Most of us use a balance of logic and emotion in how we think and experience the world. Our social radar makes us aware of how people are feeling by noticing facial expressions, body language and verbal clues such as tone of voice. For example: “Oh great. That’s very clever”, said with eye contact and enthusiasm expresses appreciation. Said with a flat tone and no smile, it can mean the exact opposite. But what happens when your social radar doesn’t pick up on these signals?
I recently visited Richard Hall, a Systems Engineer with a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, and psychotherapist, Peter Flowerdew to find out about a new approach to help bridge the gap of understanding between two groups of people whose brains, or neurobiology, operate in very different ways.
The criteria for a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome looks at difficulties with social communication, restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour, activity or interests from a young age that impair everyday functioning and an over-or-under sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain. Recently, there has been a move away from using this diagnosis in favour of a more general term ‘autism spectrum’. However, Peter and his colleagues are targeting their training specifically to people with Asperger syndrome, or Aspies, whether formally diagnosed or self-identified. Instead of focussing on deficits, they’re interested in people’s strengths and personality types.
Aspies and neurotypicals – people not on the autism spectrum – can have difficulty understanding each other, which often leads to unhelpful judgements such as “she’s rude” or “he’s unfriendly”. But, the truth is that as human beings we all need intimacy and acceptance and we are all trying to get these basic needs met.
The different engine: using transactional analysis to bridge the communication gap
Peter believes that Transactional Analysis can help. Peter, Richard and Christine, a computer graphics specialist with Asperger syndrome, created ‘The Different Engine’ – a website that explains their ethos and approach – and has developed a training programme for Aspies, their friends, employers, teachers and counsellors… and anyone else who is interested.
“We give Aspies the tools, not to fit into an alien world by sacrificing their individuality to please others, but to navigate that world; to get outcomes that they want, to express their individuality in a way that Neurotypicals can accept and support,” they state on the website.
Transactional Analysis (TA) is a detailed analysis of how we react to other people and to the voices in our head. By analysing social transactions, it aims to make us more aware of why we think and behave the way we do and to provide a clear pathway for making changes, if we want to.
TA first came to public attention in 1964 when Eric Berne, the founder of this approach, published ‘Games People Play’, which was followed by ‘I’m OK you’re OK’ written by his friend Thomas Anthony Harris.
The Different Engine training takes the key concepts of TA – ego states, transactions, scripts, life positions the Johari Window (a way of understanding that there are parts of the self which are open to public view, and some that are hidden) – and builds on them to give both Aspies and neurotypicals an appreciation of what it takes to be OK in ourselves and OK with others. It makes conversation easier and, crucially it enables people to predict where there might be trouble ahead and to take action before misunderstandings take place.
‘Life that includes Asperger’s – Creating a dialogue between two different types of mind’ is a course consisting of five weekends or three three-day weekends at a cost of £160 each weekend. The programme teaches Aspies and neurotypicals together, introducing transactional analysis and using it to explain neurotypical behaviour to Aspies and vice versa. Find out more about the course on their website: https://www.thedifferentengine.net/.