Back in September, Wesner described what it’s like to have Asperger’s. Today NYT is reporting on Asperger’s, and features a Microsoft employee. The main characteristic of Asperger’s is a lack of empathy. I tend to have the opposite problem (and it is a problem), so I have thought a lot about the general idea of empathy. Empathy is definitely a variable. I’m fascinated by people who do not have empathy, and am convinced that the condition in some people is deliberate, while in others it is ?built-in?.
The NYT article discusses ?educating? Asperger’s people about social interaction. This is silly. Asperger’s people are very good learners, and you can see that Wesner gets a perfect score on ?Emotional Intelligence? test. Empathy requires attention to detail, which Asperger’s has, and I suspect that it would be very rewarding to teach Asperger’s people to intellectually calibrate other people’s frames. But empathy requires one additional step — from intellectually recognizing the frame to actually experiencing it. This?see-feel? circuit (as described by Bandler and Grinder) is the unconscious feedback loop (or mirror)that permits us to respond to social situations in realtime. These are specialized circuits in the brain, far beyond conscious intellect. I do not believe these things can be ?taught? in a conscious manner.
There are probably significant elements of biology (serotonin perhaps) as well as learning in here. I’ve recently been fascinated by neurofeedback and the promise it holds for ?training? the mind to normalize certain spectrum disorders, and obviously psychopharmacology has made significant contributions to normalizing related disorders (and it seems now SSRIs have been used for Asperger’s).
And although I cannot prove it, I believe that many Asperger’s cases are, paradoxically,seen in children who begin with highly amplified empathy. Early on, the child lacks the ability to dissociateherself from strong external emotional events, and so the see-feel circuits are overwhelmed in a traumatic event (which would probably not be traumatic at all for a child with less refined and amplified circuits) and are?blown out? in defense. So I think some Asperger’s could be similar to a phobia, and could suggest some treatments.
And finally, I am not sure that Asperger’s should be treated as a ?disease? even to the extent that things like OCD are. The example of the Microsoft guy in the NYT article sounds a lot like many computer people I know — and this is not necessarily a bad thing. NYT pitches it as a lack of tact and diplomacy, but you could also think of it as a lack of duplicity. The anecdote they use to demonstrate the horror of Asperger’s is of a staff meeting where a subordinate gives negative feedback to a manager two levels up. In a company that prides itself on ?bad news travels fast?, this is not such a bad thing. Better that than a dissembler; especially when time is short and you need to get to the bottom of an issue. Of course, it’s always better to give ?constructive? feedback offline, but suchbehavior can be taught. And a direct, honest manneris something that is sometimes hard to teach ?normal? people.Normal people often get caught up in emotions that impair reason. On balance, I wouldn’t want to have Asperger’s, but I also think it’s not a disability without advantages.