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.


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  • kayla s

    October 2nd, 2012 at 3:29 PM

    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

    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

    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.

  • Diane M

    July 31st, 2016 at 8:57 AM

    They have to accept the diagnosis, otherwise they CANNOT even make one small change!!! They are so mind blind it is almost impossible to get them to see something different than THEMSELVES!!!

  • Emma

    April 6th, 2018 at 1:58 PM

    That’s rude. We are perfectly aware there is a world around us. We just don’t get why people respond to us when we see ourselves as acting logical. We also don’t understand when people act against our logic. Most of us really struggle and just simply don’t understand why we can’t communicate well with others. This is why we tend to group together. We understand each other.

  • p

    May 11th, 2018 at 8:54 AM

    Agree that is both rude and also ignorant, lacking compassion and understanding. I am all to well aware there is a world out there, it just gets too much sometimes, and some Aspie people may need a break from the outside to process it. Alot of Aspie people have heightened senses, which makes the outside world overwhelming, also the need for structure and routine is involved. And of course the logical brain thinks, if i feel this way (yes we understand emotions!) why dont they ? As an injustice, we get outraged if rules are broken, and think why can’t people just stick to the rules..yes it seems immature, but actually its logical! Think of how a child who is untarnished by the world thinks, rules are rules , and yes children ask questions if short cuts are taken etc, Aspies cant ask, so if you are involved with an Aspie person, explain to them in a logical simple way,

  • Madeleine

    June 10th, 2019 at 4:57 AM

    Jeg vet ikke om jeg forstår riktig, slem? Ikke alle er slemme fordi om en har aspergers syndrom, jeg har ofte vert redd for at noen skal synes at jeg har sagt noe galt og har aldri ville såret folk med vilje

  • Sarah Swenson

    October 2nd, 2012 at 9:00 PM

    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

    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.


    October 3rd, 2012 at 4:46 AM

    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

    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

    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?

  • p

    May 11th, 2018 at 9:00 AM

    I totally understand your comment! I could never have therapy ( I have ADHD and am Aspie) but I work with children younger and older with a therapy known as expressive or creative arts. I do not believe in just sitting there talking. I believe in movement, art, music and storytelling to name a few and if the mind is focused on something interesting and creative, the person is relaxed and will open up gradually as long as the ‘vibe’ is sensed. Same as in adults, for instance i believe in nature therapy, and everyone (not just Aspie ADHD and the such like) benefits from fresh air and just nature- Even Aspies, who like to have a destination and severely Autistic children and adults who MUST have routine, i make everything fun, i have a talent for that, and my therapy works…well so far!!

  • shale

    October 4th, 2012 at 4:11 AM

    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

    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.

  • Diane M

    July 31st, 2016 at 9:08 AM

    My experience over 43 years of marriage is yes he has feelings and emotions, but they are about him. My ASH has claimed for decades that he is smarter than the average bear, is that a lie, a put on. IT’S a lie!!!! He has no theory of mind, is completely mind blind yet will argue to the death that he is not different, but in fact better, more knowledgeable. There in lies a big problem !!! When a person believes their lies about themselves no matter how many times others point out their one dimensional thinking, this becomes a serious issue for a partner, maybe not so much in other relationships, brother , sister, child, friend, relative but if you are married to this it is exhausting!!!!!

  • Sarah Swenson

    August 19th, 2016 at 6:22 PM

    Hello Diane – the points you make are strong and valid, and as such likely have a massively painful effect on you as the neurotypical spouse. I encourage you to find someone to talk to who understands both sides of the AS/NT marriage. There are not many of us who specialize in this area because it requires a special combination of life experience, education, and experience with couple after couple in therapy sessions. If it is any consolation to you, one of the couples I work with has been married for 59 years; another for 51; another for 48. It really is never too late to find a comforting and helpful presence in the person of a skilled therapist. I send you my best wishes and hope it helps to know you are not alone, though I’m sure it often feels like desolation and isolation.

  • Emma

    April 6th, 2018 at 2:00 PM

    Thank you! We feel deeply. We just don’t understand things that we don’t expect.

  • p

    May 11th, 2018 at 8:47 AM

    great point!!

  • Paula

    May 12th, 2020 at 9:22 AM

    I am 73 and have Asperger’s and the last of my family told me yesterday that if I “cannot or will not” understand emotions and EI she cannot be in my life. I have spent my whole life being told that I need to be this or that or be shunned by my family. Therapists (until the amazing person who said that there was nothing wrong with me I had Asperger’s and that was just fine) would tell me if I just tried harder I could be normal, etc.
    With my diagnosis I was still the family whipping person and the thorn in my husband’s side because he still insisted that if I just tried harder etc. But I finally knew I was ok and it was one of the best days in my life. I actually made two friends. Since then, within 18 months, both my friends, sister, and husband died.
    I cannot afford therapy and I do not know how to deal with my family member. She refuses to hear me and insistes that if I just try and listen to books on emotional language I will be able to have a high enough EI to allow me to be in her life.
    I have listened to the books she put on her audible for me to little result and no small amount of frustration and now she insists that I must do it until I learn enough for her approval. Personally this sounds unbalanced(read that as insane) to me. She says I am the strongest person she knows but I need a higher EI for her. This makes no sense to me.
    I love her very much but if I am not good enough for her I am wanting to just cry and walk away but I would be alone.
    I have no family, transportation, no TV, and borrowed internet from a neighbor.
    Any clue?

  • Sarah Swenson

    October 6th, 2012 at 8:50 PM

    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.

  • Liz

    October 8th, 2015 at 6:08 PM

    I am a 45 year old NT female. Who is in love with a 47 year old male with Aspergers. He has never been officially diagnosed. Much less not even aware of the condition.

    Should I act less emotional intelligent so he will feel more comfortable around me?

    I do have Adult ADD and have talked about what I suffered with. So may be if he feels socially awkward it will make him feel more Nero Typical.

    Any thoughts?


  • Sarah

    February 2nd, 2016 at 12:08 PM

    Sarah Swenson- I’m a masters student in Egypt and I have been trying to build my thesis on EI with Asperger students. I was wondering if you would be interested at all in helping me with my case study. Thanks a lot for your article. it helped a lot <3

  • Anna W

    June 8th, 2016 at 3:11 AM

    Emotional Intelligence the term introduced twenty year back has started gaining its due importance nowadays. EQ has emerged as major job skill which many companies are looking for in their employees while hiring rather than IQ. According to a research people with low EQ doesn’t realize what important skills they lack. The people with high EQ are emotionally strong and work while keeping their emotions aside. There are many benefits of working with people high EQ rather than with low EQ, as people people with high EQ can handle pressure in a healthy way , understands to cooperate with others, are the good listeners, are Empathic, set examples for others to follow, make more thoughtful and thorough decision. Working with people with less EQ is generally less rewarding sometimes becomes difficult to work with them. Certain ways have to be followed while handling people with Low EQ. Alan Garvornic who is a successful business leader, innovator and entrepreneur with over 32 years of real life, hands on experience in achieving results has provided evidence-based recommendations for managing that situation when you are working with people having Low EQ.

  • Traumatized

    June 20th, 2017 at 7:57 AM

    So now that the DSM-5 has been out for some time, and hence, the professional assessment has also had to shift any formal diagnosis, from essentially either being on the full-spectrum ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), or NOT on the full spectrum, does THAT change anything in how treatment should be approached?

    Specifically, my spouse (at 54 yrs old) was finally professionally assessed, and scored fairly high for the EMOTIONAL/SOCIAL aspects of (formerly) Asperger’s, but NOT for the obsessive or physical components of ASD, and as a result, was “slotted” into ANOTHER new DSM-5 label instead, but one that still bears the same symptoms of low EI, Empathy, etc. If I’ve got this right, one could then view it as him being rather “HALF-Asperger’s,” only because the diagnostic criteria was changed. Is that correct? This new label and subset(?) is apparently called “Social Communication Disorder,” his official diagnosis. As was explained to us, that essentially that means we cannot get government-sponsored funding for any treatment (non-U.S.), since it does not encompass/fulfill the “full” diagnostic criteria for labeling it as ASD. (and is this what would technically be called a “personality disorder”?, as that detail wasn’t actually explained to us)

    So how should we be viewing this diagnosis? And again, would the treatment protocol be any different, regardless? Also, what would this mean for finding a proper therapist to handle couples &/or individual therapy, because additionally, the impetus in my quest to finally find out what was missing in him, and how to heal us both, actually arose from my discovery of two forms of what I & many others consider “infidelity” — the parameters of which my spouse STILL doesn’t seem to wholly agree with, and with his low EI/Empathy, also means he has not been able to demonstrate truly heartfelt remorse, leaving me unable to begin to heal.

    So another related question — what KIND of therapy/therapist should I be seeking to handle ALL of this, or would the two issues have to be handled separately? As it is, my Social/Communication-impaired spouse already firmly believes relationship (and life in general) is “too much work” and believes he CAN’T change anything “enough” about himself (so keeps threatening to leave me), aside from the necessary work of dealing with the betrayals. I’ve been run ragged over this, feel so LOST, am now physically quite ill as a result of his continual lack of “appropriate” responses to these major issues, and totally overwhelmed by all this, with the only certainty I’m aware of being that any individual treatment for myself MUST include Trauma therapy for PTSD, PISD, and emotional & mental abuse, at a minimum.
    (unfortunately, we’re not in the U.S., so can’t simply come and see you, and were also told there aren’t many therapists who are even qualified to handle the SCD by itself!)

  • p

    May 11th, 2018 at 8:46 AM

    i have both ADHD (Female 44) I work with children with ADHD/ASD including Jacobs syndrome etc, they always said i was just like them, I was then diagnosed with Aspergers as an adult also. I think it is a myth that Aspies cannot feel empathy. Rather I feel too much, I always have and i isolate myself on occasion. When it comes to rules at work I do things Literal, I do take what people say (emotionally) as Literal. I always knew I was different, but have always had empathy and compassion, i work therapeutically with children! Now I understand ADHD/ASD people take emotionally to develop this all makes sense, I trust very few adults and always feel myself when with children (I also raised a 22year daughter alone with no emotional support). I am now training as a counseller, and my meds for ADHD have stopped my mind racing and being jittery, but most importantly, has calmed my emotions when around adults. Everyone with ADHD or on the ASD is different. You cannot class everyone who has Aspergers as the same, yes there are generic symptoms, but everyone is different, also it is differing in males and females. That is just like comparing when someone has a mental illness, generic symptoms, people fail (mostly) to consider what the individual has gone thorough in life emotionally which, of course affects any person. I have researched and spoke to a few neurologists who indeed say female Aspies have TOO MUCH empathy…as with ADHD i feel too much, my senses are supercharged, socially Aspergers has affected me I can see that, but empathy and compassion, I have too much. I am obsessive about hobbies and love researching etc, I hope my writing isn’t seen as a negative, I am no brain expert, just someone who has both Asperger’s and ADHD combined.

  • Kim

    August 7th, 2018 at 8:47 PM

    My 32 year old son has just been diagnosed with Asperger’s or high functioning autism. He was always a challenging child to raise, was diagnosed with ADHD at 7 years old. He’s was moody with a temper. This worsened after his father died from cancer when he was 13. Since then he seemed to become more and more resentful and angry toward me. It was tough to cope with. He’s now 32 and treats his wife very much like he treated me. It is incredibly difficult for me to cope with his constant out downs, criticism and control issues. If I don’t “toe the line” he threatens me with keeping me from seeing my grandson. After all these years it is tempting to just “wash my hands” of him. I can’t do that to my dil and my 2 year old grandson, but contact with my son has become torture!! The one bright area is that he is finally in therapy! What can I do to cope with my son. I love him of course. It’s just so painful to put up with all the abuse!!

  • Kerrianne

    October 27th, 2020 at 10:38 PM

    So great to find this site & all the stories of dealing & living with Aspergers. I am married to a man for 17yrs now he is 60yo. we met not long after my sister & his wife had both passed away. I was attracted to his ability to move on when he had dealt with such sadness in his life & was attracted to his gentle nature. His wife had been sick for most of their married life & he had cared for her most of that time along with her 4 sisters & two sons. we married soon after we met (4mths & 4days) he was besotted & he always said the sweetest things, until he didn’t. I was somewhat confused by my emotions, my friends would say Ï would love it if my husband said that, did that. It felt like control & not connection when he cooked for me, made me cups of tea, made my lunch every day. I was busy with building my business which I started soon after we met (I had it underway before we met) Then I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer 5yrs into our marriage, I was devastated that he had to deal with another sick wife, he just took it in his stride. With many controls & research about what I SHOULD & SHOULD’nT do! Watching my sister go through the same illness I had a fair idea what to expect. I had my own Journey to take. During this time was the most stressed, angry & frustrated I have ever been in my life. One of my Therapists suggested I check the symptoms for Aspergers as she had witnessed his behaivours. It became clear to me, that he was definitely on the Spectrum. Discussion with his family was not met well. I have spent the past 7 years researching & trying to understand how to be with this. He is a sweet man, but his B&W view, his arrogance & Contrary nature are my biggest challenges. I have been doing my own life separately at times from him for the past two years as I realized I needed to spend time with my “Neuro-typical” people to regain my stability & saneness. This relationship challenges me on so many levels & my Stay or Go alert is on constantly at the moment. He is also my biggest teacher as I find this condition so interesting. To not be so impacted by our emotions could possibly be a development in the human being. There are so many children dealing with this condition these days, I have to wonder if it as evolution that us “Neuro-typlicals”could potentially learn from? Suzy Miller enlightened me to a new view of this condition in her book Awesomism. I recommend it & wish me luck as I continue to navigate this challenging growth & tolerance gift.

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