Thursday, November 5, 2009
Theory of Mind vs. Compassion in Asperger's
The couple was in the midst of a heated argument.
"Please stop looking at me like a dead cod fish!"
Believe it or not, statements like this from partners of adults with Asperger's are not all that uncommon. When confronted with a highly upset partner, some adults with Asperger's respond by shutting down completely, staring baffled at their partner instead conversing and adopting the pose of a....well....dead cod fish.
Often adults with Asperger's (ASD) are accused of by loved ones and friends, even coworkers, as LACKING EMPATHY. This is puzzling, as many Aspies report a heightened alarm system when confronted with emotional intensity. Do Aspies really lack empathy? Or are they shutting down when easily overwhelmed in emotionally charged situations, leading to a "non-empathic" presentation? Or is there some other explanation?
Theory of Mind
The typical individual, at an early age, develops the innate capacity to know and understand that other people have thoughts, feelings and desires that are different from his or her own. This understanding develops without effort, and is supported by the innate ability to engage in the nuances of interaction: body language, tone of voice, eye contact and other subtleties. This conceptualizing of "other" versus "self" is, what many researchers believe to be, the first step in empathy. In other words, it is very difficult to "empathize" with a separate person's unique experience without first understanding that their experience is just that - unique, or more aptly put, not the same as that of the self.
One of the most important milestones in theory of mind development is gaining the ability to attribute false belief: that is, to recognize that others can have beliefs about the world that are incorrect. To do this, it is suggested, one must understand how knowledge is formed, that people’s beliefs are based on their knowledge, that mental states can differ from reality, and that people’s behavior can be predicted by their mental states.
Researchers have investigated the false belief concept in intriguing ways. In one such experiment (often called the ‘Sally-Anne’ task), children are told or shown a story involving two characters. For example, the child is shown two dolls, Sally and Anne, who have a basket and a box, respectively. Sally also has a marble, which she places in her basket, and then leaves to take a walk. While she is out of the room, Anne takes the marble from the basket, eventually putting it in the box. Sally returns, and the child is then asked where Sally will look for the marble. The child passes the task if she answers that Sally will look in the basket, where she put the marble; the child fails the task if she answers that Sally will look in the box, where the child knows the marble is hidden, even though Sally cannot know, since she did not see it hidden there. In order to pass the task, the child must be able to understand that a person's mental representation of the situation is different from their own, and the child must be able to predict behavior based on that understanding. The results of research using false-belief tasks have been fairly consistent: most normally-developing children are unable to pass the tasks until around age four. Yet the test is often not passed by adults diagnosed with ASD.
Is Theory of Mind a necessary foundation for compassion? Compassion is a human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another person's suffering. It is often, though not inevitably, the key component in what manifests in the social context as altruism.
Though adult Aspies get stuck when it comes to understanding the WHY of another's emotions, they rarely seem to present with true indifference. Rather, many seem to adopt a position of indifference as a defense against an inherent lack of understanding of the basis for the emotions of others. It is, perhaps, this fundamental lack of understanding, COMBINED WITH an ultra sensitive and reactive physiological system, which leads to withdrawal. This withdrawal can leave loved ones feeling abandoned and uncared for, a recipe for problems in relationships.
"I love email," says one Aspie adult, "there's no overwhelm. I can read about my friend's upset without having to respond in the moment, manage eye contact, witness first hand things like crying and gesturing. Email is the grease of our relationship."
Before jumping to conclusions regarding your own or your partner's ability to empathize, remember that one truly cannot judge an Aspie by his or her cover. Professionals trained in working with autism spectrum disorders can help with adjusting terms of communication to prevent overwhelm and withdrawal, so that Aspies with compassion can be perceived as such.
There's nothing fishy about that.