A Failure to Communicate Part 1: Empathy and Autism

One of the most difficult things about having Asperger’s is being mind blind. Mind blind refers to the inability or in some cases difficulty to interpret other people’s body language, vocal tones, demeanor, facial expressions and body language in general. Mind blindness can lead to all sorts of issues when interacting with others and can lead to frustration among people who have autism because they feel they are being misunderstood by other people when often it is they who are not understanding other people. Autism at its core is a communication and behavioral disorder in that it affects the way we communicate with others and our behaviors especially while trying to communicate with others.

For people, not familiar with autism, mind blindness can make people with autism seem like their behavior is inappropriate. I do not mean sexually inappropriate.  What I mean by inappropriate is behavior that is often considered outside the norm like incessant talking, or the development of intense feelings in social relationships caused by a difficulty to understand the differences between relationships such as friend, coworker and acquaintance.

Also mind blindness can impact the social relationships of a person with autism.  Tom Berney, in “Asperger’s Syndrome from Childhood to Adulthood” describes our social relationships as such:

These are one-sided, distant or even absent, rather than really reciprocal. Behind this is an unempathic objectivity that results in difficulties that range from understanding friendship (and how friends differ from acquaintances) through to making sexual relationships and grasping the rules that distinguish, for example, seduction from date rape. The person is not uninterested in relationships but, misunderstanding them, is too intense or too detached.

This misunderstanding on the part of the autistic is not intentional but can be avoided. Still, it is necessary to understand the roots of such behaviors. Simon Baron-Cohen wrote a paper in 2001 called “The Theory of Mind.” He writes:

By theory of mind we mean being able to infer the full range of mental
states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief,
having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s
minds.

Minds in this case can be defined as other people’s feelings, body language etc.

I know that other people have thoughts and feelings, but the nature of those thoughts and feelings are unknown to me. Lynne Soraya, a writer who has autism describes it this way in  Empathy, Mindblindness, and Theory of Mind:

…I absolutely understand that people have their own plans, thoughts, and points of view – but those plans, thoughts, and points of view are often a mystery to me.

The similar thing occurs to me. I am cognizant that other people have thoughts and feelings but the nature of those thoughts and feelings are unknown to me…especially people’s reactions to something I have done. The Theory of Mind even extends into the behaviors of a person with autism as they are often unaware that their actions may have an effect on other people and the reactions to the behavior may also be misunderstood.

The solution to these problems is simple: written communication.  According to Tom Berney communication with a person with Asperger’s may be abnormal.

…less obvious conversational abnormality includes unrecognised, underlying discrepancies between verbal and non-verbal language, and between comprehension and expression. These can lead both the affected individual and those around him to misjudge his abilities, expectations being either too high or too low. Very often, reading works where listening has brought incomprehension. Often, the life of someone with Asperger syndrome can be transformed if as much as possible is presented to him in writing.

When possible clear written guidelines of what behavior is unacceptable is preferred.  A clear and concise note may explain the offending behavior and can help clear things up. Email is often substituted by autistics for telephone communication for this reason.

 

 

2 thoughts on “A Failure to Communicate Part 1: Empathy and Autism

  1. I think you were created so that we, as outsiders in your world, could dig deeper and find new ways to share our love. It is important that all of us learn the depth and breadth of such a powerful emotion…and you are helping to broaden everyone’s perspective. Thank you for entering my world and giving me another reason to re-examine myself and the way I express my love.

    -Tilesha

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