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Alexithymia Interferes With Empathy

 

I have received a number of inquiries about co-occurring conditions that I mentioned in my column on social learning disorders. At the time I wrote the column, my goal was to emphasize the social challenges Autism Spectrum Disorders present. I believe it is appropriate to go a little further into a description of one of the disabilities that contributes to the dysfunction of a complex neurological process that occurs naturally in non-affected people. People who suffer from Asperger's Disorder, and a percentage of those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, have minimal access to their inner emotions and lack appreciation for the emotional states of others.

A condition called Alexithymia makes it difficult for sufferers to initiate and maintain relationships. It causes an inability to maintain awareness of the needs of others while simultaneously paying attention to one's own needs. In Daniel Goleman's book, Emotional Intelligence, he describes some of the disability's characteristics. Those with Alexithymia tend not to fantasize or daydream, lack awareness of their feelings and have limited emotional vocabularies. They dream in black and white, cannot tell bodily sensations from emotions and struggle with decision making because they lack "gut feeling". The social nuances of relationship maintenance and management are lost on them and the resulting anxiety can at times become unmanageable. Social isolation, unrelenting teasing that is common, results in few if any social relationships which then perpetuates a never ending cycle. This is not only hard for the sufferer, but also difficult to understand from a classmate's or co-worker's perspective.

To date, the research suggests that non-sufferers are neurologically hardwired to recognize internal emotional states and empathize with the emotional states of others. Normally this allows adjustments to be made, as needed, in the bonding process. This is crucial for maintaining a mutually rewarding exchange of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Autism Spectrum Disorders appear to manifest from a broken neuron system that prevents the proper functioning of mirroring. Mirror neurons are part of a powerful relay system that makes it possible for the brain to input and export information, verbally and non-verbally, that keeps us connected with other people. We cannot survive individually, or as a species, without connectedness.

Empathy is the glue that holds two or more people together until a relationship solidifies. Empathy is emotional, cognitive and motor in nature. Motor skills are how the brain expresses thoughts and feelings with the body. It is clear, that those with Asperger's Disorder, have significant difficulties with cognitive and emotional empathy, and less clear problems with emotional empathy. The inability to appreciate the thoughts and feelings of others, problems with verbalizing feelings, lack of enjoyment and pleasure seeking, and stiff wooden posture, prevent fitting in with people. The resulting social isolation is true suffering.

Behavioral neurologists, speech-language pathologists, and mental health professionals can help. Behavioral-neurologists are hard to find in the private sector and usually attach themselves to research universities. With time and a lot of practice, a person can become more aware of the emotional states of others through learning that helps them compensate for a missing natural ability.

In addition to the Spectrum Disorders, it has been suggested that 25% of those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder have alexythymia. Many also do not have good visual-spacial skills and have deficient social memory systems. This means that social experiences are not generalized from one situation to the next.

Getting too far into the personal space of another person can cause rejection or retaliation. Many times when confronted by a parent or teacher, the child or adult with attention deficit disorder begins his or her defense by pointing out what the other person did to them. In reality, they do not remember, in a meaningful way, what they did to invite the retaliation. This is hard for most adults to accept and punishment is handed out without considering the underlying neurological causes.


Bruce A. Fountain, MS is a licensed marriage and family therapist. He has a practice in Redlands, CA and can be reached at (909) 792-9797 or via e-mail at bruce@brucefountain.com.

 
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