Asperger’s Syndrome and “Emotional Vision”

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The source of the term “emotional vision” is the same as the source of the image above: this New York Times article. This blog-post is my response, so I recommend reading the NYT article before you continue.

The story was written by, and about, a man on the autistic spectrum, and, if you’re on the autistic spectrum and get published in that newspaper, you’re high-functioning. High-fuctioning autism (HFA) and Asperger’s syndrome were “merged” in the United States in 2013, shortly before I started figuring out that I am, myself, an Aspie. By the time I discussed the idea with my doctor, it was too late to get an “official” diagnosis. (Yes, that does mean no diagnosis for me, but that’s simply the way things happened, and I’m fine with that.)

Many in the Asperger’s community have a form of emotional blindness — an inability to “read” the emotions of others — and that described me accurately until, well, this week, when I awakened my own emotions, and also gained the ability to understand emotions of some other people. Which people? Only the ones I know well, generally by having contact with them for at least a year. Shortening this time is high on my mental “to-do” list.

In the article linked above, the author voluntarily had his emotional light-switch “turned on” in an experimental treatment designed by other people. That, I believe, is the key difference between his case and mine, for I made the decision to turn mine on myself, wrote the “mental software” behind it myself, and am testing it at every opportunity, in accordance with the way I think. This ability to reprogram my own brain’s software isn’t magic, nor a super-human ability power, but simply a project I have been working on, for, well, over thirty years.

The author of the article above has many regrets about accepting the experimental medical treatment he had to turn his emotions “on.” This treatment involved letting doctors mess around with his brain. My own doctor knows me well, and therefore does not try to force any sort of treatment on me, for he knows that my biggest compulsion involves an intense need to be free from control by other people. Not all Aspies have compulsions, but some of us do, and I am one of them.

Something most Aspies do have are “special interests,” as they are called, but they vary widely. My special interest is mathematics. I learned to speak, read, and write so that I could express my own mathematical ideas. My parents provided me with books about mathematics, one they realized the intensity of my need, driven by curiosity, to absorb mathematical ideas which were new, at the time, to me. I have never stopped wanting more.

My interest in science came later, but not much later, due to that same curiosity. Once I learned how linked the physical sciences and mathematics are, this was inevitable. The more mathematical a given subject was, the faster I could learn it. Without mathematics involved, however, learning was a chore, and deciphering the mysteries of human behavior has been, for this reason, very difficult. Why did people do such bizarre and confusing things? For a long time, I had no idea, and wasn’t willing to do the hard work of figuring it out, either. I puzzled other people, and they puzzled me right back. I made little progress, on this front, for many years.

Why did understanding anything about emotions come so much later in life, for me? That’s an easy question to answer: emotions are more complicated than anything else I have learned, in the sense that emotions are extremely difficult to understand, or express, mathematically. To do this in a way that would work well, I had to rewrite my “software” myself, and that took a lot of hard work, time, and thought. This is entirely unlike the case of the man who told his story in the New York Times, who was thrown into an emotional nightmare by an experimental treatment he willingly received, but did not design. He has my sympathy, and I hope his life gets better in the future. 

On Teaching Students with Asperger’s Syndrome

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Teaching students with Asperger’s Syndrome is a challenge. As a teacher who also has Asperger’s, I have some suggestions for how to do this, and wish to share them.

  1. Keep the administrators at your school informed about what you are doing.
  2. Know the laws regarding these matters, and follow them carefully. Laws regarding confidentiality are particularly important.
  3. Identify the special interest(s) of the student (these special interests are universally present with Asperger’s; they also appear, sometimes, with students on other parts of the autism spectrum). Do not expect this/these special interest(s) to match that of anyone else, however — people with Asperger’s are extremely different from each other, just as all human beings are. As is the case with my own special interests in mathematics and the “mathy” sciences, it’s pretty much impossible to get students with Asperger’s to abandon their special interest — and I know this because I, quite literally, cannot do much of anything without first translating it, internally, into mathematical terms — due to my own case of Asperger’s. Identifying the special interest of a student with Asperger’s requires exactly one thing: paying attention. The students themselves will make it easy to identify their special interest; it’s the activity that they want to do . . . pretty much all the time.
  4. Find out, by carefully reading it, if the student’s official Section 504 document, or Special Education IEP, permits item #5 on this list to be used. If it doesn’t, you may need to suggest a revision to the appropriate document. (Note: these are the terms used in the USA; they will be different in other countries.)
  5. Of things done in class which will be graded, if the relevant document permits it, alter them in such a way as to allow the student to use his or her special interest to express understanding of the concepts and ideas, in your class, which need to be taught and learned. This is, of course, the most difficult step, but I cannot overemphasize its importance.
  6. Use parental contact to make certain the parent(s) know about, and agree with, the proposed accommodations/modifications. (504 students get accommodations, while special education students receive modifications. Following both 504 plans, and Special Education IEPs, is not optional for teachers — it is an absolute legal requirement, by federal law, and the penalties for failure to do so are severe. It is also, of course, the ethical thing to do.)
  7. Do not make the mistake of punishing any student for behavior related to a documented condition of any kind, including Asperger’s Syndrome.