Theory finds that individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome don’t lack empathy – in fact if anything they empathize too much

Art work by Aegis Mario S. Nevado
Art work by Aegis Mario S. Nevado

“A ground-breaking theory suggests people with autism-spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s do not lack empathy – rather, they feel others’ emotions too intensely to cope.”

“People with Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning form of autism, are often stereotyped as distant loners or robotic geeks. But what if what looks like coldness to the outside world is a response to being overwhelmed by emotion – an excess of empathy, not a lack of it?

This idea resonates with many people suffering from autism-spectrum disorders and their families. It also jibes with the “intense world” theory, a new way of thinking about the nature of autism.

As posited by Henry and Kamila Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, the theory suggests that the fundamental problem in autism-spectrum disorders is not a social deficiency but, rather, a hypersensitivity to experience, which includes an overwhelming fear response.

“I can walk into a room and feel what everyone is feeling,” Kamila Markram says. “The problem is that it all comes in faster than I can process it. There are those who say autistic people don’t feel enough. We’re saying exactly the opposite: They feel too much.”

Virtually all people with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, report various types of over-sensitivity and intense fear. The Markrams argue that social difficulties of those with autism spectrum disorders stem from trying to cope with a world where someone has turned the volume on all the senses and feelings up past 10.

If hearing your parents’ voices while sitting in your crib felt like listening to Lou Reed‘s Metal Machine Music on acid, you, too, might prefer to curl in a corner and rock.

But, of course, this sort of withdrawal and self-soothing behaviour – repetitive movements; echoing words or actions; failing to make eye contact – interferes with social development. Without the experience other kids get through ordinary social interactions, children on the spectrum never learn to understand subtle signals.

Phil Schwarz, vice-president of the Asperger’s Association of New England adds, “I think most people with ASD feel emotional empathy and care about the welfare of others very deeply.”

So, why do so many people see a lack of empathy as a defining characteristic of autism spectrum disorder?

The problem starts with the complexity of empathy itself. One aspect is simply the ability to see the world from the perspective of another. Another is more emotional – the ability to imagine what the other is feeling and care about their pain as a result.

Autistic children tend to develop the first part of empathy – which is called “theory of mind” – later than other kids. This was established in a classic experiment. Children are asked to watch two puppets, Sally and Anne. Sally takes a marble and places it in a basket, then leaves the stage. While she’s gone, Anne takes the marble out and puts it in a box. The children are then asked: Where will Sally look first for her marble when she returns?

Most 4-year-olds know Sally didn’t see Anne move the marble, so they get it right. By 10 or 11, children with developmental disabilities who have verbal IQs equivalent to 3-year-olds also get it right. But 80 per cent of autistic children age 10 to 11 guess that Sally will look in the box, because they know that’s where the marble is and they don’t realize other people don’t share all of their knowledge.

Of course, if you don’t realize others are seeing and feeling different things, you might well act less caring toward them.

It takes autistic children far longer than children without autism to realize other people have different experiences and perspectives – and the timing of this development varies greatly. But that doesn’t mean, once people with autism spectrum disorder do become aware of other people’s experience, that they don’t care or want to connect.

Schwarz, of the New England Asperger’s association, says all the autistic adults he knows over the age of 18 have a better sense of what others know than the Sally/Anne test suggests.

When it comes to not understanding the inner state of minds too different from our own, most people also do a lousy job, Schwarz says. “But the non-autistic majority gets a free pass because, if they assume that the other person’s mind works like their own, they have a much better chance of being right.”

Thus, when, for example, a child with Asperger’s talks incessantly about his intense interests, he isn’t deliberately dominating the conversation so much as simply failing to consider that there may be a difference between his interests and those of his peers.

In terms of the caring aspect of empathy, a lively discussion that would seem to support  Markrams’ theory appeared on the website for people with autism spectrum disorder called WrongPlanet.net, after a mother wrote to ask whether her empathetic but socially immature daughter could possibly have Asperger’s.

“If anything, I struggle with having too much empathy,” one person says. “If someone else is upset, I am upset. There were times during school when other people were misbehaving and, if the teacher scolded them, I felt like they were scolding me.”

Said another, “I am clueless when it comes to reading subtle cues but I am very empathic. I can walk into a room and feel what everyone is feeling and I think this is actually quite common in AS/autism. The problem is that it all comes in faster than I can process it.”

Studies have found that when people are overwhelmed by empathetic feelings, they tend to pull back. When someone else’s pain affects you deeply, it can be hard to reach out rather than turn away.

For people with autism spectrum disorder, these empathetic feelings might be so intense that they withdraw in a way that appears cold or uncaring.

“These children are really not unemotional. They do want to interact – it’s just difficult for them,” Markram says. “It’s quite sad, because these are quite capable people. But the world is just too intense, so they have to withdraw.”

Article written by Maia Szalavitz

Amazing original art work by Aegis Mario S. Nevado – http://aegis-strife.net

Article originally sourced and reproduced  from: http://www.thestar.com/life/health_wellness/diseases_cures/2009/05/14/aspergers

Other sources related to this article can be found at the following links.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/05/11/a-radical-new-autism-theory.html  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/2976839/Autism-is-caused-by-a-supercharged-mind-scientists-claim.html                                                                           

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19926741.700-do-supercharged-brains-give-rise-to-autism.html

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Autism from an adults perspective – “It’s a horrible feeling of vulnerability and helplessness to know that the non-autistic world sees you as seriously impaired”.

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Bitterness is a trap Aspies and Auties can easily fall into; it’s entirely understandable, but it doesn’t help the healing process. There is something that can be quite embittering for many of us on the autism spectrum, something appallingly undermining. For a start, there’s the stigma, the social taboo, the fact that to some people, you are now an embarrassment, and some of them show it.

On the inside, it’s a horrible feeling of vulnerability and helplessness to know that the non-autistic world sees you as seriously impaired, and there are a million and one ways it will try to make you feel as if you are not a fully functioning human being. At best, you know you’ll never be quite “normal”; and in a herd-mentality society that subsists on the fragility of social acceptance, this knowledge can a times indeed be a bitter pill to swallow.

This feeling of being vulnerable, confused and a bit lost, still happens to me every day, even  after more than forty years of dealing with it.

I was not diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome until adulthood, but well before that I did not produce appropriate emotional responses on meeting other humans, and that led to a disastrous cascade effect – I lost contact, became withdrawn, and fell off the cumulative ladder of social-emotional learning.

To this day, I have significant degree of impairment with social-emotional skills. I can’t be sure I am reading people’s signals accurately. Indeed, often I know I haven’t, even before they become guarded and then pissed off – I’m not at all sure I fully understand what they are saying, especially if they are “being polite” or trying to imply something rather than saying it straight out. I need direct, literal communication: and on this cagey, dodgy planet I seldom get it, which means that much of the time I can’t be sure that I did in fact “get it”.

I often have to ask for clarification, which can lead people to think that I am a “please explain” duh-brain; it also leads to conflict because they think I’m just being awkward in not accepting what they think they have said, or not coming back with what they deem the appropriate emotional response.

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At such times, my underlying high IQ is not obvious to the casual observer. This can all add up to a very embittering feeling of insecurity – the feeling that I am condemned to a position of permanent and humiliating disadvantage, of seeming to be a bit of an idiot.

Bitterness can set in when living with autism or Asperger’s syndrome. But is it possible to leave the bitterness behind, to work through it to a sunnier place? I hope so. I’m still working on mine: here are some ideas I’ve found helpful.

The first point is one that actually elongates the process rather than shortening it. I have often been told that I need to forgive, to let go, to move on. That is true: but it is utterly pointless trying to do that unless we have first fully, honestly and laboriously worked through all the negative feelings, all the grief we have about not fitting into this world. It is vital and indispensable that anyone who is on the autism spectrum has the absolute right to go through our own grieving process in our own time, and let go of it all only when we are REALLY ready to do so.

Forgiveness is not an instantaneous action, a simple stroke of volition. It is a difficult emotional process, and it simply doesn’t work if we try to jump stages. It is easy to say we must forgive, let it go. Yet we cannot forgive until we have let the anger up to the surface and expressed it. And don’t ask whether or not your feelings are reasonable – feelings are never reasonable. They are not meant to be reasonable: feelings are feelings, not rational ideas. Don’t get the two confused, they are very different phenomena.

Thus, to get to the stage of being able to let go of our resentments, we must work through all the powerful stages of grieving – the denial, the depression and hopelessness, the slowly mobilizing anger, the growing reconciliation to our new, impaired daily reality, the radical reassessment of our goals, life experiences and interpretations. It takes time, often a lot of time – and we need to allow ourselves to do it in our own impaired time, not on a schedule suggested by well-meaning (or otherwise) helpers.

At all times, I try to keep one guiding principle in mind and that is that the fact that I am an Aspie does not make me less of a human being.

Nor does it detract from my indelible human rights – including above all the right to make a positive contribution to the betterment of the human condition in whatever ways I can.

I may be different but I’m still a human being and just like every other human being I will have my good days and my bad days and my own unique ways of processing past hurts.

Tony Attwood – The Pattern of Abilities and Development for Girls with Asperger’s Syndrome

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The overwhelming majority of referrals for a diagnostic assessment for Asperger’s Syndrome are boys. The ratio of males to females is around 10:1, yet the epidemiological research for Autistic Spectrum Disorders suggests that the ratio should be 4:1. Why are girls less likely to be identified as having the characteristics indicative of Asperger’s Syndrome? The following are some tentative suggestions that have yet to be validated by academic research, but they provide some plausible explanations based on preliminary clinical experience.

It appears that many girls with Asperger’s Syndrome have the same profile of abilities as boys but a subtler or less severe expression of the characteristics. Parents may be reluctant to seek a diagnostic assessment if the child appears to be coping reasonably well and clinicians may be hesitant to commit themselves to a diagnosis unless the signs are conspicuously different to the normal range of behaviour and abilities.

We have a stereotype of typical female and male behaviour. Girls are more able to verbalise their emotions and less likely to use physically aggressive acts in response to negative emotions such as confusion, frustration and anger. We do not know whether this is a cultural or constitutional characteristic but we recognise that children who are aggressive are more likely to be referred for a diagnostic assessment to determine whether the behaviour is due to a specific developmental disorder and for advice on behaviour management. Hence boys with Asperger’s Syndrome are more often referred to a psychologists or psychiatrist because their aggression has become a concern for their parents or schoolteacher. A consequence of this referral bias is that not only are more boys referred, clinicians and academics can have a false impression of the incidence of aggression in this population.

One must always consider the personality of the person with Asperger’s Syndrome and how they cope with the difficulties they experience in social reasoning, empathy and cognition. Some individuals are overtly active participants in social situations. Their unusual profile of abilities in social situations is quite obvious. However, some are reluctant to socialize with others and their personality can be described as passive. They can become quite adept at camouflaging their difficulties and clinical experience suggests that the passive personality is more common in girls.

Each person with Asperger’s Syndrome develops their own techniques and strategies to learn how to acquire specific skills and develop coping mechanisms. One technique is to have practical guidance and moral support from one’s peers. We know that children with Asperger’s Syndrome elicit from others, either strong maternal or ‘predatory’ behaviour. If the person’s natural peer group is girls, they are more likely to be supported and included by a greater majority of their peers. Thus girls with Asperger’s Syndrome are often ‘mothered’ by other girls. They may prompt the child when they are unsure what to do or say in social situations and comfort them when they are distressed. In contrast, boys are notorious for their intolerance of children who are different and are more prone to be ‘predatory’. This can have an unfortunate effect on the behaviour of a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome and many complain of being teased, ignored and bullied by other boys. It is interesting to note that some boys with Asperger’s Syndrome actually prefer to play with girls who are often kinder and more tolerant than their male peers.

The author has conducted both individual and group social skills training with boys and girls with Asperger’s Syndrome. Experience has indicated that, in general, the girls are more motivated to learn and quicker to understand key concepts in comparison to boys with Asperger’s Syndrome of equivalent intellectual ability. Thus, they may have a better long-term prognosis in terms of becoming more fluent in their social skills. This may explain why women with Asperger’s Syndrome are often less conspicuous than men with the syndrome and less likely to be referred for a diagnostic assessment. The author has also noted that, in general, mothers with Asperger’s Syndrome appear to have more ‘maternal’ and empathic abilities with their own children than men with Asperger’s Syndrome, who can have great difficulty understanding and relating to their children.

Some individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome can be quite ingenious in using imitation and modelling to camouflage their difficulties in social situations. One strategy that has been used by many girls and some boys is to observe people who are socially skilled and to copy their mannerisms, voice and persona. This is a form of social echolalia or mirroring where the person acquires a superficial social competence by acting the part of another person. This is illustrated in Liane Holliday-Willeys intriguing new autobiography, titled, “Pretending to be Normal’.

“I could take part in the world as an observer. I was an avid observer. I was enthralled with the nuances of people’s actions. In fact, I often found it desirable to become the other person. Not that I consciously set out to do that, rather it came as something I simply did. As if I had no choice in the matter. My mother tells me I was very good at capturing the essence and persona of people. At times I literally copied someone’s looks and their actions. I was uncanny in my ability to copy accents, vocal inflections, facial expressions, hand movements, gaits and tiny gestures. It was as if I became the person I was emulating. (p.22)”

Girls are more likely to be enrolled in speech and drama lessons and this provides an ideal and socially acceptable opportunity for coaching in body language. Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome have a prodigious memory and this can include reciting the dialogue for all characters in a play and memorizing the dialogue or ‘script’ of real life conversations. Knowing the script also means the child does not have to worry about what to say. Acting can subsequently become a successful career option although there can be some confusion when adults with Asperger’s Syndrome act another persona in real life as this can be misconstrued as Multiple Personality Disorder rather than a constructive means of coping with Asperger’s Syndrome.

When a child would like more friends but clearly has little success in this area, one option is to create imaginary friends. This often occurs with young girls who visualise friends in their solitary play or use dolls as a substitute for real people. Girls with Asperger’s Syndrome can create imaginary friends and elaborate doll play which superficially resembles the play of other girls but there can be several qualitative differences. They often lack reciprocity in their natural social play and can be too controlling when playing with their peers. This is illustrated in Liane Holliday-Willey’s autobiography.

“The fun came from setting up and arranging things. Maybe this desire to organise things rather than play with things, is the reason I never had a great interest in my peers. They always wanted to use the things I had so carefully arranged. They would want to rearrange and redo. They did not let me control the environment.”

When involved in solitary play with dolls, the girl with Asperger’s Syndrome has total control and can script and direct the play without interference and having to accept outcomes suggested by others. The script and actions can be an almost perfect reproduction of a real event or scene from a book or film. While the special interest in collecting and playing with dolls can be assumed to be an age appropriate activity and not indicative of psychopathology, the dominance and intensity of the interest is unusual. Playing with and talking to imaginary friends and dolls can also continue into the teenage years when the person would have been expected to mature beyond such play. This quality can be misinterpreted as evidence of hallucinations and delusions and a diagnostic assessment for schizophrenia rather than Asperger’s Syndrome.

The most popular special interests of boys with Asperger’s Syndrome are types of transport, specialist areas of science and electronics, particularly computers. It has now become a more common reaction of clinicians to consider whether a boy with an encyclopaedic knowledge in these areas has Asperger’s Syndrome. Girls with Asperger’s Syndrome can be interested in the same topics but clinical experience suggests their special interest can be animals and classic literature. These interests are not typically associated with boys with Asperger’s Syndrome. The interest in animals can be focussed on horses or native animals and this characteristic dismissed as simply typical of young girls. However, the intensity and qualitative aspects of the interest are unusual. Teenage girls with Asperger’s Syndrome can also develop a fascination with classic literature such as the plays of Shakespeare and poetry. Both have an intrinsic rhythm that they find entrancing and some develop their writing skills and fascination with words to become a successful author, poet or academic in English literature. Some adults with Asperger’s Syndrome are now examining the works of famous authors for indications of the unusual perception and reasoning associated with Asperger’s Syndrome. One example is the short story, “Cold” in ‘Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice’ by A.S. Byatt.

Finally, the author has noted that some ladies with Asperger’s Syndrome can be unusual in their tone of voice. Their tone resembles a much younger person, having an almost child like quality. Many are concerned about the physiological changes during puberty and prefer to maintain the characteristics of childhood. As with boys with Asperger’s Syndrome, they may see no value in being fashionable, preferring practical clothing and not using cosmetics or deodorants. This latter characteristic can be quite conspicuous.

These tentative explanations for the apparent under representation of girls with Asperger’s Syndrome have yet to be examined by objective research studies. It is clear that we need more epidemiological studies to establish the true incidence in girls and for research on the clinical signs, cognitive abilities and adaptive behaviour to include an examination of any quantitative and qualitative differences between male and female subjects. In the meantime, girls with Asperger’s Syndrome are likely to continue to be overlooked and not to receive the degree of understanding and resources they need.

Originally sourced from cloudnine.wordpress.com

Reference:
Holliday-Willey, L. (1999) Pretending to be Normal: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome. London. Jessica Kingsley Publications.

 

Please Look Me in the Eye When You’re Talking to Me.

Sounds like a simple enough request doesn’t it?

And for most people it is.

But I have found over the last few years that looking people in the eyes when I’m speaking to them is something that does not come naturally to me.

I can do it for brief periods of time when I really concentrate on it.

But in those brief moments of time I find that I focus so hard on reminding myself to look the other person in the eye, that I lose track of whatever it was I was saying in the first place.

No matter how badly I may have wanted to communicate an idea, whatever train of thought I might have been traveling on at the time, quite simply disappears.

It’s as if I can’t do those two things at once.

Because whenever I don’t try to rein my gaze in, even though it may wander all over the place, my though processes and communication skills remain clear.

I wonder what this says about me and how it affects the way others react to me?

I know for instance, that the idea of being able to look someone in the eye while speaking to them is often perceived as a sign of honesty.

It’s meant to indicate that the person speaking is telling the truth.

So what must people think of me when I’m speaking to them, yet not looking at them?

Sometimes the person I’m speaking too will actually turn around to try and see what it is that I’m looking at as I speak.

It is in those moments that I become acutely aware that I’m staring at a random spot on the wall or gazing at nothing more than the patch of invisible air just beside the person’s head.

Then there’s always that empty space just beyond the other person’s shoulder that somehow always seems to hold me spell-bound, for no apparent reason.

It seems I will look anywhere but into the eyes of the person I’m talking too.

One of the things I find so weird about this though isn’t just the fact that I can’t seem to look others in the eye when I’m speaking to them, it’s that I can easily, sometimes almost obsessively, look other people in the eyes when they are speaking to me.

It’s as if, when they’re speaking to me, eye contact  is not just Okay, it’s mandatory, but when I’m speaking to them, eye contact becomes an additional sensory burden.

It’s almost as if I can’t do the two things at once; Speak and look into another person’s eyes at the same time.

I do not understand why this is.

I only know that for some odd reason, I can’t seem to do this thing that comes so easily to others.

I’m not sure if it’s getting worse as I get older or whether years of noticing people’s strange reactions to me have simply made me more aware of it.

I’m also not sure whether or not this indicates that I have Aspie (Asperger) tendencies,  as I can look people in the eye, so I don’t actually have a fear of looking people in the eye, it’s just that I can’t  look them in the eyes when I’m talking.

Does anyone else experience this or know what it means?