Too much social awareness and too little; Autism and Borderline

I work with a lot of kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in the context of family therapy.  One client of mine will sometimes say something pretty innocuous and then suddenly get worried.  He looks at me anxiously, trying to read my expression.  He asks me “Are you mad? Did I do something wrong?”  He feels like the world is filled with unexpected land-mines. Social situations seem to follow weird rules that everyone but him knows intuitively.  People often get angry at him for mysterious reasons, so I might as well.  This is pretty common for people with ASDs.  They have a tougher time with something called “mentalizing,” which means understanding that other people have different mental states -- knowledge, thoughts and feelings -- than themselves. (I wrote in a previous piece about Theory of Mind, which is very similar to mentalizing. There is a great video demonstrating what this looks like in kids.)  People with ASDs can find it really hard to figure out what those other mental states might be, based on cues that most of us read without thinking about it much like tone of voice, facial expression or posture. 

Some neuroscientists think that the neurology of people with ASDs is different from other people, that they may have fewer 'mirror neurons,' neurons that are thought to help with connecting to another's experiences on a totally unconscious, physiological basis.  Prominent among these is VS Ramachandran, who, in addition to being one of the foremost neuroscientists today, and an interesting philosophical mind, has maybe the coolest accent of anyone I have ever heard speak.

Mirror neurons are pretty spectacular according to Ramachandran, but others dissent.  One of the biggest doses of cold rain on the mirror neuron parade is the fact that we lack clear evidence that they exist in humans.   

Whatever the reason, people with ASDs do really poorly on a relatively new test for reading social cues called the Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition or MASC. MASC is a really neat psychology test that lacks the flash of fMRIs but actually quantifies people's understanding of social situations very well.  The subject is shown a video of a social situation and asked a series of true or false questions about the mental states of the people in the video.  What is really interesting to me is what researchers have found out about people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) when they take the MASC test.  

Among other things, BPD is characterized by very conflictual interpersonal relationships.  This great animation outlines some of the things that go on for people with BPD and the criteria for diagnosis.  

People with BPD do very poorly on the MASC test but for almost exactly the opposite reason than people with ASDs. While people with ASDs tend to mentalize poorly -- that is to consider and evaluate correctly the inner experiences of the people in the video -- people with BPD tend to “hypermentalize.”  They are very tuned in to the mental states of others, perhaps too tuned in.  Some research indicates that people with BPD may actually be better at correctly “reading” other people's emotional states based on limited information than non-BPD people.  But like many people with ASD, people with BPD can find the social environment confusing and overwhelming, not because they have too little information to understand what is happening, but too much.  I suspect they are also lopsided because their hypermentalizing often tends towards the negative; that is they read negative cues very clearly but positive cues get less focus.  

Think about how many quick, frustrated glances or disapproving sighs a person might encounter in the social landscape in a typical afternoon.  People who don't have BPD may register them almost unconsciously, as subtle social cues to "hurry up", "hold on a minute" or "give me some space".  Those things help most of us adjust our social behaviour.  But people with BPD experience each negative micro-expression like an angry, screaming tirade leaving them as bewildered as the young boy with ASD asking, “what did I do wrong?”

Your therapist, Ron Swanson?

Men often fear that therapy is stacked against them.  Whether it is couple, family or individual therapy, they think that they are entering a domain where their skills and strengths will be counted as liabilities and they will be asked to do things that aren't just difficult or scary but unbecoming.  That isn't a man problem.  That's a therapy problem.  I was talking recently with another male therapist, Dr. Darrell Johnson, a friend and mentor.  I mentioned this campaign to him... (Okay, it isn't Ron Swanson but a Ron Swanson knock-off.)

It is from the Office of Suicide Prevention of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.  It's geared at connecting with men, particularly working-age 25-54 men who are twice as likely to commit suicide as any other age group according to the white paper that was used to develop the Mantherapy campaign (US stats).  Darrell and I talked about the idea that men are typically more resistant to therapy (part of what accounts for their higher suicide rates than women).  I joked that soon it would be possible for therapists to use cookies to give different design templates to their websites so that women and men would be presented with different web sites that are gender specific since too much "feelings" language might be off-putting for men, essentially presenting themselves as Rick Mahogany when men click through.  But the Colorado campaign doesn't seem to have been a raging success despite the high production values.  The Richard Mahogany video that has the most views on YouTube is at around 8,000.  Maybe those are 8,000 saved lives and if so, great, but I don't imagine that therapy's problem with men has been touched much.  I think the character seems inauthentic, not just playfully unreal, and for men or women authenticity in therapy is important. 

There were a few things in the white paper that I thought were really interesting for therapists to consider about working with men, things that hadn't occurred to me despite having worked with boys and men a lot.  One is the value men often place on fixing something themselves and how to make therapy an exercise in 'solving it myself (or ourselves) with help'.  One man said to the researchers of the white paper, "Show me how to stitch up my own wound like Rambo."  Okay, that's some pretty serious hyper-masculinity but the point is that therapy can benefit from emphasizing the client's efficacy in problem-solving with the therapist as trusted assistant. 

The other thing that I thought was really wonderful was the importance some men place on giving back.  I was in Hawaii last year.  A companion and I went kayaking.  We visited a small island and had a great time but when we went to get back in our kayak, we got hit by several waves in succession and my companion got knocked over in the surf and couldn't get up.  I watched, barely able to keep myself afloat trapped on the other side of the kayak thinking I might very well see this strong, capable person drown before my eyes in three and half feet of water.  But before that could happen two kayakers (much more capable than us) grabbed our kayak and my companion, hoisting him out of the water.  I thanked them.  They said, "That's what we do."  They viewed helping as part and parcel of who they were.  I, on the other hand, felt grateful but unsatisfied as they paddled away.  I couldn't pay back the debt I owed them.  Therapy is a uni-directional process as far as help goes; codes of ethics forbid outside relationships so it is very hard for a client to pay his debt with his skills through labour exchange or barter.  I never thought about how important it can be for some clients to be able to show their competency and mastery to a therapist by doing meaningful work or sharing their own products, to give help for help received, and that men might feel that more acutely.  The report points out how central the idea of repaying a debt is to AA, for instance.  Now I am considering requiring clients in some circumstances to agree to pay part of the cost of therapy by "paying forward" to others using their own strengths and capabilities (see the Milwaukee African Violet Queen).  Ron, would like the idea of paying off your therapy by carving duck decoys with kids in an after-school program? 

"I'm a a bit fearful that we are verging on what I call 'feelings territory.'"

When do kids 'get' irony?

The ability to understand that other people have different ideas and information about the world from one's self emerges in most kids by around four years old.  This ability that most of us share is really nicely illustrated by this video.  According to psychologist (and brother-of-Borat) Simon Baron-Cohen, kids with Autism Spectrum disorder have a much harder time with tasks such as these.  A recent study in Frontiers in Psychology found that empathy and the ability to understand irony are correlated in kids. 

Empathy was strongly associated with several aspects of irony comprehension and processing, suggesting that emotional reasoning abilities are important to development of irony comprehension.

Makes sense.  Irony is a disconnect between what a person says and his or her inner state.  By around eight years of age most kids can 'get' that disconnect.  The authors point out that these are both areas that are difficult for people with ASDs.  Empathy and reading irony both require projecting one's self into another person's inner experience; Theory of Mind.  In the case of irony, one has to do that while swimming upstream, as it were, against the current of the literal message.  I have noticed in my practice how hard and frustrating it is for kids with ASDs to read and irony. 

Emotional Intelligence

Great piece about the benefits and pitfalls of teaching emotional intelligence.  I kept asking myself, "what about the role of parents?"  Schools are asked to do an awful lot and parents modelling emotional intelligence for kids is extremely powerful and needs to be supported.  Nevertheless a great read by Jennifer Kahn in the NYTM.   

Depending on our personalities, and how we’re raised, the ability to reframe may or may not come easily. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes that while one child may stay rattled by an event for days or weeks, another child may rebound within hours. (Neurotic people tend to recover more slowly.) In theory, at least, social-emotional training can establish neurological pathways that make a child less vulnerable to anxiety and quicker to recover from unhappy experiences. One study found that preschoolers who had even a single year of a social-emotional learning program continued to perform better two years after they left the program; they weren’t as physically aggressive, and they internalized less anxiety and stress than children who hadn’t participated in the program.

It may also make children smarter. Davidson notes that because social-emotional training develops the prefrontal cortex, it can also enhance academically important skills like impulse control, abstract reasoning, long-term planning and working memory. Though it’s not clear how significant this effect is, a 2011 meta-analysis found that K-12 students who received social-emotional instruction scored an average of 11 percentile points higher on standardized achievement tests. A similar study found a nearly 20 percent decrease in violent or delinquent behavior.