3. Myth: Adults with AS have social phobia.
Fact: While adults with Asperger’s do struggle with anxiety, they don’t have social phobia. Gaus said that people with social phobia have the social skills to interact and communicate with others but they’re afraid to use those skills. In other words, they’re “socially skilled but have a distorted belief that the outcome [of their interactions] will be poor.”
For people with Asperger’s, however, avoiding interactions is more about self-preservation, she said. They’re well aware that they’re unable to read cues or know the appropriate thing to say. They’ve also made mistakes in the past and experienced rejection, she added.
4. Myth: Adults with AS are aloof and uninterested in others.
Fact: “Most people I meet are very interested in wanting to have people in their lives,” Gaus said. Some even feel desperate that they haven’t been able to connect with others, she said. But oftentimes, their social skill deficits convey the message that they just don’t care.
That’s because people with Asperger’s easily miss cues, don’t know when to stop talking about themselves and may not realize that others have different thoughts and feelings, she said. Or “they simply don’t have a repertoire of responses.”
Gaus gave the example of a co-worker telling someone with Asperger’s that their cat died and the person just walks away. Of course, this makes it seem like the person is incredibly insensitive. But they do care; they just may not know what to say, she said.
5. Myth: They don’t make any eye contact.
Fact: Gaus recounted how a psychiatrist once questioned whether a patient had Asperger’s because he looked in his eyes. “Many actually do make eye contact, but it just might be in a fleeting or unusual way,” she said.
6. Myth: They lack empathy.
Fact: “Empathy is a complicated concept,” Gaus said. Some researchers have divided empathy into four components: two called “cognitive empathy” and two called “emotional empathy.” People with Asperger’s struggle with cognitive empathy but have no problem with emotional empathy, she said.
Take the above example: The person with Asperger’s isn’t able to intellectually infer that the co-worker who lost their cat might be sad, especially in the moment. They might realize this hours later at home. “But when they do know the person is sad, they are able to feel that sadness without any difficulty, perhaps even more intensely than typical people,” she said. In other words, “they have difficult expressing empathy in a conventional way.” It’s a problem of communication, not empathy, she said.