Individuals with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) see the world from a different point of view. They think that NT or “neurotypical” people (i.e., those without an autism spectrum disorder) speak in riddles (e.g., Why use non-verbal signs like body language instead of just telling something like it is? Why don’t they say what they mean? Why are relationships so messy? How come they are not interested in details like me?).
People on the autism spectrum think their world is more logical then NT’s. They have to adjust to NT’s “strange” way of relating to each other and ways of communication. It’s very hard for them to adjust to something so far off from logic. Most of the time, they are truly unable to do so.
People with AS and HFA usually have three basic impairments: (1) communication (both verbal and non-verbal), (2) social imagination (combined with inflexible thinking and repetitive behavior), and (3) social interaction (e.g., being unable to make and keep friends).
These are the most obvious symptoms of the disorder, and they ALWAYS occur together. There is no random combination possible; one can’t be there without the others. These three impairments have a huge impact on every aspect of life when one is diagnosed with AS or HFA, and they all relate to an overly-logical brain (as opposed to a brain that is more in-tune with emotions and relationships).
The brain is not a single-working organism. It has different parts to it, with each part controlling different parts of the body, thought, and emotions. We have a higher thought plane than other animals due to the development of the “neocortex,” which is responsible for problem solving, conscious thought, and language. Before this area of the brain developed, we were like every other type of animal, acting mostly on instinct instead of logic.
Before the neocortex, there was the mammalian part of your brain, which acted on emotions, feelings, and instinct (i.e., the “emotional brain”). This part of the brain is responsible for attraction to beauty, preparing your body to deal with fears and dangers, etc.
Then there is the social brain. This part of the brain is responsible for the following:
- evaluating human voices
- assigning the emotional value of different stimuli (e.g., deciding when something is disgusting)
- attaching an incoming signal with an emotional value
- deciding whether a social signal really matters
- deciphering prosody, the additional tones and ways that people add layers of meaning to their spoken words
- generating an initial emotional response to social stimuli (e.g., Should someone’s tone really impact me as much as it does? What does someone’s look really mean, and am I overreacting?)
- generating reactions in response to different situations
- helping control basic visual information
- helping us notice where someone else is looking
- selecting which of the myriad incoming social signals are the most important
- allowing us to observe other human bodies
- allowing us to know when incoming social signals are rewarding
- helping us to not just listen to what people say, but HOW it is said
- observing minute details of facial expression and body language
- perceiving important social cues
- regulating strong human emotions
In a way, you can say that people with AS and HFA have an overly-developed rational brain, and an under-developed social brain.
People with an overly-logical brain (think of Spock from Star Trek) often have the following traits:
- appear to only be concerned with their own needs and wants
- experience a delay in the development of the idea that the self is equal in importance to that of others
- have difficulty understanding that others have their own mind, point of view, feelings, and priorities
- problems attributing mental states to others or to be able to describe what others might be feeling in a given situation (the ability to guess others’ states of mind is related to one’s ability to effectively practice introspection on one’s own)
- the inability to guess others’ mental states often results in (a) “social mistakes” (e.g., unintentionally saying something highly offensive), and (b) attributing negative intentions in others that aren’t there
- a lack of developed private self-consciousness, which is a predictor of paranoia (the ability to know one’s self in some way relates to the skill in attributing feelings and motivations to others)
- will take statements by others in a more concrete and literal fashion
- they have to work harder than NTs at theorizing what others are experiencing
- are more concerned with facts, figures, and data than relating to people
- they need more time than others to understand social subtleties in language (e.g., irony, sarcasm, some forms of humor)
- difficulty linking behavior of others to their inner feelings, and as a result, can’t understand or predict someone’s behavior
- difficulty linking their own behavior to the feelings of others, thus they are unable to anticipate or predict such a response
The overly-logical brain and the absence of the ability to intuit what others may think or feel, what motivates them, how they’re likely to respond in certain situations, etc. may be the root of most difficulties people with AS and HFA have in communication and social interaction.
When attempting to relate better to people with an AS or HFA brain:
- put more weight on words or actions
- put less weight on body language, facial expressions, and physical appearances
- don’t put them in a position where they have to decipher hints, innuendos, subtext, or passive-aggressive behavior – instead, use plain speech
- don’t assume that their lack of normal eye contact means that they are sneaky, lying, or undependable
- talk about what you “think” about a particular topic, rather than how to “feel” about it (e.g., “I think a conservative political viewpoint contributes to the individual becoming more self-sufficient and less reliant on government” … instead of, “How do feel about conservatism”).
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