Pop Culture

A Psychologist’s Perspective on Taylor Swift: Part 1

Dr. Rachel Kitson

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 tswift pull quote 2somewhat 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 mega star. 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 the swift14f-1-webcontinuum of human experience.  The purpose of this is not to diagnose T. 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 tswift pull quote 1seem 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 all together). 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 interesttaylor-swift-800
  • 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.

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About the author

Dr. Rachel Kitson

Dr. Rachel Kitson

Rachel enjoys blogging about pop-culture through a psychological lens. Topics of interest include celebrity culture, disturbing trends, social media, and other existential predicaments. She has been interviewed by Vice, Refinery 29, Expert Beacon, and contributed to Politini and Entertainment Shrinkly podcasts.

3 Comments

  • She’s well behaved, creative, seems to be an intense thinker. More “shy” than slutty. Oh, how creepy …

    We can’t all be Britney Spears or Kathie Lee Gifford. Or any of the Kardashian Jenners. Not surprised you’re in awe of Kanye, though.

    • Hey Jean! I’m more in “awe” of Swift, if anything. I think she and Kanye are both interesting case studies, in different regards. The point of my post
      was to pay tribute to Swift as a celebrity who stands out amongst the rest. And equating her traits with those of Asperger’s was by no means meant to
      indicate she is “creepy” or suggest she should conform to other teeny-bop-sex-pot-scandals, but was meant to shed light on the fascinating
      spectrum of the human experience and how we conceptualize certain clusters of traits.

      Rachel

      • Thanks for writing this article! I’m the father of an Aspie and probably and undercover Aspie myself, and it’s neat to see some kind of professional perspective on what we suspect may be the case.

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