Author Archives: Margaret Jean

Aspies & Social Relationships: Where Our Problem Lies in Interpreting Facial Expression: The Prefrontal Cortex.

As Aspies, we know we have difficulty reading facial expression in conversation.  But why?

This is a question that Arlin Cunic addresses in her article Are Asperger’s Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder the Same*.

I was fascinated to learn that when we are in conversation with others, how anyone reads facial expressions is determined by the routing that occurs in our brains.

In the case of a person with Asperger’s, the brain sends the image for processing to the Prefrontal Cortex.  This is the area of the brain that deals with judgments and planning.

In the Prefrontal Cortex, logic rules.

However, conversations between two people in a relationship are often fraught with underlying emotion, an aspect of the exchange that is unrecognized in the Prefrontal Cortex.

So, how do neuro-typicals process facial expression?

In most people, the translation of facial expression occurs in a different area of the brain. The amygdala, Cunic states, is where emotion rules and this is the part of the brain to which conversational signals are transmitted and processed in non-Aspies .

And other people, when reading facial expressions, will have an automatic emotional response.

This does not happen in Aspie brains, where the emotional message is subjected instead to logical analysis.

This logic-based interpretation of emotional content is one reason why, then, some of us are hugely challenged in the area of building and maintaining relationships.

Take an instance where someone we love has a life-long dream of being an actress or an architect.  Or when a partner says they need more touching, a more physical expression of our love.

When they convey to us that they want to pursue that dream or they need us to be more emotionally connected to them, we are most likely to process this information objectively.

We may list the pros and cons, the factors in favour, and the factors that weigh against this possibility.

But we may not have the emotional comprehension, the emotional connection necessary to understand how important this issue is to our loved one.

We may even create ‘logical’ defenses or arguments, objective discussions clearly designed to show why it is not a good idea at this time to fulfil the other’s wishes.

This can be hurtful to our partners, as it illustrates a complete lack of understanding of and empathy with our partner’s emotional needs.

Most likely we will nevertheless continue to process the information logically, because the prefrontal cortex is uniquely wired to deal only with rational and logical considerations.

As a result, we may be unable to comprehend why anyone would even want to do something that to us seems frivolous and unnecessary.

We may angrily protest that our partner has heard nothing we have said.

In fact, the opposite is true.  We have not heard what they have said.

We may well be incapable of doing so, unless we stop and listen.  Unless we can accept that there is something in the message that we are not getting.  Unless we allow them to lead us to that understanding.

Perhaps the person who wants to try a different career already has a good paying job that they would put at risk.

Maybe life together is quite pleasantly predictably organized and pursuing the new occupation would be disruptive both to the current routine and your joint finances.

Logically, their dream makes no sense to us, and therefore we may deem it invalid.

We may not be able to recognize the emotion and passion that accompanies these and other conversations.  We may even deem the expression of their needs as inconsequential, a foolish request.

The relationship will probably end here, because we simply cannot ‘get’ the other person’s point of view.  We are attempting to successfully process with logic, a request or desire that requires an emotional interpretation, and emotional support.

Knowing that we may well fall short in emotional support of our partners can give us pause.  We can stop and reconsider what they are saying to us.

We may never fully understand or empathize with the emotion that accompanies their need, but I believe we can learn to recognize when these conversations are happening.

We can learn to express appropriate responses, and commit to behaviours that acknowledge another’s emotional needs.

Is it worth it?  Giving in, when logic argues against it?  Think about the relationship and what it means to you, how being together enriches your life.  Think it through, and then decide.

Yours truly,

Margaret Jean.

*To read Cunic’s article go to :  https://www.verywellmind.com/how-is-aspergers-related-to-social-anxiety-disorder-3024753

 

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Young Adult & Adult Aspies: Who Is In Charge of Your Life?

Margaret Jean

Who will navigate us successfully through life to success?  To achieve the goals we set for ourselves?

Dr. Phil as he is commonly known, says it has to be us.  Nobody else. And he has developed a set of what he calls “Life Laws” which he has used to help many of his clients find their way out of seemingly hopeless situations.

In his book, Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters, Dr. Phillip McGraw stresses that what is vital is “…understanding and controlling the cause-and-effect relationships of life; in other words, using your knowledge to make things happen the way you want them to.”

That we are responsible for learning the social strategies that will get us where we want to go, is probably, as Aspies, the last thing we want to hear.

But whether or not you are familiar with Dr. Phil’s non-nonsense TV Show style of therapy, I…

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Aspies: Building Upon Success

One day my older daughter came home from school, excited to show us that she had just learned how to do cartwheels. Beverly demonstrated this new ability several times, making it look easy.  Her younger sister, Suzanne, wanted to try doing cartwheels, too. But each time she tried she fell over sideways, and after a few attempts she stopped trying.

Watching from the kitchen window, I saw her disappointment.  Quickly drying my hands, I went out to her.

“I can’t do cartwheels,” she said, visibly upset.

“Oh, I’m sure you can!  It just takes practice.”

Bev told us how: “Try to picture where your body is when it’s in the air. Think about where you want your legs to be, and how you want to land.”  We all tried it together.

Sue and I landed in a crumpled heap.  Sue laughed at seeing her Mom try something  only kids usually do.

We kept at it.  Finally we both did cartwheels, keeping our legs straight and landing cleanly.  Bev congratulated us on our success.

Such a small moment in our lives. But what a powerful impact that learning experience had for me!

Weeks later I was offered the position of Director of a small museum and art gallery on an interim basis.  I had very little experience, having worked there only part time for a few months the previous year. I also had no office experience, let alone administrative experience. And new exhibits were coming into the gallery!  My first reaction was to refuse.

Then I remembered the cartwheel experience. Was everything really that simple? I wondered.

If so, then I could break the museum job down into a few basic steps. I needed to understand what was required of me, visualize how that could be done and then put those proceesses into effect.

In the six months that I was Interim Director I used every resource at hand.  My volunteers were women who had retired from various professional positions and one of them set up the office administration.  When she reviewed the system with me we fine tuned it together.

When I found an infestation in one of the permanent displays, I conferred with a UBC professor who advised me on how to deal with the current problem and prevent future similar issues.

Professionals from other galleries gave me advice on hanging, lighting and installing exhibits.

Did I celebrate this success?  I’m not sure, so probably not.  Yet that is what experts tell us to do.

A celebration is an acknowledgement that actively reinforces our understanding of our ability to achieve the goals we set for ourselves.

The rite of celebration ensures that we will be more confident, ready and even eager to accept the next challenge.

What are your recent successes?

Maybe it was something very simple like phoning to get the interest rate on your credit card reduced. Were you polite, positive, and interacting well with the agent on the phone?

Perhaps it was a successful coffee date with a friend.  Did you listen attentively and engage with their train of thought?

Or maybe it was something more difficult, like taking a test which required weeks of preparation, or completing a long-term project.  What steps did you take to help make success possible?

However simple or complex, when you do well, acknowledge your success!

We can tend to focus on what went wrong.  When you do so, learn from it!  What will you do differently next time?

As when doing cartwheels, looking at why you failed is important to the next success. Temporary failure is only a negative if you get stuck on blaming yourself.

Instead, think of what you could have done differently, and visualize it happening. Just like having floppy legs when doing cartwheels, acknowledge the problem, clearly imagine the adjustments you will make, and move on.

When we focus upon and acknowledge our achievements we help to ensure many more successes in the future!

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Flat Affect: The Flip Side

What if our Flat Affect has a ‘flip side’?

What if Flat Affect could even be a selective, evolutionary advantage?

Are Aspies perhaps actually more appropriately aligned to deal with the great variety of societal conflicts currently confronting the world?

I have been researching prosody[i] or the inflections, physical[ii] and vocal, that make up our conversations.  Numerous studies[iii] indicate that not all peoples interpret conversational inflections in the same way.

For instance, as a young man working in South America, my friend, Richard, realized that in some Chilean, Peruvian and Bolivian subcultures, it was not wise to show his teeth when smiling.  He found the baring of teeth could sometimes be mistaken for an aggressive attitude.

Research by psychologist Carlos Crivelli and anthropologist Sergio Jarillo (see references below) indicates that primitive societies often do not read facial expressions in the same way as European/North American cultures.  In fact, they found some of our ‘obvious’ expressions baffling.

Is the increased ‘mingling’ of previously geographically separate cultures, each of which has established its own distinctive non-verbal communication, less of a problem for us Aspies with our Flat Affect?

Does inscrutability lead to less misunderstanding of the distinctive facial ‘cues’ which neural typicals are confidently projecting?

Here’s a radical thought! What if our Flat Affect has advantages which outweigh its well–known disadvantages?

What if our lack of facial expression is not necessarily a negative quality?  Could it instead be a genetic variation which facilitates our participation in a global society?

We live in an increasingly internationally diverse culture.  Different facial expressions can send conflicting and sometimes even threatening messages, depending on the culture in which we find ourselves. Under those circumstances, wouldn’t Flat Affect be a good thing?

And consider this: so much of our current communication takes place on the internet where little or no facial expression is involved—emails, chat rooms, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Are Aspies then the children of a world society where conversation is solely based on the verbal rather than on time-honored inflected conversation?

In a shrinking world where uniquely defined cultures more often ‘bump up’ against each other perhaps we are the best prepared to diffuse possible misunderstandings, rather than further igniting them!

[i] https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/social-communication-autism-explained

[ii] Facial Action Coding studies by Jennifer Fugate as reported in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers pages 147 to 152.

[iii] Sergio Jarillo & Carlos Crivelli  as commented upon in Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers pg.154 to 159 and abstract from:

https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-19236-001

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Asperger’s Flat Affect: Is it always a Disadvantage?

In our Aspie world, we often misread what people are saying to us.

We can not only fail to transmit appropriate non-verbal clues with our message, but also find it difficult to notice and interpret these clues in remarks directed to us.

We can have difficulty detecting and decoding what is sometimes called prosody—facial expressions and verbal inflections in tone, stress and rhythm that give added meaning to speech.

Because of this lack of awareness regarding certain conversational signals, we can mistake an insult for a compliment, a denial for permission or an unpleasant remark for a friendly one. 

Yes, Flat Affect can be a problem for Aspies. Sometimes we blatantly misunderstand … with unpleasant, even embarrassing consequences!

The communication confusion caused by our Aspies Flat Affect is something we spend a lifetime working to eliminate. But can there actually also be a hidden advantage to the Flat Affect?

If we stop to reflect on these situations, we may realize that in some situations having Flat Affect may actually act in a protective way, saving us from embarrassing and distressing situations.  

Because Flat Affect can be seen to be a mask of inscrutability, without displaying fear or embarrassment, we are able to pause. 

We can ponder what the other speaker is really saying and actually meaning. We can patiently study any available cues before deciding how we wish to respond. 

Flat Affect then can be seen as a protection against vulnerability in an area in which we are otherwise most vulnerable: conversational decoding.

In other words, Flat Affect allows us to have a certain amount of control over what could be an anxiety-riddled situation.

Is flat affect necessarily disadvantageous?  Or could it be a selectively advantageous genetic variation?

More on that possibility in next week’s blog!

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Aspies: Challenge or Opportunity? Your Choice!

We all know about challenges like climbing Mount Everest or crossing the Pacific Ocean on a raft.  If you’re up for that kind of challenge, you may read no further. Congratulations!

For some Aspies, the word ‘challenging’ may seem to be synonymous with ‘anxiety-producing’, creating stress.

Experts tell us that whether stress becomes a positive or a negative factor in any particular situation depends upon how we respond to that stress.

Worrying creates unhealthy stress, whereas allowing stress to spur us on into action in a challenging situation ensures that it leads us forward into a positive learning experience.

For some Aspies, ‘challenging’ may even refer to those activities which for many people are common, almost daily occurrences.

For instance, what if you would like to go to a certain shop but it’s in an unfamiliar area of town; one into which you have never ventured. You don’t know how to get there, let alone how to get back!

Maybe you’re hesitant to take a bus because the numbers, the routes and the schedules can be quite confusing.

Breaking down a challenge like this into its relatively simple components will allow you to realize that you can resolve each of them, separately, quite successfully.

You could download a schedule for the number of the bus you need to take to get to your desired location.  When you are ready, go to the nearest bus stop.  When that particular bus comes, take it.

Carefully observe what roads the bus is taking, what shops and restaurants you are passing, or which other points of interest are along the way.  You could make a mental, or even a paper or e-note of them.

When you get to your destination you may not wish to initially venture too far from the bus stop.

Familiarize yourself with the three or four blocks around the bus depot, note the street names and any other unique or ‘landmark’ buildings, parks or memorable natural landscape features.

Once you have experienced the bus route and the nature of the surroundings at your desired destination, you can take the bus back home again.

You might find it helpful to do this two or three times until you feel comfortable in your knowledge of the route, how long the trip takes and the nature of the area surrounding your destination.

What will you have accomplished?  Just this: you will no longer need to wait for someone else to have the time to drive you where you want to go. You will be able to move about based on your own agenda, not that of your parents, your siblings or your friends.

You will be in control of your day, and just a little bit more in control of your own life.

And you will feel a sense of success, maybe even of triumph!

Becoming more knowledgeable about your community and its surrounding areas can increase your confidence, giving you a greater sense of independence.

You will find that knowing where you are going and that you can get there on your own can be exhilarating and liberating.

The result is that your sense of self-respect will receive a tremendous boost, encouraging you to undertake similar challenges, in a similar manner, with far less anxiety in the future.

It is important to realize that falling into the trap of simply avoiding the initial anxiety which may accompany a novel task will not get you where you want to go. But meeting the challenge will enrich your life.

When we decide to take control of a situation in our lives, we ask something of ourselves.

When we respond positively and successfully we present ourselves with an opportunity for growth, which involves meeting, accepting and overcoming challenge after challenge.

Ultimately, we become our own heroes, infusing ourselves with the courage, even the desire to face whatever challenges present themselves. In this way we can view new challenges as opportunities for enhancing our experiences.

Our reward is a life fully and joyfully lived, with gratitude for challenges which come our way.

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Challenges: Help For Aspie Anxiety

When your teacher or professor assigns homework, when your parents or your roommate ask you to clean up your room, or to look after some household chores—what’s up with that?

Perhaps your roomates want you to take responsibility for two meals a week.  Or maybe you’ve made a commitment to yourself to exercise three times a week or walk six blocks a day.

How can challenges that seem worrying actually help reduce anxiety?

Anxiety is a huge issue for many of us with Asperger’s.  There is no point in asking why we often see six thousand compounding facets in every single little incident in our lives, or why simple chores like washing the car or cleaning our rooms can morph into multi-day events.

 The question is, why would we challenge ourselves with any of these responsibilities at all?

The answer is simple.  By making demands of ourselves, and by disciplining ourselves to attempt to meet those demands, we give ourselves room and encouragement to grow.

By repeatedly doing simple manageable tasks we develop routines and a self-confidence which can serve us well when we encounter more complex issues.

When we attempt to accommodate another’s reasonable demands, we acquire and continually enhance the skill of determining exactly what is required of us.

And we practice discerning how best to initiate the task in the most efficient way so as to successfully complete it with the least stress … and perhaps even a certain degree of pleasure!

This translates into the essential life-skills of listening, comprehending, asking questions about the process when necessary, and successfully completing the task.

We are rewarded with the personal satisfaction which comes with the completion of any worthwhile accomplishment!

And the more that is asked of you, either by others or by yourself, the greater you will feel challenged.

But, the greater the challenge successfully met, the greater the personal satisfaction.

Challenges are not only necessary for our personal and professional growth, they are a fast-track to ensuring our lives remain interesting and fulfilling.

 

 

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Greta Thunberg: One Person, One Aspie Can Rock the World.

Can One Person make a difference?

If you are a student taking part in the Fridays for Future climate change protest, then you are an individual who is taking action aimed at creating global, national and local change.

And you may have become aware that Greta Thunberg, an Asperger teen from Sweden believes that one person can work to create positive changes in  our world.

What convinced her of that?  Possibly her conviction came from the way in which her parents responded to her concern about climate change.

Greta asked her mom and dad to acknowledge that the earth is in a dangerous state due to many factors.

She pointed out that the quality of her future life was in jeopardy because of government and individual inaction. And she felt that if her parents shared her concerns and honestly cared about the world that she would grow up to live in, they would personally make lifestyle changes.

She wanted them to change some of their routines and eating habits so that their personal lives would reflect their acknowledged growing concern about the environment.

And they did.  They made changes that were not easy for them.  For instance, they agreed to give up air travel, which meant her mother had to forego some choice roles in her career as an opera singer.

Because her parents agreed to effect changes in their lives as a result of her discussions with them, she realized that she could be persuasive. Perhaps this ability to create change could reach others beyond her family.

At the age of 15, Greta decided to take her protest beyond her home, to the grounds of the Swedish parliament buildings.  She did this on a school day.

She was protesting the lack of any real climate action on the part of the government and she felt it was important enough to miss school to make this happen.  It was the first strike for climate change.  It had an attendance of one!

Last week, almost four million students around the world protested with Greta.

On this coming Friday, the 27th of September, the Friday for Future strike will come to BC, to cities and towns such as Tofino, Victoria, Campbell River, Burnaby, Vancouver and Prince George, as well as Gabriola and Saltspring and other Islands. Check the map at the links given below to find out if your community is included.

Are you ready Aspies?  Ready to Rock the World?

To find the locations for the Friday for Future Strike, including the one this Friday, September 27, 2019, check these websites:

https://www.fridaysforfuture.org/news

https://fridaysforfuture.ca/

https://fridaysforfuture.ca/event-map/

Please be sure to read the information regarding security.  Certain safeguards are suggested.  Remember that at any large gathering, people who are more interested in making trouble than affecting political change could become involved.  Know what action you need to take to protect yourself if such a situation should arise.

The French Kiss: An Aspie Makes Peace with Her Past.

If you’ve read my memoir,  Unforgiving, Memoir of an Asperger Teen, you’ll know I was once subjected to a French kiss that was the beginning of a severely anxiety-producing period in my life.  This column is about a much better relationship: one with the French language.

As Aspies, we need constant challenge.  To live without it is a form of unpleasant inertia for us.

Perhaps that’s why we find games so absorbing; they challenge us while providing an anxiety-free way of being engaged.

An Aspie self-reflection might be to ask ourselves how we can utilize our Aspie focus in a more productive way.

This early in the morning, I’m usually doing a French lesson on Duo Lingo.  So far it’s free, I’m interested and I’m learning French!  As with many games, my online French lessons do not require any anxiety-causing social interaction, just self-motivation and tremendous concentration, at which Aspies excel.

Why French?  Because I have a brief background in the language, including some high school instruction (This is Canada after all, where French is our official second language) and some French at university where a second language was required in the first couple of years.

So, imagine my amazement when visiting in France I discovered that while I could read the signs, and understand quite a bit of what was said, I was unable to communicate verbally.  When it came to speaking my tongue got thick, my mouth got dry and I got stuck. That was an unpleasant and for me, rather traumatic surprise!

Now I spend a great deal of time in a household which includes someone who is a native French speaker; someone kind enough to teach me conversational French.

Taking  advantage of this opportunity with any degree of accomplishment meant revisiting the vocabulary, the conjugations and the grammar. Voila, Duo Lingo!

At first the conversational aspect was terrifying.  After all, it combined a modicum of social interaction along with the practise of something in which I had already failed while in France.  It was an effort to go into the sessions and blunder my way through.

Then, one day, for the very first time we had a conversation in which I could fully engage, understanding every word and being understood in return!  It remains so significant to me that I even remember exactly where we were standing in the kitchen when the exchange took place.

I may never get back to Hyeres in the south of France, but I will have the satisfaction of being able to speak in another language.  To wrap my brain, my tongue, and my throat around another verbal method of communication can only be good for me in so many ways.  Surprisingly, each night, my dreams include a word or phrase in French.  And the exercises, now that I am in my third month of self-imposed study, have become far more complex; a challenge I enjoy.

Is French helping me in any measurable way?   I cannot say.  I can only say that the universe has opened up this opportunity for me.  And I learned a long time ago—do not say ‘no’ to the universe!

 

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My Asperger Personality Unmasked.

Research published online on May 19, 2017 examines the notion that Aspies and others on the spectrum camouflage their autistic personalities in order to manage social situations.

The study entitled, “Putting on My Best Normal”: Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions* looks at a number of issues ranging from:

  • why females in particular are often diagnosed later in life,

  • if the fact that so few females are diagnosed is due to the feminine personality being more successful at camouflaging, and

  • that perhaps camouflaging can be detrimental to our mental health.

Before I read the study, I wrote this blog in an explosive mood after experiencing severe anxieties about taking a bath. I didn’t post it because I was afraid of what my partner would think if he read it.

After what I read in the study, I realized that by not showing him the blog I was camouflaging, masking my anxiety–though honestly, not very well.  

Why did I take a bath?  Because it’s such a normal thing to do, and I felt that I must be weird to be so resistant to sitting in a tub.

What follows in the resulting blog are my true feelings about the situation.  Looking at it now that a little time has passed, I realize that while some of the blog sounds reasonable, logical and fairly intelligent, other aspects simply seem to be the rantings of an angry child.

Here it is then, one Asperger personality, my own, unmasked and unleashed!

The Bath: A Source of Anxiety for Asperger Me.

As an Aspie, maintaining a relationship can be a challenge.

My partner thinks of baths as sensual, delightful, peaceful and meditative experiences.  Candles, essential oils, music, time for reflection.

There is no music in my bathroom, I told him.

To break the ensuing period of uncomfortable silence, I spoke up.  I said Baths are boring.  Which, granted, was probably rather inconsiderate.  That’s when he brought up the essential oils, candlelight, reflection etc.

You have to sit there.  I said.  Doing nothing.  

People who take baths seem to think that to truly enjoy bathing you have to sit in the water … like forever.  I am not tall, but my chest is always out of the water.  It gets cold.  I soak a cloth in the warm bath water, but it quickly gets cold too.

I could catch a chest cold.  Not to mention the other alternative: die of boredom.

You haven’t learned how to let go, he says.  How to be one with the water, breathe in the aroma of the oil, enjoy the sensual texture of the water against your skin.

It’s tap water, okay?  Tap water.

You want me to be at one with the water?  Take me to a warm ocean, where the air is fresh and salty, the water buoyant and in constant motion.  My body, floating, swaying with the sea, caught up in the ebb and flow, me at one with the sea responding to the universe. Now that rocks!  Moving in tune with the moon’s gravitational pull … that’s a sensual, soul-saturating sense of unity.

But a four-foot tub filled with tap water?  Come on!

You have to learn to relax, he says.  He means be STILL.  Unfortunately to actually be still is a physical impossibility for me.

I have a familial tremor, which means my body is in constant motion whether I am consciously moving it or not.  It also means my adrenalin is always, to some extent in fight or flight mode, under which circumstances, unless I’m sleeping or comatose, it is pretty much anxiety-producing to be still.

But okay.  I had a bath.  I believe I stayed in that tub for ten whole minutes.  Maybe eleven.

Because I know it’s important to him.  I just don’t know why it’s important to him that I have a bath.  I shower every day.  Sometimes twice a day. I’m a bit of a clean freak.  But it’s important to him that I try, so I’ll fill the tub, light the candles and sit there as long as I can bear it.

Next time?  If he brings in a portable CD player and puts on some Celtic music, I’m going for twelve minutes.

*More about this study can be found at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5509825/

 

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