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