Saturday, November 28, 2009

Asperger’s is a T.V. with One-Channel Reception

As many of us have, I’ve often noticed couples in which one partner has Asperger’s struggle greatly with communication, especially when discussing highly emotional subjects.

But what does this really mean?

It means different things for each partner.

For partners with AS, understanding the different channels of information can help. Couples communicate largely through behaviors, but we’ll concentrate on the senses as channels:

Visual (sight)
Auditory (hearing)
Tactile (touch)

I’ve seen conversations such as this work beautifully:

Partner #1:
I’m upset and I want to talk with you. What channel can I use?

Partner #2: (Takes a minute to think before responding) Auditory

Partner #1: (Closes eyes, leans back, lowers voice) O.K. When you walk away in the middle of my sentence, I think you are bored by what I am saying. I think you know it comes across that way, and that you are willing to hurt my feelings. I feel really sad about that. I want you to stop walking away when I’m talking and let me finish my sentence.

Partner #1: I’m sorry your feelings got hurt. That was not my intention. I was distracted, not bored. I couldn’t stay focused. I will remember this and not walk away while you’re talking.

Partner #2: (Crying) I want you to be interested in me.

Partner #1: I am, it just doesn’t always show.

Believe it or not, this dialogue worked. This couple had been working hard on communicating, and was beginning to enjoy the fruits of their hard work. Partner #1 was soothed by this interaction, and Partner #2 was left not feeling attacked, but informed. Partner #1 was able to share feelings, thoughts and a request. Partner #2 was able to hear this information, and because there was no overwhelm, the information was not just received, but digested. Because the couple consciously worked at reducing interference, and focused on communicating in a low-key manner via one channel (auditory), Partner #1 was forced to reduce reactivity, and Partner #2 was able to receive and assimilate information. The result for both partners was increased clarity.

“This is ridiculous! Who can do this?” is a question I’ve been asked, with much outrage, by partners without Asperger’s. In truth, it is challenging. The key, perhaps, is trusting that your partner with AS cares. Keeping this in mind can serve as a foundation for this difficult communication work.

The benefits? Your relationship may not be fraught with mind games, drama and chaos which develop and become habit in many relationships. Do you want it easy? Or do you want it to work?

Your relationship may not be inherently easy, but with practice, it can become more automatic and natural. And it can work beautifully.

Stay tuned for more tips on “One-Channel Communicating”. Please feel free to leave feedback in the comments section.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Asperger's and the Holidays - Face them with Open Eyes

In my private practice I’ve noticed a trend. Around November, old, current and new clients call wanting to schedule sessions to talk about one topic: the holidays.
The trend is not surprising: most therapists find themselves busy at this time of year, when expectations and realities can clash, and even the most mature find themselves stuck in teenager roles and feelings long since discarded.

But for a therapist who counsels adults with Asperger’s the increase in client need may be surprising to some. Aren’t Aspies supposed to be unconcerned with the judgments of others, even family members? Don’t Aspies face holiday family time with few, if any, expectations for intimacy or fun? Don’t Aspies who find themselves alone during the holidays consider their solitude a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, rather than a reason for loneliness or depression? After all, Aspies don’t really seek out relationships, right?

If any of these assumptions sound familiar to you, beware of the Aspie Stereotype, which pervades media (think “Rainman”), research teams (think “Yale”), pop culture (think SNL’s “Nick Burns: The Computer Guy”) and even some therapist circles (not me!).

Contrary to popular notions regarding Asperger’s, many clinicians, those who work in the trenches with adults struggling with the challenges of Asperger’s, find their Aspie clients confused and overwhelmed by the holidays.

Most of us harbor conscious or unconscious expectations about the holidays – how they should feel, who they should be spent with, how tall the tree should be, who should host dinner…the list can go on. A lack of awareness of one’s own “rules” regarding the holidays can set the stage for confusion, disappointment, impulse coping skills and depression.

If you have Asperger’s, you may be surprised at your own “automatic” answers to questions such as:
Should holidays be spent with friends or family?
Should loved ones exchange gifts, or not?
Who should travel where for the holiday celebration?
Tinsel, or lights?

While these questions may seem trivial, they’re not – and often they shed light on our automatic thoughts that go unchallenged and cause problems. For instance, if your “rule” is that Christmas or Hanukkah is a commercialized money-making holiday to benefit department stores, you may refuse to participate, and thus miss genuine opportunities to connect with loved ones. If you automatically decree that holidays should be spent with family or friends, you may miss the comfort that solitude can bring you.

Please don’t fall into the trap of trying to live up to what you think “normal holidays” (an oxymoron) should be like. Holidays for Aspies are often riddled with “shoulds”, which trigger resentment and resistance.

Adults with Asperger’s who give themselves permission to meet their own unique needs for togetherness and solitude, fun and rest, engagement and disengagement, often find themselves less pressured, less anxious and more accepting of themselves and others. This balanced approach can prevent total shutdown mode, which is a natural response to overstimulation and helplessness.

Here are some tips Aspies may find helpful:

Plan for taking breaks during visits.
Examples are taking a walk outside, taking a nap with a book, taking some quiet time for deep breathing, taking a quick ride or offering to run an errand in the car, playing a video game with someone or alone, or announcing a time-out and removing yourself from the group.

Schedule realistically.
Over scheduling during the holidays can lead to burnout when being around people is gratifying, but stressful (or just plain difficult). While it’s great to push yourself to socialize, the holidays are a time to be reasonable – don’t expect yourself to go from no parties to three or four in a month.

Beware of the lure of substance use. Many of us rely on the cocktail or two to help ease party anxiety. While there may not be too much harm in this, most clinicians see a surge in substance use during the holidays, which can lead to hangovers, a shaken sense of self, embarrassment, or worse. Remember that as long as you’re using substances to quell the anxiety, you’re not truly growing in your ability to handle social situations.

Be extra kind to yourself.
This sounds corny, and it is. But think about it: we spend so much time during the holidays thinking about giving to others (or avoiding it!), but how much do we think about truly giving to ourselves? This is the time to use kind words and actions to take care of yourself. Ideas include buying or checking out a new book, going to the movies alone, eating a favorite meal, spending quiet time petting the cat.

Seek help if you need to. Holiday therapy can be a temporary bridge to January 2!

Here’s to your success in creating a holiday this year that you can anticipate with groundedness and optimism.