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.