Overcoming the "EQ Deficit": Help for People with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

While much of what I'm about to talk about applies to both men and women, this post is going to lean more toward addressing the male-version of Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism...

Men with Aspergers and High Functioning Autism suffer from a phenomenon called “mind-blindness,” which is a cognitive condition where the person is unable to attribute mental states to self and others. As a result of this condition, he is often unaware of others' mental states and has difficulty attributing beliefs and desires to others.

Lacking in this ability to develop a mental awareness of what is in the mind of his partner, the Aspergers man is often viewed as emotionally detached.

"Emotional intelligence" is in many ways the opposite of mind-blindness. Emotional intelligence (EQ) matters just as much as intellectual ability (IQ) when it comes to happiness and success in life. Emotional intelligence helps one build stronger relationships, succeed at work, and achieve career and personal goals.

So the “fix” (so to speak) for the Aspergers man would be to replace mind-blindness with emotional intelligence. But is this even possible? The answer is: it depends.

If the man is willing to seek treatment from a therapist (preferably one who specializes in Autism Spectrum Disorders), then chances are he will successfully work around his weaknesses and capitalize on his strengths. On the other hand, if the man refuses to acknowledge his mind-blindness issue (which is easy to do since a blind mind will have trouble seeing itself), then he will likely suffer the negative consequences associated with being out of touch -- and out of step -- with the world around him. Like a bicyclist with two flat tires, the Aspergers man’s progress will be slow and shaky.

==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

Emotional intelligence is:
  • the ability to appreciate complicated relationships among different emotions
  • the ability to comprehend emotion language
  • the ability to detect and decipher emotions in faces, pictures, voices, and cultural artifacts, including the ability to identify one's own emotions
  • the ability to harness emotions to facilitate various cognitive activities (e.g., thinking and problem solving)
  • the ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself, of others, and of groups

Perceiving emotions represents a basic aspect of emotional intelligence, as it makes all other processing of emotional information possible. The emotionally intelligent person can capitalize fully upon his changing moods in order to best fit the task at hand. Understanding emotions encompasses the ability to be sensitive to slight variations between emotions, and the ability to recognize and describe how emotions evolve over time. The emotionally intelligent person can harness emotions, even negative ones, and manage them to achieve intended goals.

Emotional intelligence consists of four attributes:

1. Relationship management: Knowing how to develop and maintain good relationships, communicate clearly, inspire and influence others, work well in a team, and manage conflict.

2. Self-awareness: Recognizing one’s emotions and how they affect one’s thoughts and behavior, knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses, and having self-confidence.

3. Self-management: Being able to control impulsive feelings and behaviors, managing emotions in healthy ways, taking initiative, following through on commitments, and adapting to changing circumstances.

4. Social awareness: Understanding the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people, picking up on emotional cues, feeling comfortable socially, and recognizing the power dynamics in a group or organization.

The first step to improving emotional intelligence is to learn how to relieve stress. Uncontrolled stress impacts the Aspergers man’s mental health, making him vulnerable to anxiety and depression. If he is unable to understand and manage his emotions, he will be open to mood swings, which makes it very difficult for him to form strong relationships, and can leave him feeling lonely and isolated.

Emotional intelligence can help him navigate the social complexities of the workplace, lead and motivate others, and excel in his career. In fact, when it comes to gauging job candidates, many companies now view emotional intelligence as being as important as technical ability and require EQ testing before hiring.

By understanding his emotions and how to control them, the Aspergers man is better able to express how he feels – and understands how others are feeling. This allows him to communicate more effectively and forge stronger relationships, both at work and in his personal life.

Emotional intelligence consists of five key skills:
  1. The ability to connect with others through nonverbal communication
  2. The ability to quickly reduce stress
  3. The ability to recognize and manage one’s emotions
  4. The ability to resolve conflicts positively and with confidence
  5. The ability to use humor and play to deal with challenges

These five skills of emotional intelligence can be learned, but there is a difference between learning about emotional intelligence and applying that knowledge to one's life. Just because the Aspergers man knows he “should” do something doesn’t mean he will – especially if he becomes overwhelmed by stress, which can hijack his best intentions.

In order to permanently change behavior in ways that stand up under pressure, he will need to learn how to take advantage of the powerful emotional parts of his brain that remain active and accessible even in times of stress. This means that he can’t simply read about emotional intelligence in order to master it. Rather, he has to experience and practice the skills in his everyday life.

==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

EQ Skill #1: Paying Attention to Nonverbal Communication—

Often, “what” somebody says is less important than “how” he or she says it or the other nonverbal signals that are sent out (e.g., the gestures a person makes, the way he sits, how fast or how loud he talks, how close he stands to others, how much eye contact he makes, etc). In order to hold the attention of others and build connection and trust, the Aspergers man needs to be aware of – and in control of – this body language. He also needs to be able to accurately read and respond to the nonverbal cues that other people send.

Messages don’t stop when someone stops speaking. Even when a person is silent, he or she is still communicating nonverbally. The Aspergers man needs to think about what he is transmitting as well, and if what he says matches what he feels. Nonverbal messages can produce a sense of interest, trust, excitement, and desire for connection – or they can generate fear, confusion, distrust, and disinterest.

Tips for improving nonverbal communication:

Successful nonverbal communication depends on one’s ability to manage stress, recognize one’s own emotions, and understand the signals one is sending and receiving. When communicating, the Aspergers man needs to:
  • Pay attention to the nonverbal cues he is sending and receiving (e.g., facial expression, tone of voice, posture and gestures, touch, timing and pace of the conversation).
  • Make eye contact, which will communicate interest and maintain the flow of a conversation, and help gauge the other person’s response.
  • Focus on the other person. If the Aspergers man is planning what he is going to say next, daydreaming, or thinking about something else, he is almost certain to miss nonverbal cues and other subtleties in the conversation.

EQ Skill #2: Quickly Reducing Stress—

High levels of stress can overwhelm the mind and body, getting in the way of one’s ability to accurately “read” a situation, to hear what someone else is saying, to be aware of one’s own feelings and needs, and to communicate clearly. Being able to quickly calm down and diffuse stress helps one stay balanced, focused, and in control – no matter what challenges are faced or how stressful a situation becomes.

Tips for reducing stress:
  • The best way to reduce stress quickly is by engaging one or more of the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Each person responds differently to sensory input, so the Aspergers man needs to find things that are soothing and/or energizing to him. For example, if he is a visual person, he can relieve stress by surrounding himself with uplifting images. If he responds more to sound, he may find a wind chime, a favorite piece of music, or the sound of a water fountain helps to quickly reduce his stress levels.
  • Everyone reacts differently to stress. If the Aspergers man tends to become angry or agitated under stress, he will respond best to stress relief activities that quiet him down. If he tends to become depressed or withdrawn, he will respond best to stress relief activities that are stimulating. If he tends to freeze (speeding up in some ways while slowing down in others), he needs stress relief activities that provide both comfort and stimulation.
  • Recognize what stress feels like. How does your body feel when you’re stressed? Are your muscles or stomach tight or sore? Are your hands clenched? Is your breath shallow? Being aware of one’s physical response to stress will help regulate tension when it occurs.

EQ Skill #3: Managing Emotions—

Being able to connect to one’s emotions (i.e., having a moment-to-moment awareness of your emotions and how they influence your thoughts and actions) is the key to understanding self and others. Many Aspergers men are disconnected from their emotions – especially strong core emotions like sadness, fear and joy. But although we can distort, deny, or numb our feelings, we can’t eliminate them. They’re still there, whether we’re aware of them or not. Unfortunately, without emotional awareness, we are unable to fully understand our own motivations and needs, or to communicate effectively with others.

How in touch are you with your emotions?
  • Are your emotions accompanied by physical sensations that you experience in certain places of your body (e.g., lower back, stomach, chest, etc.)?
  • Can you experience intense feelings that are strong enough to capture both your attention and that of others?
  • Do your emotions factor into your decision making?
  • Do you pay attention to your emotions?
  • Do you experience feelings that flow (i.e., encountering one emotion after another as your experiences change from moment to moment)?
  • Do you experience discrete feelings and emotions (e.g., anger, sadness, fear, joy), each of which is evident in subtle facial expressions?

If any of these experiences are foreign to you, then your emotions may be turned down or off. In order to be emotionally healthy and emotionally intelligent, you must reconnect to your core emotions, accept them, and become comfortable with them.

EQ Skill #4: Resolving Conflicts Positively--

Disagreements and misunderstandings are to be expected in relationships. Two people can’t possibly have the same needs, beliefs, and expectations at all times. However, that is not a bad thing. Resolving conflict in healthy, constructive ways can strengthen trust between people. When conflict isn’t perceived as threatening or punishing, it fosters freedom, creativity, and safety in relationships.

Tips for resolving conflict:
  • Choose your arguments. Arguments take time and energy, especially if you want to resolve them in a positive way. Consider what is worth arguing about and what is not.
  • End conflicts that can't be resolved. It takes two people to keep an argument going. You can choose to disengage from a conflict, even if you still disagree.
  • Forgive. Other people’s hurtful behavior is in the past. To resolve conflict, you need to give up the urge to punish or seek revenge.
  • Stay focused in the present. When you are not holding on to old hurts and resentments, you can recognize the reality of a current situation and view it as a new opportunity for resolving old feelings about conflicts.

EQ Skill #5: Using Humor and Play to Deal with Challenges--

Humor, laughter, and play are natural solutions to life’s problems. They lighten burdens and help keep things in perspective. A good hearty laugh reduces stress, elevates mood, and brings the nervous system back into balance. It’s never too late to develop and embrace your playful, humorous side. The more you joke, play, and laugh – the easier it becomes. Playful communication broadens emotional intelligence and helps the individual:
  • Become more creative. When we loosen up, we free ourselves of rigid ways of thinking and being, allowing us to get creative and see things in new ways.
  • Simultaneously relax and become more energized. Playful communication relieves fatigue and relaxes the body, which allows the person to recharge and accomplish more.
  • Smooth over differences. Using gentle humor often helps us say things that might be otherwise difficult to express without creating an argument.
  • Take hardships in stride. By allowing us to view our frustrations and disappointments from new perspectives, laughter and play enable us to survive annoyances, hard times, and setbacks.

In order to develop playful communication, the Aspergers man needs to:
  • find enjoyable activities that loosen him up and help him embrace his playful nature
  • play with animals, babies, young children, and outgoing people who appreciate playful banter
  • set aside regular, quality playtime

In a nutshell, the Aspergers man can begin to replace mind-blindness with emotional intelligence – with the assistance of a qualified professional – by doing the following:
  1. Acknowledging his negative feelings, looking for their source, and coming up with a way to solve the underlying problem 
  2. Avoiding people who invalidate him or don't respect his feelings 
  3. Being honest with himself
  4. Developing constructive coping skills for specific moods
  5. Examining his feelings rather than the actions or motives of other people
  6. Getting up and moving when he is feeling down
  7. Learning to relax when his emotions are running high
  8. Listening twice as much as he speaks
  9. Looking for the humor or life lesson in a negative situation
  10. Paying attention to non-verbal communication (e.g., watch faces, listen to tone of voice, take note of body language)
  11. Showing respect by respecting other people's feelings
  12. Taking responsibility for his own emotions and happiness

Most of you have heard that “there is no cure for Aspergers Syndrome.” And technically, that’s correct. But, emotional intelligence can be taught. And some people with Aspergers – both male and female – who have received quality treatment from a qualified professional have lost their Aspergers diagnosis after a few years of intensive therapy. That is, after being re-tested, they did not meet the criteria for Aspergers Syndrome any longer. The same can be true for you. So, what are you waiting for?

==> Skype Counseling for Struggling Couples Affected by Asperger's and HFA 

==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

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