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Emotional Differences among Individuals with Autism or Asperger’s

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The Way I See It

Emotional Differences Among Individuals with Autism or Asperger’s

by Temple Grandin, PhD

Autism Asperger’s Digest | September/October 2006


I gained some valuable insights into both myself and others on the autism spectrum when I worked with Sean Barron on our book, Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism. There were areas where Sean and I shared similar emotions and other areas where emotional relatedness was experienced almost opposite one another. We both are independent, well-functioning adults, with varied interests and social relationships, yet our social-emotional development took very different paths.

We were similar in two main areas: rigid, black and white thinking and singular obsessions. In elementary school, Sean obsessed over the exact angle of parked school busses. My obsession was collecting election and wrestling posters. Both of us bored other people silly talking about our favorite things.

We also shared a rigid thinking style. Sean describes how he built an airplane from Tinker Toys and became enraged when one small, inconsequential part had been left out. Instead of taking pride in his accomplishment and realizing how minor the little part was, he smashed the airplane to pieces. In his mind, you either built the model correctly, or you failed. I had a similar experience when I started designing cattle corrals. One of my early clients was not completely satisfied with my work. I did not realize that it is impossible to please everybody. In my mind, his dissatisfaction meant I may have to give up cattle corral design forever. Fortunately, my good friend Jim Uhl, the contractor who built the corrals, talked me into continuing my design work.

Emotionally Sean and I are very different. I solve social problems with logic and “instant replays” of the mistakes I made, using my strong, visual imagination. I analyze these photo-realistic replays of social missteps as would a football coach analyzing his team’s maneuvers. My satisfaction in life comes through interests I can share with other people and a challenging career. Sean is a word thinker; he has to figure things out in words and emotions. He feels connected to people via his emotions. Whereas I replaced emotional complexity with intellectual complexity, Sean strove to gain social-emotional relatedness.

My emotions are all in the present. I can be angry but I get over it quickly. When I replay scenes, the emotions are no longer attached to them. Sean had a lingering seething anger I do not have. More like so-called “normal” people, he can get angry and it can simmer like a pot on a stove. In our book, Sean describes becoming jealous of his dog’s social skills. It made him jealous that his parents and sister responded more positively to the dog than to him. It would have never crossed my mind to be jealous of a dog’s social skills.

However, Sean picked up more social cues than I did. If people tolerated me and did not tease or yell, I was satisfied. When I first started visiting feedlots, the cowboys thought I was totally weird. As long as they allowed me to help work cattle, I was happy. Their impressions of me didn’t cause me “hardship” or sad feelings. To “fit in” within my work environment, I had to prove my worth by being really good at what I did. I sold my skills and work, not my personality. With Sean, having the feeling of “being connected” was more important.

Unwritten Rules contains many examples of the social-emotional similarities and differences between Sean and me. However, the basic difference in how Sean and I perceive the world is this: I am what I do and Sean’s sense of being is what he feels. In the future, brain scans will be able to identify the differences between individuals’ social-emotional functioning. I speculate that Sean, and individuals on the spectrum like him, have a few more social-emotional neural connections in their brain than do I, or individuals like me, with stronger visual, logic processing styles.



Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems, and is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today. She is the author of numerous books on autism and is a worldwide speaker on autism topics. Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, coauthored with Sean Barron and Veronica Zysk, captured a prestigious Silver Award in the 2006 ForeWord magazine Book of the Year competition. Her previous book, Animals in Translation (2005) was on the New York Times Bestseller list. For more information visit www.templegrandin.com

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2006. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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