“What’s the matter, Sweetie?” I ask my spouse.
“Nothing,” replies he.
“Nothing is wrong,” insists he, his face still in a contorted grimace. He pushes at his glasses. “Why do you always think that?”
“Well, it shouldn’t be,” barks my mate. “Just don’t look at me!”
Empathy. Facial expression recognition. Intuitive for many, but not for those with Aspergers Syndrome.
Most babies start life with mirror neurons in their brain that instinctively reflect faces and emotions. We smile at them and they smile back. Scientists think that this instinct is the foundation for empathy. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/mirror-neurons.html
Many people with Aspergers seem to have a mirror reflex weakness, or in some cases, lack it completely. They don’t recognize or understand what message someone’s face is sending. This can really hamper ‘normal’ social interactions. Some may not even be able to recognize faces at all. (see INFO on Prosopagnosia)
It’s not that my husband completely lacks empathy. Show him an animated movie where the villainess steals puppies and locks them up in a scary mansion and my hubby with go through a box of Kleenex. 9/11 kept him in tears for weeks. It’s the people who are close to him that get ‘ignored’ or misunderstood empathy-wise. This can be difficult for spouses, children, family and friends of Aspies.
When he forgets to show up at a dinner where I am honored with a big award he is flabbergasted that I am deeply hurt. He asks if his absence prevent the award ceremony? He wonders if anyone took a picture he could look at? Isn't it going to be in the paper? Didn’t they serve chicken? My God, who cares, what does it matter? And now the award is right here in our home where he can see it closely! So what’s the big deal anyway?
One of Steve’s biggest challenges is thinking outside of himself. It is difficult for him to understand how he fails in personal interactions, although he will recognize that something is off. He is often left feeling that he is bad, and it lowers his self-esteem. Since many Aspies do wrestle with depression, this can become a vicious cycle. I usually can tell when my hubby gets into these cycles and try to help him focus on something that will cheer him up. “Sweetie, go work on your car!”
John Elder Robison shares his childhood thoughts on social interactions in his book Be Different. http://johnrobison.com/
“Why should I care if I’m rude? …why should [my physical appearance] matter? I wasn’t looking at me… and my grandmother liked me no matter how I looked. People’s demands were just annoying and really self-centered. They complained about my behavior because they wanted me to change to make them feel better.”
He goes on to explain that as he got older, he realized that he did want to be more socially accepted. He began to force himself to ‘play’ some of the social games that he had felt were silly, illogical, and unnecessary as a child But he wanted to have friends so he played. To an extent.
Meanwhile, it’s Saturday night at the movies in our home. Popcorn is popped, sodas distributed, and we’ve curled up with our blankets around the room.
“Hey, Steve! Want to come watch Bambi with us? I have the Kleenex…”