Saturday, September 6, 2008

Wanted: Mutual Understanding


I just got off the line less than an hour ago at Lorin Neikirk's radio talk show about Asperger Syndrome. Her guest host, Pamela Stoltman, a Nationally Certified Assisted Living Director and a Nationally Certified Activity Director, gave some excellent ideas for how NTs can understand Aspies better:

1. We Aspies have, by definition, many things in common. But every Aspie is different, just as every human being is different. Each of us responds to his/her situation in his/her own way. And that means each of us responds to others, including NTs, in his/her own way.

2. Aspies, like many if not most other people, have some situations we have difficulty dealing with. If an Aspie is visibly or audibly upset with a situation, such as something you are saying, back off. If you do not, the situation will only escalate.

(That is good advice for Aspies - and NTs - when dealing with NTs, too. For example, if you [male or female] are taking a woman out on a date and suggest a particular bar and grill to stop off at, and she really doesn't want to go in there, don't press the issue. For all you know her first love may have sadistically dumped her there, or she may have been groped and nearly raped in the back. It may be difficult for her to express that, and you may not yet be close enough to her to rate a full explanation. But you need to accept it.)

3. Aspies may feel it necessary to leave a situation. It doesn't necessarily mean they're seeking power or control; they may just be unable to handle it. Please understand and respect it appropriately.

Aspies can easily experience sensory overload. As I pointed out, a defining feature of AS is: "one at a time". Aspies' minds handle things one at a time. Especially if things are coming at an Aspie from multiple sources (say several people trying to talk to him/her at once) or if you're asking the Aspie to deal with several things at once, that can be a problem.

Also understand that Aspies, like most introverts, have what I call a "social fuel gauge". Extroverts are in effect refueled by social contact. Introverts, and especially Aspies, find social contact a drain. Remember last time you were on the road and found your gauge pointing too close to the E for comfort? Did you say to yourself "Oh, I'll just stop off for gas at a convenient time" or was it more like "Mission Number One: Find a gas station now!" Me, too.

Well, that's how it is for Aspies in the social world: we need to go off and fill up right away. It's not personal, and probably power and control are the last things on our minds at the time.

Lorin and I had an excellent discussion on mutual understanding. In particular, we should have a set of dual resources, both to help NTs understand Aspies and to help Aspies understand NTs. Among other things, as Stephen Covey has pointed out in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we need to seek first to understand, then to be understood. NTs will be much more likely to work to understand Aspies if they see we are making an effort to understand them - and vice versa of course.

Lorin said that being an Aspie is like being in a country where they don't speak a foreign language, but rather even though they speak English 40% of the words mean something else. I completely agree, and that models one of the most important communication issues: people on both sides think they're communicating, so misunderstandings can be blamed on personal obtuseness, stubbornness or other personal problems. Since NTs have a frame of reference with many other NTs, but relatively few other Aspies, guess who tends to get blamed?

Lorin made another point. She said that Aspies tend to be the ones who know there is a problem and to be the ones who are trying to reach across the divide. I agree up to a point. There are many conscious Aspies who, because we have been forced to carefully consider our and others' communication styles, can go the extra mile.

However, there are many other Aspies - especially but not only the undiagnosed ones - for whom the story is different. Unfortunately, AS (and autism) often brings rigidity and inflexibility. I believe that one of the most important initial limitations of autism/AS is a much reduced likelihood, compared to NTs, of recognizing even the fact of differing communication styles. Among other things, since Aspies have difficulty reading nonverbal cues, we can be slower to know that there is a problem in a given interaction than is an NT.

Also, since Aspies tend to grow up alone and friendless, we have much less experience of the social world, and thus much less knowledge of even the fact that different people communicate differently. We may take it for granted that everyone thinks the same way, because we have more difficulty understanding how people can feel differently from the way we do in the same situation.

We need to overcome that, because it can easily become a vicious cycle. The less we understand others and the more we behave accordingly, the more people will avoid us, the more rejections we will receive and the less experience we will get in communication - not to mention with possibly a bit of bitterness and hostility toward the world. I think a joint effort by the more empathic Aspies and some NTs would very much help acculturate other Aspies, just as, say, earlier Jewish immigrants to the United States, with the assistance of a few Gentiles, helped orient later Jews to life in America.

Fortunately, thanks to Aspies' common eye for detail, once we know what to look for we can pick up subtle details, learn what works and what doesn't and turn it into a virtuous cycle. We can also build our language skills so we can understand our own needs and then articulate them to NTs.

We just need to commit ourselves to building common ground on which autists, Aspies and NTs can live, work and play.

What do you think?

PS: Lorin's excellent series has a Part 3: Communication. Check it out!


Mama Mara said...

Fascinating!!! I especially love the social fuel gauge explanation, the concept of the vicious cycle Aspies get caught in, and the idea that we need to have a common ground for Aspies and NTs to help each other. Agreed on all counts. My only question is, once an Aspie/autie is spinning in the social alienation cycle, how do we get them out of it so that they can be part of this common ground?

Thanks also for the info re this radio show. It's my first exposure to podcasts.

Tanya Savko said...

What a great post; thanks for sharing the discussion with all of us. There is so much understanding to be gained from your writing! I appreciate you stopping by Teen Autism, and I'll certainly be back here. Thanks for all you do.

Lorin Neikirk said...

Thank you again, Jeff! You are so so articulate in your description of the NT/Aspie cultures and do an excellent job of passing on that info! Kudos! So glad we are working together and I'm looking forward to more. Great show today, by the way...! Insightful contributions, as usual! -LN