Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Compliment Catch

My family members and I all struggle with self-esteem. All of us have been depressed at some point in our lives. Three out of us have been victims of child sexual abuse, and the fourth has been bullied in school. One of us has a diagnosed neurodevelopmental disability and the other three all have features suggesting similar conditions, and we've all been exposed to prejudice as a result.

So, recently, we thought up a game called 'Compliment Catch'.

The rules are simple - one person gives another a compliment, and then the complimented person gives a compliment back. Then another person gives a compliment, and so on and so forth.

I figure I should post this here in case another family might benefit from playing this game as well. It's especially great for people who have many positive qualities but tend not to see these qualities themselves.

(Incidentally, my brother's compliments to me made me realize something. Whenever he tells me how much I've helped him, specifically, that gives me a special feeling. The help I've given to people outside my family, I can explain it away when I'm in a low mood. But what I've done for my brother, for some reason, I can't explain it away.)

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Why Aren't Autistic People Psychopaths?

Among many autistic people, the confusion of autism with psychopathy is a major Berserk Button. (Psychopaths mostly react with amusement and confusion.) But it's not just lay-people who confuse the two - psychopathy researchers do too.

Many of the major theories about psychopathy, if accurate, would predict that autistics should have psychopathic traits.

Take Blair's Violence Inhibition Mechanism (VIM) theory. Drawing an analogy to animals who have certain nonverbal cues of 'surrender' (eg a dog lying flat against the ground with ears back and whimpering), this theory suggests that most individuals are hardwired to suppress aggressive behavior in response to distress cues (fear and sadness). Over time, through learning, this gets extended into a moral code in which behavior that harms others is forbidden. This leads to the moral-conventional distinction seen in virtually all non-psychopaths, in which harm-causing violations (but not social convention violations) are described as wrong regardless of what authority figures say or what norms exist in society. Since psychopaths have difficulty recognizing fear and sadness, and distress cues don't elicit negative affect in them, this connection doesn't get made and the basic foundation of morality is absent.

Problem is, autistics are also poor at recognizing fear and sadness (along with every other emotion, of course). Even though distress cues elicit negative affect in autistics (Blair [1999]), in everyday life autistics will effectively see these cues a lot less often and a lot more inconsistently than neurotypicals do. The connection between their own actions and this sympathy-induced negative affect should be less strong in autistics, resulting in a weaker moral-conventional distinction and more real-life antisocial behavior. However, autistic people score completely normally on the moral-conventional distinction and aren't any more likely to engage in criminal behavior.

Another thread of research comes up with a similar problem. Dadds et al (2006) found that telling psychopathic children to look at the person's eyes eliminated their difficulties in recognizing fear, and in a later study they confirmed that psychopaths pay less attention to people's eyes when trying to recognize emotions (though Rime et al [1978] found that psychopaths made more eye contact when talking with an interviewer, so this may be a situation-specific phenomenon). They suggest that lack of eye gaze could interfere with attachment in early childhood and have a cascading effect on the child's emotional development. Indeed, Frodi et al (2001) found that offenders, regardless of psychopathy, showed extremely low rates of secure attachment. In particular the dismissing style, in which the individual doesn't seem to think attachment is important, was very common. Cause and effect can't be established based on this, but it is supportive.

In contrast, although autistic kids do show lower rates of attachment security, this appears to be mostly due to parental reactions to having a disabled child. In particular, it shows no relationship to autistic social symptoms, and many autistic kids show clear evidence of secure attachment. In particular, many autistic kids who avoid eye contact show secure attachment, despite making far less eye contact than psychopaths do.

So, the fact that autism and psychopathy are clearly distinct conditions means that researchers, when trying to explain psychopathy, should avoid explanations that apply to autism as well. Specifically, they should ask the question - what's different between autism and psychopathy?

With regards to the moral conventional distinction, it's interesting to note Leslie et al (2006)'s study, in which autistic and NT children were asked to evaluate, along with standard moral-conventional vignettes, a vignette involving a 'crybaby'. Specifically, James & Tammy have both been given cookies, and James wants to eat Tammy's cookie as well as his own. Tammy eats her cookie, and James starts to cry. Both autistic and NT children agreed that Tammy hadn't done anything wrong, even though her actions made James cry. This indicates that mere distress cues are not enough to explain the moral-conventional distinction.

So, what does underly the moral-conventional distinction? Is it a sense of fairness? Even many animals show a sense of fairness, and fairness is obviously relevant to moral concerns. Maybe the moral-conventional distinction works on the 'golden rule' - the child can imagine not wanting others to engage in moral transgressions even if they weren't forbidden, whereas their only objection to social conventional transgressions is when someone else gets to do it while they can't. It would be interesting to study the sense of fairness in psychopaths. The only study that has directly examined this did find that psychopaths had less concern for equality than non-psychopaths.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

What I Want and What I Fear

I've been thinking over how I feel about my abuser - the one who may have reformed. (On a good note: she didn't flirt with my Dad at all, a big change from her teenage behavior.) I think I've figured out some of my reasons, pro and con.


I don't remember the abuse

Repressed memories are real. I know, because my own memories are repressed. I know I was abused, I have court records to prove it, I just don't remember it. My one and only abuse memory is of her in the bathroom while I'm on the toilet, and she's touching my crotch.

If she were to admit what she did, she could answer a lot of questions. Fill in the holes in my memory. When did it start? (For her at least, I don't think she knew what her brother was doing to me.) What exactly did she do? Why didn't I tell - did she threaten me or just convince me?

Understanding Her

I have two very different theories about her brother. Both of them make sense to me, lead me to understand his behavior and sympathize with him. He's either a psychopath or he had Reactive Attachment Disorder. I'm not sure which of the two theories is true, but both would explain why he abused me, in a way I could understand.

I don't understand her. And I'd really like to. If she were willing to admit to the abuse, she could tell me her reasons. She could paint out the chain of logic that led to her abusing a child. And I'd finally be able to make her fit in my view of the world, make her make sense to me, just like I have with her brother.

Practice What I Preach

I believe there are no evil people, only evil actions. If you understand anyone's point of view, you'll know that everything they did made sense to them. They may have had limited or warped options. They may have been driven by a force they couldn't control. Psychological research makes it clear: No one choses to be evil. The people we call evil are just another kind of sick.

I know this viewpoint is likely to get me flak from other victims, the ones who've invested energy in anger, in wanting vengeance. And I feel I owe it to them to do the hard thing. To put my actions where my mouth is, and show that I'm willing to reconcile. Doesn't mean I have to, if she's not ready for it - my viewpoint doesn't require me to get myself hurt again. But if she is ready, I won't turn her away. I owe it to the other victims, who are going to think I've abandoned them when I chose to study offenders.


She might hurt me

What if she isn't better? What if she's better than she was before, but still abusive or in denial? What if I ask her why and she blames me for it?

She could tear me apart emotionally with a single wrong word. I keep telling myself I'm strong, I can self-advocate, I can defend myself - but I can't. Just like walking into school turns me into a 9 year old again, meeting her will turn me into a 4 year old emotionally. That's how trauma works. You tend to get frozen in time.

I can only meet with her if I know it's safe. If she's ready to admit that she abused me, admit that it was wrong, and be gentle. I need that assurance, or she'll hurt me again.

I might hurt her

She was a victim herself, of abuse far worse than what she did to me. She never had a pair of loving parents when she was a little girl. Her father tore her apart emotionally, trained her to seek out abuse and to perpetrate it herself. She didn't know what love really was.

I don't know how vulnerable she still is. If I say or do the wrong thing, she might retreat into the skills she used to survive - the distortion, the seductiveness, the abuse. Or she might fall apart in a new way. She seems to be finally healing. I don't want to mess that up.

Right after the funeral, I had a weird dream that twigged me to this fear. I was in an elevator, being harassed by some guy who had something to do with the phrase 'zombie eleven'. (It seemed to make sense at the time.) There was an elevator button 'zombie eleven', too. Suddenly, he reached for that button and I panicked, whipped out a knife and slit his throat. Then I was horrified at what I'd done, knowing it wasn't self-defense - sure he'd hurt me earlier, but at that moment, he was just reaching for an elevator button. And, as I thought over where I needed to be, it was precisely the button I needed. He'd been doing me a favour.

I can't be responsible for her

When I posted asking advice about this on a forum, someone mentioned that maybe I could help her heal. But it was my parents trying to help her and her brother heal that got me hurt in the first place, and all their work did nothing. Support certainly helps in healing, but by far the most important thing is to want to heal, and she didn't want it then.

If I let myself take responsibility for her healing, it'll tear me apart. I can't trust that I won't screw it up, and get herself and others hurt. (Maybe those children CPS took away?) I can't allow myself to feel responsible for anything she does, because if she hurts someone, I can't bear for it to be my fault. So I refuse to believe that I could be a deciding factor in her healing.

If I do this, I have to do it for me, not for her.