Buddhism and Autism

Discuss your personal experience with the Dharma here. How has it enriched your life? What challenges does it present?

Buddhism and Autism

Postby dyanaprajna2011 » Sun Mar 24, 2013 7:25 pm

I've been wondering about this for some time, and I have questions, but I'm not sure where to start or even how to word them. But I'll try and at least start.

I have a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder called Asperger's Syndrome (forgetting for a moment that it's being stricken from the DSM-V). Now, in some ways, my autism and Buddhism perfectly compliment each other. However, there's certain things that I have particular difficulty with, and one in particular.

Buddhism teaches that one is to have compassion for all sentient beings, and with this I completely agree. However, being an Aspie, I have no sense of empathy, no matter how hard I try. Combine this with my lack of social skills, which has led me to be somewhat anti-social, and even cynical, and you have a recipe that sometimes leads to disaster. I oftentimes lose my temper, and this comes out especially with my kids, who are both autistic themselves, and this isn't the only circumstance where this happens. It's been extremely hard to control.

So, how do I deal with this, and what are some good practices to help keep my temper under control, as well as develop compassion and loving kindness, not to mention get rid of my cynicism?
"If you want to travel the Way of Buddhas and Zen masters, then expect nothing, seek nothing, and grasp nothing." -Dogen
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Re: Buddhism and Autism

Postby justsit » Sun Mar 24, 2013 8:29 pm

Thread on autism you might want to read here.
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Re: Buddhism and Autism

Postby undefineable » Sun Mar 24, 2013 9:24 pm

dyanaprajna2011 wrote:However, being an Aspie, I have no sense of empathy, no matter how hard I try.

This is not typcial of mild autism / asperger's syndrome. Autism 'cuts across' a range of personality types, and different styles and temperaments will be affected in different ways by the addition of autism (i.e. the subtraction of normal context-processing). I'm sure you'll agree that even this is a gross oversimplification, but we have to try and understand the world somehow, eh?

On the other hand, I can't see how concepts like 'empathy' could be very relevant to someone who isn't fully aware of the existence of other beings (due to severe autism), but if you google 'empathy' -particularly in this context- you'll find little to no agreement as to what the word actually means.

What is typical, perhaps, is for an 'aspie' to go through a social situation in which the other person is showing typical signs of mental pain, but to perceive these as random sensations of indeterminate meaning - Only later, when someone verbally explains what was going on, or (if among the 15+% of "aspies" who aren't "alexythymic") when reflecting on how the situation made them feel, do a large proportion (though by no means all) of aspies feel empathy on intellectually-processed verbal cues rather than intuitively-processed sensory ones. Many cognitive scientists label this 'sympathy' rather than 'empathy' because of its contrasting presentation - both to the mind of the subject and through outward expression.
dyanaprajna2011 wrote:Combine this with my lack of social skills, which has led me to be somewhat anti-social, and even cynical, and you have a recipe that sometimes leads to disaster. I oftentimes lose my temper, and this comes out especially with my kids, who are both autistic themselves, and this isn't the only circumstance where this happens. It's been extremely hard to control.

So, how do I deal with this, and what are some good practices to help keep my temper under control, as well as develop compassion and loving kindness, not to mention get rid of my cynicism?

If there's kids involved with this kind of problem, autistic or not, you should get help from a recognised professional as soon as possible, and maybe (in the meantime) reflect on how your actions could be harming those who you love. For my two cents, expressions of anger usually follow on the back of a claustrophobic feeling that there's no space left for anything else in my mind, though I'm not sure I get how your lack of social skills is making you 'cynical'; shamatha meditation might help you make use of the vast space that's already 'there' in your mind, but like 'justsit' I'd suggest moving across to the 'Autism' thread. I've tried to keep this thread burning, and have written a lot there lately on the ontological status of autism despite coming to terms with my own autism years ago, so I could do with a breather; others, I expect, are likely to offer other takes on your situation.
dyanaprajna2011 wrote:Buddhism teaches that one is to have compassion for all sentient beings, and with this I completely agree.
So what do you agree with this about, exactly? That all sentient beings should have compassion for you? :stirthepot: {C.f. Nietzsche.}
Seriously though, :namaste:
"Removing the barrier between this and that is the only solution" {Chogyam Trungpa - "The Lion's Roar"}
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Re: Buddhism and Autism

Postby dyanaprajna2011 » Sun Mar 24, 2013 10:33 pm

[quote=undefinable]This is not typcial of mild autism / asperger's syndrome. Autism 'cuts across' a range of personality types, and different styles and temperaments will be affected in different ways by the addition of autism (i.e. the subtraction of normal context-processing). I'm sure you'll agree that even this is a gross oversimplification, but we have to try and understand the world somehow, eh?[/quote]

Yeah, this tends to be one problem with autism. There's no one or few things that define it; it spans a range of symptoms that may or may not be shared by all people with autism.

What is typical, perhaps, is for an 'aspie' to go through a social situation in which the other person is showing typical signs of mental pain, but to perceive these as random sensations of indeterminate meaning - Only later, when someone verbally explains what was going on, or (if among the 15+% of "aspies" who aren't "alexythymic") when reflecting on how the situation made them feel, do a large proportion (though by no means all) of aspies feel empathy on intellectually-processed verbal cues rather than intuitively-processed sensory ones. Many cognitive scientists label this 'sympathy' rather than 'empathy' because of its contrasting presentation - both to the mind of the subject and through outward expression.


This may be where the confusion comes in. Of course, like you mentioned earlier, there's no one real definition of empathy, especially in this context.

If there's kids involved with this kind of problem, autistic or not, you should get help from a recognised professional as soon as possible, and maybe (in the meantime) reflect on how your actions could be harming those who you love.


I've seen several therapists, and have gotten a slight handle on my temper and anger. It's not as bad as it used to be, in that, especially with the kids, all I tend to do is yell. I'm not attempting to condone my actions, because I know of the damage it can do, but it is a sign that it's gotten better.

For my two cents, expressions of anger usually follow on the back of a claustrophobic feeling that there's no space left for anything else in my mind, though I'm not sure I get how your lack of social skills is making you 'cynical'; shamatha meditation might help you make use of the vast space that's already 'there' in your mind,


Good advice. I never thought about it being like a claustrophobic feeling. I don't think there's a direct link between being cynical and lack of social skills; I think my lack of social skills has led me to distrust people because it's hard for others, "neurotypical", to know about the how's and why's of why I do what I do, my idiocyncracies, and why I think differently.

but like 'justsit' I'd suggest moving across to the 'Autism' thread. I've tried to keep this thread burning, and have written a lot there lately on the ontological status of autism despite coming to terms with my own autism years ago, so I could do with a breather; others, I expect, are likely to offer other takes on your situation.


Thanks. I'll have to check it out.
"If you want to travel the Way of Buddhas and Zen masters, then expect nothing, seek nothing, and grasp nothing." -Dogen
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Re: Buddhism and Autism

Postby retrofuturist » Mon Mar 25, 2013 2:35 am

Greetings dyanaprajna2011,

A couple of thoughts from another aspie Buddhist...

I find I don't have a problem with empathy, but rather, the instantaneous outward expression/manifestation of it that people would expect to see. Sometimes registering and processing the emotion can take a bit longer, and the blank expression juxtaposes sharply against what others might expect to see in a particular circumstance. Then when they look at you funny for looking blankly, it just makes things worse because it makes your focus turn inwards, which makes empathy harder.

So... what I would recommend is any form of mental cultivation that actively encourages maitri/metta (loving kindness) and compassion. In fact, all four brahma-viharas in general would be worth practicing, as mudita (appreciation / sympathetic joy) will counter your cynicism, and upekkha (equanimity) will counter your propensity to react with anger. With these four brahma-viharas direct them also towards yourself as well as towards others - I cannot overstate that point, as beating yourself up is only going to make things worse - regarding yourself positively will help.

Furthermore, some form of mindfulness meditation, whether it be zazen (as practiced in Zen), vipassana (as practiced in Theravada) or some other equivalent practice that encourages non-reactive present moment awareness of your mindstate... even CBT will help, despite being secular.

Maitri,
Retro. :)
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Re: Buddhism and Autism

Postby BuddhaSoup » Mon Mar 25, 2013 3:36 am

Retro, I'm curious. What are your opinions regarding Asperger's being amenable to MBSR? I've tried to follow a bit Dr. Richie Davidson's work at U Wisconsin-Madison, and I understand he's working with individuals with PTSD, anxiety, depression and other cognitive disorders. I've not read any studies on MBSR with Asperger's, and am wonder if such a program would be beneficial? I also have clients with children with Asperger's and would always wish to know more so as to be of help to them.
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Re: Buddhism and Autism

Postby retrofuturist » Mon Mar 25, 2013 4:10 am

Greetings BuddhaSoup,

Unfortunately I don't really feel qualified to answer that, as my response was a combination of:

- My own personal experience as a Buddhist
- My experience of Aspergers and the way various practices have benefited me

I'm not really au fait with the way Aspergers is treated in medical / mental health circles because I've only ever looked at it from the Buddhist framework, and have never sought guidance from that realm, as I have been Buddhist longer than I've known I have Aspergers, and am happy with the solutions the Dharma provides.

I mentioned CBT in my earlier post only because I've been realiably informed that it is solidly founded in mindfulness (sati) principles, however I'm firmly of the view that for any meditation to be Buddhist it must be undertaken from a basis of Right View as a precursor, rather than just being a series of actions that somehow give rise to Right View.

Maitri,
Retro. :)
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Re: Buddhism and Autism

Postby BuddhaSoup » Mon Mar 25, 2013 4:34 am

Greetings to you and thanks, Retro.

I like the way that you expressed the idea that it is the Dharma that was the root path that has sustained you, even as your learned of Asperger's. And that this diagnosis, or any diagnosis that any of us might have or receive, is really amenable to the Dharma, perhaps solely. Early on, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the "founder" of MBSR, discussed this minfulness therapy approach in very Buddhist terms. He's now positioned it as secular, but it is revealing that this ancient Truth has in so many ways found a new home in modern cognitive therapies.

Deep bows and Metta.

Mike
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Re: Buddhism and Autism

Postby Konchog1 » Mon Mar 25, 2013 4:39 am

Depending on your understanding of Emptiness, you may wish to meditate on the absence of self or other to develop Empathy. (See image from Berzin, it's one way to do it.)

Also, personally, Shantideva's Engaging in the Deeds of Bodhisattva helps me a lot with my anger.

“Since the mind is not physical,
No one can ever destroy it.
It is strongly attached to the body
And so it is harmed by physical suffering.

Contempt, offensive speech,
And unpleasant words
Do not harm the body,
So then why, mind, are you so angry?”
-Bodhicaryavatara chapter 6 verses 52-53


“When my enemies are unhappy,
What am I pleased about?
My wishes alone
Will cause them no harm.”
-Bodhicaryavatara chapter 6 verse 87


etc.

Also Garchen Rinpoche

“When others blame you, they cannot add a fault to you that you do not possess. When others praise you, you are not becoming a greater person because of that. Whatever others say about you does not affect your faults and qualities. Only you can see whether you have this fault or not. If you do not have the fault for which you have been accused, there is no need to be upset, since criticism does not make you have the fault. If you do have that fault for which you have been accused, then the person pointing it out to you becomes your kind teacher helping you to improve.”
-Garchen Rinpoche, Mar 28, 2011


etc.

To summarize, just use pure logic for everything.
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