Emotional intelligence is something that is an important topic of conversation i think for everyone, not just autistic people. I say this because what I have observed both in (Western) culture and among my friends when they’re talking about a dispute is that it’s very common for a lot of people to just be quite selfish and think only of what they want in a situation.
I’m thinking particularly of a story I read recently about a woman who was getting married and in the process of insisting that all of her friends spend $1500 on attending her wedding, managed to lose her friends, best friend since childhood and fiance because of her unreasonableness.
So I think a lot of people are guilty of not thinking of others, and I think that that is really a major source of self-development for all of humanity. This is of course more challenging for autistic people because we are more oriented to systems rather than people so imagining what they are thinking or feeling is more difficult. I also rated very highly all on almost all of the alexithymia categories on the test that @nickyjwatkinson posted.
Something I have noticed among autistic people who are more successful at navigating emotional situations than others is that they have often set out to actively seek out information and activities that allows them to observe and practice ways of being with other people in a way that they will appreciate. People who enrol on course in counselling, active listening, explicitly EQ development etc., approaching this with the systematic and intellectal capacities that we do have can help quite a lot. I am an ordained minister and part of my training involved learning to counsel people and understand what they were really communicating underneath the basics of what they were saying. Example: I took part in a training dialogue with the Samaritans where ostensibly a person was calling me to tell me about how upset they were at the fact that their roof was leaking, and as the call went on and we talked about the practicalities of this roof, it turned out that what they were really upset was the fact that their husband had passed away and wasn’t around to fix the roof anymore, and every time they thought about it, it reminded them of that loss. That really impacted me in the way I thought about dealing with people in pain. What a lot of people are looking for is a recognition of and validation of their feelings, and that once that is identified and given, you can pursue a logical resolution.
That can be even more difficult if the person really isn’t sure what they are upset about or able to communicate it. I was once having a families’ meeting with a chap who was severely psychotic and could not sustain a sentence, this was five days after he’d been put into an isolation room in PICU (Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit) and had still managed to break a nurse’s hand. He could barely think and certainly had little insight. And I was sitting there talking to his parents about his care and afterwards asked him if he had any questions, and he started talking about an episode of Eastenders he’d once seen. It was very difficult, and very broken because he was able to give me almost no direct information in response to questions, but I listened as hard as I could, eventually figured it out and said, “You’re asking me whether your cannabis use has made this happen to you?” and he nodded, and I was able to break it down for him as much as he could understand and have a longer conversation with his parents about the impact of drug use on psychosis that they could impart when he was more recovered.
Now, I am pretty autistic. I treated all of those conversations from a rational and intellectual place, but it is my belief that you don’t have to feel people’s emotions, or relate to them, in order to guess where they’re coming from. I think in some ways this actively hampers us from doing so if we only try to think about how I would feel in that position. I am white, I’m middle class, I’m well educated, and how I would react to any given situation is going to be different from how someone is not those things might do. Someone was stabbed under my window last week and someone was saying to me, oh, don’t you feel unsafe and I was like, no, I think that we have a problem in London where young men get themselves into situations with each other where they have a reputation to defend where in the heat of an argument, backing down or negotiating is a form of intolerable humiliation and that’s when the knives come out, and now that’s been established as a way of saving face, stabbings are increasing in London. The same man would probably be very polite to me if we were standing on a crowded tube. The neurotypical person I was speaking to was like, “oh yeah, hadn’t thought of it like that” - she’d just imagined herself in that situation and how frightened she would have been and not considered how incredibly unlikely it was that she ever would have found herself there in the first place. To understand other people, I think you have to build up a range of profiles in your head and select from them, and I don’t think that requires emotional capacity, you can do that entirely from the intellectual engine.
I think where autistic people have a gift though, is that because many of us are somewhat detached from getting too swept up in the emotions of others, actually, with proper training, that makes us great facilitators of difficult conversations. Sometimes, you have to be willing to inflict short-term pain for someone’s long-term benefit and tell them something that they don’t want to hear. And you can learn, through practice, how to deliver that pain in a way that the person feels that you mean well for them and you don’t end up getting stabbed.
This doesn’t apply to all of us, there are some people who’ve report that they find emotion of any kind expressed around them to be overwhelming and unmanageable, but I don’t think that we as a people are anywhere near as objectively impaired in this area as some make out.