Emotional Reciprocity

by Gavin Bollard

This last weekend has been a really tough one for our family. We had to have our dog of nearly twelve years, Panda, put down last Saturday.

To make matters worse, nobody was expecting it. One day, she was “chirpy” and seemed to be in perfectly good health, and the next she was gone. She was in our family for longer than our kids, and she has left a huge hole in our family heart.

I was going to talk about emotional reciprocity today anyway, but last weekend’s events have put a whole new spin on things.

Dealing with Strong Emotions
We all deal with strong emotions, such as love, anger, and grief, in our own ways. My wife tends to cry things out, but I often internalise them and take them on board as stress and, at times, self-harmful behaviour. In the kids, these emotions can manifest as meltdowns or as general destructive behaviour. But sometimes, there’s nothing to see on the surface at all.

The point is that although we each feel these emotions and we feel them at similar strengths, our reactions vary widely both in intensity and visibility.

Quantifying Emotions
For some reason, our society seems to think that it’s okay to quantify emotions based on visible reactions. In my experience, if an event occurs to two people, and the woman is crying while the man is not, then the woman needs the most care and attention because “she’s the one who is really hurt.” The solution is to talk in a quiet voice, and bring lots of cups of tea and chocolates.

The man, by contrast isn’t bawling his eyes out, so he’s obviously not hurt. There’s nothing that you need to do for him. There’s no need to tread lightly because “he’s not even upset.”

In fact, if the event is of an appropriate level — for example the death of a loved one — then anyone not outwardly grieving is “fair game.” You can take things out on them, and you’re more or less expected to say “What’s wrong with you, man?” The words “you don’t care” should also be used in conversation to him.

Sound familiar?

It’s something that many neurotypicals do, and yet so few realise how wrong it is.

Pain on the Spectrum
What if I said that this wasn’t really about men and women? It’s about everyone in general and people on the spectrum in particular.

We use our own perception of other people’s emotions to determine our response.

Too often, I hear of neurotypical partners describing the husbands as uncaring, unemotional, and cold. Autism research alleges that people on the spectrum sometimes feel less physical pain than others (based on their reactions), and even children on the spectrum are sometimes considered to have a disconnection to the pain of others.

What if all of the reasearchers are just reading the signs wrong?

There’s strong evidence in the online community that this is exactly the case. People with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome can lack facial expression and tone, but don’t lack emotions. In fact, we are very empathetic beings — sometimes even more empathetic that neurotypicals in terms of what we feel. Our problems are with the interpretation and the display of outward signs.

One Last Example
The day after the Panda died, there was a conversation right in front of me about how useless I am at doing “manly things” around the house. It’s true. I really am useless at fixing things around the house. I didn’t react badly, and I wasn’t obviously sad, so there was no need for anyone to hold back.

It was hard to keep suicidal thoughts out of my head for the rest of the day, because that’s how I deal with pain. Fortunately, I know that I’m needed in my family and I know that depression is part of Asperger’s. I can reject those dark feelings because I know they’re part of the condition.

It’s a good lesson to friends, parents, and spouses everywhere. Maybe your child or husband doesn’t display a lot of emotion (that you can detect) but everything you say is being noted. If you know that there is good cause for emotion, there’s no reason to assume that simply because you personally can’t detect it, it isn’t there.

Treat everyone in a possible emotional state carefully and you’ll reduce the likelihood of a meltdown.

About the Author: Gavin Bollard is an adult with Asperger’s and the father of two Aspie sons. This piece originally appeared on his blog, Life with Asperger’s, on June 20, 2011 and is reprinted here by permission.


All Kids Do That

by Outrunning the Storm

I lost a close friendship after my four year old son, Charlie, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Our children had been in the same preschool class together until mine was asked to leave due to growing behavioral problems.

When, after nearly a year of struggle, we finally received his diagnosis, I shared it with my friend.

Asperger’s, I said. At the time, this new word was still bitter in my mouth, and every time I heard myself say it out loud, it felt like a punch to my chest. It took my air for a second or two.

But why? she responded. I don’t see it.

I wasn’t ready yet. I had no words. I stumbled through a string of reasons I did not yet fully understand myself. He has trouble transitioning, he doesn’t get social cues, he can’t see other people’s perspectives…..

That sounds like every four year old I know, she responded. Maybe my daughter has Asperger’s, too.

Yeah, they are all like that, but, it’s just that he’s …well….more….

It sounded weak because that’s how I felt. Weak and alone and afraid, and I needed so much from her in that moment. I just didn’t know what yet. So I let our friendship drift apart.

She was right, though. The hitting, shoving, and biting other kids that my three year old was doing at preschool, was in many ways typical behavior for that age. Though he did it much more often than any of the other kids, that was not the entire story of why it is not the same.

Here is the difference. All children will act out in some way as they learn about the world. But a typically developing child will see the reactions that other kids, teachers, or parents have to these behaviors and learn connections of cause and effect. This doesn’t mean they will never do them again, but they are learning to trust their instincts about people and how they can be expected to behave. But autism, for my son, means he does not see these reactions, so he does not learn from this relationship of social cause and effect. To him, people’s angry reactions and subsequent punishments come completely out of the blue and end up giving him all the more reason to think he needs to fight to defend himself from a confusing and unpredictable world.

There are several reasons why he doesn’t see these reactions. He does not recognize facial expressions. So the parental ‘look’ we are all so used to doing means nothing to him. He simply doesn’t see it. He cannot hear the emotional tone in voices, so while a sweet, gentle voice is a preferable sound to him, it implies no different meaning than does an angry, stern tone. Finally, he does not understand that the way he views the world in any given moment is not the same as the way everyone around him sees it. So, if he thinks throwing a toy at someone is funny, then he has no reason to believe that another child would see it any differently. By the way, this understanding that everyone has their own unique thoughts and feeling is called theory of mind, and some will say it means that people with autism lack empathy. Please, please know that it has nothing to do with empathy. That is a misconception that is so very hurtful to people on the spectrum and those of us who love them.

At one point, after I had read all the books and thought I understood, at least intellectually, what everything I just explained meant, there was a moment with my son that finally brought me true clarity. I think it may have been the first time, in fact, that I really saw him and understood what a struggle life must be for him.

We were at a park with his twin brother Tommy and Tommy’s wild, raucous friend Kyle. Tommy and Kyle were running around, screaming, chasing each other, and laughing when Tommy began, through fits of giggles, screaming No, no! Kyle! Stop! He then happily continued to invite Kyle to try and catch him. At this moment, Charlie got up and grabbed Kyle by the shoulders, shoved him to the ground, and sat on his chest. I jumped up and quickly grabbed him off the boy.

What are you doing! I screamed.

Tommy told him to stop and he wouldn’t.

I fell to my knees. I got it. That is all he saw. Not the laughter, not the obvious enjoyment in Tommy’s voice. Just the words. That’s all he had to go on. He couldn’t see the rest. Just imagine trying to navigate the social world on people’s actual words alone.

I have since gotten back in touch with my lost friend. On our neighborhood walks, while the kids are in school, we once again talk about our mutual love of books and food. But then I make sure that the topic turns to autism and all that it means for our family. I know that my son will spend his life having to conform to fit in this world, but I have to believe that, if I keep sharing his experiences with anyone who will listen, the world may learn to conform a little bit to fit him, too.

About the Author: Outrunning the Storm is the mother of twin boys, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. This piece first appeared as a guest post on Yeah. Good Times., and is reprinted here by permission.


A Dream Deferred

by Karen

It’s so many things right now. I’m constantly fighting fatigue. Having difficulty focusing. Feeling like very little is being accomplished on my long to-do list. It’s the searching, hoping, praying, collaborating with doctors, and teachers, insurance companies, and therapists. It’s the walking on eggshells, the barrage of negativity surrounding me, the field of landmines I walk through daily, trying not to trigger an explosion. It’s not natural. It’s not human inclination. It totally goes against the grain of “fight or flight” that we are inclined to do when we feel like we’re under attack. It’s the maintaining control because he’s out of control. It’s the loss of the dream that he would be my easy child.

You see, his light shines so brightly. There is so much intelligence and so much love in his heart, so much kindness and — yes — empathy. He is the one who I KNOW for sure will be all he can be. He is the one with the internal motivation. He is the one who wants so much to help others. He is the one who already has goals of getting a Masters Degree and maybe a Ph.D.  I mean, who talks about that when they’re 12?

He is the one who use to be the attorney for his brother when he was acting out. “Mom he doesn’t mean that.  He’s just trying to… Don’t be angry with him.” He is the one who said, “I don’t want to turn into one of those disgusting teenagers, who curses and disrespects their parents.”

He’s the one who is this wonderful artist, this deep thinker, who always thinks outside of the box. He’s the one who wrote this wonderful essay, Freaks Geeks & Aspergers about autism acceptance. He wrote this piece of his own volition, just a few weeks ago, and read it on the P.A. system for the entire school to hear. He is the one who gets notes sent home about what a wonderful student he is, and what a great leader he is.

And yet, right now, he is in such pain that it’s palpable. He’s falling apart, yet he’s wound up tight, like a sling shot. He clenches his fists. His body trembles with anger. He’s a stick of dynamite with a short fuse.

So, I speak softly. I  indulge him. I try to make him more comfortable in his own skin. I attempt to surround him in a protective bubble, keeping him away from the triggers as much as possible. It’s a lot of work! And it’s feels like all for naught.

I lay in bed next to him, trying to massage the stress away with lavender oil and a soft voice of reassurance. He turns around and starts biting the sheets, to show me, “What you are doing is not working.  Just leave me the fuck alone! I’m miserable! And you can’t rub it away with lavender oil or Gaba cream!”

“I’m working on getting you a new therapist who really knows Aspergers,” I say.

“I can’t do it! I can’t do anything. It won’t work. I can’t start anything new right now. I’m tired of this. I’m tired of feeling this way. Nothing helps! I want to feel better now!”

And with that, the tears well up within me.

“I just need to be locked away from people! I can’t go to school like this!” he says.

That’s it. The tears stream down my face. I lose my voice. I cannot speak.

I hug him. He feels my tears on his shoulder.

“Don’t cry, mom. I don’t want you to cry. Why are you crying?”

“I just want to make this better for you and I don’t know what else to do.”

He can’t handle my emotion. I can’t control it, although I try.

He asks for his father. He needs someone who will stay in control right now. He needs someone to help him understand. Why in the heck is mom crying?

I am crying because in this moment, I feel the loss of the dream. The dream that he is the one — the one who doesn’t have the problems like his brothers. Red, with his autism, anger, outbursts, and difficulty with school. Slim, with his anger, intelligence, and dumb life choices.

But alas, Blue is not perfection personified. He is human. He has autism, anger, and anxiety. He is a teenager, and he’s got crap to deal with, just like the rest of us.

As I tell him, I also have to remind myself:

I don’t have the magic answer

I can’t snap my fingers and make this all go away.

It’s not the loss of the dream.

It’s just life.

It’s a dream  deferred.

About the Author: Karen is the mother of two teenage boys with Asperger’s. This piece first appeared on her blog, Confessions of an Asperger’s Mom, and is reprinted here by permission.


Introversion and Autism

by Ettina

Here’s an e-mail I sent to the author of a book I read:

In your book The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child, you describe autistic people (I use that term broadly, including Asperger’s Syndrome and PDD-NOS) in a way that is, in my opinion, damaging and discriminatory.

I am autistic. I am also introverted. I don’t think I have heard of a single autistic who isn’t introverted. Introversion is a near-universal characteristic of autistic, though of course not all introverts are autistic. Autistic people also have a number of other traits, which are not any better or worse than normal, just different.

You describe autistics in the following manner:

Autism and Asperger’s Disorders. These syndromes reflect a cluster of symptoms that include problems in communication and relating to others, and the display of repetitive behaviors. In the film Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman portrayed a character with severe autism. Autistic children lack age-appropriate friendships, empathy, and an interest in sharing and communicating with others. However, they may have great gifts in specific areas, such as in sequencing numbers and visual processing. Asperger’s Disorder is diagnosed when the child is at a higher level of functioning. Studies indicate various brain areas that are affected, but as yet there is little certain about the causes or the cure for these conditions. Because an introverted child may seem disinclined to socialize, parents may suspect autism… But introversion and autism are very different issues. Introverted children have normal social relationships and form close attachments with parents and with peers. Introverts do not exhibit the repetitive behavior, such as rocking or head banging, that characterizes autism. Nor do innies display the uncanny ‘savant’ quality of, say, being able to recall random lists of numbers that sometimes signals these conditions.

Firstly, it seems like you are echoing medical terminology. I don’t think in a single instance you described introverts as ‘displaying’ some kind of distinctive behavior.

Empathy is used by autism ‘experts’ in a very distinctive, and in my opinion inaccurate, manner. Autistic people care about other people, it’s just that other people don’t make sense to us. At one point in your book, you say:

Right-brained innies may have a high emotional quotient, or ‘EQ.’ They can imagine themselves in another child’s shoes. This is called having empathy.

That kind of ’empathy’ is based on the assumption that others think like you. I used to think other people thought like me, and as a result most people were completely incomprehensible to me. It was only when I realized that I’m autistic, that my mind is actually different from others, that I began to get some real understanding of others. I’m surprised that a person with a minority temperament would actually think this kind of empathy is really useful. No doubt you’ve had extroverts acting like since they don’t like being alone, you must be dying for company as well. That is ’empathy’ as you describe it. It is only effective if you are interacting with someone who is very similar to you – even so, because no one is exactly the same, this kind of ’empathy’ will cause misunderstandings.

Also, I’d like to point out that autistics don’t have some kind of deficit in social skills. We are simply different. I’ve found that non-autistic people have, if anything, more difficulty understanding autistics than we do them. This is not because of some kind of deficit, simply less practice. Only about 1 out of a 100 people are autistic. That means that non-autistics only rarely meet autistic people, while autistics are constantly meeting nonautistic people. In addition, nonautistics hold the power in society. The oppressed group generally understands the oppressors better than the oppressors understand them.

I do not have the need for interaction that most people do. In fact, I find interaction tiring. Is this really different from introversion? I have read that introverts find interaction tiring and need alone time. Decreased interest in interaction seems therefore to be a typical trait of introverts, though more extreme in autistics. Also, decreased interest in interaction is not synonymous with not caring about others. I care very intensely about other people. I love my parents and younger brother very deeply, as well as my pets and my autistic friend. I also care, on a more abstract level, about all the children who are suffering because they are being told that who they are is not lovable and they must become someone else. You describe that problem regarding forcing extroverted behavior on an introvert. Autistics also experience this, often more pervasively.

One thing I’d like to mention is that since many autistics have an on/off tendency in various areas, they may not be recognized as introverts. Rather than being quiet until they warm up and then becoming interactive, an autistic person may jump into interaction, chattering away eagerly until the interaction is over. Conversely, their rest time is longer. This is just because autistics focus intensely and are slow to shift focus. I may interact happily in a party, only to need to spend the next day at home interacting only with my pets. (You say introverts do well with pets. So do autistics, especially with cats. In many ways, autistic people are like cats. I find it much easier to understand my cats than many people.)

Many traits you describe in introverts are also autistic traits. Autistics have similar patterns in memory as you describe – my memory is highly associative, and if the question doesn’t bring up the right associations I don’t remember the answer. Autistics are picky eaters for some of the same reasons you describe in introverts – increased sensitivity to taste and smell, not noticing hunger, etc.

You describe introverts becoming rigid under stress. Autistics who are under constant, intense pressure (as are many, by well-meaning parents and others who want them to function) become very rigid and black/white in their thinking, this is then taken as an inherent part of autism. If they are given less stress, their thinking ‘magically’ becomes more flexible.

I have seen many books, like yours, which advocate acceptance for a certain mild difference while fervently distancing that difference from other related traits which they consider ‘disorders’. It’s an awful thing to push down others in order to get acceptance for yourself. I try to accept all kinds of people. You should, too.

About the Author: Ettina is a young autistic woman who works to make our society more accepting of diversity. This piece first appeared on her blog, Abnormaldiversity, and is reprinted here by permission.


Asperger’s and Relationship Counseling

by Cary Terra

One of the frustrating things I encounter in my work is witnessing the damage done to clients (and to their relationships) by well-meaning therapists who believe Asperger’s and relationships are incompatible.

I know, you think I am exaggerating. Really, though, people do think this.

Consider a client I’ll call Eloise, who came to see me in a “last ditch effort” (her words) to save her relationship. Having already visited two couples therapists for help in understanding how to relate to her Aspie husband, she was in the process of resigning herself to the “truth” they had shared with her: her relationship could never meet her emotional needs. Her best bet would be to reframe her relationship as a platonic partnership, and to get her emotional needs met elsewhere. The ideas of knitting clubs and online forums had been proposed, and Eloise was in a state of panic.

After offering this brief history, Eloise stated her purpose in seeing me. She wanted help in moving through the grieving process. She needed to mourn, she said — mourn the normal relationship she would never have. She wanted to know if  I could help her with this grief work, so she could move towards acceptance of this stunted marriage. She couldn’t leave, she explained, because her husband was a wonderful person, though sadly therapists (and books!) had revealed that he was incapable of connecting to her emotionally.

In responding to Eloise, my first task was to breathe through my outrage. The two therapists who had offered Eloise this glimpse of her marital destiny had not even met her husband. Both had “comforted” her by explaining that his withdrawal and disconnectedness had nothing to do with her — rather this was his neurological disorder at work, and nothing could fix it. Beyond the irresponsibility of this crystal ball therapy, their predictions made little sense given recent research on brain plasticity. (See this great TED talk on the subject at http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_merzenich_on_the_elastic_brain.html for a brief introduction.)

The truth is that Asperger’s, and its impact on relationships with self and others, is poorly understood, especially by many clinicians. And certainly no clinician should ever give a prediction for an individual’s lifelong functioning, especially if that person has never been evaluated. Aspies and their partners come to therapy looking for tools and answers, and are often instead given prescriptions for hopelessness. It’s one thing to talk conservatively about treatment goals; it’s another thing to throw out goals altogether.

Therapists often tell clients married to ASD adults that their partners cannot feel empathy and cannot truly love. Perhaps the reason I take such exception to this kind of dangerous feedback is that it’s simply not true. All of my clients feel empathy, and all are capable of love. In fact, many times my Aspie clients are shocked to find that their partner’s faith in their love and loyalty can be compromised by a forgotten good-bye or missed eye-contact. One Aspie partner remarked: “How can our whole relationship hang by a thread? It makes me afraid to open my mouth for fear I’ll accidentally destroy my marriage.” Of course, this anxiety furthers ASD clients’ reluctance to establish connection, which furthers their partners’ feelings of being ignored or neglected.

Partners with Asperger’s have often spent a lifetime making unpredictable relationship mistakes that carry real repercussions. When the probability is high that your efforts to connect will be met with rejection, it’s awfully hard to justify the logic of continuing to try. Successful relationship therapy involves identifying triggers so that both partners can work towards feeling safe together. This is the foundation of building connection.

Clinicians are trained to use good communication to build safety, rather than building safety to facilitate good communication. I’m proposing the notion of working together to establish safety first. This is crucial for creating a context in which people with Asperger’s can experiment with being vulnerable, and non-Aspie partners can experiment with interpreting behavior in brand new ways.

About the Author: Cary Terra, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She specializes in working with adults with Asperger’s, their partners, and their family members. This piece first appeared on her blog, Aspie Strategy, and is reprinted here by permission.


Asperger’s in Adults and Empathy

by Cary Terra

A regular occurrence during sessions in my practice is my encountering of what I call “autistic empathy.”

An oxymoron, you say?  I don’t think so.  In fact, this happens so often during sessions that I’ve begun to think of Asperger’s as a disorder often characterized by too much empathy, not a lack thereof.

Before I get started on this idea — one I expect will be viewed with skepticism, at best — let me describe what happened during one such session, one that illustrates my point.

My client — let’s call him “Giles” — and I were discussing the use of gaming as a self-soothing tool for otherwise overwhelming emotional states. Giles used few tools of escape, and we both agreed that his immersion in the world of online gaming came with a price.

At some point, we compared his gaming to other self-soothing tools, and I mentioned my tool of choice: doughnuts. In response, Giles began to make a case for the harmlessness of doughnut overuse. After a couple of minutes straight of his explaining why I should not feel guilty about my doughnut habit, I realized he was concerned I might have grown embarrassed.

I stopped him. Could this be right? Indeed, it was. Giles, this adult with Asperger’s, had sensed I was embarrassed, and was doing his best to make me comfortable. There was no other way to explain it: this was empathy.

In fact, many clients have demonstrated the same level of empathy in myriad ways during sessions. I see it when they tear-up describing their pet’s pain. I see it in their silent withdrawal when a parent is unfairly raging. I see it in their pull towards social justice. I see it in Asperger’s men’s groups, during which they are gentle and supportive of each other in ways that violate male social norms.

In fact I often wonder if the withdrawal adults on the spectrum resort to is emotionally necessary. If they feel others’ pain acutely, and on top of that, often lack the social skills to offer “appropriate” comfort, what are they to do? Withdrawal and distancing become more than relating styles: they become necessary tools for self-preservation.

Picture the plight of the teenager on the spectrum who comes home after school to find parents who are quietly angry at each other. Because he is sensitive, he knows something is wrong. His body is on alert, and he wants to help. Because he is empathic, he would like to offer comfort. However, because he is bright and learns from patterns, he knows that historically, he has said the “wrong” thing in these situations, which has made things worse. He determines, quite logically, that the best thing he can do is go to his room and put on an audiobook. Both parents notice this, and note how little he appears to care about anyone but himself.

Adults on the spectrum often over-empathize. To feel deeply, and fail miserably when they try to offer comfort, causes more injury than can be tolerated. Retreating offers solace — and confirms their image as non-empathic.

“Autistic empathy” is a powerful experience, and leaves the adult with no way to manage the strong emotions of others, which resonate so deeply.  Our job in relating to them is to look past the veneer of calm or indifference with quiet curiosity, to resist the outrage we feel when someone displays so little outward reaction. Partners who do this are met with a rich world of sensitivity and attachment — the world they sense but cannot readily see.

About the Author: Cary Terra, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She specializes in working with adults with Asperger’s, their partners, and their family members. This piece first appeared on her blog, Aspie Strategy, and is reprinted here by permission.


Can You Read People?

by Kitty Kat

Really look at this chart. Would you be able to read emotions off it?

Reading people is one of the things that Roger will openly tell people that he cannot do. He can’t tell you if someone is mad, happy, sad, or scared just by looking at them. He has to be told. Well, that is usually the case. If he is around people a lot, he can sometimes figure out what is going on, but not always.

When his brothers and sisters start to get annoyed with him, he doesn’t realize they are getting annoyed until they start screaming. Then he backs off. This weekend my husband had a bad week, so he wasn’t in the best of moods. The other kids picked up on it right away. Not Roger. Not until someone told him did he get it.

A case where he has noticed would be with me. I have a back injury that causes pain, and sometimes it can get pretty bad. Roger has figured out that if I am quiet and moving slowly, I hurt. Now, he still has to ask, but hey, at least he is picking some of it up. He has even told his stepbrother that if I’m moving slowly, it hurts and to stay away.

I think this may be where some of the misconceptions about feelings and autism come from. Just because someone cannot tell by looking at someone how they are feeling that does not mean that they themselves do not feel. Or that they do not have empathy. Look at the charts they give kids to teach feelings. They always have over-exaggerated faces that no one has in real life. Once Roger is told how someone is feeling, he usually understands. He does have some trouble figuring out his own feelings, but just because he can’t always put a name to them doesn’t mean he feels nothing.

About the Author: Kitty Kat and her husband have four children, including her son Roger, who has autism. This piece first appeared on her blog, No Guile: Life and Other Stories from Autism, and is reprinted here by permission.