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Asperger’s Syndrome and Emotional Intelligence

Hands holding older hand
 

This is the second in a series of articles designed to explore some of the issues and concerns that arise around what is currently called Asperger’s syndrome, which will soon be incorporated into the broader spectrum of autism disorder when the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is published in 2013.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is generally understood to be a person’s ability to identify and assess his or her emotional state, as well as the emotional state of others. It is not related to the kind of intellectual capability or intelligence typically assessed by IQ tests. Rather, it corresponds to a person’s ability to relate to others, work in groups, read between the lines in conversation, and interpret behaviors and moods displayed by others. It also relates to an individual’s understanding and regulation of those qualities within. High emotional intelligence provides a sort of shorthand for smooth interpersonal relations and communication.

Emotional intelligence is related to theory of mind. (See my previous blog, titled Asperger’s Syndrome: Theory of Mind.) The better able you are to imagine the world from another person’s point of view, the more likely you are to score high on a measurement of emotional intelligence. Persons with high EI are able to anticipate what someone might do in reaction to certain circumstances or statements. They are able to empathize with unspoken sadness because they are able to interpret an event in ways another person is likely to interpret it, given what they know about that person. They are able to avoid certain topics of conversation because they can predict which subjects might be problematic for another person. They understand the concept of conversational finesse. High EI is at the very heart of diplomacy.

A person with Asperger’s syndrome experiences the world in a very different way. With a tendency to take conversations and events literally, the emotional subtext often is unseen. This can lead to behavior that appears inappropriate at best, heartless or cruel at worst.

Imagine, for example, not being able to understand why the death of a beloved pet is still a sensitive issue for your friend even several years after the pet has passed away. Imagine saying something such as, “But that cat has been dead for two years!” And then imagine the reaction of your friend, who in that moment is feeling sad about the loss, feeling it as strongly as if he or she had lost the pet yesterday. Your friend is not likely to react well. Your words might sound intentionally cold, uncaring, and thoughtless. But when your friend does not respond favorably, you are confused. What do you do now? You made a simple statement of fact, and now your friend is upset with you.

This is the experience of challenged emotional intelligence. This is commonly the experience of a person with Asperger’s. Anxiety soars as the person wonders what he or she did wrong, what he or she failed to understand, or what was missed.

With therapy, a person with Asperger’s can learn to decode some of what seems mysterious in the realm of emotional intelligence. It is possible to discern intellectually what may not come naturally emotionally. For example, to use the above scenario as a basis of conversation in a therapy session might help a person with Asperger’s see that there are different ways of responding to the death of a pet, and that the person’s own, seemingly logical way may not be the way others respond to something as essentially emotional as the loss of a pet.

Learning that there is such variability helps a person with Asperger’s navigate the complex emotional undertones of daily life. It also helps relieve the free-floating anxiety that can accompany conversations and events, both familiar and unfamiliar, because it broadens the range of expectations and softens the likelihood of inadvertent blunders.

Emotional intelligence is a challenge for individuals with Asperger’s, but it is also a fruitful topic for exploration in therapy because it is so central to most interactions with others, both in social and in intimate contexts.

 

© Copyright 2012 by Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHCA, therapist in Seattle, WA. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • kayla s October 2nd, 2012 at 3:29 PM #1

    What are some ways that EI could be imporved upon for someone with Asperger’s? Or is this something that everyone eles just has to get a handle it? It almost feels loike it would be better off for me to change how I perceive the things that someone with Asperger’s says over trying to get them to change how they see the world. It’s not like you can teach them to be more symptahetic or to view the context of a situation any differently.

  • Justine October 2nd, 2012 at 4:31 PM #2

    My brother has Aspergers’ and is often so misunderstood. I hope that the more conversation that is generated the more people will come to realize that these are not uncaring or indifferent people, thye just happen to see life through a different sort of lens than the rest of us do.

  • Sarah Swenson October 2nd, 2012 at 8:55 PM #3

    Kayla – I appreciate the difficulty of the issue you raise. It is possible through therapy for a person with Asperger’s Syndrome to gain great knowledge and understanding about the ways other people view the world, and to reach some understanding about why others might feel the way they do. This takes time and commitment, but it is possible. This is a primary focus of the work I do with a my clients who have Asperger’s Syndrome.

  • Sarah Swenson October 2nd, 2012 at 9:00 PM #4

    Justine – I often use the exact language you do to talk about Asperger’s Syndrome: individuals with AS view the world through a different lens than the lens of individuals who are clinically referred to as neuro-typical. Conversation and education are key toward building the bridge between these varying perspectives. Your brother is fortunate that you understand his needs so well.

  • Justine October 3rd, 2012 at 4:04 AM #5

    Sarah- thanks for that input. Life has been a real struggle for us, from getting the correct diagnosis for him to not alienating so many family and friends in the process! He is so smart and really such a caring person but I do feel bad that I think that he will always fail in making those connections beyond the family that could ultimately make him feel that his life is even more valuable than what we already know that it is.

  • MATTHEW October 3rd, 2012 at 4:46 AM #6

    Seems like having low EI means your imaginative skills and skills to think outside of your own POV are diminished. I have heard the term ‘EI’ been thrown a lot in the corporate sector. If people can indeed be trained to improve their EI, then can the same be employed for people with low EI?

  • Sarah Swenson October 3rd, 2012 at 11:10 AM #7

    Matthew – I believe that in a corporate setting, the key to enhancing low EI lies in education and sensitization to potential blind spots in interpersonal communication. This is true in personal relationships as well. The better we become at seeing another’s context, the better our skills become. Everyone has room for growth in this area, and growth is possible.

  • Chase October 3rd, 2012 at 3:00 PM #8

    With a low EI level, how do patients with Asperger’s respond in a therapeutic setting? I mean, if they have a hard time recognizing their own feelings, then how can they convey those feelings to someone else?

  • shale October 4th, 2012 at 4:11 AM #9

    do you believe that asperger’s should be folded into the autism diagnosis or should it be its own separate entity? this is more than just a high functioning form of autism.

  • Sarah Swenson October 6th, 2012 at 8:36 PM #10

    Chase, you raise a very important question. The process of counseling with an Asperger’s individual is keyed to identifying and then recognizing situations and events that are likely to link to certain emotional states. This is often an exciting process for the client who, for the first time, has guidance in a safe environment regarding what has previously felt like a blind area in which he or she has had the experience of “winging it” – and then facing the confusion and conflict that can arise for guessing incorrectly at what might be the appropriate thing to say or do. Such counseling work takes time and commitment, but it is very helpful and produces powerful results that can show up as positive change in interpersonal communication.

    Sometimes the most important first step involves learning to give oneself permission to say, “I really don’t understand. Can you help me understand what you are feeling and why?” Many times, individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome have learned from experience that it is safer for them not to ask what seem like prying questions, but overcoming this reluctance and discovering the benefits of doing so, and learning how to ask such questions in a thoughtful manner, can be a tremendous confidence booster and can lead to growth in intimate relationships. It can also help individuals learn to identify and name feelings within themselves.

    In summary, having Asperger’s Syndrome does not mean that a person does not have deep feelings. It means that it can be difficult to identify and communicate these feelings, but acquisition of these two skills is one of the most important goals of therapy for AS clients.

    I hope I have addressed your question accurately.

  • Sarah Swenson October 6th, 2012 at 8:50 PM #11

    Shale, your question is significant. There is much discussion in the field on this point. The goal of the APA teams working on the DSM-5, as I understand it, is to bring American diagnostics into alignment with those of the rest of the world’s medical establishments. That is the reason for the move to include Asperger’s Syndrome in the autism spectrum instead of continuing to name it separately.

    It is my belief that the DSM-5 change toward spectrum disorders will be a change in the way diagnostic coding is done for insurance, medical records, and communications between practitioners as a sort of short hand to make certain we are all talking about precisely the same thing, for example, when confidentially discussing client/patient care.

    Will the new DSM-5 change the way I work with a client who exhibits the traits and symptoms currently identified with the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome? No, not at all. It will still be considered, as it is now, the highest functioning type of autism, and no change in nomenclature will change the way I work with a client to help him/her along the path of personal growth. The underlying conditions do not change with a name change, and best practices and evidence-based methods of treatment will remain the same.

    Bear in mind, though, that I cannot speak for every psychotherapist, and that these are my own views as a practitioner stemming from my understanding of the APA’s efforts to create the DSM-5.

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