Emotional Detachment

I am going to quote a book that I’ve been reading:  “Aspergers on the Job” by Rudy Simone.  Ms Simone has been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome and writes from both a personal perspective, but also from research from hundreds of people – both employees with AS and their employers, federal and state advocacy and agencies.  I think this book is fabulous and if you have a child/teen/adult that you love that has a high functioning form of Autism or Aspergers – this book definitely belongs on your bookshelf!  Preferably dog eared and falling apart!

A person with Asperger’s Syndrome will often say or do what is logical rather than  what is socially and emotionally expected of them.  If a person is emotionally detached at a time when a more compassionate, emotion-driven response is called for, it can get them a reputation as a cold fish.  And emotional situation would take the AS person into territory where they cannot control or predict the outcome, and many (particularly males, since it is something of a male reaction anyway) will avoid emotional demonstrations or reciprocations of any sort.

Mix: one logical approach to life, one aversion to emotional situations, and add a dash of difficulty expressing yourself; put it in the world to bake for a few years and out comes Mr. Spock.

Yet people with AS can be incredibly compassionate and kind and AS does not preclude empathy (Hesman-Saey 2008).  They will open doors for the elderly, give change to the homeless, rescue wounded animals, give aid to a friend in need.  But there are times when:

  1. Empathy pathways are bypassed, due to a high level of stress or anxiety or feeling ‘attacked.’  If there is any sort of drama going on and the AS person feels like they are being accused or implicated, they may become defensive, angry or shut down.  They might not find the right words, go silent, or stutter if upset.
  2. They feel empathy but don’t know how to go about expressing it.  This is called alexythimia.  It means difficulty identifying and describing emotions, both your own and others’ (Wikipedia 2008).  It is a common component of AS.  Reaching out to a person with alexythimia can make for some awkward moments.  For example, you may be telling them about something awful that happened to you and they will point out something worse that happened to somebody else.  It sounds as if they have no sympathy for you.  In reality they are trying to make you feel better but are going about it rather clumsily.
  3. The situation is something they’ve never experienced first-hand, so they truly do not know what it feels like and cannot imagine.  This is a problem of “theory of mind” – not fully realizing that others have feelings and thoughts different than your own.  If a person with AS has never experienced the death of a loved one, for example, they may really have no idea how that feels and may not be the person to turn to for soft words and kind gestures.

In the section on “What the employee can do:” the author (who herself has Aspergers Syndrome) writes many suggestions that are simple, direct and clearly stated.  Here are just two from the list:

  • Accessing emotions can be learned, especially if one is supported and in a loving environment where it is safe to do so.  Try talking about how you feel with someone you trust.
  • For those with spiritual inclinations, the Buddhist/eastern practice of ‘mindfulness’ to foster empathy and compassion for others has been mentioned as a good technique for those with AS, as is the Christian ‘golden rule’ of doing unto others as you would have done unto you.

The section on “To employers and advocates:” the author also lists many suggestions.  Here are a few:

  • Don’t take it personally if your AS employee says something insensitive.  They are compassionate; they just don’t know how to show it sometimes.
  • If they have been a bit callous, or un-empathetic, take them aside and give them a working example or anecdote they can relate to rather than telling them how they should feel.

So how’s that for some concise, easy to understand info and advice?  If you like these few ideas, please pick up the book Asperger’s on the Job – Must have advice for people with Asperger’s or High Functional Autism and their Employers, Educators, and Advocates by Rudy Simone.


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