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Piece #99 - A Radical Theory of...Normal?

This is going to be a special posting because of this article that was published on a website called TheDailyBeast.com. The article was date May 11th, 2009. I wanted to share my thoughts especially since many of my entries deal with their 'findings'. I will subsequently edit many portions of the article for adequate reading length and reaction. Here is the article:


A Radical New Autism Theory
A groundbreaking study suggests people with autism-spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s do not lack empathy—rather they feel others’ emotions too intensely to cope.


[First of all, I feel insulted by the first three words, this isn't 'groundbreaking'! Researchers and all of us Aspies already knew we have emotions...we're not a bunch of robots!]


Henry and Kamila Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, suggests that the fundamental problem in autism-spectrum disorders is not a social deficiency, but rather an hypersensitivity to experience, which includes an overwhelming fear response.
“I can walk into a room and feel what everyone is feeling. The problem is that it all comes in faster than I can process it.”
“There are those who say autistic people don’t feel enough,” says Kamila Markram. “We’re saying exactly the opposite: They feel too much.” Virtually all people with ASD report various types of over-sensitivity and intense fear. The Markrams argue that social difficulties of those with ASDs stem from trying to cope with a world where someone has turned the volume on all the senses and feelings up past 10.


[Emotions are hard to accurately measure on any human being, let alone with Asperger's. I believe they completely miss the point that all ASD people are not all the same! In general, we have 'social differences', but none of them are the same intensities nor do we act the same way when we react to different emotional situations.]


Phil Schwarz, a software developer from Massachusetts, is vice president of the Asperger’s Association of New England and has a child with the condition.
“I think that it’s a stereotype or a misconception that folks on spectrum lack empathy,” he says. Schwarz notes that autism is not a unitary condition—“if you’ve seen one Aspie, you’ve seen one Aspie,” he says, using the colloquial term. But he adds, “I think most people with ASD feel emotional empathy and care about the welfare of others very deeply.”


[Phil Schwarz is completely correct. With that fact in mind, I have to wonder why did they include his statement in the article when it was contradictory to was written before Mr. Schwarz's comments. I find this a little confusing that they would include him when the point of the article completely dissolve their whole 'theory'.]


So why do so many people see a lack of empathy as a defining characteristic of ASD? The problem starts with the complexity of empathy itself, which has at least two critical parts: The first is simply the ability to see the world from the perspective of another. The second is more emotional—the ability to imagine what the other is feeling and care about their pain as a result.


[Did the writer not just read Phil Schwarz's own comments prior to this statement? This is what troubles me so badly about normal society and their view of ASD people. An expert will tell someone the reality of autism and then turn right around and create their own hypothesis when really the fact was already stated! Believe it or not some ASD children do develop empathy as early as any other normal child, you can't generalize this condition.]


Schwarz notes that nonautistic people, too, “are rather lousy at understanding the inner state of minds too different from their own—but the nonautistic majority gets a free pass because if they assume that the other person's mind works like their own, they have a much better chance of being right.” Thus, when, for example, a child with Asperger’s talks incessantly about his intense interests, he isn’t deliberately dominating the conversation so much as simply failing to consider that there may be a difference between his interests and those of his peers.


[I have to agree with Schwarz on this observation about 'nonautistic people' where the assumption that everyone's brain works just like theirs so to them, they're thinking is the correct way and ASD people are completely messed up. I would disagree though that children with Asperger's only talk about themselves and their interests. I remember on many occasions when I was really interested in what other people had to say. My twin daughters were the same way when they were children. I believe it stems from our curiosity to things we may not understand so we try to learn how or why people have an interest in certain things. Schwarz is generalizing though with the idea that all ASD child don't think about other people's interest and just their own because that's all they know.]


Studies have found that when people are overwhelmed by empathetic feelings, they tend to pull back. When someone else’s pain affects you deeply, it can be hard to reach out rather than turn away. For people with ASD, these empathetic feelings might be so intense that they withdraw in a way that appears cold or uncaring.
“These children are really not unemotional, they do want to interact, it’s just difficult for them,” says Markram, “It’s quite sad because these are quite capable people but the world is just too intense, so they have to withdraw.”


[The only thing I agree with in this statement is that pretty much all people will tend to pull back and withdraw, ultimately, if they are overwhelmed with emotion/pain. I really believe any person who is sad or angry will not want to interact with anyone. I remember when my mother-in-law passed away, my wife didn't want to be a part of anyone in her family or her friends; she had to withdraw. Markram is making too many assumptions that only ASD people react in these ways when in fact most regular humans act this way. I like how they were trying to educate the common person about ASD, but many of these "findings" are not new or completely accurate.]


Maia Szalavitz writes about the intersection between mind, brain and society for publications like Time online, the New York Times, Elle and MSN Health. She is co-author, most recently of Lost Boy , the first memoir by a young man raised in Mormon fundamentalist polygamy, Brent Jeffs. She is senior fellow at Stats.org, a media watchdog organization.


[This is the author of the article and her credentials. If you want to get a better idea of the real life things I personally deal with day after day, I welcome you to read the following posts on this blog: #12 "Temper, Temper" - #20 Stress - #52 The Blues - #66 Frustration - #82 A Sense of Depression and #88 Android or Asperger. These are just a few posts that might help you more than this article "A Radical Autism Theory".]


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