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Mutual Misreadings

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on August 16, 2007 at 4:33:28 pm

Mutual Misreadings


Martin Poulter, 10 August, 2002


This is a short essay about the misunderstandings that can happen when people have different perspectives on social interaction. It is based on a haphazard mix of academic research, first-person accounts from the Internet and my own undergraduate education in psychology. I do not represent myself as an expert on this topic, and I have not written this the way I would write a proper academic paper.


Mild dyslexics have what might be called a difficulty or delay in reading text. It is not that they do not understand the differences between the letters, or even that they cannot read. Any brain is broken up into many different modules, independently specialised for different tasks, and in mild dyslexia the dedicated module for reading does not work so well, so its activity has to be augmented by conscious effort (to distinguish problem cases that the module does not handle well, like telling d’s from b’s). Hence reading is not impossible for such people, but is a more tiring and lengthy process than it is for others.


A strongly analogous condition, known as Asperger’s syndrome[1], affects the reading of people, in the sense of interpreting their expressions or other behaviour and inferring their underlying feelings. This can be more difficult to compensate for than dyslexia, because in most encounters with a piece of text you can keep reading it again and again, but a look, gesture or intonation is gone in a moment and cannot be replayed and examined. Another reason is that conversation, unlike reading, is a process of mutual feedback. Failure to read a sentence in a book does not alter the subsequent text, whereas if you misread someone’s behaviour, then that may well affect their subsequent behaviour towards you.


Unless they themselves or a family member have been diagnosed, most people have not heard of Asperger's at all. If they have heard of it, it is because of it being frequently mentioned in the same sentence as autism. Perhaps, then, they associate these terms with the extreme of the autistic spectrum that is so highly visible in documentaries on “idiots savants” or in a portrayal such as “Rain Man”. People with AS are at the other end of the spectrum; independent, productive and very nearly indistinguishable from the majority. They develop language at a normal rate and have on average a higher IQ than normal, as opposed to severe autistics, who have some retardation of development.


Asperger's syndrome is an imbalance, so in some respects it is an impairment but in other respects, typical people are impaired in comparison to AS. People with AS have a difficulty or delay in reading people. They appreciate that other people are feeling, thinking individuals like themselves, but this isn’t always something that they vividly perceive, because they have difficulty reading another person's thoughts and feelings in real time; difficulty directly empathising. For a typical person, this "mindreading" occurs almost invisibly in a dedicated module in the brain. In AS, however, this module does not work as well, so the individual has to involve some active intellectual effort to interpret people.


On the other hand, those with AS usually have the ability to concentrate intently on one thing for a long period of time, and strong “systematising” abilities; in others words, abilities to deal with complex, rule-bound abstract or mechanical systems or to organise items into a structure. AS is a positive advantage for success in physics, engineering, chess, music “and other factual, scientific, technical or rule-based subjects” (Baron-Cohen). Many historical geniuses are thought to have had Asperger's or mild autism, although we cannot know how they would have performed on the diagnostic tests. Just less than one percent of the population seem to have AS, or to count as "suspected or possible cases", although measurement is difficult because there is not much agreement on diagnostic criteria (Ehlers and Gillberg).


Since it is so close to normality, AS is difficult to detect. However, it should reveal itself in a pattern of responses to people and in the use of language, although the pattern and the extent of the difficulty will vary greatly among individuals:

  • slow reactions in conversations, because of conscious effort to read the other person's intentions
  • single-voiced discourse. This means that situations are described only from the speaker’s perspective, as opposed to “double-voiced” discourse in which other perspectives or reactions are expressed or actively anticipated. The long factual monologue that covers an obscure topic in detail is an oft-mentioned feature.
  • diminished use of, or response to, eye contact
  • coming across as impolite or insensitive without realising it
  • difficulty with close relationships because of problems like the above
  • being more comfortable with conversations that have a well-defined purpose or topic (those that have an implicit "script") than with more open conversation (Baron-Cohen describes it as difficulty with "chatting and the pragmatics of conversation")
  • It seems to follow, though I have not seen it spelled out in what I have read so far, that AS would involve responding to questions with just enough information to answer. This might be taken as an evasive or unfriendly response, but it would reflect that they are responding to the question itself, instead of seeing the state of curiosity or friendliness that underlies it. An exception would be when the question is about a topic that the individual has a particular focus on, in which case there would be an outpouring of knowledge or a “scripted” monologue.


Even mild dyslexia will show itself early on in the classroom and hence lead to the child’s being tested and classified as dyslexic. AS, however, is much less likely to be detected because it reveals itself in the playground, in close social interactions. AS does not impair, and may well help, performance on schoolwork


If someone grows up with AS without being diagnosed as such, then they avoid the stigma of being labelled "different". Then again, this might cause problems in the forms of misunderstanding and mutual frustration when dealing with non-AS people. The reluctance of someone with AS to engage in frivolous chat or to respond to friendly signals might provoke a hostile or exclusive reaction from other people. More importantly, if those with AS are not themselves made aware of the nature of their difference, then other people's behaviour can seem weird and confusing; typical people might seem obsessed with trivia about each other, to lack concentration, and to be overly conformist. This perception might lead someone with AS to fulfil the others’ perceptions of them as unfriendly.


When friends of someone with AS do not understand the syndrome, their interpretation of the “missing” behaviour and attempts to “help” might make the situation more frustrating. For example, people might misinterpret an AS individual as someone who is merely very shy, and recommend that the "cure" is simply to be more assertive or forward. However, the shyness may just be a by-product:

  • An AS individual may shy away from social conversation and from making friends just because it is relatively taxing.
  • They might be wary because they are used to people getting frustrated with them. For instance, they may have been bullied as a child for being different.
  • They might be aware of being different in some way and regard it as an embarrassment, developing a fear of being "found out".

For similar reasons, some people with AS might be interpreted as just rude, as depressive, or as having a social phobia or anxiety (not that having AS necessarily involves being depressed or anxious).


"I've always been bemused by the fact that I appear "unfriendly" so much of the time. As long as I can remember, people have been telling me (eventually) that when they met me they saw me as "aloof" and unfriendly. Their subsequent conclusion, if they spend enough time with me to glimpse what I certainly see as the basic friendliness of my nature, is that I must be "shy." "

-Jane Meyerding, http://www.inlv.demon.nl/subm-social.html


The friendly way to deal with someone who is shy or withdrawn is usually to spend time with them, give them positive signals and otherwise help to draw them out. However, this is counter-productive in the case of AS. Analogously, if someone is a slow reader due to mild dyslexia, a well-meaning person might think it is due to lack of practice, and give them a pile of material to read. This is only going to remind the dyslexic of their difficulty and be taken as a burden.


"If someone insists on being around more than is comfortable, it is the same as keeping someone up past their bedtime, or overworking a child on homework, or any of the other things that 'nice' people would never think of doing. But they seem to think it is okay to pursue us to exhaustion just because they want a lot of our company at one time."


""Social" time (time spent with anyone) is a form of work for me, whether I'm "at work" or with a friend at home, and I always need a lot of time alone to rejuvenate. What feeds other people's mental/emotional batteries is a drain on mine. [...] Talking to [my friend], or even keeping myself in the mode that allows me to respond adequately to her when she asks where the broom is, fatigues me as if I were a dyslexic and had to "read" her throughout every minute of her presence."


-Extracts from first-person accounts at http://www.inlv.demon.nl/subm-social.html


The risk for the AS person on the receiving end of this well-meaning help is that they might, mistakenly, feel that they are being punished for who they are. The risk for the friend is that they might, mistakenly, feel that they are being punished for being considerate and helpful.


A lot of the problems of mutual misreading come from the different expectations that AS and non-AS people bring to a conversation. In a conversation between non-AS people who are familiar with each other, each might be simulating many aspects of what the other person is thinking, including the simulation of that first person’s thoughts and feelings. This would lead to the use of reassurances and other “dual-voiced” use of language such as, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” or “…and you can guess the rest”. This recognition of nested intentionality creates another “layer” to the conversation that is not visible to someone for whom that simulation does not come easily.


A lot of meaning in this extra layer of the conversation can be conveyed by fleeting responses or even by silence. Consider the joke, “How do you keep an idiot in suspense?” (followed by a long period of silence). To see the point of this joke, one has to read beyond the ostensive meaning of the sentence to the speaker’s intentions, particularly the speaker’s recognition of the listener’s expectations about the speaker, and to see that the silence itself is significant and in effect a statement about the listener.


Someone who fails to see this layer of a conversation can “communicate” things totally without realising it. Imagine a conversation in which an implicit question or statement hangs in the air, but is not responded to or acknowledged because it is not noticed. The speaker might go through a chain of thought such as “She must have thought about why I asked that question. The obvious answer, which she must have come to, is that really I am curious about [the subject of the implicit question]. But she has not said anything, so she isn’t addressing the implicit question. Now she must be aware that I am expecting an answer to the implicit question, but it is obvious to both of us that she hasn’t answered, and she is still silent, so she is not even commenting on her obvious reluctance to answer. So she not only wants to avoid answering the implicit question, she wants me to see that she does not. I’m being pointedly snubbed for asking that question.”


Since AS people don’t have the same expectations about social interactions as typical people, one would expect them to get on much better with each other than with non-AS people.


“The primary problem with AS is NOT being social, it's being social with non-AS people. How do I know this? Since I live in a family with only AS people, and we have no social problems among ourselves. Next, why can't we be social with non-AS people? Since we can't understand each others’ facial expressions and other body language.”

-Usenet post titled “Neanderthals and autism / Asperger syndrom.” 5 May 2001


This suggests that AS and non-AS ways of communicating are roughly like PAL and NTSC (the European and American/Japanese television systems); mutually incompatible but they work so long as everyone uses one of them. If you put an NTSC video in a PAL player without realising, it might appear broken, rather than optimised for a different system. Attempts to “cure” someone of AS may be similarly misguided.


""Asperger Syndrome" to me is what "Human Being" is to a neurotypical. I no more want to be cured of Asperger Syndrome than an NT wants to be cured of being human. Remove my AS and you will remove my personality, my character - all that makes me unique. Besides, I need these people's pity like I need a kick in the butt."



For the AS individual, there are various strategies that they might adopt, consciously or non-consciously, as ways of minimising the effect of their difficulty. One of these is to seek isolation, perhaps even to the point of being hostile and misanthropic. However, it is perfectly possible to have AS and to like people and need their company. It seems to me that a reverse strategy, of blanket, unconditional niceness and friendliness, ought to be more common. Another strategy is the avoidance of competitive peer groups, seeking the company of people who are naturally supportive (Attwood). Drama is mentioned in some Internet sites as a useful hobby for people with AS both because it is an acceptable way to learn about and rehearse body language and interaction, and because some AS people may already feel that interacting with people ordinarily involves “acting”.


Consider the difficulty of getting on with someone who you recognise as a good person and like very much, but who has a fiery temper. You might resolve to ignore the anger and stay friendly with them no matter what, because on balance their friendship is so valuable to you. Another approach, however, is to seek to understand the context of the puzzling behaviour. It might turn out, for instance, that the person has terrible physical pain or that they have emotional problems in other relationships.


If you can achieve this sort of understanding, then you cross a line from liking them in spite of their seeming hostile behaviour to identifying with them, anger and all, because you see that you would have a foul temper in the same circumstances. You would learn that an attempt to change them by punishing them for being angry would be counterproductive. While accepting the difficulty for what it is, you would be better placed to create a modus operandi in which you adjust to each other’s expectations, just as you set the video player to a different mode when putting an NTSC rather than PAL tape in it.


I suggest that mutual understanding and appreciation can similarly help with the misreadings considered in this essay.


References and links:


Attwood: “The Pattern of Abilities and Development of Girls with Asperger’s Syndrome”



Baron-Cohen, S. “The extreme male brain theory of autism” Trends in Cognitive Sciences Vol.6 No.6 June 2002.


Ehlers and Gillberg: “The Epidemiology of Asperger Syndrome: A Total Population Study” The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, Vol. 34, No. 8, pp. 1327-1350, November 1993



Klin and Volkmar: “Asperger's Syndrome: Guidelines for Assessment and Diagnosis”



Social Anxiety Institute: “How is Social Anxiety Different Than... Asperger's Disorder?”



[1] Pronounced with a soft “g” (“Asperjer’s”) and named after Hans Asperger who published a paper in 1944.

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