learned she was autistic a few years ago, and since that official diagnosis, many things fell into place for her.
During her typing interview, her concern centered around the fact she’s compensated for her inability to read social cues and the emotional state of others. She learned this behavior and wondered if this learning would lead to a mistyping. This turned out to be a valid concern and in a fascinating twist, her answers pointed to both the Enneagram Type 2, the Giver and Type 5, the Investigator. These two types are almost opposite in every way and in over 500 Enneagram interviews I’ve conducted, I can’t think of another time when someone identified strongly with both of these habits of attention. Normally, they point in opposite directions.
She described being hyper-alert to what other people are feeling and to being extremely “other” referencing. She spoke of some challenges with personal boundaries and how she feels guilty if she says no to a request. She described having an intense sense of personal responsibility, wanting to make a meaningful impact, and having an almost moral imperative to help others and make a difference in the world. It seemed like she might be a Type 2.
But then her responses to subsequent questions pointed to a different habit of attention. She confirmed it is essential she gets some time alone every day and that she uses this time to recharge. She discussed being introverted and deeply drained by social gatherings. She talked about the fact she can overthink and that her mind easily gravitates towards facts and logic. She described an ability to focus intensely and that she has a great deal of patience.
In the end, she recognized herself as an Investigator Type 5, the intellectual deep divers of the Enneagram who are known for being able to focus intently for long periods of time and who often become experts in their chosen field. Many Type 5s mention having a drive to leave the world a better place and make a meaningful contribution, so this seemed to fit some of the moral imperative she had discussed earlier in the interview.
But the truly fascinating thing was what she told me next. Her mother had noticed at an early age that her daughter wasn’t catching social clues and couldn’t read the emotions of others very well. Without ever knowing about “autism” her mother started taking her to cafes to people-watch and guided her on how to understand and read the feelings of other people.
As an adult, my friend took a test called the Cambridge Mindreading Face/Voice battery as part of an assessment of her ability to read non-verbal clues. Autistic people typically score less than 70%, whereas neurotypical people tend to score closer to 90%. My friend got 48 out of 50 correct, or a score of 96%. In a Type 5 way, she had mastered how to read non-verbal clues. It wasn’t that she was so connected to the emotional experience of others. She had learned to read people in the same way artificial intelligence can be developed to interpret emotion.
Common Myths About Autism and the Enneagram
With that case study as the backdrop, let’s dispel some common myths as it relates to autism and the Enneagram.
1. Autistic people are more likely to be Type 5 Investigators
Myth. It might be easy to say some typical Type 5 behaviors map to autistic behaviors, but we know the Enneagram is about motivation. Any one of the nine habits of attention could be found in an autistic person. And we know that the term autistic is wide and broadly encompasses a lot of behaviors. It is far too superficial an interpretation of either the Enneagram or autism to say autistic people are more likely to be Type 5s. Some will be. Others will be one of the other eight types. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence showing that all nine Enneagram habits of attention are represented in autistic people.
2. It is harder to recognize your Enneagram type if you are autistic.
It depends. The spectrum/gradient point is an important one when it comes to the Enneagram and autism because some elements and degrees of the autistic spectrum may mean an accurate Enneagram typing isn’t possible, while others mean it is not only possible but highly likely to find your Enneagram type. It depends on which autistic conditions you have and how intense they are.
3. People with autism are more likely to mistype themselves.
It depends. “Autism camouflaging” is a phenomenon whereby an autistic person has a discrepancy between their internal and external state in social-interpersonal contexts. This is like the case study of my friend above. She learned how to behave, but her behavior didn’t necessarily mirror her internal experience.
Autism camouflaging may make it difficult for the autistic person to recognize and communicate their internal thought patterns. And as the Enneagram is about internal thought patterns, not behavior, this could lead to mistyping. It’s an interesting dilemma and one for which there is no easy answer.
In the end, there is no single answer as to how the Enneagram and autism relate. For some forms of autism, the Enneagram can offer useful tools and can provide a clear roadmap about the inner workings of other people. In other forms of autism, the condition may preclude an accurate Enneagram typing, and the tools of the Enneagram may be less effective. In all cases, the Enneagram should be approached as a tool for compassion and used as far as it is useful towards that goal.