I ran a work shop recently about Aspergers and autistic spectrum disorder. I began with and over-view of the history of the diagnosis and recommended treatments. It certainly painted an unsettling picture, and one which illustrates my assertion that mental health is only now beginning to emerge from the dark ages.
The Aspergers timeline
In 1911 Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler used the term ‘autism’ for the first time and associated the condition with schizophrenia. In the1920s it was thought to be associated with diet and gluten restriction was recommended. In the 1930s they began using electro convulsive treatment (ECT) to correct the ‘antisocial behaviours’ they identified with the condition.
By the 1940s, frontal lobotomy had developed into a ‘cure all’ for all mental health problems. Dick Meredithwas one of the last survivors of what is now widely considered a barbaric medical practice where part of the brain is destroyed. He was just one of the tens of thousands of people who underwent these operations.
In the 1950s ‘cold parenting’ was thought to be the cause and mothers in particular were blamed. By the 1960s punishment and behavioural retraining were recommended. By the 1970s, it was felt drugs were the answer. LSD and antidepressants were used to try and ‘shift perception’.
In 1984, Hans Asperger separated ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ as separate diagnosis from autism.
By the 1990s ‘holding therapy’ became a popular treatment with restraint used to force compliance and eye contact. The publication ‘DSM in Action’ commented: ‘If one were to watch a therapeutic hold for the first time, without an understanding behind the technique, he or she might perceive it to be abusive or coercive’
Where are we now?
Asperger’s was eliminated in the 2013 fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and replaced by a diagnosis of ‘autism spectrum disorder’ on a severity scale
Diagnosis is still an emotive subject, and rightly so. I often reflect on how helpful it is to label people with something for which there is no current ‘cure?’
Dr Simon Baron-Cohen wrote the book ‘The Essential Difference’ brought together from twenty years of groundbreaking work in autism. It gave an interesting new lens through which to view a condition which previously was thought of as a mental illness.
He refers to Aspergers as ‘extreme male brain.’
Sadly, there are many people out there living with the condition who do not have a clue why they feel different. One client told me ‘It’s like the whole world is in on the joke, and I just don’t get it.’
Another told me ‘I feel like a radio tuned in to fifty different radio stations at the same time. There’s too much incoming information.’
When I work with clients where I suspect Aspergers or autistic spectrum disorder might be a part of the picture, I do not offer a label but rather an interpretation and explanation by describing the sytemising-empathising continuum. I know this has been very helpful to many of my clients in the past and has even saved marriages.
One told me ‘My husband just doesn’t seem to be able to tune in to my needs or even notice if I’m upset.’ She understood later that he may have a ‘sytemising brain’. There was plenty of evidence that he really did care about her but simply did not have the skills to read her non verbal signals. She became much more forgiving about his behaviour.
When I asked her what he did for a living she said ‘He’s a rocket scientist!’
Indicators of a systemising brain
Our thoughts, feelings and actions are influenced by our innate brain wiring. Knowledge truly is power. Here are some of the things you might notice in a natural systemiser:
- They might prefer their own company to being with others or being in a crowd
- They might be drawn towards intelligent people or those with which they have a common interest or hobby
- They might really dislike areas of confrontation, especially where there is an authority figure
- They might like routine and react if it has to be changed
- They might have very high principles and dislike it if others seem to break the rules
- They might have a very keen sense of fair play
- They might feel more comfortable with written instructions, preferring them to verbal
- They might sometimes feel overloaded with emotional input and feel like retreating for a while
- They might avoid doing things that need doing as it can feel overwhelming
- They might already have a diagnosis of dyspraxia or dyslexia
- They might feel a bit socially isolated as though they don’t ‘fit in’ somehow
- They might have difficulty with eye contact…too much or too little
- They might get really angry and go into ‘melt down’ or system overload when things get too much
- They might have allergies like asthma or eczema that are related to stress
- They might react inappropriately in some situations, perhaps crying instead of laughing
- They might have a quirky sense of humour, perhaps enjoying practical jokes
- They might have exceptional talent in areas like computing, music, art or design
- They might have a very good memory for detail
- They might collect facts or figures
- They might collect and display as part of a hobby or interest
- They might take people literally
- They might find it difficult to imagine something or imagine being in someone else’s shoes
- They might think of themselves as a ‘straight line thinker’ or ‘thinking in binary’
- They might have trouble discussing emotions or emotional issues
- They might have a high pain threshold or be oversensitive to noise or touch
- They might have had a feeling of not fitting in at school or feeling bullied
- Being in a social setting may feel exhausting for them
- They might have difficulty on the telephone, not being sure when it is their turn to speak
- They might have a love of music and react very strongly to it
- They might have repetitive movements, rocking or ‘stimming’
The further away someone is from the empathising end of the continuum, the more challenging the world can feel, as they may not instinctively ‘tune in’ to the unspoken messages sent by others.
In one experiment, it was found that the words we speak might represent only 7% of what we communicate. The rest is made up of intonation and body language. If you believe someone you know is a systemiser, whilst being aware of the challenges, it might be helpful to focus on their strengths.
That sense of fair play will mean they are very loyal to friends, partners and colleagues. They may have exceptional talents in computing, art or maths and memory. They might be regarded as an intellectual with an ability to really focus on a subject or project.
If tuning into other people does not come naturally to them, they should be reassured that this is a skill and, like all skills, is something which can be learned.
We are all born different.
Empathisers or systemisers, we all have unique talents and skills and we all have areas of challenge. Have an awareness of our genetic predisposition, allows us to develop strategies that can really help us feel our best be our best and live our best lives.