A Psychologist’s Perspective on Taylor Swift: Part 1
I’ll start off by saying that overall and from what I know, I really like and respect Taylor Swift. I think she is extremely talented and driven, and like a girl’s girl in the best sense. There is also something appealing and charming about the extent to which she seems somewhat oblivious or at least not entirely motivated by fame in and of itself.
Like she’s just doing her thing and making the best of it. This contributes to her endearing quirkiness, and sets her apart from her peers, despite being a bombshell and rock/pop/country megastar. Her drive and focus, coupled with an always present unselfconscious social and physical awkwardness, in addition to the subject matter and style of her lyrics and songwriting process also has given rise to a hypothesis between myself and colleague, Dr. Kelley Bolton:
Taylor Swift seems a little Aspie! Or at least seems to illustrate some traits of Asperger’s Syndrome (a now defunct diagnostic category relating to people who fall on the ‘high functioning’ zone of the Autism Spectrum Disorders) as it manifests in women.
Some of the things that make Aspie’s awesome are also traits Swift embodies. Would she meet criteria for a diagnosis?
That’s up for debate and maybe unlikely. The truth is that Asperger’s is not a REAL thing, it’s something we as people have made up—a construct—to understand a rare-ish breed of people who perceive the world in a ‘clinically significantly’ unique way. It all falls on thecontinuum of human experience.
The purpose of this is not to diagnose Taylor Swift, but to pay tribute to her talent and armchair analyze her attributes that set her apart from her peers and/or neurotypicals.
I work with Aspie’s and love their refreshing, direct OR absolutely indirect roundabout way of connecting with and describing life. My goal in writing this is to normalize and appreciate the diversity that is offered by an understanding of Asperger’s/Autism spectrum disorders, and hopefully foster an appreciation for how these traits can be enriching for our society as a whole. I am not an expert on Taylor, just a fan, but compared to the general populace, know a little bit about Asperger’s. So know that the accuracy of my thesis is based more on my knowledge and familiarity with Asperger’s and less on my assessment or evaluation of Taylor Swift.
Asperger’s is best understood as a difference in social/emotional/ behavioral perception. It is not a mental illness, personality or thought disorder.
It is considered “developmental” because one is born with it and the distinctive symptoms are exhibited from age three; although they may manifest in different ways across the lifespan. Asperger’s is characterized by significant challenges in social interaction in addition to restricted and perseverative interests. It was previously distinguished from other Autism Spectrum Disorders because linguistic (language) and cognitive (intelligence) development are preserved. People with Asperger’s may have a propensity to be physically clumsy and make odd or very literal use of language — although these qualities are not necessary for diagnosis.
Males and females with Asperger’s tend to demonstrate these traits in unique ways. Males tend to exhibit the traits more behaviorally (think Sheldon from Big Bang Theory or Max from Parenthood), while female Aspies are less depicted in pop culture and the traits seem to be more associated with social-emotional attributes (females with Asperger’s may be more likely to get diagnosed with a mood disorder, such as bipolar disorder, or fly under the radar altogether).
Dr. Bolton and I recently gave a talk on understanding Asperger’s in females.
I’ll use the bullet points from this talk to start and provide an overview of some basic qualities female Aspie’s tend to demonstrate. First, here are some things females with Aspie’s may struggle with or may set them apart in a way that is confusing to others:
- Difficulty with the plans, thoughts, and points-of-view of others
- Language pragmatics, voice inflection, modulation
- Abstract / Idiomatic language and expressions
- Making sense of change and adjusting
- Sensory sensitivity (prefer comfortable clothes, limited range of foods, heightened perception of light and sound)
- Preoccupation with certain subjects
- Need alone time
- Emotion regulation: communicating their emotions to others and attending to in themselves
- Keen observers of human behavior and social interaction but struggle when they become an active participant
- Interests similar to female peers and less restricted, but level of intensity generally different
- Use strategies to mask social confusion
- Superficial level of social success through imitation
- Escape into fantasy
And the following provides an overview of some of the cool qualities and strengths of Asperger’s (some the same as above):
- Passionate commitment to ideas
- Original ways of approaching problems
- Diligently work in a routine
- Strong pursuit of knowledge in areas of interest
- Take rules seriously
- Strong sense of equality and justice
- Loyal to friends
- Wide vocabulary
- Good visual and spatial learners
- Good long-term memory
- Not swayed much by peer pressure
- Ability to gain system-based knowledge
- Intense interests in reading, fantasy, writing, creating characters
Taylor Swift is obviously an immense talent; in her short life she has been nominated 531 times (and counting) for awards related to her music, and has won 317 awards (including 7 Grammies, 15 AMA’s, 11 Country Music Association Awards, 7 Academy of Country Music Awards, and 12 Billboard Music Awards).
She stands out, and while she may not be a “textbook” case of Asperger’s, there is something about her social audaciousness, naïveté, and delightful awkwardness (potentially more readily excused by her good looks and glam squad) paired with her pure drive and focus and desire to connect with every fan, that at least reminds us of some of the quirks and endearing traits of our female clients with Asperger’s.
So, for those of us Swifties, how do you think Taylor fits so far? Not swayed? Well, stay tuned until next time when I’ll delve into some of Taylor’s qualities and how they relate to Asperger’s…
Check out Part 2 of the article here.