Conversational Aspergian: Lesson 1 – Sensory Sensitivity is Not Empathy

“I happen to know that my sensitivity is my strength.” ~ Hannah Gadsby

Is your partner just insensitive?

It occurred to me that NeuroDivergent couples regularly make the mistake of assuming that their words mean the same thing to both the NeuroTypical and the NeuroDiverse. Clearly there is more to the words than each realizes. Arguments erupt over this mistake as the couple circles around and around mincing the words, arguing over their meanings, and eventually believing the worst of their loved one.

The transactional partner (the Autist) states things as if they know the truth of the matter (which is only from their point of view). Or they may ask a question that makes no sense to their NeuroTypical partner. The interactional partner (the NeuroTypical) keeps tossing out prompts to get the two of them on the same emotional page. These are very different goals and they never seem to meet.

Eventually the NeuroTypical complains that their NeuroDiverse partner doesn’t “care about me.” The NeuroDiverse person complains that their NT loved one is “illogical” and has a “double standard.” Both come to worry that their partner is just not that sensitive.

What’s the difference between transactional and interactional communication?

What they are both missing is that the same word or sentence can convey a very different intent depending upon whether the person is primarily transactional or interactional in their thinking and processing their thoughts and feelings.

Let me give you the example of Ruthie and Ronnie

Ruthie is obviously annoyed as she describes an incident at dinner this week. “I asked Ronnie to pass the salad,” she said. “But do you know what he did? It’s unbelievable!”

“No, I don’t Ruthie,” I said. “What did he say?”

“He asked me, ‘Which salad?’ I was stunned. I pointed to the only salad on the table, sitting right in front of him, and said, ‘That salad! The one in front of you!’ I was exasperated and he knew it. How could he get salad mixed up?”

I turned to Ronnie to seek some clarification. “Ronnie, was there perhaps another salad you thought Ruthie was referencing?”

Ronnie looked embarrassed as he admitted he had become confused. “Yes,” he said. “I thought Ruthie might have meant she wanted me to get the fruit salad from the fridge, that was left-over from last night. Why is Ruthie so upset over salad? All I did was ask a simple question.”

If this sounds familiar, I’d like to introduce you to a schema that might help clear up these crazy mixups. “Conversational Aspergian” is my light hearted title for an online course I am creating to help you get to the bottom of these misunderstandings. If you are going to find a healthier and more loving way to communicate in your NeuroDivergent relationship, you will need to learn Conversational Aspergian.

When one person thinks transactionally and the other person thinks interactionally, the result is nearly always a confusing mix-up. Once you get it that no one means harm, you can slow down and try a new approach.

For example, interactional Ruthie might have said, “The salad sitting in front of you, honey. Did you have another salad in mind?”

Transactional Ronnie could have said, “Oh I was wondering if you wanted me to take the fruit salad out of the fridge.”

Ruthie could have followed up with, “Oh, I see your confusion. I was planning to mix a little whipped cream into the fruit salad to serve it for dessert. I guess I forgot to mention that to you. Will that work for dessert for you?”

Now that Ronnie has more clarity about “salads,” he could probably have relaxed and finished his meal with a smile, as he awaited the delicious dessert his wife had in store for them.

What does sensitivity mean to a transactional person?

Hannah Gadsby is an Australian comedian, who tackles difficult topics such as gender politics, mental health, and social issues. She is also autistic.

In the quote above she self-describes herself as sensitive and that it is her strength. But what does that mean to Gadsby. How does she know she is sensitive? How does her form of sensitivity contribute to strength?

How would you interpret her comment? I suspect that NeuroTypicals would interpret sensitivity very differently than Gadsby and most Autists.

Gadsby is aware of her emotions, that she is sensitive to her feelings. That is a kind of strength. To know that you are feeling something is an awareness of being alive and reacting to the world around us.

However, Gadsby is not very clear about why her sensitivity is a strength. It just is. This is a transactional concept, a black and white statement of fact. She leaves the interpretation of sensitivity to others, as if all that matters is how she feels — to herself.

Taken from the interactive NeuroTypical perspective, sensitivity is a strength because it allows us to read the other person, to connect on an emotional level to others, to be able to relate interpersonally.

To be sensitive to one’s emotions and to notice them is a strength, but it is hardly empathic. Empathy means to take the awareness of your feelings in relation to the other’s feelings, and to see oneself as part of an interactive whole experience.

Is transactional sensitivity empathy or just cleverness?

The reciprocity of empathy is not what Gadsby suggests by the strength of her sensitivity. I have watched her on talk shows and it is clear that she is highly intelligent and quickly picks up on the patterns observable in the behavior of others. She comments on these behavioral patterns, even mocking other guests on the talk show. She gets laughs but is this sensitive or just clever?

During one of these talk show interviews, and when Gadsby was asked if she would like to continue the conversation after the show, she promptly declined. She admitted that her autism is a “social thing” that creates anxiety for her when put on the spot to have an interactional relating moment.

Applying Conversational Aspergian

If you start using the principles of Conversational Aspergian, it will be easier to read between the lines to get the meaning. When Gadsby says, “I happen to know that my sensitivity is my strength,” I doubt she is referring to empathy, but to her own ability to sense the emotional field.

Using the new model, a conversation with transactional and Autistic Gadsby may go like this.

“So, I heard you say that your sensitivity is your strength. I am curious about what you mean by ‘strength.’?”

Gadsby might say, “What has helped me survive so much hardship has been my humor.”

“I can see that having a sense of humor certainly can help you survive the tough life you have had. But I don’t see what that has to do with sensitivity. Could you explain?”

Gadsby might quip. “Yeah, I get that a lot from people who have never had to go through what I have!”

“That’s a bit presumptuous Ms. Gadsby. You don’t know much about me and I have been through some very tough times myself. But honestly, I was asking about your definition of sensitivity — you know as it applies to you – and why you think it is your strength.”

At this point, I suspect Gadsby would draw a blank look. Overwhelmed by my strong position and questions, she may pause, close her eyes to think. Then perhaps, should would say, “Well you know it’s an Autistic thing, to feel a lot.”

Assuming Gadsby will allow me a teachable moment, I might try to help her with her confusion. I could be wrong and she won’t allow it, but let’s see where this goes.

“Would you be surprised Ms. Gadsby to learn that all people are sensitive to their own emotions — albeit some more than others? And I can confirm that being sensitive to one’s feelings is a strength too. But if you are only aware of your feelings and don’t know how to communicate with others about their feelings, then how is being sensitive a strength? In my mind sensitivity is a strength when you can use it to connect to others.

“Empathy is the ability to be sensitive to yourself and others, while at the same time, speaking to the points between you that bring understanding, rapport and mutual respect. The real strength is using your sensitivity to reach out to others and touch them where they are sensitive too. Empathy is far more than being sensitive. It is to share the human experience.”

Share the human experience with Conversational Aspergian

I wouldn’t say that learning to speak Conversational Aspergian is easy, but I can say that it is necessary if you are to restore the love to your NeuroDivergent relationship. It is a kindness to slow down and try to speak the other person’s language. It is also a kindness to yourself, to insist that your partner consider another way to look at the world — through your eyes.

Try to remember that love grows where both people try to create a win-win conversation. Use your sensitivity to understand the other and to connect.

4 Replies to “Conversational Aspergian: Lesson 1 – Sensory Sensitivity is Not Empathy”

  1. Is your course Conversational Aspergian (beyond Lesson 1, which is introductory) which was very mind blowing and I can relate to how sensitivity as someone with ASD is transactional and is sensitive to my own feelings but I recognize more clearly that I lack the empathy to understand things from my NT wife’s perspective and/or how to relate ( and be receptive) to her feelings and viewpoint. My personal ASD therapist, Dr. Ezra Lockhart framed this in terms of individual perceptions of reality. There is “reality” or a truth but it loses its objectivity since each person’s perception of reality is more than likely going to be different. Both people’s perceptions of reality are correct and it is important for me to accept my spouse’s reality as true for her and vice-versa. At that point, if things have become too heated, then it is time to say “broccoli” our code word for taking a time out. There is a competition going on that, I feel is unhealthy for both of us and the emotional hurt is goes both ways. So much to learn and try to incorporate into our respective dialogs.

  2. When is your book or text on Conversational Aspergian going to become available? I hope that it is divided into two parts one geared for the NT learning to be transactional; and the second part that is geared to the ND learner dialogs and work arounds for the fact we are limited in interactional communications and radiant empathy.

    I think that might be a good approach. This might conceivably be like a workbook where we the students get examples and then also have to compose examples and defend why the example would work. Food for thought. I think it would sell well too.

    1. Great suggestions. I thought the project on Conversational Aspergian would be completed by now but I am only halfway there.

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