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Avoidant Personality Disorder vs Autism: Key Features and Diagnostic Criteria

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This article will elucidate the disparities between Avoidant Personality Disorder (AvPD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), providing clarity on their distinct features, diagnostic criteria, and treatment approaches.

Introduction

Avoidant personality disorder is characterized by a pattern of hypersensitivity to negative evaluations from others, feelings of perpetual inadequacy, and social inhibition. Autism or autism spectrum disorder is characterized by regular deficits in social interactions and communication as well as the presence of repetitive and restrictive behavioral patterns, activities, or interests. 

When looking at autism vs. avoidant personality disorder, each holds significance in mental health and neurodevelopmental domains, and it’s important to differentiate between the two because of their distinct clinical presentations. Doing so has implications for correct treatment. Given the overlap in their social aspects, it is important to delve into the key features and diagnostic criteria for avoidant personality disorder vs. autism. 

The biggest difference between autism vs avoidant personality disorder is that while both might have poor or limited social engagement/skills, something with AvPD avoids things out of fear of criticism or rejection, while something with Autism does so because they have communication issues and neurological differences. 

Avoidant personality disorder vs autism diagnostic criteria

In order to be diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder an individual must demonstrate a pervasive pattern of hypersensitivity to negative evaluations, perpetual fears of inadequacy, and social inhibition that usually starts in early adulthood. Individuals must present with at least four of the following:

  1. An individual avoids occupational activities where they would have significant interpersonal contact, specifically because they are afraid of rejection, disapproval, or criticism. 
  2. A person is unwilling to get involved with people unless they know they will be liked. 
  3. An individual has restraint in their intimate relationships because they are afraid of being ridiculed. 
  4. When in social situations, an individual is preoccupied with being rejected or criticized. 
  5. When in new interpersonal situations, a person is inhibited by their feelings of inadequacy. 
  6. They view themselves as socially inferior, inept, or unappealing compared to others. 
  7. They are often reluctant to engage in new activities or take personal risks because they are worried about them being embarrassing. 

A diagnosis of autism requires individuals to have symptoms across all five of the major categories below:

  1. An individual must have persistent deficits with social interaction or communication across several contexts, with all of the following:
    1. Individuals demonstrate deficits in reciprocating social and emotional characteristics, like having a conversation, sharing in the interests of emotions of self or others, or responding to social interactions appropriately. 
    2. Individuals demonstrate deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors that are normally reserved for social interactions, like limited eye contact, no facial expressions, abnormal body language, or poor verbal skills. 
    3. Individuals have difficulty with relationships including initiation, maintaining, or understanding their purpose. As a child this can manifest as not being able to make friends and as an adult, not being able to maintain an intimate relationship. 
  2. Autism presents with restricted and repetitive activities, behaviors, or interests with at least two of the following:
    1. Individuals demonstrate repetitive or stereotyped motor movements.
    2. Individuals insist on inflexible routines and small rituals. 
    3. Individuals have highly restrictive interests that preoccupy their attention and are excessively circumscribed or unusual.
    4. Hyper or hypo reactivity to any type of sensory input or a lack of interest in the sensations of their environment.
  3. Autism symptoms must begin in early developmental stages, particularly the first and second years of life.
  4. Symptoms must cause significant impairment in occupational, social, or other functional areas of life.
  5. These symptoms cannot be better explained by other disorders. 

Key differences between avoidant personality disorder and autism

When you consider the diagnostic criteria above, it is important to note the key differences behind certain behaviors. 

For example:

Deficits in nonverbal communication for someone with autism are manifested by things like atypical eye contact, lack of facial expressions, reduced speech intonation, or unusual gestures. This feature is often because of impaired joint attention, difficulty communicating, or a deficit in understanding how social relationships work. By comparison, someone with avoidant personality disorder won’t have deficits in their nonverbal communication but may instead avoid communication or social situations entirely, not due to a lack of understanding but fear. 

Autism spectrum disorder presents with deficits in understanding and maintaining relationships. A person might have atypical interests and play games by strict rules or fail to follow unspoken social rules as an adult. They are often single-mindedly focused on their personal interests, behaviors, or activities with intense focus. By comparison, someone with avoidant personality disorder will avoid discussing any hobbies or interests for fear of rejection or criticism and won’t engage with others for the same reason. 

Treatment approaches for avoidant personality disorder vs autism

The treatment approaches have some overlap, but there are key differences in autism vs. avoidant personality disorder. 

Psychotherapeutic interventions for avoidant personality disorder and autism

No standardized treatment exists for autism, but symptoms are typically managed after an initial diagnosis with early therapeutic interventions. Some examples include:

  • Speech-language therapy, especially among children
  • Social skills training for children and adults who have difficulty understanding what social skills are or how to apply them
  • Occupational therapy for adults who need to learn how they can effectively manage symptoms at work 
  • Physical therapy to help manage repetitive movements and other motor abnormalities
  • Educational therapies and school-based therapies 
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Behavioral management therapy
  • Nutritional therapy
  • Medication treatment
  • Joint attention therapy

For avoidant personality disorder, psychotherapeutic interventions center on psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps individuals focus on building social skills and changing their mindset from automatic negative thoughts about inadequacy and judgment toward positive alternatives.

Supportive psychotherapy and psychodynamic psychotherapy can also be useful interventions for AvPD, helping individuals overcome the anxiety that hinders their social engagement and learning to be more open to new experiences or relationships.  

Pharmacological treatments and medication management for avoidant personality disorder or autism

At present, the pharmacological treatments and medication management for avoidant personality disorder vs. autism represent a much bigger difference in their treatment approaches. While no standardized treatment for autism exists, medication management is not often utilized, although certain medications can be prescribed for specific symptoms.

By comparison, pharmacological treatments are more highly utilized for avoidant personality disorder. It is important to note that no medication is officially approved by the FDA to treat AvPD, but rather, there are medications prescribed to handle social anxiety disorder symptoms that can also be applied to AvPD, including:

  • SSRIs
  • SNRIs

Summing up

With avoidant personality disorder and autism, there are key differences that have to do with the cause or motivation behind the symptoms. Whereas someone with avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) might demonstrate poor social skills and limited social engagement, this is done because of anxiety and fear of being judged or inadequate, someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may not understand the purpose or means of social interactions. 

Given the ways in which symptoms might overlap, it is important to get an accurate diagnosis by trained clinicians to ensure appropriate treatment and support for individuals with AvPD or ASD.