Saturday, February 4, 2017

Recommended reading

I've read many books related to Asperger's since I started this blog, and think it would be helpful to summarize some of them.

One of the first Aspie books that I read, and one of my favorites, is "look me in the eye" by John Robison.  It is an autobiography, and what I liked most about the book was how I could relate to John's story.  Although Asperger's seems to have caused more problems for John than it did for me, the book helped reaffirm my diagnosis.  After reading the book I felt John and I were, "cut from the same cloth".

A book that my wife particularly enjoyed was, "loving someone with asperger's syndrome".  I, like many other Aspie's, take issue with Maxine Aston's Cassandra Syndrome which is mentioned in the book.  The theoretical syndrome befalls women in relationships where they are emotionally deprived.  Extreme emotional neediness is better explained by something like borderline personality disorder rather than inventing a new syndrome.  Fortunately wife 2.0 does not identify with being a victim, and was not put off by this distraction in an otherwise good book.

In the fiction category, two books my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed were, "the Rosie Project", and "the Rosie Effect" by Graeme Simsion.  In the same way that Chuck Lorre nails it with Sheldon's character in "The Big Bang Theory", Graeme does it with Don's character in these books.  Whether Graeme is on the spectrum himself, or is a close friend of one, he clearly understand what goes on in the mind of an Aspie.  I also think he does a great job of showing in a humorous way that the problem is usually not in the way Aspies behave but in the way people react to them.

I've also read a couple of Temple Grandin's books, but they were not among my favorites.  On a personal level I don't connect with Temple the way I did with John Robison.  She also suggests people on the spectrum need to learn to conform to social norms in order to fit in.  This was in the context of behavior that does not objectively cause harm to anyone, such as impoliteness.  Instead of trying to change people with ASD, society should stop trying to enforce archaic and irrational rules of behavior.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism

Simon Baron-Cohen is well known in the autism community for the Empathy Quotient and Systemizing Quotient tests.  They are simple, fast, and reasonably accurate tests useful in screening for ASD.  Having read about his work, I was excited to read his book.  After reading it, I was somewhat disappointed.  I give it a rating of 5 out of 10.

Overall, I have two issues with the book.  The first is that rather than being an unbiased evaluation of his extreme male brain theory of autism, the book reads as an argument in support of his theory.  The second is that after reading the book, I'm convinced he doesn't understand the mind of someone with autism, or at least someone with Asperger's.

On the first issue, the problem starts in the first chapter, page 2, where he defines empathizing as, "the drive to identify another persons emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion."  I think a more appropriate definition would be:

  • the ability to identify another person's emotions, and to respond to them appropriately.
That ability can be intuitive or cognitive, meaning that it can be something that comes naturally or something that you have to think about.  Additionally, the appropriate response often involves action, not just emotion.  For example when my young children fell and hurt themselves, I would automatically recognize their pain, quickly pick them up, and hug them.

I understand that for some Aspies that kind of empathy is cognitive rather than intuitive, which to some degree supports Baron-Cohen's theory, however some Aspies are very sensitive.  Personally my most traumatic experience was holding one of my daughters still while she was screaming as a doctor was stitching a cut on her leg.  My empathy for other people's pain is not limited to family; I was invited to watch a UFC match a few years ago and had to turn my head once one of the fighters started receiving multiple blows to the head.  I even have some social empathy; I remember watching the show Three's Company and feeling very uncomfortable in the parts where Jack would make a fool of himself.

That is not to say that Aspies empathize the same as NTs.  I often don't empathize with other people's social anxiety and fear, and instead end up confused as to why someone would be fearful in a situation that is not dangerous.  For feelings I would have myself, such as fear of heights coming close to the edge of a cliff, I readily empathize with others in similar situations.  While differences in empathy likely plays a part in autism, difference in social instincts and differences in sensitivity cannot be ignored.

Some of the examples of low empathizing and high systemizing in the book are in stark contrast to typical Aspie behavior.  On page 124 there's an example of men killing to gain power and status.  A common characteristic of Aspies is a strong sense of "right", making them unlikely to cheat, lie, or plot to injure another human.  On pg 185 Baron-Cohen identifies this when he says, "Many people with AS conditions are gentle, kind people, who are struggling to fit in socially and care passionately about social justice."  He rationalizes this apparent contradiction by stating, "reduced empathy does not necessarily lead to aggression."  So while he provides significant evidence which I agree proves the point that males are more aggressive than females, he ignores how that contradicts his theory.  Males are aggressive, so if people with ASD have an extreme male brain, shouldn't they be extremely aggressive?

I think page 148 of the book demonstrates that Baron-Cohen neither understands nor empathizes with AS individuals.  He states:
Some marry, but remain married only if their partner is patient to the point of saintliness, is able to accommodate family life to the rigidity of the autistic routines and systems, and can accept an eccentric, remote, often controlling partner.
I also think it is unfair to characterize AS individuals as "often controlling".  Uncontrollable perhaps, but rarely controlling.  I find neuro-typicals to be the controlling ones; often using manipulation, threats, and punishment to get others to do what they want.  Aspies may be argumentative and persistent when trying to convince others, but most of them are not even capable of the devious manipulation and veiled threats commonly used by NTs.

I'll finish with a quote from the book that I do agree with, taken from page 139, describing people with autism:
Phenomena that are unpredictable and/or uncontrollable (like people) typically leave them anxious our disinterested, but the more predicable the phenomenon, the more they are attracted to it.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Other minds and different minds

A commonly-referenced problem in ASD is issues with theory-of-mind, or the intuitive ability to understand what another person is thinking or feeling.  The Sally Anne false belief test is one way to determine if a person has developed this ability, which usually arises in NTs around the age of four or five.

Aspies usually pass the Sally-Anne test, however eye-tracking has shown that many do so by logic rather than intution.  I've never done an eye tracking test, though I suspect I would pass it.  The reason is that I do intuitively impute thoughts/feelings in others, I just don't impute different ones than my own.

For as long as I can remember, I would empathize with other people's pain; if a friend got hurt I would feel their pain too.  When lining up for vaccinations at school, I couldn't watch the kids ahead of me get their shots because I would cringe when the needle went into their arm.  Even with this ability to empathize, I still had significant social problems since my adolescence.

How does empathy work?

Until recently, I thought empathy worked by figuratively putting yourself in someone else's shoes, and feeling what you would feel if you experienced the same thing.  In other words, I thought it was a matter of perspective taking, and feeding the other person's experience through your own brain.  So as long as your emotional response to a situation matches the other person's, your intuition of their feeling would be correct.  Since I seem to lack or have significantly impaired social emotions like shame and deference to authority, it follows that I can't impute those emotions in others.  Considering how debilitating emotions like shame and social anxiety can be, I consider myself fortunate that I'm not burdened with those emotions the way many NTs are!

While having a discussion with wife 2.0, I learned that there can be more to empathy than putting yourself in someone else's shoes.  I found out that she can impute feelings in others that she wouldn't feel herself in the same situation, something I suspect is common in neuro-typicals. This means having a set of rules in your brain not just for your own emotions, but also for other people's emotions as well.  It would explain why I had few social problems with some people - people who's emotional responses to the world are similar to mine.  But for people with different emotional responses, there is more likely to be issues.

I've disussed before how other people's emotional responses can be learned.  When I separated from the ex, learning about social dynamics and flirting was helpful for dating.  While it didn't significantly improve my batting average (I'll never be a lady killer), it did improve my understanding of my interactions with women.

Many times I've heard that people on the spectrum need to learn social skills so they can better interact with NTs.  But shouldn't NT's have to learn too?  I find NTs tend to be wrong about my feelings more often than I'm wrong (or miss) their feelings.  Some people have even tried to tell me that I should change my behavior so NT's are less likely to mis-perceive my actions.  When it's the NTs jumping to the wrong conclusion, the solution is not to get the Aspies to change their "unpredicable" behavior, the NTs need to learn to make better predictions.

After wife 2.0 read Loving Someone with Asperger's Syndrome, she said it seems the non-Aspie partner has to make most of the changes in order for the relationship to work.  While that may be true, I think it would be more accurate to say the non-Aspie partner has the most to learn.  And at least for me, I'm not looking for my partner to change; I'm happy that she doesn't try to change me.  Love you MEJ!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Big Bang's Sheldon

I imagine anyone who is reading my blog has heard of Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory.  And anyone who knows a bit about Asperger's can tell Sheldon's character fits the mold.  The show has enough popular following now that my wife affectionately says of me to her friends, "He's my Sheldon."

"Big Bang" co-creator, Bill Prady, who based Sheldon on computer programmers he used to work with, has said they were afraid that if they labeled Sheldon an Aspie, they would have too much responsibility to depict the condition accurately within a sitcom.

I understand the dilemma, and wouldn't have been offended if the show labeled Sheldon an Aspie.  If people thought Aspies are all like Sheldon it would get them a lot closer to the truth than what most know now.  I wouldn't want Sheldon labeled with the DSM 5 Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnostic since it is too broad.  Aspies like precision, and saying you're an Aspie is more precise than saying you have ASD. I'm fine with the medical establishment using the ASD definition, however I still tell people I have Asperger's.

I'm a bit surprised how the show appeals so much to NTs, but it's easy to see the appeal for Aspies (and aspie-like geeks/nerds).  Besides identifying with Sheldon (and even Leonard's social discomfort), the show takes away some of the stigma of being a nerd.  To take a line from Huey Lewis, maybe it's even hip to be square.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Systemizing and irritability

Aspies (and people on the spectrum in general) are known for having low frustration tolerance.  An explanation for that can be found in the way Aspies think.  Asperger's expert Simon Baron-Cohen explains that Aspies are more systemizing and less empathizing than NTs.  Wired has an online version of Dr. Cohen's Autism-Spectrum Quotient quiz you can take - I score in the 30's.

So what does systemizing have to do with irritability?  I think the answer can be found in Dr. Daniel Kahneman's work.  I have often been asked, "Do you ever stop thinking?"  When we systemize, we work in the part of our brain Dr. Kahneman calls system 2.  How do you tell if you're in system 2 versus system 1? Kahneman posited an "effort diagnostic." You're definitely in system 2 if interruption by a concurrent activity — say someone practicing trumpet while you're trying to read the paper — proves irritating.  Unlike NTs, who basically run on system 1, Aspies are usually running on system 2.  As such, the chance of an interruption irritating an Aspie is much higher than NTs.

Although I can't change the way I think (and wouldn't want to if I could), I can reduce the chance of being interrupted.  When I'm at home I tend to wait until nobody is around to do work that requires the most focus.  Interruptions still can't be completely avoided, so I've trained myself to react with less anger when I get interrupted.  My reaction used to be, "Argh! You've made me loose my train of thought!"  Now I'll mostly ignore the interruption while holding up a finger to let the person know I'll get to them in a minute.  When I complete my thought I'll stop to respond.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Other Minds Problem

In my first post, I referred to a Psychology Today blog article about Theory-of-MindOne of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote about the concept in "What the Dog Saw".  He referred to it as the "other minds" problem.

He writes, “one-year-olds think that if they like Goldfish Crackers, then Mommy and Daddy must like Goldfish Crackers, too.” He goes on to explain that infants can’t work out that what is inside their head is different from what is inside everyone else’s head.  “What is the first thing we want to know when we meet a doctor at a social occasion?  We know, sort of what a doctor does. Instead, we want to know what it means to be with sick people all day long. We want to know what it feels like to be a doctor, because we’re quite sure that it doesn’t feel at all like sitting on a computer all day long, or teach school, or sell cars.”  He says that is because, "Curiosity about the interior life of other people's day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental of human impulses."

When I read that I remember feeling surprised and confused.  Do most people really want to know what it feels like to be someone else?  That might explain why my mother keeps boring me with the details of the lives of people I've never met and have no interest in knowing.   I have a great curiosity about the world, and my curiosity about people arises from people being a part of the world around me.  An interest in things is often listed as an autistic characteristic, while I guess an interest in people and their feelings would be a neuro-typical trait.

When you meet a doctor, are you like me and want to know what she does, what kind of equipment she uses, and what field she specializes in?  Or are you more interested in knowing what it feels like to be a doctor?  Leave a comment.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Social Instincts

Aspies are often described as lacking "common sense".  A more technical definition of common sense is social instinct.  Social instincts are inherited knowlege; things that you "know" without having learned them.

A simple example of a social instinct is flirting.  While a neurotypical person will get a feeling when someone is flirting with them, an Aspie will have a hard time telling if someone is interested unless they are directly told.  Aspies also have difficulty communicating non-verbally, so even when they can tell someone is interested in them, they can't respond in the subtle indirect ways that is socially expected.  That means the Aspie either doesn't communicate their lack of interest (what might be misinterpreted as leading the other person on), or they respond directly, "I'm not attracted to you."  Unfortunately, direct communication is sometimes misinterpreted as rude or hurtful.

Another example of a social instinct is deference to authority; the feeling people get that motivates them to obey an authority, even if it is not logical or beneficial to obey.  This instinct is why most people would obey a police officer who orders them to step aside when walking down the street, but they are not likely to obey a panhandler that does the same thing.  As an Aspie it makes no difference; I'm not going to obey either.  From reading Malcolm Gladwell (my favorite author), I learned how obedience to authority can be bad.  I feel fortunate that I'm not influenced by the irrational instincts of a neurotypical person.  I think the late Pierre Trudeau realized the burden emotional instincts can be in his famous quote, "reason over passion".

Social instinct is the knowledge of previous generations being passed on genetically (most likely epigenetically).  So instead of using instinct, Aspies can learn some social behaviors.  For instance I have learned to flirt from reading The Game.  Now I can enjoy the innocent fun that can be had from flirting.  I've also realized that when I'm trying to cash a cheque outside my home branch a little flirting with the teller is much more productive than demanding compliance with the Bills of Exchange Act.  And for those who don't know me, yes, I've actually cited the Bills of Exchange Act  to bank tellers.  More than once.  As Homer Simpson would say, "Doh!"