Category Archives: Communication

Concerning direct and indirect communication…

When I explain to others the communication difficulties I have because of Asperger’s syndrome, it seems people understand fairly quickly that I might have difficulty with irony, sarcasm, or other forms of humor that rely on context or body language. It’s not uncommon for me to just say to a friend, “I don’t get it,” and for my friend to explain what was said. Such misunderstandings are rarely an issue unless someone is actually making fun of me, but they are related to a much bigger issue – indirect communication.

Direct communication is communication in which the meaning is contained primarily in the words. As a parent, you might say to your child, “Tom, please stop hitting your sister.” This is very direct, as the entire meaning is contained in the words. On the other hand, indirect communication relies on mutual understanding of the context. In the above example, the parent might say, “We don’t do that.” The child then has to figure out whom is being addressed, who “we” are, and what “that” is. The process of analyzing this is probably second-nature for NTs (neurotypicals or non-autistics), but it is much the same as sarcasm to me and sorting it out can often take me quite a while.

For me, this problem is compounded by a few factors. In general, indirect communication is viewed as more formal, and its use is often expected between strangers or in more formal relationships. In such cases, when it becomes apparent to the other person that I’m struggling with the communication (either because I have told them or I just look confused), such people often repeat themselves more slowly or more loudly. The conversation usually declines from there and I leave it feeling confused and stupid, even when I ask direct questions or express a need for direct communication.

I think this explains why I communicate well with people after they get to know me, because the relationship is less formal and direct communication is more acceptable. I just wish I could find a way to help those that don’t know me so well understand that I need communication to be more direct. I’m open to ideas…

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On Autism and Empathy…

Imagine that you are engaging in an activity that you enjoy that requires the use of your hands. Now, imagine that you have arthritis and it hurts to use your hands. At first, you might adjust your technique in hopes of avoiding some of the pain, but eventually, the pain will exceed your enjoyment of the activity, and you will begin to avoid the activity altogether. It is likely that many of my readers will know someone who has experienced this. Some of my readers will have experienced it themselves. Personally, I know people who have given up motorcycling, an activity that I enjoyed with them, because of arthritis or other conditions that made it painful for them. I feel the pain of their loss.

There is a widespread belief that autistic people, including those with Asperger’s syndrome, lack empathy because they do not express it as others do. I disagree. I definitely feel empathy for others, but I struggle to express it. There is a reason for that.

Among the criteria for Asperger’s syndrome in the DSM IV is “marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction.” Let’s think about how empathy is typically expressed for a moment. It is sometimes expressed with words, but those words are usually accompanied by nonverbal behaviors.

Impairment in the use of nonverbal behaviors is only the beginning, though. In their 2007 paper, “The Intense World Syndrome – an Alternative Hypothesis for Autism,” Markram, Rinaldi, and Markram propose that “The autistic person may well try to cope with the intense and aversive world by avoidance. Thus, impaired social interactions and withdrawal may not be the result of a lack of compassion, incapability to put oneself into some else’s position or lack of emotionality, but quite to the contrary a result of an intensely if not painfully aversively perceived environment.”

What if you had some condition that made interacting with others painful? Can you imagine that? In much the same way as with arthritis, you might try to find ways to avoid the pain while still interacting, or you may avoid interacting altogether. That’s my struggle.

As with mild arthritis, there are ways to mitigate the pain. A motorcyclist with mild arthritis might adjust the controls or use heated gloves. He or she might also wait for the best weather. For me, interacting with others is less painful in quieter and less crowded settings, so I avoid it when it is more crowded or noisy. I don’t think that will surprise anyone, but what may surprise you is that I feel empathy intensely. I struggle when people have intense personalities or are expressing themselves with intensity. I won’t say that it is wrong for them to do so, but I would appreciate some understanding for how it affects me if such a person needs to interact with me.

I think the real problem with autism and empathy is that it is difficult for others to see the world as we do. I hope I’ve helped you see more of what we see. Feel free to ask questions if I can help you understand further.

This is a huge topic, and there are quite a few very talented autistic writers who would love for you to hear what they have to say about it. I would appreciate it very much if you would take the time to visit my friend Rachel’s site, Autism and Empathy.

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About that famous “Asperger arrogance”…

This topic was suggested to me by a coworker after it came up in a discussion of Rudy Simone’s book Asperger’s On The Job. I strongly recommend this book to aspies who work or are seeking work, as well as their advocates and prospective employers. I think Rudy has done a great job of presenting the issues as well as practical ways we can all work together to address them.

In chapter 4, Rudy discusses the aspie tendency toward bluntness and perfectionism, and near the bottom of page 20, she brings up what many describe as “Asperger arrogance.” I’d like to point out that her placement of these three topics in the same chapter is no coincidence. They are related.

Before I dive in, I’d like to take a moment to define “arrogance,” as I think it is important to understand exactly what I’m talking about. Merriam-Webster defines “arrogance” as “an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions.” Notice that it is defined mainly in terms of behavior.

In my very first post, I listed some of the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome, as presented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV. One of those characteristics was “marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction.” A person who is unable to use nonverbal behaviors to regulate social interaction is very likely to say or do things that are inappropriate for a given situation. Combine that with a tendency toward blunt honesty and an eye for problems that need solving, and I think it’s easy to see how such a person could seem overbearing and presumptuous. That said, Rudy points out that “we are often devastated to find that we have hurt someone’s feelings,” and that, “it is not for selfish reasons that the AS person will do this, it is merely to help.”

I believe that we (human beings) dislike arrogance because we dislike the idea that others believe themselves to be superior to us. Specifically, I believe that we dislike the idea that others believe themselves to be of greater worth. So, I think the question is whether the “Asperger arrogance” comes from an actual belief in one’s superiority, or from a lack of social awareness combined with a sincere desire to help.

As she continues into page 21, Rudy mentions that “a recent study by the Department of Neuropsychiatry at Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo found that ‘Individuals with Asperger’s disorder have higher fluid reasoning ability than normal individuals, highlighting superior fluid intelligence.'” She continues on to say that “This may explain why those with AS often feel superior to those around them who do not possess the same kind of intellectual abilities.” Well, there it is! Aspies really do feel superior to everyone else and really are arrogant jerks, right? No, I don’t think so, and I don’t believe that’s what Rudy is saying.

I’ve taken a lot of tests in my life, but one of the most memorable was a colossal failure. The test measured a specific aspect of brain function, and my score was 6.5 standard deviations below normal. That’s really, really low. Three standard deviations below normal would be worse than 99.7% of the population; 6.5 is almost unfathomable. The bottom line is that it’s a sure bet that your brain works far better than mine in this particular area. It’s a huge weakness for me. I think most adult aspies are keenly aware of their weaknesses. Our weaknesses certainly do account for a lot of the discussion in the aspie forums where I am active. I think we are also keenly aware of our strengths, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Some time ago, our IT department took the Strengths Finder assessment. If you are unfamiliar with this, I recommend visiting www.strengthsfinder.com. The basic idea is that a person is more effective when maximizing their strengths rather than focusing on overcoming weaknesses. The assessment tells you your 5 greatest strengths out of 35 defined in the book Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath. Mine are ideation, intellection, learner, strategic, and context. For those unfamiliar with Strengths Finder, here is a brief description of each:

  • ideation – generating ideas
  • intellection – examining and refining ideas
  • learner – taking in new knowledge and ideas
  • strategic – figuring out how to best use ideas and resources
  • context – examining how things have worked in the past and applying that to understanding the present

Anyone seeing a theme here? Ideation, intellection, and strategic are practically the definition of fluid intelligence. I do believe that I’m strong in these areas, but I’m also very much aware of my weaknesses. Like most human beings, I want my strengths to be seen and valued, but my weaknesses are mostly related to interacting with others. As Rudy said in her book, I am often devastated to find that I have hurt someone’s feelings. I do not believe myself to be better than any other person in general. In fact, I struggle often with feelings of worthlessness. At the end of the chapter, Rudy points out that, “If those abilities are not recognized, it can leave a person with AS feeling unfulfilled, unutilized, unappreciated, and resentful.” Her statement here matches with what I’ve read in Strengths Finders, which leads me to believe that aspies are really no different in this area than other human beings. I believe that our social struggles tend to make it difficult for others to really see and appreciate our strengths.

In the end, I believe that understanding the social struggles that come with Asperger’s syndrome can make life much better for aspie employees and their employers. When in doubt, talk things out.

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On the bright side… (part 2)

Continued from part 1

In this post, I’m going to look at part B Attwood and Gray’s aspie criteria, listed below. The full criteria can be found in their article,  The Discovery of “Aspie” Criteria.

B. Fluent in “Aspergerese”, a social language characterized by at least three of the following:

  1. a determination to seek the truth
  2. conversation free of hidden meaning or agenda
  3. advanced vocabulary and interest in words
  4. fascination with word-based humour, such as puns
  5. advanced use of pictorial metaphor

I’ve seen all of these in my aspie friends, and I value all of  them in my friends and in myself, but I’d like to focus on the first two, because I believe they are at the core of aspie communication. Let’s see what these look like…

Recently, I received a request at work to manually add a professor to a course. I could have done that in a few minutes, but I developed a system that does it automatically shortly after I took this job. I immediately wondered why it didn’t happen automatically. I wondered if my system was somehow broken. Did I find out? Yep. I followed the trail to its end and I found out that someone had not entered that information into the system. Part of the reason I’m good at what I do is that I will chase a problem until I find the truth behind it or it gives up from sheer exhaustion. I will then fix it until it’s fixed, or if I can’t, I will make the problem known. I can’t help myself. I HAVE to know what really happened, and it will bother me until I understand it and get it fixed. That said, there are things that don’t matter. If Justin Bieber’s hair is out of place, I’m not your guy. Read my previous post to see why.

In an earlier post, I said “you don’t have to read between the lines because I don’t write there.” This is true of all my communication. What I say can be taken at face value, and if there is ever any confusion, I’m happy to define my terms or restate something I have said. In my work example above, I responded to the request saying what needed to be done and that I would be happy to look at it again if the professor did not get added to the course automatically after the information was entered into the system. I had no intention of blaming anyone. I hope it wasn’t interpreted that way, but I’ve seen it happen. I don’t really care who did or didn’t do what as long as my system isn’t broken and we get the problem solved. I only bring up the past to show where the problem exists. I hope this makes sense. If not, please comment and ask questions.

To be continued

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But you have friends! I’ve seen you with people…

Yesterday, I went to a LAN party with a coworker and some guys he introduced me to. For those that don’t know, this is where a group of gamer geeks bring their computers, plug them all together, order pizza, and play games all day. While we were plugging our computers together, I managed to lose my network cable. I looked all over our host’s living room, and then I realized it was wrapped around my left hand. Pretty funny, huh? Yes, even I laughed, but I do have a serious point to make with this. I was unaware that it was wrapped around my left hand because the nerves that would have told me that are disconnected from my spinal cord. This is the problem I have with relationships. It isn’t that there are no people in my life; it’s that I’m disconnected from them.

In my first post, I listed the main characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV. One of those characteristics was “marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction.” Think for a moment about how your friends communicate love to you. When I discuss this with people, they invariably list a number of non-verbal behaviors. For me, this creates a situation much like yesterday when I was looking for my network cable. There is a disconnect that prevents me from receiving the information I need.

How can I get the information I need? Mostly verbally. For those that are familiar with Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages, mine are Quality Time and Words of Affirmation. For those that aren’t familiar with the love languages, I feel loved when others choose to spend time with me engaging in my interests and when others tell me they love and appreciate me. Even with the former, though, it is important to me that they express to me verbally that they are interested and enjoying it. I know that other aspies may have different love languages. After all, if you’ve met one aspie, you’ve met one aspie. I encourage you to make an effort to get to know an aspie better and help them discover what makes them feel loved and appreciated. You will bless them greatly, and you just may find that it goes both ways.

P.S. For those of you who are my friends, please remember the disconnect the next time you see me looking for a friend. Just like my network cable, you could be right next to me and I wouldn’t know. Speak up so I know you are there, or better yet, just give me a hug.

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Carlyle, I was wondering how autism affects your communication…

Yes, folks, ask me a question here, on FB, by email, or even in person, and it might be the title of my next blog post. This question comes from my friend Rebecca. What’s funny is that I was already thinking of this topic when she asked.

Communication issues vary throughout the autism spectrum, but even at the higher-functioning end there are still struggles. Kanner’s syndrome (classic autism) typically includes delayed speech development, but those with Asperger’s syndrome learn to speak at the same time as their peers, if not earlier. Children with Aspergers syndrome are likely to develop a strong vocabulary early, especially in their areas of interest. Children with hyperlexia may even take it a step further. Hyperlexia is sometimes affectionately known as “walking dictionary syndrome.” When I was diagnosed, my autism specialist noted that I have hyperlexic tendencies. I actually read dictionaries as a child and still enjoy reading technical manuals.

I would like to start by discussing my writing, as this may help some of you better understand my blog. I sometimes joke that I understand connotation only as another word in the dictionary. The joke isn’t far from the truth. I know what the dictionary definition of connotation is, and I understand that some words evoke emotional reactions in some people, but I generally don’t follow the process by which that occurs. As a result, I tend to select words based on denotation without regard for connotation. This means that you don’t have to read between the lines because I don’t write there. You can take my words at face value, and I consider it fair to ask me to define my terms. In terms of writing, the problem comes when others read something that isn’t there, which brings a story to mind…

When I was working on a help desk for a previous employer, I received a help request by email that made no sense to me. I responded: “I’m afraid I don’t understand your complaint. Could you please elaborate?” I thought I did pretty good job at writing a polite request for clarification, but the customer disagreed. My boss came to me an hour later to ask why I called the customer a whiner. After some discussion, he told me that the offending word was “complaint.” To me, a complaint is a declaration of a condition that causes distress (and that’s more or less what you will find in the dictionary), which is what the customer’s email was. I never said she was a whiner, so the whole thing was a surprise to me.

Face to face communication can get a bit more complicated. I still select my words based on denotation without regard for connotation, but that’s only the beginning. Face to face communication includes body language and facial expressions. The diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s syndrome include “marked impairments in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures to regulate social interaction.” It is easily possible for me to miss or misunderstand non-verbal signals. It is also very likely that others will misunderstand my non-verbal signals, especially when I’m highly stressed, frustrated, or overloaded. Sadly, this means that, at the times I may need help or understanding the most, I am most likely to be misunderstood. I’ve been told that I seem threatening when frustrated. My size and appearance probably contribute to that, but I wouldn’t hurt anyone intentionally.

It has been a long day, so I think I’m going to end here. I am quite certain I’ll pick this topic up again, as it is a core issue with Asperger’s syndrome.

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