Social Problems: Understanding Emotions and Developing Talents

Temple Grandin, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colorado 80523, USA

I did not know that eye movements had meaning until I read Mind Blindness by Simon Baron-Cohen. I had no idea that people communicated feelings with their eyes. I also did not know that people get all kinds of little emotional signals which transmit feelings. My understanding of this became clearer after I read Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio. From the book I learned that, in most people, information in memory is seamlessly linked with emotion. I have emotions which can be very strong when I am experiencing them, but information stored in memory can be scanned at will without emotion. It is like surfing the Internet of web pages in my mind.

Social relationships have been learned solely by intellect and use of my visualization skills. All my thoughts are in pictures, like videotapes in my imagination. When I encounter a new social situation I can scan my data banks for a similar situation that I can use as a model to guide me in the new situation. My data banks in social skills are also filled with news articles about diplomatic relationships between different countries and an archive of previous experiences. I use these scenarios to guide me in different situations. I then run videotapes in my imagination of all the possible ways to predict how the other person might act. It is all done using my visual mind. I have great difficulty with new social situations if I cannot recall a similar situation to use as a guide.

It is easy for me to pass a simple ‘theory of mind’ test because I visualize what the other person would be seeing. For example, if John sees Sally put a candy in a jar and then Sally eats the candy when John leaves the room and replaces it with a pen, I know that John expects to find a candy because he did not see the candy replaced by the pen. I have difficulty with more complex ‘theory of mind’ problems which involve two or three people doing several different things. I do not have sufficient short-term memory to remember the sequence of events. My problem is due to a poor short-term working memory.

Difficulties with short-term working memory should not be confused with a lack of understanding of ‘theory of mind.’ I can solve more complex ‘theory of mind’ tests if I am allowed to write down the sequence of events. Over time, I have built up a tremendous library of memories of my past experiences, TV, movies, and newspapers to spare me the social embarrassments caused by my autism; and I use these to guide the decision process in a totally logical way. I have learned from experience that certain behaviors make people mad. Earlier in my life, my logical decisions were often wrong because they were based on insufficient data. Today they are much better, because my memory contains more information. Using my visualization ability, I observe myself from a distance. I call this my little scientist in the corner, as if I’m a little bird watching my own behavior from up high. This idea has also been reported by other people with autism. Dr. Asperger noted that autistic children observe themselves constantly. They see themselves as an object of interest.

According to Antonio Damasio, people who suddenly lose emotions because of strokes often make disastrous financial and social decisions. These patients have completely normal thoughts, and they respond normally when asked about hypothetical social situations. But their performance plummets when they have to make rapid decisions without emotional cues. It must be like suddenly becoming autistic. I can handle situations where stroke patients may fail because I never relied on emotional cues in the first place. At age 51, I have a vast data bank; but it has taken me years to build up my library of experiences and learn how to behave in an appropriate manner. I did not know until very recently that most people rely heavily on emotional cues.

After many years I have learned – by rote – how to act in different situations. I can speed-search my CD-ROM memory of videotapes and make a decision quickly. It is like surfing the Internet in my mind. Doing this visually may be easier than doing it with verbal thinking. I try to avoid situations where I can get into trouble. As a child, I found picking up social cues impossible. When my parents were thinking about getting divorced, my sister felt tension; but I felt nothing because the signs were subtle. My parents never had big fights in front of us. The signs of emotional friction were stressful to my sister, but I didn’t even see them. Since my parents were not showing obvious, overt anger toward each other; I just did not comprehend the tension.

Social interaction is further complicated by the physiological problems of attention shifting. Since people with autism require much more time than others to shift their attention between auditory and visual stimuli, they find it more difficult to follow rapidly changing, complex social interactions. These problems may be part of the reason why Jack, a man with autism, said, “If I relate to people too much, I become nervous and uncomfortable.” Learning social skills can be greatly helped with videotapes. I gradually learned to improve my public speaking by watching tapes and by becoming aware of easily quantifiable cues, such as rustling papers that indicate boredom. It is a slow process of continuous improvement. There are no sudden breakthroughs.

Figuring out how to interact socially was much more difficult than solving an engineering problem. I found it relatively easy to program my visual memory with the knowledge of cattle-dipping vats or corral designs. Recently, I attended a lecture where a social scientist said that humans do not think like computers. That night at a dinner party I told this scientist and her friends that my thought patterns resemble computing and that I am able to explain my thought processes step by step. I was kind of shocked when she told me that she is unable to describe how her thoughts and emotions are joined. She said that when she thinks about something, the factual information and the emotions are combined into a seamless whole. I finally understood why so many people allow emotions to distort the facts. My mind can always separate the two. Even when I am very upset, I keep reviewing the facts over and over until I can come to a logical conclusion.

Over the years, I have learned to be more tactful and diplomatic. In my freelance livestock equipment design business, I have learned never to go over the head of the person who hired me unless I have his or her permission. From past experiences I have learned to avoid situations in which I could be exploited and to stroke egos that may feel threatened. To master diplomacy, I read about business dealings and international negotiations in the Wall Street Journal and other publications. I then used them as models.
I know that things are missing in my life, but I have an exciting career that occupies my every waking hour. Keeping myself busy keeps my mind off what I may be missing. Sometimes parents and professionals worry too much about the social life of an adult with autism. I make social contacts via my work. If a person develops her talents, she will have contacts with people who share her interests.

Develop Talents
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of developing a talent area such as drafting, commercial art, custom cabinetwork, fixing cars or computer programming. These things will provide an intellectually satisfying career. My life would not be worth living if I did not have intellectually satisfying work. My career is my life. Sometimes professionals working with people with autism become so concerned about the person’s social life that developing intellectually satisfying employment skills is neglected.

When high functioning autistic or Asperger’s children reach 8th or 9th grade, they need mentor teachers to teach them skills such as computer programming. I had a wonderful high school science teacher who taught me to use the scientific research library. Computers are a great field because being weird is okay. A good programmer is recognized for his/her skills. I know several very successful autistic computer programmers.

To make up for social deficits autistic people need to make themselves so good that they are recognized for brilliant work. People respect talent. They need mentors who are computer programmers, artists, draftsmen, etc. to teach them career skills. I often get asked “How does one find mentors?” You never know where a mentor may be found. He or she may be standing in the checkout line at the supermarket. I found one of my first meat industry mentors when I met the wife of his insurance agent at a party. She struck up a conversation with me because she saw my hand embroidered western shirt. I had spent hours embroidering a steer head on the shirt. Post a notice on the bulletin board at the local college in the computer science department. If you see a person with a computer company name badge, approach him or her and show the person work that the person with autism has done.

Since people with autism and Asperger’s are inept socially, they have to sell their work instead of their personality. I showed my portfolio of pictures and blueprints to prospective customers. I never went to the personnel office. I went straight to the engineers and asked to do design jobs.

Freelance work is really great. It avoids many social problems. I can go in and design the project and then get out before I get in social problems. There have been several sad stories where an autistic draftsman or technician has been promoted to a management position. It was a disaster which ended up with the person being fired or quitting. Employers need to recognize the person’s limitations. An excellent draftsman, commercial artist, technician or computer programmer may lose their career when promoted to management. They should be rewarded with more pay or a new computer instead of a management job.

Sins of the System
I developed this rule system to guide social interactions and my behavior.
· Really Bad Things – examples: murder, arson, stealing, lying in court under oath, injuring or hitting other people. All cultures have prohibitions against really bad things because an orderly civilized society cannot function if people are robbing and killing each other.

· Courtesy Rules – Examples: not cutting in on a line at the movie theater or airport, table manners, saying ‘thank you’ and keeping oneself clean. These things are important because they make the other people around you more comfortable. I don’t like it when somebody else has sloppy table manners so I try to have decent table manners. It annoys me if somebody cuts in front of me in a line so I do not do this to other people.
· Illegal But Not Bad – examples: slight speeding on the freeway and illegal parking. However, parking in a handicapped zone would be worse because it would violate the courtesy rules.
· Sins of the Systems (SOS) – examples: smoking pot and being thrown in jail for ten years and sexual misbehavior. SOS’s are things where the penalty is so severe that it defies all logic. Sometimes the penalty for sexual misbehavior is worse than killing somebody. Rules governing sexual behavior are so emotionally based that I do not dare discuss the subject for fear of committing an SOS. An SOS in one society may be acceptable behavior in another; whereas rules 1, 2, 3 tend be more uniform between different cultures.
I have learned never to do a sin of the system. This is one of the reasons I chose celibacy. It avoids a lot of problems. People with autism have to learn that certain behavior will not be tolerated period. You will be fired no matter how good your work is if you commit an SOS at work. People with autism and Asperger’s need to learn that if they want to keep a job they must not commit an SOS at work. The social knowledge required is just too complex. Attempting to date at work is too hazardous to one’s job. If they want to date they should do it outside of work. The most successful marriages that people with autism have involved partners with shared work interests.

I put a great deal of emphasis on employment because I see so many very intelligent people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome without satisfying jobs. A satisfying profession made life have meaning for me. I am what I do and think instead of what I feel.

Last year the library at my university was flooded and almost a million books drowned. I cried and cried about this. I grieved for the drowned books. It upsets me so much because the thoughts were dying. Nobody would ever read these books again. However, it turned out that the books could be saved by freeze drying; but at the time I did not know that this was possible. To me, knowledge is something very precious, and the destruction of knowledge is really terrible. Using my intellect to do work that is useful and make the world a better place is very important to me. Knowledge is more important to me than emotion.

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