Thursday, August 28, 2008

More on Empathy (Empathy versus Emotion)

Today, I'm returning to the subject of Empathy because it's a very important part of the Aspergers condition. We lack empathy, but we're not incapable of it. It's just a lot of hard work for us.

My previous post on Empathy is linked here

I've just answered a fascinating question on WrongPlanet about the difference between Empathy and Emotion. It took a fair amount of thinking but I feel that I've captured the basics -though, as usual, I'm quite happy to be corrected. I was so happy with my thinking that I've expanded the whole thing here to become my topic of the day.

The Difference between Empathy and Emotion
Empathy deals with understanding (and in some cases, replication) of someone else's emotions or state of mind while emotions are focussed solely upon your own feelings.

As a result;
  1. You can be empathetic without showing emotions.
  2. You can show emotion without being empathetic.

Example 1: Empathy without showing Emotion
A neighbour loses his wife in a car accident. He's walking around feeling quite sad, perhaps blaming himself because he was supposed to make the trip but left it to his wife to do instead.

You can understand exactly how he is feeling even though you don't personally feel sad about it - or if you do have some emotional response, it's not the same. Understanding your neighbour's emotional response is much more than "oh, he's sad because his wife is dead". Proper empathy would include understanding his feelings of guilt/remorse, why he's blaming himself and how it's tearing him up inside.

If I stand back and think long and hard about these things, I can eventually get there - from a storytelling perspective but I don't automatically feel that deeply about these sorts of things when they happen in real life. It's hard for me to say if this is a "man thing", a "human thing" or an "aspie thing".

Example 2: Emotion without Empathy
Your wife has had a bad day, she feels lonely and depressed being at home with just the kids to talk to. You come home to find dinner isn't ready and you get angry (showing emotion). She tries to tell you about her day but you just get angrier... after all, you think, she doesn't have to do much at home by herself.

In this case, the husband is showing a lot of emotion, though it's mainly negative emotions like anger. The emotion he is showing is not in synch with his wife's condition - in fact, he's not even thinking about her condition because he cannot understand how and why she feels that way.

A variation on this response with less negative emotion could be that the husband doesn't notice anything or carries on as if it were all a big joke. Humour is also an emotion but again, it's inappropriate for the occasion.

This particular scenario is very familiar to me personally. I often come home after a rush-rush day with my head reeling from all that has gone on. I never stop thinking and I'm often reviewing and deciphering the days events and conversations in my head or following my own particular mental agenda. Sometimes I just need time by myself to unwind. Unfortunately, the minute I set foot inside my own house, I'm expected to switch gears and fit in with a different mental picture.

Depending upon how my day has been, and the atmosphere inside the house sometimes I can and sometimes I can't. Sometimes I try to be empathetic but between the kids and telephone calls and chores it all gets lost. Sometimes I can't relax enough to concentrate on the feelings of other people around me - even though I know they need me. In neruotypical people, I think empathy takes a bit of work. In aspies, it's certainly possible but it takes incredible dedication and effort.

Examples 3 & 4: Empathy and Emotion Together
Let's look at how different the above two scenarios would be if emotion and empathy were working together (and in the same direction).

In the neighbour case above, you feel sad for him. You say, "I know how you feel... that must be awful". You resist the temptation to offer advice of "don't blame yourself, knowing that he wants to feel guilty". Perhaps you try to help him by inviting him over for a meal.

In the wife example, you walk into the house and immediately realise that something is wrong. You ask her what's wrong and you give her some love and patience. Perhaps you tell her to relax while you cook dinner - and perhaps you arrange a weekend without the kids.

If nothing else, buying flowers on the way home can often show that you are thinking about your partner and that you do care. I think about my wife and how she feels a lot but sadly, the only times I get a chance to do so are the times when I'm not at home and not at work. (eg: when I'm going for a walk during my lunch break). So by the end of the day, when it's all rush-rush again, it's hardly at the front of my thoughts.

A Couple of Other Points to Consider
In order for empathy to be truly successful, you have to offer up a bit of eye contact. I know it's hard but it's a matter of trust. You have to really feel empathy and you have to mean what you say. If you're prone to stupid stray thoughts, you also have to be aware of your facial expression. A big cheesy grin during a period of sadness is the same as laughing at someone who is in pain.

Not Necessarily Goody-Goody
In the above examples, it makes you look like a saint when emotion and empathy work together. This little paragraph is here just to show you that it's not necessarily always the case. Suppose that someone has been particularly nasty to a good friend of yours. You can empathise with your friend and feel hurt for him/her. You can also feel angry towards the protagonist.

Sometimes just agreeing with your friend that the protagonist is a b*tch or a b*st*rd is enough. Sometimes helping them plan (and sometimes execute) revenge is also helpful. Not all revenge's have to be carried out. Sometimes just talking about what you would do - or plotting, is enough.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Mysterious Female Aspie

There's a lot of evidence to suggest that aspergers is much more common in males than in females.

This is, at least in part, due to the nature of human genetic makeup. Men have an XY chromosome structure while women have XX.

If one or more partners is genetically damaged or "different", there exists, in females, the ability to "repair" the genetic differences using DNA from the other X chromosome. Such a facility isn't available to men.

This means that men are much more likely to show genetic damage or differences and that women can often be "silent carriers".

That said, there's still considerably fewer female aspies than you'd expect.

Personally, I think this comes down to differences in behavior and detection. Women tend to have less social difficulties than men, particularly with the opposite gender because they're usually approached, rather than having to do the approaching themselves.

There's also a suggestion that "Girls are generally recognized as superior mimics. Those with AS hold back and observe until they learn the 'rules', then imitate their way through social situations." - Tony Attwood.

Regardless of the reason, there aren't too many articles on how aspergers manifests in women.

This one however, is a good one and well worth a read;

Psychology Today: An Aspie in the City By: Carlin Flora
(November/December 2006)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Article: Especially for Grandparents of Children With Asperger Syndrome

Update: Nancy Mucklow, the Author of this article, has her own web site and it contains a lot of other good information - You are encouraged to visit it;
Talking Sense:

I've just read the following article (thanks DietCoke for making me aware of it) and I figured it was worth linking to;

It's in several places on the internet so I've just chosen the best formatted version to link to;

Especially for Grandparents of Children With Asperger Syndrome
By Nancy Mucklow

In any case, the letter is great reading and touches more than a few nerves I've experienced both as a child (from my grandparents) and as a father (from my parents and parents-in-law).

It's worth a read and well worth forwarding onto your aspie's grandparents.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Aspergers and Sleep Disorders

I've noted a link between aspergers and sleep disorders.

My son takes hours to go to sleep and is sometimes awake in the middle of the night. I used to think that it was his ritalin (he's on it for his ADHD/ADD) but I noticed that when he has a break from the ritalin, during school holidays for example, his sleeplessness is unchanged.

I also remember from my own childhood and most of my adulthood, that I had sleeping problems too. I still do occasionally though these days, the dual stresses of work and family combine to make me tired enough to drop off.

I've also learned to cope with sleeplessness better by staying up until I really feel tired then going straight to the bedroom with my eyes partially close and without talking or doing any "thinking" work. In winter, I even go so far as to wrap myself in a doona (blanket) while watching TV and staying "wrapped" all the way to the bedroom. Even so, it's fairly common for me to go to bed at between 11.30pm and 2am and wake up at 5.30am.

Empirical Evidence
I decided to have a quick look around the internet to see if there have been any studies about the link between sleeplessness and aspergers.

I found an interesting set of links on medopedia;
I noticed that they spelt Asperger's differently but I don't think it impacts on the quality of their research.

Aspberger’s Syndrome Sleep Disorders Linkages

Anyway, probably the most interesting quote in their article is as follows;

According to the results, 50 percent of the children with AS were disinclined to go to bed. 75 percent had a need for a light or television in the bedroom, 87 percent had difficulty getting to sleep at night and 75 percent fell asleep sweating. Also, 50 percent felt unrefreshed when waking up in the morning, 87 percent had difficulty waking up in the morning and 87 percent felt sleepy during the day.

This is significant because;

  1. It's possible that some of the side-effects of Ritalin in Asperger's children may have been misrepresented - though it's not particularly likely.

  2. More importantly, I know that there are a lot of aspies out there who are using medications which have sleeplessness as a side-effect. We need to be aware that when combined with the natural sleeplessness of aspies, these effects may be greater than they would be in other children.
There's another article which says mostly the same thing but has a list of interesting sources linked below.

Do Children with Autism Sleep Less?

Strangely enough, the studies don't seem to look at sleep patterns in aspergers adults, which I can confirm are similar. They also don't seem to ask whether or not there is a reduced need for sleep in aspergers children.

Speculation: perhaps it's linked with hyptonia and "reduced energetic play", a common trait in aspie children.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A bit of Aspergian Pride

I've posted links on this site from time to time but I usually avoid long posts of just links.

I'm making an exception in this case for a few reasons;

1. Obviously I want to join the Aspergian pride site
2. A list of links like this is a good way to find out what other aspies are up to.

One of the most interesting lines on the aspergian pride site is a request that "others will respect and value our diversity, instead of calling for our extermination by way of prenatal testing and eugenic abortion".

For those who aren't familiar with the term, Eugenics was a genocidal theory proposed in the late 1800s which had a wide following amongst otherwise sensible scholars in the 1940s. It formed a large part of the basis for the Nazi atrocities of World War II. Eugenics has a particular relevance to autism because the elimination of autistic children by selective breeding is no different from the elimination of racial groups by the same method. It deserves a post all of its own, but for the moment, I'm a little too busy to comply. Later maybe.

Anyway, without further ado, here is the list.