Sunday, November 9, 2008

Aspies, Autists and Relationships, Part III: Reflections

I'd just like to reflect a bit on what Sam said:

First off, Adrian seemed to have trouble empathizing at times. That's true of many but not all or even most Aspies. Empathy can grow with age; note that Sam said that past experience helps. I know I empathize much better than I did a decade ago.

When I say past experience, I mean of human beings in general and experience with relationships in particular. The good news is that once Aspies and autists make our first real friends and romantic partners, we can go up the learning curve quickly - especially if our friends are not only kind and helpful in general but also understand AS and autism and can communicate well with us. (Also, please check out Tanya Savko's excellent post on the subject.)

Sometimes, an Aspie or autist may look to others like s/he can't empathize, when it's really a matter of not being sure how to express one's feelings appropriately. Bear in mind that probably most Aspies and autists have been chastised time and time again for what they thought was perfectly reasonable ways to express their emotions. Unfortunately such chastisement is not often accompanied by instruction in more appropriate ways, since it's supposed to be something everyone should know anyway. The chastisers probably (1) assumed that the mistaken behavior was intentionally rude and (2) were very uncomfortable about the matter.

So it's not surprising that Aspies and autists can go a long time knowing that we express ourselves inappropriately, but not knowing how to do it better.

Also, as the famous TV counselor Dr. Phil has pointed out, people tend to live up to their labels. Sometimes people actually accuse us of being unempathic, or even sociopathic. Especially when we are young and still forging our identities, such labels can seem appealing in a back-handed sense.

(Not to mention that it's difficult to actually want to empathize with a society many of whose members - especially those in authority - yell at us, call us names and otherwise reject us.)

Last but not least, Aspie and autistic brains tend to take time to absorb new things, especially of an emotional nature. It takea a good deal more hard work and skill for us to think on our feet than for NTs, other things being equal.

So we tend not to trust our judgment, especially on the spot. We tend to defer reacting whenever possible, even in urgent situations.

If you feel that an Aspie or autist is having difficulty empathizing in a particular situation, note what Sam said and do what you may do with anyone else who is having difficulty understanding something: try to relate it to his/her experiences. Please assume that it's a matter of understanding and not morality: s/he probably wants to understand and just needs some help.

On the same plane, note that Sam advises Aspies and autists to ask for clarification if there's not enough verbal information. That is certainly a good idea. It's very important to be able to ask for help when you need it; people generally respect others more when they honestly admit that they don't know something.

At the same time, if you're the NT in a personal or other relationship, follow Sam's advice and be as explicit and detailed as possible. You may need to think of things that an NT would naturally infer but an Aspie or autist may not - and may not ask about.

Keep in mind that by definition of the situation, we may not know that there is "more than meets the ear" and thus not know what, if anything, to ask about. Also, most of us have had experiences with people being downright unsympathetic to our questions about things others viewed as obvious. Those things were left unstated precisely because the other people didn't want to explicitly discuss them. One thing I've learned is that many people's pet peeves include spelling things out - and apparently even being courteous to those who ask them to do that.

It really helps if you and the Aspie or autist can trust each other enough that we can ask you even about "obvious" things and you will give an informative answer.

So, this is where we and NTs can meet each other halfway. We can learn to ask questions where we don't understand something, or where experience has told us there may be an important figurative or other subtle meaning.

(We also need to learn not to give others a hard time when they ask us things, like what year World War II ended or who had American baseball's highest batting average and in what season, that we've come to consider "obvious". We absolutely must set a good example here.)

In turn, NTs can proactively map out possible pitfalls for Aspies and autists, and prepare detailed explanations.

Sam said something else that I found very interesting: Her interactions with Adrian were mainly one-on-one.

That's exactly how I am. I only meet friends, and would only date, one-on-one. I do join clubs like the Asperger Adults of Greater Washington and sit and listen or speak to the group, but I am very uncomfortable talking in small groups. I have on multiple occasions asked a third person to please leave, in so many words, when the person I was meeting unthinkingly brought him/her along or s/he wanted to join us. I understand that the third person may not have felt good about it, but I considered it, and continue to consider it, my right to do so, and I believe any considerate person would not hold it against me.

I only do things with Emily in small groups because I know her well and vice versa.

I think that while it can be a matter of individual personality, my being an Aspie has a good deal to do with it:

For one thing, we are much better at focusing on one person, topic or thing at a time. People have told me that I am very good at making the other person feel listened to, and feel like s/he's the only person I'm thinking about at the time - because generally that's true.

On the other hand, if I were to have to keep track of two or more people at the same time, my social fuel gauge would run to E that much more quickly.

Also, as I mentioned, we tend to absorb and respond to things better over time (which also explains why we often do better discussing things in writing when that's appropriate). That's much easier to handle when we can keep the conversation at a pace we can handle and in a direction we can predict, which in turn is infinitely easier when each of us has only one conversational partner.

In addition, we can much more easily handle the routine and the planned than the unexpected. The more people in a situation, the exponentially greater the odds that someone will suggest something new to talk about or do, which itself will pose difficulties whatever the merits or demerits of the suggestion itself.

Of course, any conversation and any get-together or date needs to develop over time. One-on-one settings enable us to better accept change because with only one conversational partner to deal with, we can make sure it doesn't overwhelm us.

(For that matter, I think most people accept change better when it can come at a stable pace. That may explain why countries like the United States can enact lasting social change much more quickly, such as racial, ethnic, religious and sexual integration, precisely because we do it through enduring institutions like Congress, civil society, churches, etc. Revolutions, like the French Revolution, tend to turn reactionary as people, fearful of the next round of changes which could leave thousands dead and thousands more poor and homeless, demand some sort of security at any price.)

(Today is also the 209th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's overthrow of the Directory in France, effectively ending the Revolution - after years of radical Jacobin policies culminating in the Reign of Terror - and ushering in a military dictatorship. In fact, even before Napoleon took over, the famed Thermidorian Reaction was established because people were just too afraid of what might happen next.)

So, we Aspies and autists tend to do best in one-on-one conversations. Public speaking can also develop our skills (and this can work for NTs, too).

Sam noticed that Aspies and autists sometimes need time alone, because too much social interaction can be draining. This goes back to the concept of a social fuel gauge. Unlike with an engine which can convert its own exhaust back into fuel, at any given moment we have only a limited amount of mental and emotional energy for socializing. When that energy starts to run low - when the fuel gauge starts edging toward the E - we might be able to re-fuel a little on the spot but we likely need to leave soon.

So, please don't take it personally if the Aspie or autist in your life suddenly wants to leave early, declines to talk with yet another individual or declines an invitation. It's probably not personal.

Last but not least, Sam found that the techniques she learned with Adrian - especially explaining things in explicit detail - have also helped her with NTs. That may be the most important thing to keep in mind when working with Aspies and autists: many if not most of the things that help Aspies and autists deal with you better will also help many other people in general.

Many of the accommodations we ask for, and which help us do more for you, are versatile - you can also use them to improve your relationships with others. Explaining things in detail is a broadly applicable skill.

What do you think?


StatMama said...

Excellent, excellent post Jeff. This really did a fantastic job of clarifying some issues that may be problematic or confusing in dealing with people with AS. Impairments in communication don't always mean "forever", we can and do learn. Empathy isn't a dead-end issue, it can be cultivated to some degree. And we do learn, just not naturally and early like most people. It takes more effort.

Tanya @ Teenautism said...

*Echoing statmama* This IS an excellent post. I especially like how you mentioned that we should "meet each other half way." We need to make an effort to do that in all our relationships, be they romantic, friends, work, or family. Sage advice, very well presented.

Thanks for the link, and I will be sure to reciprocate as soon as I've got my relationship post written!

Roia said...

You have made a number of very helpful and important points, Jeff. In fact, as I read through, I was thinking you could have easily made this into maybe three or four separate posts, because there were so many interesting things to say.

With regard to empathy, it is true that time helps. My very close friend (who is an Aspie) used to ask me question after question to clarify what I was saying when I was in the middle of being upset. And it used to drive me crazy, because when I'm upset I'm in "emotional mode", and it felt to me as if she was insisting that I try to function in "intellectual mode" in order to help her understand why I was so distressed. That was very difficult for me to do (function in both emotional and intellectual mode at the same time, I mean).

The way we coped was for me to express the more emotional state elsewhere (through journaling or by talking with other, more likely NT, friends) and to talk about the distress in a less emotional manner when discussing it with my Aspie friend. She, in turn, has been kind enough to try to remember that sometimes I need her to "just listen". She actually needs to give herself a verbal reminder when we're talking, but I certainly appreciate her efforts. I'm also a lot more likely to be able to answer her questions about the upsetting situation once I've removed the emotion from it (not to mention, I'm a lot more tolerable to be around). :-)

She still may not get exactly what I'm saying, but I know that she senses my upset, and she has the desire to be present and helpful in some way. Ultimately, that is what keeps our friendship going strong, I think.

Thanks for working hard to create a bridge!

StatMama said...

PS: I tagged you on my blog.

Jeff Deutsch said...

StatMom, Tanya and Roia,

Thank you very much!

Roia, I'm glad you and your friend were able to find an accommodation. I know it must have hurt to feel that she didn't care about your problems, even if you knew she really did.

I decided to split off the analysis into a separate post from the interview itself. Do you believe that the analysis would have been easier to read if it had in turn been split into several parts?

Jeff Deutsch

Roia said...

1. I think it was wise to split the interview and analysis into two separate posts.

2. The analysis was long, and, while it was readable, it was hard to respond to so many points in one comment, so...

3. It probably would have been just as effective to have three or four posts just based on the analysis, because you raised so many good points.

4. The older I get, the harder it is for me to pay attention to more than one point without having to take notes (even in conversations). Sigh.

5. Thanks!