Saturday, August 28, 2010

Adults with Asperger's - The Eyes Have It

Researchers in 1997 (Baren-Cohen) found that adults with Asperger’s have difficulty reading mental states by looking at a person’s eyes – not only the expressions of the eyes, but the location of their gaze. These findings were expanded upon in 2002 (Rutherford), when researchers found that adults with AS have difficulty extrapolating people’s mental states from their vocalizations.

Take just a minute to imagine some of the implications.

  • You might miss the message of a potential friend who uses vocal inflection to communicate her irritation with your long story; her social rejection results
  • You might not see that the person gazing past you is no longer interested in your words; when he abruptly walks away, you’re left confused and mid-sentence
  • You might not notice the heavy-lidded, far-away gaze of your partner, which implies her deep thought; when you interrupt her, her anger seems “out of the blue”
  • You might not see the knowing glance between party goers when you introduce a boring topic; when you proceed to elaborate, group members leave
  • You might miss the sarcasm of a coworker when he shares that a secret is “common knowledge”; when you mention it to a coworker the next day, you’ve unwittingly committed a serious social blunder

We constantly use our flexible and dynamic ability to read and react to myriad social cues to avoid social disasters. Adults with AS who may not have this luxury are left trying to navigate the social landscape with no real map. The negative reactions, indifference and subtle (or not-so-subtle) rejection they deal with can lead to social anxiety, confusion, avoidance, isolation, even depression.

You can cut some slack for those who struggle to keep up with an ever-changing social context by resisting the urge to expel them from the group. You can resist the urge to mock or embarrass. If you have social gifts, you can share them. Remember, adults with AS are often developing the computer programs you work with and performing the neurosurgery you may benefit from.


  1. I'm curious how other Aspies might fare on an 'eye reading' test? Where one is shown pictures of eyes and given some choices between different possible feelings behind the eyes.

    Something like this:

    I am curious because I find that I can read eyes/feelings really well, but rarely in the moment and definitely without understanding of how to react to what I see. It's almost like it's better to look away so I can avoid having to figure it out or not be distracted and stay on course of what I want to say.

  2. Anonymous, that's so reassuring to read!

    I have taken the Theory of Mind 'reading the eyes' test and was shocked at how well I did. (I think I scored 33 - and the average for an NT is ca 23-26, and in the region of ca 12, I think, for Aspies.)

    Like you, I also believe I can read feelings very well - but, like you, it's rarely in the moment.

    Eye expressions and body language can change from moment to moment, so the Reading the Eyes test is not that indicative of real-time communication.

    My thoughts: I grew up with (I hate to say it) what you could describe as a 'refrigerator mother'. I will state right here that I absolutely accept that the theory around autism and refrigerator mothers has been rebuked and retracted. My point, however, is that, as well as coming across as cold and unfeeling, she could often fly off in a rage at a moment's notice.

    I suspect that I tried to learn to read faces at a very early age, as a form of self-defence/self-protection. And given our recognised ability to hyperfocus on special interests, it could be argued that, while Aspies commonly have trouble reading faces in general, if it's a very necessary special interest, then the hyperfocus might enable us to do that.

    No idea if that resonates with you?