Thursday 19 March 2015

Decoding Human Convention, Emotions and Out-of-Synch Development

As you will have likely seen, last month saw the passing of Leonard Nimoy, who will likely be familiar to many readers of this blog as he was to millions worldwide as the original Star Trek crew's Mr Spock. a character popular with many adults with Asperger's Syndrome. Coincidentally, the evening before Nimoy's death was announced, I was talking about the character he famously played in a lecture to the MA (Hons) Autism students at Northumbria University, looking at how Spock often appears to have similar confusions in understanding human courtship that many adults with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, feel they have and can relate to.

Those who have attended one of my Asperger's Syndrome workshops may well remember the 'boomerang exercise', where I ask two audience participants to describe to one another what the item is and what it is used for. Normally, if two participants speak and understand the same language, such a task should be easy, but one is taken out of their comfort zone when I say that one of the participants has to imagine that they are an extra-terrestrial visitor to Earth, and don't know any human languages or social gestures. The task is then made substantially harder when one can't use language, but the other can. Participants often describe how they find the experience both confusing and frustrating. but this is how it can sometimes feel like to be a person with Asperger's Syndrome.

Similarly, as a Vulcan working within a human crew, Mr Spock experiences similar confusion in recognising and interpreting the many shapes and forms of communication in non-verbal form which are often also just as invisible to many people with Asperger's Syndrome, including eye-contact and facial expressions. Like people with Asperger's Syndrome, to be able to function socially among Earth people, Spock finds he has to learn their non-verbal social cues by observation as they aren't natural or habitual as they are to the Earth people with whom he shares a starship. In this way, people with Asperger's Syndrome are almost like 'actors', learning non-verbal social cues from practice.

Spock with his human mother, Amanda
The 'social blindness' Spock often experienced working within a human crew also puts in in a position where he is able to observe human behaviour from an outside perspective. For Nimoy to play Spock, it would almost have been like an 'actor playing an actor', which would have enabled both himself and the character he played to provide an examination of humanity, including what it means human. Often forgotten though is that Spock's mother was human, so Spock had some human characteristics, which were often hidden by his Vulcan social presentation, one of which was empathy, something which again people with Asperger's Syndrome are often described as lacking. In reality though, many adults with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, feel as though they have a lot of empathy, often more so for others than themselves. Some are also known to become over-emphatic to the extent that someone else's problems or issues almost become theirs. Often though, it tends not to come across to others as feels of empathy and understanding are often hidden by absence of facial expression, which sees people with Asperger's Syndrome come across as unintentionally 'cold'. Balancing and recognising external expression with internal feeling is a difficult art for many people with Asperger's Syndrome to master.        

When we think about it, that we have ways of addressing and recognising each other, names, and in some cases titled hierarchy, is simply only human convention. Equally confusing in making sense of non-verbal communication for people with Asperger's Syndrome can be unawareness of what their own non-verbal presentation, which could possibly result from any sensory issues they may face in a social situation or anxiety triggers. Anxiety triggers that a person with Asperger's Syndrome may experience in a social situation could involve being worried about how they are being perceived by others around them, or perhaps from frustration of not being able to understand or relate to certain topics of conversation.

The original Star Trek crew meet Sargon
From anxiety, bodily tension often arises, making one feel uncomfortable in their physical body. Such bodily discomfort often reminds me of a particular episode of the original Star Trek's season two, Return to Tomorrow, in which the crew encounter a telepathic being, Sargon, who comes from a lifeless planet. or at least the planet is devoid of life in forms that the crew of SS Enterprise know it to exist. Existing in the form of energy contained in a sphere without substance, Sargon, his wife Thalassa and his former enemy Henoch are oblivious to physical sensations that are familiar to life forms that inhabit physical bodies, where they arise and pass frequently, some of which are more or less noticeable than others. However, when Sargon, Thalassa and Henoch inhabit the bodies of Captain Kirk, Dr Mulhall and Spock respectively, after initially experiencing the joy of what it is like to feel sensations again after so many thousands of years, they then start to feel rather uncomfortable.

Looking at the energy without substance form in which Sargon exists, one can't help wonder what shapes and forms in which extra-terrestrial life may exist. Could it be possible that there is intelligent extra-terrestrial life that doesn't have a 'face' as humans would recognise, but has cognitive ability and/or syntax? Unfortunately, distances across space, and more crucially time, means that there is only a very remote chance that projects such as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) could succeed within a human or extra-terrestrial time frame. For instance, an extra-terrestrial civilisation may have died out by the time radio messages beamed from Earth reach the planet it inhabited. Similarly, humankind may well have died out long before any radio messages sent by an extra terrestrial civilisation reach Earth.

Pattern of message beamed towards star cluster M13 from the Arecibo Radio Telescope, Puerto Rico, 1974 
Back on Earth, within human time, as an adult with Asperger's Syndrome, I feel that I experience it much where physical age and socio-emotional development seem to by 'out of synch'. Spending much time learning how to interact in the social world, often leaves little scope for learning about emotions and the heart, as well as understanding those of others around us. Understandably, many adults with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, may feel that, contrary to what their chronological age suggests, at the same time they may feel they are not socially or emotionally mature enough to make certain decisions about their life, that others of a similar chronological age might have already have experienced.

Such out-of-synch development also raises some interesting questions about autism and Asperger's Syndrome in later life, for both people on the autistic spectrum and others around them, including their families or next-of-kin. To help service providers prepare to meet the needs of chronologically older adults on the autistic spectrum, with funding from Autistica, Newcastle University, is inviting potential participants, including people on the spectrum themselves as well parents, relatives, carers etc. to be part of its Adult Autism Spectrum Cohort. More information on this much-needed project can be found at