Sunday, April 20, 2014

Adults on the Spectrum - and the Ted Bundy Question

I have heard – many times – from new clients, as they try to explain their predicament, sentences like this: 

"I am not like Ted Bundy – but I could be."

I used to be very puzzled by this – after all, I’d hear these proclamations from the very best of people. In fact, most of my adult clients could be described as conflict-avoidant, even in situations in which they feel threatened (rare in adulthood, maybe, but more common under the label of “bullying” in childhood). These clients are gentle, never cruel to animals, and certainly not the type to take pleasure in the suffering of any sentient being. Yet they come in so unsure of their basic nature, and they tell me this: “I am not Ted Bundy, but I don’t know why.”

A knee-jerk reaction in this case might lead a well-meaning friend or even therapist to brush aside such concerns as silly. But I think clients sense they are different – that though they don’t act in ways to deliberately harm others, the reasons behind their non-violent nature are different than the reasons shared by most. I think they may be right.

Many of us rely on a kind of shared emotional experience to guide their ethical behavior. It’s easy to imagine another’s fear, or pain, in the moment – it conjures up our own feelings of fear and pain, and that alone is enough to serve as a deterrent. But what if that kind of imagined experience wasn’t so automatic, or instant? This is the case for many clients. They find another path for managing their ethics in the moment – sometimes these look like the “rules” so often mentioned in ASD literature.

It’s the autistic adult’s wonderful workaround for a system (social, emotional) that’s not available and instant enough to guide ethical behavior. And this compensating system can really shine in moments when what’s ethical may cause another pain or discomfort – think of the last M.A.S.H. episode – so wedged in our minds because many of us could understand the horror of being faced with having to choose between the survival of many and the survival of an infant. There are times when ethics must be applied in ways that violate our sense of that automatic empathy we rely on for a moral compass function. So many clients on the spectrum can operate in settings (corporate, etc) in ways that transcend the emotional comfort of others, and even themselves, to do what’s right. This makes for less inclusion and social comfort for the client, but they endure (when many empaths do not).

As I’ve written before, I often find that adults on the spectrum are highly sensitive. But that doesn’t mean that the sensitivity is available in the moment, especially in social situations. Relying on ethical “rules” is a wonderful compensation, when immediacy is important. But this doesn’t mean that inside, many of the same feelings that move most of us aren’t alive and well.

So while I can understand why clients come in with an unsettled feeling that they could be Ted Bundy, I know that, via one system or another, they aren’t, and won’t be.


  1. Thank you for a post that puts my mind at ease, as I have thought I was the only one. I know I am not sociopathic but have wondered.

  2. I can say some remarkably stupid things that seemed at the time to be appropriate. When I later discover these things caused harm my feelings of pain and guilt are strong.

    Example: My partner was complaining about a board meeting she was scheduled to attend. She said they don't listen to her and she was fed up with their manner of conducting board business.

    I suggested she just say fkit and quit the board, instead do something she would more enjoy with that time.

    She became upset and it took me a few days to figure out she did not mean exactly what her words said. All I heard was the words in a literal manner and not the underlying message. She felt diminished by my comments, not helped to make a rational (as I saw it) decision to quit the board.

    When I realized what had happened I was crushed.

  3. Hey, just had to respond re: the rules for emotional situations.
    I am logical on the surface, my empathy is overwhelming when it surfaces mainly and usually shows up after a situation passes.
    I can therefore get caught up in intricate manipulative mind games.
    I find it relatively easy, shockingly easy in fact.
    If I am not emotionally attached to another, I can quite easily objectify them in a sense. They turn into experiments, to be tested in emotional situations.
    I'm pretty subtle with this, and most of the time it's harmless. It's my curiosity more than anything at its core, yet the thrill of targeting someone who I view as a manipulator, or nauseatingly fake and fucking with them it can become addictive. I class it as a predatory act, and actually see nothing wrong with the behavior to people who outright in my opinion deserve such treatment.
    It's just, I have found that it can extend surprisingly easily to others who don't.
    When I realized this, I set up a bunch of my own moral rules, codes to adhere to. They're flexible, changing whenever I adapt and learn something.
    Each time I actually hurt an unintended person somehow the list is updated and maintained.
    I just know, that in the moment, whilst i'm busy being caught up in the intricacy of someone elses emotions, when i'm making leaps of deductions about their personalities, and am testing reactions. When i'm feeding them information to gain their trust whilst being so detached and observing just, how fake they are being, and astounding that they feel the emotional connection at all, my usual empathetic reactions aren't even present.
    I've had people in tears, and felt absolutely nothing.
    Afterwards, the guilt of damaging someone else strikes with a vengeance, and often by then it's far too late.
    (this only applies to those who I unintentionally fuck with)
    It's relatively easy to detach the emotion for some asshole who thinks it's cool to manipulate and attack others, in that case there's only elation.

  4. This.

    Ive been holding on to this fear for my whole life.

    How do you ask someone about this without sounding either mad or ridiculous.

    Thank you for writing this post.

  5. to "Anonymous who said: "I can therefore get caught up in intricate manipulative mind games." you may indeed be a sociopath and not an Aspie as Aspies tend to have a high sense of right and wrong.

  6. I've always felt that this "rules" format actually makes me significantly MORE ethical than most neurotypical people. I teach ethics at the college level and this has been confirmed again and again...
    SUCH an interesting topic!

  7. I thought I was the only one. I was terrified to mention it. Thank you for writing this. I knew I wasn't Ted Bundy. I also knew there is something missing in me that makes me different. Thanks again.

  8. What's M.A.S.H?

  9. I agree with Full Spectrum Mamma...I have an innate sense of ethics and empathy even though I am an Aspie..and so does my family of non neurotypicals. Sure we have some meltdowns but they are from fitting into a sensory world that abuses our senses. I think we have more concern for the world thus we are concerned that we will go insane or go crazy. My nine year old says consistently, "I am scared of being scared. " He doesn't like to watch any sort of bullying or bad thing because it triggers his mind and he hopes he will NEVER do that is over I can understand why your clients say that because they are so concerned about doing something wrong because they care so deeply about the world and in fact have a very deep well of misunderstood empathy.

  10. EXACTLY. Also, a spectrum-y friend just told me there was a recent study that linked logic and empathy and that made so much sense to me.

  11. Wow. Me too. I have lived my life afraid of becoming this because it was what I so much *don't* want to be.. Thank you for putting this up here.

  12. Empathy muddies moral clarity. Being too empathic is a sickness. I have always had far more sympathy for the innocent that the NTs around me. But I don't 'identify' with anyone or anything. I cannot feel anyone else's feelings, what a strange idea.

    People have called me a 'psycho' because of my cold machine-like demeanour but they totally miss the point: psychopaths are smiling pleasant attractive people like Ted Bundy. People love psychopaths for their charisma. You only realise how evil they are when it's too late or they don't care if you know. Aspies are the opposite of psychopaths - we are honest and direct, and loyal to the good, or what we perceive as good.

  13. I pretty much agree with most of the above comments, except it's never bothered me. Honestly, the idea of mirror neurons and empathy has always kind of freaked me out. The whole business seems like some kind of massive mutual mind control, subjugating the self and elevating tribalism over logic.

  14. Just stumbled upon this site, and it's been relieving to see posts like this - most online material about Asperger's and those with it have just been regurgitating the same handful of symptoms, which does have its uses but doesn't really help us that much.

    This post in particular resonated deeply with me because since I was a teenager I always had this nagging question bugging me - "am I a sociopath? What's wrong with me?" I've had years to reflect back upon this and I think I can give it a very cohesive explanation. Not sure if you still read these comments, but hopefully you do because I think my explanation can help you and your clients understand themselves better!

    The way I've always learned to circumnavigate social situations is through almost entirely intellectual analysis. We don't get to follow the same "golden rule" of social interaction that the average person does - that is, where the average person is able to take their own feelings and desires and successfully extend those to others, we don't get to. Instead of "treating others like we wish to be treated" we must learn to "treat others how THEY wish to be treated" which is, needless to say, a great deal more difficult. Now, at least for me, I've gotten very adept at gauging exactly what others are thinking and want to hear. After years and years of analyzing people and using every bit of my willpower and intellect to try and act "normal," I've gotten so good at it that people around me would probably laugh and dismiss me if I tried to tell them I have Asperger's. But this has a very terrifying implication for me, and I assume many others like me. Unlike sociopaths, we do have these moral rules and an intrinsic aversion to hurting others. And one of these obvious rules is that manipulating others is bad - you should always be genuine, and not lie!

    And therein lies our fear that we are little more than sociopaths. Because the only way we can successfully navigate many social situations is by careful analysis and by calculating our every word and action, it is difficult to distinguish our actions from manipulation. When I have correctly gauged someone's every reaction, and calculated my words so precisely that they achieved the exact effect I wanted them to, I literally feel like a sociopath, as if I played someone like a puppet. Sometimes I think that's why I act so quiet and withdrawn at times - I don't like to manipulate people and I feel so fake and disingenuous because I know if they understood what was going through my mind, they would be appalled. I suppose, however, the key difference lies in the fact that there is no malice in my methods, and I'm doing it because it's the only way I know how to be social. It's born not only out of a desire to make people think I'm normal, but also because I do desire companionship and friendship. It's just hard knowing that if your friends knew what went through your mind they would probably think you are fake and deceitful.

    I remember, since elementary school, I was confused and didn't really understand why everyone was saying "just be yourself!" It didn't make sense to me, and I remember even as a kid, I said to my brother "I don't get it, who 'myself' is changes based on who I'm with and who I'm talking to!" I thought everyone just said things they thought were appropriate for the situation, little did I know typical people actually said things from the heart. Maybe if I got diagnosed as a kid I could've learned that sooner. Anyways, hope this explanation helped at least someone, not sure if anyone will read it. I've just recently had a lot of self-revelations and huge amounts of self reflection, and I really want to try and help other people with Asperger's in some way.

  15. they're not just rules, theyre codes of conduct that have meaning. Its been discussed before here how meaning is important to AS eg motivation to not be inert or avoidant. the reason these codes have meaning is that AS understand pain and isolation and don't want to cause that to other people

    I sometimes mess with dominant nasty people too - esp. narcissists as Ive been victimized by narcs so much that Ive had to learn about them and how my vulnerabilty works with them. So in a way I need to practice that behaviour (as championed by my coach on narcs). It's a learning exercise and that can appeal to an AS curiosity ... I also like it as I get to practice different levels of flexibility... .something that seems confusing for AS .. can you be AS and be flexible in the emotional or behavioural states that you choose to adopt? I try to use intelligence to manage my own behavioural responses and the self - crucifixion after social interactions.

    eg we adopt masks or personas but so do NT's - all the time! It just seems to me that AS, being more socially aware and sensitive, punish themselves for this, and worry about it in neurotic ways. To me it's that self punishment and isolation that's the big difference. Lots of extroverted NTS' seem to just be out there all the time so it's a numbers game of finding people that like them and whose company they enjoy. Sorry I'm prob a bit off track to the original post ... but AS can read more into NT personas behaviours etc and reassure themselves (be strong with yourself)_ that you might not be as odd as you think, but letting yourself ruminate about how odd you are can become a sself fulfilling prophecy. I don't mean to be harsh in saying any of that ... I mean it as encouragement how we can help ourselves with inner dialogue or behavioural strategies to achieve state management

    does any of that sound right to others?