February 15, 2017


Personality Features of Autism, Asperger’s, and Nerds (PFAAN):

My perspective


Dr. Temple Grandin (who has Autism) has stated that many people who are referred to as nerds may have very similar sensory and emotional experiences to those with Autism and Asperger’s.

Is PFAAN a Mental Disorder?

While some people do have profound difficulties if on the extreme end of the Autism spectrum,  I normally do not think of PFAAN as a mental disorder, but a different way of experiencing the world then most people. It is more of a personality; a personality type that I think probably makes up 20-25% of the population, but I have no hard statics on that.  Or to quote Dr. Hans Asperger (of Asperger’s Syndrome) “Once one had learnt to pay attention to the characteristic manifestation of autism, one realizes that they are not at all rare.”  PFAAN features are seen in many very famous and successful people (see the video below for examples).

This does not mean that have PFAAN attributes may not cause a person some challenges. PFAAN is only a disorder if it is causing you problems.  To me, if a person can love, work, and find meaning/purpose in life, they have no disorder (no matter how eccentric they may be).  So if your personality is getting in the way of loving or working, that is the time to get help. Most PFAAN challenges focus on social interactions.

Cognitive and Behavioral Signs of PFAAN

“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Dr. Stephen Shore.

PFAANs come in all varieties. But here are some common signs I look for in having people having PFAAN features:

  • A deep interest/successful career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) subjects
  • Trouble understanding social situations and facial cues
  • Sensory sensitivity (e.g. not being able to stand fluorescent lighting or shirt tags)
  • Thinking in pictures (most people think in words and emotions)
  • Black and white thinking
  • For a whole list of possible PFAAN features see the unofficial checklist by S. Craft  (though it is designed for females, I think it works well in males too). This is a checklist that can be very useful in discussions with mental health professionals, but should not be used for diagnostic purposes.

A good overview of what thinking in pictures is like is shown in the video below from an interview with Dr. Grandin about how she sees the world:

Therapy in PFAAN

Like any personality, PFAAN has strengths and weaknesses.  This is no different in PFAAN clients.  However, when social interactions and emotional understanding get in the way of what a PFAAN client wants to achieve, that is when therapy may be helpful.  Based on my experience, the three most common focuses of treatment for PFAAN clients in therapy is regulation of anxiety, teaching social skills, and psycho-education of how emotions work in PFAAN and non-PFAAN people.

Special Note For Mental Health Practitioners

One thing that I really look for clinically to assess for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is in clients that have been in therapy before (sometimes for many years) and have several different and often contradictory diagnoses. If they have never been assessed for ASD, it may be a good idea to consider ASD.

Also, while I have many issues with many diagnoses in the DSM-5, I find the diagnosis of ASD in clients with it to be very helpful, because once ASD clients know it, they can access great resources to help them.  This is purely my opinion, but one strong sign of having ASD is when you bring discussion of ASD up with clients with it they will tend to embrace it (e.g. they’ll say “That makes so much sense.”). In fact, the diagnosis of ASD often seems more stressful for mental health professionals than for the clients, as many of these professionals have a hard time empathizing with the freedom an ASD diagnosis has for a ASD client. It usually says to them that they have a different brain setup or different emotional language that they can learn to do something with and does away with much of the shame that those with ASD experience in their lives not being able to get social and emotional cues that most others get.

For more information on Ken’s understanding of PFAAN emotional processes and interventions, see his article in Counseling Today.

The world needs all kinds of minds!