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


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comprehensive article. You've identified the ideal client I want to work with. I have found that dialectical behavior therapy teaches a lot of these EQ skills as well. Have you considered that model for teaching EQ?

Anonymous said...

I seem to have "outgrown" certain traits myself but I'm still an Aspie. There are traits which I'll never be rid of. The bottom line is aspies mature just like NTs (maybe not the same way or at the same pace).

Anonymous said...

It is true that I have "outgrown" more juvenile expressions of my AS. That is just a regular part of growing up that everyone goes through (e.g. NTs outgrow juvenile expressions of NTism). But as I engage in the adult social world with its expectations for employment, socializing, etc. I adapt in more contemporary ways. Truth be told, tho, I do indulge in some older behaviors when I am alone.

Anonymous said...

If Asperger's is neurological, it's really hard to say you can outgrow it. However, a lot can be dealt with through education. Example, learning about metaphors will help someone take things less literally when needed, as you learn to recognize common phrases. Not only that, but learning something like logic will help you infer when something is a metaphor and something is literal. If you know that you're not good at learning through lectures, you can tailor your education to suit your needs (I am treated like an idiot when someone demonstrates, but give me a manual and I'm fine, usually, depending on the quality of the instructions.) Sensory issues, etc, are probably more permanant, but your best bet is always education.

Anonymous said...

I showed more moderate autism traites in elementary, only when I got older (8 years or so) did i imporve and kept going, b4 that, i was difficult to get through to, very odd, aloof. Im a fully functioning adult today, drive, go to work, and someday plan on supporting a family. I realize once on the spectrum always on the spectrum however.

Anonymous said...

I was pretty aspie as a kid and adolescent - although I had a few friends as a teenager I was still horrible at meeting new people, conversation and socialising.
That changed dramatically during my 20s - around 23-28 I was very social, had close friends, went out partying, met new people. I guess the fact that I was at university at that time made it easier. I kept a lot of my traits, though, and needed a lot of time on my own to relax, but still I was able to live an almost normal social life with my peers. At a certain point I just had understood how to fit in.

Anonymous said...

You can curb your aspie traits in various ways. But not completely. I guess it is important to understand that AS is a difference and, for many, a set of more difficulties on top of everything else. But it isn't a disability.

Anonymous said...

My traits have become less of an issue as I've aged. I noticed it first when I was about 38. I'm 50 now. I sure can't say the traits have been eliminated, but the other adults I'm around aren't as judgemental as younger people when I was younger (if that makes sense). Also, I'm less reactive and more accepting of myself.

Anonymous said...

I have "outgrown" aspergers, or at least symptoms have disappeared. The only social problems I have are a result of previous social individuality, plus all the other teenagers I know seem like idiots. So to answer your question, there are cases you can recover from aspergers, but it really depends on the will of the person.

Anonymous said...

While there is currently no cure for Aspergers, treatment can help improve social skills and coordination. Treatment is best started as early as possible. Even with treatment, some people with Asperger's Syndrome may still have trouble socializing, but most are able to work and live independently as adults. -At least one study has shown that 20% or more of children with AS grow out of it and do not show evidence of it as adults.

Anonymous said...

There is some evidence that kids with Aspergers may see a lessening of symptoms; up to 20% of kids may no longer meet the diagnostic criteria as adults, although social and communication difficulties may persist. As of 2006, no studies addressing the long-term outcome of people with Aspergers are available and there are no systematic long-term follow-up studies of kids with Aspergers. People with Aspergers appear to have normal life expectancy, but have an increased prevalence of comorbid psychiatric conditions, such as major depressive disorder and anxiety disorder that may significantly affect prognosis. Although social impairment is lifelong, the outcome is generally more positive than with individuals with lower functioning autism spectrum disorders; for example, ASD symptoms are more likely to diminish with time in kids with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism. Although most students with Aspergers/High-Functioning Autism have average mathematical ability and test slightly worse in mathematics than in general intelligence, some are gifted in mathematics and Aspergers has not prevented some adults from major accomplishments such as winning the Nobel Prize.

Anonymous said...

I am married to a non-diagnosed Asperger Husband and we have a diagnosed Aspie son. My older brother shows classic signs of Aspergers – very socially inept and has difficulty holding down a job. He is currently unemployed and has been taken care of by my parents both have now passed away. He constantly blames the world for his problems – thinks the world is out to get him, when in reality, it seems he sabotages himself and makes downright stupid decisions.

Recently, the state was going to pay for him to go to Truck Driving School and right before the class when my oldest brother sent him some money to live off of, he bought some pot and smoked a joint so he failed the drug test and got kicked out of the school. I think he self-medicates – he also has been diagnosed with Manic Depression and Bi-polar. Just this weekend, he decided to go camping with his dog and took my mother’s van on a back road and ended up rolling it and totaling it killing his dog. He is very upset about the dog as it was his only companion and friend.

He is currently being seen by an Army Psychologist as he is a veteran. I would like to write his doctor and let him know of my suspicions and of the strong family history of Aspergers. Do you recommend I do this or do I just forget about it? We are fearful that my brother may one day take his own life or worse – become a mass shooter because he is ticked off at someone. If you have any suggestions, articles or resources we could use to help our brother, we would greatly appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

I am a 64 year old man who has lived a good life. I have recently become aware that I am most likely AS. I had few problems in my 31 year career at one company and was even able to complete my Masters Degree late in my life. My problem with this article is that it strongly suggests that the only way to learn is by going to a Professional Therapist. To do that seems like I will need a formal diagnosis and other sites I have looked at suggest that may not be the best route for me given my age and position in life. After the death of my first wife, I met and married a really nice woman. We had the typical AS courtship and after 4 years have discovered my AS issues t be a problem in the relationship. I love her very much and want to learn about how to live with this woman and provide for her emotional needs, but do not do well at remembering what I read or listen to with regards to dealing with my AS tendencies. So what is the suggested best course of action for me to follow.

Unknown said...

I stumbled across this article while looking for information on Emotional Intelligence. Remove the Aspergers reference and this article could and should apply to any teenager or adult. We all need to work on EQ!

I know people with AS kids, but admittedly I know little about the condition. I have a question which may seem trivial, but why wouldn't you put self awareness at the top of the list when it comes to EQ skills. One can't feel empathy or connect emotionally with others if you don't understand and internalize your own emotions. I would think this is the first step in overcoming mind-blindness.

Awesome article! Thanks :)

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