Other People's Words

Interview w/ Tony Attwood about autism in women and girls

Posted in Uncategorized by Tera on November 11, 2010

This is a transcript of Autism Women’s Network’s November 2, 2010 interview with Dr. Tony Attwood about autism in girls and women.


Sharon daVanport: Good day, and welcome to AWN radio. We are the Autism Women’s Network on Blogtalk. I am your host, Sharon daVanport, and today is Tuesday, November 2, 2010. Thank you for joining us for this special broadcast with Dr. Tony Attwood. We’re pleased that he could stop by and visit us here on the show before he heads back home to Australia, I guess it’s going to be this Friday.

A quick note before we do get started with the show: I just wanted to mention to our listeners that our radio sponsor, LifePROTEKT is continuing to provide a lucky listener with a GPS locator and one year of service through a prize drawing that we have monthly here on AWN radio. So if you have a child or your know someone whose child can benefit from this device due to wandering, you only need to submit your story to us, nd that would be at our info AT autismwomensnetwork DOT org e-mail and we will enter you in for the contest.

Well, as you guys may have noticed, I didn’t bring on co-host Tricia Kenney. She, as our regular listeners are aware, was very fortunate to get her twin sons who are on the spectrum into a really, really good school, so she’s actually on the road moving. She’s finally moving this week, and she’ll be back joining us again next week for our regular show. But today I’m flying solo, so I’m not going to be having the chat room up, because I’m not going to be able to multitask that without Tricia here. So we’re just going to have our listeners in through the switchboard and on the Internet.

With that said, then, I’d like to welcome our special guest for the hour, author, psychologist and public speaker, Dr. Tony Attwood. Good afternoon, Dr. Attwood.

Dr. Tony Attwood: Hello, Sharon.

Sharon daVanport: Hello. Thank you for joining us today, and stopping by before you head back to Australia.

Dr. Tony Attwood: Thank you, yes. I’m feeling somewhat exhausted, but I’m looking forward to our conversation here that’ll be transmitted and recorded.

Sharon daVanport: Wow, very good. Thank you, again, for joining us. There’s something that I told you before the show started that I really wanted us to touch base on, and maybe we could start there, since we’re going to be talking about female-specific Asperger’s and autism. A question that is posed to us at the AWN not to often but on occasion is: “Why is it important to pay attention to qualities specific to autistic females?

Dr. Tony Attwood: Oh, good question! Really because the girls and women are often not picked up, and tend to suffer in silence. If they were identified, then they may be able to get help—not only necessarily in terms of school supe’sport or whatever, but also, more importantly, understanding from parents, teachers. It may well be from employers, friends, etc.

But it’s also to understand yourself and why you’re different but not defective, because otherwise your view can be: “There’s something inherently wrong with me,” and the person may need to know that: “No, you’re just different and there’s a word that describes it.” It doesn’t mean to say once you’ve had the diagnosis, you’re a different person. You just know why you’re different.

Sharon daVanport: Right. And that makes so much sense. I remember reading somewhere before that you had actually made mention that you believe, along with several other experts in the field of Asperger’s, that the more that we understand about the differences in how to pick up on female-specific Asperger’s, the greater understanding we’ll have of the spectrum as a whole.

Dr. Tony Attwood: Yes, indeed. And also how some of the girls have worked out strategies to learn social understanding and to cope with neurotypicals that we could say: “Okay, well, the boys could benefit from this, and we’ll pass it over to the boys.”

Sharon daVanport: Right. Why do you think that is, Dr. Attwood? I know that’s a blanket, open-ended question, but you could probably break this down better than I could break it down in a question. But just throwing it out there: why is it that we see so many differences…not just because a man is a man and a woman’s a woman. That’s obvious. But if we could talk about maybe some of those differences and then break it down about why, for instance, it’s not recognized in women.

Dr. Tony Attwood: I think one of the things is that the girls and the women seem to have a more constructive way of coping with their social confusion and difference. The boys tend to be abrasive, obnoxious and [chuckles] annoying [unknown] on. Whereas the girls say: “I’ve got to do something about this. I’ve got to either observe others and absorb their persona and copy them, or I will camouflage my social confusion by hiding in a group, letting others go and doing other things.” So what can happen is that the girls will have their way of hiding, camouflaging, imitating others, which means that they’re often not picked up. But what people don’t realize is the degree of exhaustion from that approach.

Sharon daVanport: Mm. That’s very true. Very, very true, the exhaustion. I used to think until I was diagnosed a few years ago, I used to think that everybody just by carrying on a conversation got exhausted. [Chuckles] When I found out that not everybody gets exhausted from a conversation or to go and make a public appearance, when I found that out I was shocked.

Dr. Tony Attwood: Yes. What you described is a contrast, because for the majority of neurotypical women, they are infused and energized by social chit-chat. They seek it out; they enjoy it. And the trouble is that the women with Asperger’s are then expected to be the same. And when they’re not and decline things, or leave earlier, they say: “Well, what’s wrong with her?

Sharon daVanport: Right. And that’s true, and then we start feeling that isolation. We pick it up. Maybe it’s not said to us, and then maybe we try harder the next time to blend a little bit longer at a social event. But I like the way you give a lot of really good pointers about different things we can do when we find ourselves in those situations to advocate for ourselves, to say: “Listen, I need five minutes or ten minutes,” and back away.

Dr. Tony Attwood: Yeah. What I’d encourage the women and the girls to do is to have more confidence in describing their personality. Not necessarily using a diagnostic term, but just say: “I’m the sort of person who often prefers to read a book than social chit-chat. I’m the sort of person who is not interested in disclosing about my family and showing pictures of my children and my partner.” And just say that: “I’m the sort of person who keeps to myself, is quiet,” and using the terms like “introvert” and “personality” rather than necessarily broadcasting the name of the syndrome.

Sharon daVanport: Right. And now that we’re on this topic, if we could maybe elaborate on some of the challenges that you see clinically for…say an adult woman comes in, and you discover that she is on the spectrum. We want to encourage people to know how serious this is, that we’re trying to get earlier diagnostic tools for females and be able to have them identified so that they have those supports in place. What are some of the things that you see that women come in and present with by the time that they’re adults that is so blatantly obvious to you as a clinician that, yes, they’re on the spectrum?

Dr. Tony Attwood: I think what kind of happened is if they’ve been seeking help, there may have been a history of inappropriate diagnoses or almost-right diagnoses. There can be a history of the possibility of anorexia nervosa or borderline personality disorder, and so people have approached the person because of that sort of interpretation of what the person is doing. But from my clinical experience, often the person has the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome, but what may be more pressing is actually is anxiety and depression.

Sharon daVanport: Okay.

Dr. Tony Attwood: That anxiety can be a constitutional feature of Asperger’s Syndrome, but it means that the strategies to treat anxiety in someone with Asperger’s Syndrome need to be modified for the profile and experiences and challenges and stresses of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. But also, the exhaustion, low self-esteem. I would also say that empathic attunement that women with Asperger’s Syndrome can have means that they may feel quite depressed.

Sharon daVanport: And when you see someone presenting with those different things, what are some of the responses or reactions that you might get? I know that when I was first approached and told that it might be good for me to have an assessment, my son had been seeing a psychologist in a clinic that I was taking him to. For several years he was going there, and I was shocked, because I compared everything about myself to how my son presented, and I laughed, Dr. Attwood.

Dr. Tony Attwood: [Laughter]

Sharon daVanport: I was like: “Are you kidding? I don’t have Asperger’s!” And then, of course, years later it’s just so obvious, and I’ve learned to accept who I am and I’m fine with it. But it was just…I laughed. But also, too, I was relieved. Once I read about it and it all made sense and fell into place, it was very relieving and like a huge burden had just been lifted off my shoulders because I finally understood myself. Everything made sense. Do you tend to get those responses from females?

Dr. Tony Attwood: Yeah. I think people in general, their main experience of what we call autism spectrum disorders is in the severer range, with high support needs or various challenges. And the person says: “But I’m not in that range.” And yes, that to a certain extent is true, but the way I describe what we call the autism spectrum or continuum is like the continuum of visual impairment. There are people who are “blind” who are severely autistic; there are those who need glasses. They can read the headlines, but not the fine print, and it’s like saying to someone who needs glasses to read: “You’re blind.” “No, I’m not blind. I can see.” No. What it means is you’ve got visual impairment. You need glasses or help to see some aspects of the social world that are out of focus for you.

Sharon daVanport: I see. That is true.

Dr. Tony Attwood: And you just used the term: “I see.”

Sharon daVanport: [Chuckles] Right. And actually, I was just…yeah, okay. I get that. So why is it other than the obvious…what are some of the more subtle reasons why females will typically fly under the radar? You said in the very beginning that: “Well, if a boy behaves some way, it might be more blatantly obvious to parents or educators.” What are some of the more subtle things that you’re seeing as a clinician that’s really important for people to observe and understand what’s going on?

Dr. Tony Attwood: The girls aren’t stupid. [Chuckles] If somebody says: “Have you got any friends?” of course they’re going to say: “Yeah, I’ve got lots of friends.” But the question is then: Would the other people call them acquaintances rather than friends?

Sharon daVanport: Oh, okay.

Dr. Tony Attwood: And the girl may know the game of diagnosis easier, to give a false trail, which can lead clinicians to false impressions. Or people may talk about interests, and yes, she’s interested in Barbie dolls and [horses?] and so on. But it’s the intensity of the interest that may be unusual, rather than the focus itself. So in a clinical sense, we’ve also got to look at how the person has coped with their social confusion.

Girls will often in a social setting not let on that they’re actually confused. So when you ask them: “Do you know what to do?” they’ll say: “Yes, yes! I do; I do.” But in the eyes, there is terror that the person won’t let on, or appease other people. So the girls seem to have an ability to sometimes fake it ’til they make it, and to really cope in a social situation with a degree of exhaustion and success. It’s like I call Cinderella at the ball, and they’re really successful socially for a certain length of time. Then the wheels fall off and they can’t do it anymore.

Sharon daVanport: Right. I had someone ask me the other day, Dr. Attwood, and I didn’t quite know how to answer her, so I’m going to ask you this question that she asked me. She’s self-identified at this point. There are a couple family members who when they found out about Asperger’s [feel] that that really does fit her. But she’s felt this way for a couple of years, but she’s been hesitant to go in and seek a formal diagnosis. She’s not quite sure if she wants to. But she did have another family member approach her, and she was asking me about this. They said to her: “Do you think because you’ve read about Asperger’s that you think that you can identify and have it?”

I tried to explain to her: In my mind, when I’m thinking of Asperger’s when it was told to me, you were saying how people usually go the opposite way and they fake it until they make it. They’re trying to fake and blend in. It’s usually just the opposite. So what I told my friend in this situation, Dr. Attwood, is that it’s going to be difficult for a lot of people and families to understand sometimes differences. How do you as a clinician help encourage people when they get a diagnosis to help their family understand that?

Dr. Tony Attwood: Okay, I think there are two issues here. One is quite often, the women that I see for a diagnostic assessment have read up on Asperger’s Syndrome. They wouldn’t be there unless they felt it fits them. So in a way, the initial part can be almost a self-diagnosis. That that person says: “I identified with all those sort of features,” etc.

Now, the thing is, if that person has been reasonably good at camouflaging it, other people—friends and family—may say: “No, no, you haven’t” because they’ve done so well, and their concept of autism spectrum disorders is the classic autistic child. And so some family members may say: “Ah, this does explain you. I now understand,” where others will reject that and say: “No, no, no, no. You can’t have that.” So it’s one of those things that when you explain the characteristics to family members, they can go either way—either acceptance and say: “Yep. that explains you,” or rejection. And it’s difficult to predict which way people will go.

Sharon daVanport: Right. What do you see more of, in your experience?

Dr. Tony Attwood: I think those who know the person really well and have got close to that person say: “Yes, that’s true.”

Sharon daVanport: Right. I’ve seen that in my experience with other females on the spectrum, and their stories seem to actually fit that quite well. People who know them fairly well will be like: “Oh, okay. Yeah, that makes sense.” What about when you’re dealing with parents and a diagnosis? There’s some chatter going on over at our forum a lot about parents wanting to know: What is the right age or the right time or should they tell their child that their child has Asperger’s? There’s a big, huge discussion going on, where some parents absolutely do not even want to tell the child. Clinically, what do you advise?

Dr. Tony Attwood: Okay. My preference is that when the child starts to know they’re different, they need to know. That’s assuming that the diagnosis has been made earlier on. So if it has, when that child feels or says: “I’m not like the other children. I don’t fit in; I’m feeling very upset about it,” then may be a time to explain the diagnosis. My concern is explaining the diagnosis to teenagers, because they are at that stage so emotionally fragile and unsure of their concept of self, they’re quite likely to completely reject the diagnosis and any information or support from that diagnosis. So I’m usually cautious with teenagers, because it can lead to an alienation and rejection of the suggestion.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, okay.

Dr. Tony Attwood: When the person is, say, graduating from high school and needs help in career or relationships or emotions, that may when they’ve got a greater degree of maturity be a time that the diagnosis could be explained. Now, it doesn’t mean not to explain it to teenagers, but if you are, it’s got to be explained very carefully. And I prefer it if it’s explained by a professional, not the parents. So if there’s an antagonism towards the diagnosis, it’s towards the professional, not the parents.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. So it helps the parents be able to stay empowered as a parent in helping that child, and not be the one that the child is trying to reject, so to speak.

Dr. Tony Attwood: The parents remain neutral about the diagnosis until they know the child’s reaction.

Sharon daVanport: I see. Okay, that makes sense. Now, you mentioned about if a child is a teenager, that’s when it really handled pretty strategically. What if a child gets an early diagnosis and maybe a parent is thinking about telling a child in grade school, before they’re actually a teen? What do you think about that?

Dr. Tony Attwood: I think if you explain to the child from the age of about six to pre-puberty, I think go for it. I think it could be very helpful. You’ve obviously got to explain it in a positive way. I go through the qualities and difficulties: “This explains why you’re different. This explains why you sing in perfect pitch, why you draw in photographic realism, why you’ve got those particular qualities, but also difficulties making friends.” So at an earlier age, there’s a greater ability to accept difference in a positive way. But for the teenagers, they can be so desperate to be part of a group and know that teenagers are so critical of anyone who’s different, the kid is saying: “If people know I’m different, it’s going to be a reason for rejection of me from my peer group.”

Sharon daVanport: I see. Now, can you give us a few examples or even just one of a conversation that a parent could have with a child in that situation? They know they’re different if it’s before they’ve hit puberty and the parent has decided: “I’m going to sit my child down and I’m going to tell them why they’re different or why they’re feeling that way.” Could you give an example of a conversation that would be good?

Dr. Tony Attwood: Okay. I think what you do is you go through with the child what their qualities are. The many kids with Asperger’s, they view their qualities in terms of their knowledge or the things that they do. I would then add to that list by parents giving information on their personality, their kindness or those sorts of things, and also go through not only their qualities, but some of their difficulties in things like social confusion, sometimes getting very anxious, may or may not be good at mathematics or things like that. And then say that: “There is a pattern in your characteristics of abilities and personality that actually has a name.” And then I introduce that concept that that name is Asperger’s Syndrome, but it explains why you have particular qualities, in terms of your artwork, in terms of your ability with animals, for example, your imagination.

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Dr. Tony Attwood: And be grateful for the Asperger characteristics. They can actually give you those qualities, but at the cost of some of the difficulties. But we’re working on the difficulties and we’re trying to enhance your qualities.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. The talk that you’re going to be giving there in Toronto, I noticed, has a lot to do with anxiety, and dealing with anxiety with your Asperger’s. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Dr. Tony Attwood: Oh, yeah. It [just seems?] that those with Asperger’s Syndrome are very good at worrying. [Chuckles] They’re natural worriers. And that can make you a bit pessimistic because you’re worried about what could go wrong. And anybody who is anxious tries to cope with it, and the ways people in general try to cope with it is to become controlling in your life. That is, to avoid certain situations where you may become anxious, frightened, [unknown] or etc.

But you also have routines and rituals to calm you down, and if someone takes those away, how are you going to cope? And the interest is not only a source of enjoyment intellectually. What the interest does is act as a thought blocker to keep away anxious, negative thoughts. So when someone’s anxious, the emotion of anxiety isn’t a bad emotion. It’s a survival emotion for fear of animals eating you, for example, but it’s how you cope with it and the intensity that can be the problem for the person with Asperger’s Syndrome.

So what I’ve got to do clinically is find out what strategies the person is using that may be better replaced by other ones, and really enhancing their range of strategies. Girls can sometimes be what we call passive-aggressive, using oppositional methods to control their environment—not go to school, stay in their bedroom, etc. So we’ve got to look at: Why is that person engaged in that behavior? Often, it’s a mechanism of coping with anxiety, uncertainty, failure and fear, and not only helping them cope with those situations, but boosting their self-confidence in those situations.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. And when you talk about the anxiety and how it can elevate and escalate at different times, and then you’ll see the different behaviors coming out, do you find it’s because people with Asperger’s, we tend to have just a great ability to focus. Some people call it “obsessions.” It doesn’t bother me either way if somebody calls something of mine that I’m super focused on, if it’s an obsession or a special interest. It’s neither here nor there to me; it doesn’t bother me. But do you think it’s because of that propensity that we have towards that?

Dr. Tony Attwood: Yes. I think what it is, it’s a tendency to focus on detail, but it’s often focusing on errors. One of my hobbies is [gardening,] and the trouble is that when I’m gardening, I tend to see the weeds, not the flowers. And other people say: “What a lovely garden!” and I’ve noticed a weed that I need to pull out. [Chuckles]

Sharon daVanport: Okay. [Chuckles]

Dr. Tony Attwood: So the trouble is, in that great attention to detail and tendency for perfectionism, there can be an overfocus on errors which distorts your thinking and perception of things.

Sharon daVanport: Right. Do you find with females, I hear this a lot over at our forum, Dr. Attwood, so I wanted to get your take on this for something that we see on a regular basis at discussions going on. And that has to do with what we were talking about a little bit earlier, about women being able to mask certain different things, and being able to blend into certain situations. But at the same time, because our challenges or whatever we might be dealing with at the moment is invisible to what others see, it’s [still] affecting us.

So sometimes it can be a curse, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. Some people would think: “Oh, you’re saying that people are cursed who are on the spectrum.” I’m not meaning that at all. But I’m talking literally about the challenges that we find ourselves in, that particular situation. What are some practical tips that you can give that can help us avoid those situations, when we find ourselves going towards that?

Dr. Tony Attwood: Yeah. I think [another?] way of describing it, not a curse, is the price you pay for some of the success. That the price you pay is personal, and other people often don’t see it. So the person with Asperger’s is successful and then goes home or goes to their bedroom and totally crashes. Now, in those situations, some sort of advice is find out how long you feel you can cope in a social setting. Now, that may vary from day to day—good days and bad days—but then have a plan of how you can retreat from that situation with an appropriate almost excuse or justification.

So you may think: “Okay, we’re going to meet up or going to do something social or whatever it is. I could probably cope for about an hour at most. Okay. I need a plan, because they’re going to go on for two to three hours, for me to get out after an hour. So I’ll need to make an appointment. Somebody can give me a phone call on my cell phone or something, so that after an hour, when my capacity’s been completely exhausted, I can go, but with a sense of justification.”

Sharon daVanport: Okay. I see. And when we talk about the differences, too, I want to get back to teenagers for the parents out there. What are some things that parents can do to help girls. I know, I was a teenager on the spectrum, and this means boys, too. I mean, boys want to fit in. Teenagers just want to fit in, so much. Girls, however, are making those choices to be able to blend in an do some things. What can we as parents do to help our daughters realize that it’s not always necessary to have to pretend through a situation:? How can you get a teenager to even take those chances?

Dr. Tony Attwood: It requires a sort of maturity and insight into yourself and acceptance that you are different, and that teenager is desperate to be viewed as just the same as everyone else. The peer pressure in adolescence is horrendous for such individuals. So sometimes when parents are saying: “Just be yourself, be true to yourself,” it’s very hard for the teenagers to accept that, especially if the parent hasn’t fsced the challenges that they are facing.

One of the things we’ve been developing in Brisbane, Australia—two things. One is at our clinic, Minds and Hearts. we have teenage girls with Asperger’s groups. So in other words, they’re girls with Asperger’s who support each other, in terms of ideas and strategies. And in part, it has a greater credibility, because it comes from other girls who are facing the same situation.

Sharon daVanport: I see. Okay.

Dr. Tony Attwood: But we’ve also developed in Brisbane a new group that Camilla has started and others that are mature women with Asperger’s Syndrome, who are mentoring the teenagers.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, nice. Okay.

Dr. Tony Attwood: And so they’re saying: “Yep, I felt like that, but I realized it nearly killed me.” Or: “I was exhausted.” Or: “It wasn’t worth it.” But it has credibility, because they’ve been through it. And as a teenager, you have a natural antagonism to parents. They’re the enemy. But when you have someone who’s outside the family who’s been a hero in many ways of coping, their advice may be listened to more than a parent.

Sharon daVanport: So what you’re saying is that it’s good to get these girls involved in girls’ groups and have mentors and people they can look up to?

Dr. Tony Attwood: Yes, because the mentors have been through it, and the advice that they give is usually highly practical. But they’ve also given information on the long-term consequences of what that teenager may be doing, and so they may say: “Well, you’ve chosen to go down this path. You actually have choices. There are different paths you can go down, and these are the options. It’s up to you to decide what to do, but you need to know the particular outcome of this path that you’re going down.”

Sharon daVanport: So as parents, we can separate ourselves from that, and realize at that point—and I can say this with confidence, having raised teenagers, that is a tough time, when you don’t need to be your children’s friend. You do need to be their parent, and that’s a real critical time during those teen years, so I like that idea of stressing a mentor kind of relationship.

Dr. Tony Attwood: Yeah. It’s just that their neurotypical peers really may not understand, and they need someone who genuinely sympathizes and empathizes with their situation. And that is what they need at that stage.

Sharon daVanport: Right. You were talking about there in Brisbane having girls’ groups. What ages do you have? What do you recommend for other—?

Dr. Tony Attwood: Oh. This is sort of a pre-puberty group, because they’re interested in their own sort of things and their own sort of social relationships of friends at school amongst the pre-puberty girls. But then the teenagers have their own issues, in terms of boyfriend/girlfriend relationships, their vulnerability to sexual predators, the dating game, but also the pressure at school to be part of the peer group, the horrible, bitchy girls, and how to deal with those. But then when dealing with the adults with that support group, it’s looking at careers and relationships and society’s expectation of you as a woman.

Sharon daVanport: Right. That’s nice. When you’re talking about taking those girls at different stages, what do you recommend for when we’re looking at talking to girls about, I guess it would be a natural thing about dating and stuff. But what are your recommendations? We know there’s so many vulnerabilities that females have on the spectrum. I really encourage parents to really be honest with their children about these things, because we take language very literally. At times I know I do; I could be the first to say that. And so we do find ourselves in vulnerable situations, maybe just by miscommunications, not picking up on subtle cues, and when it comes to dating kind of things, are they working with that in the girls’ groups, too?

Dr. Tony Attwood: Oh, yes. It’s one of the major topics. But the best advice actually came from Liane Holliday-Willey, who unfortunately, did come across a number of predators. But what she did was have a group of friends or relatives who were good at character judgement and spotting what I call “the wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Some neurotypicals are really good at identifying those who appear credible, but in fact are not.

So when you meet that person, make sure that they also meet one or two people you know and trust, seen to be good at identifying good guys versus bad guys. And after that time they’ve met them, you say to them, when that person is gone: “What do you think? Are they genuine or are they really too dangerous, in the sense I’m listening to what they say, not what their intentions are?” And if those friends say: “Nope. I think they’re okay,” you go to the next stage. If they say: “Oh, I’ve just got this bad vibe about them. I just wouldn’t trust them. I wouldn’t go out with them,” in that case, don’t go near them again.

Sharon daVanport: And I think that’s important to stress to people on the spectrum, whether they’re male or female: that it’s important to have a good support system. It took me a while, I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been so independent for so many years, to really learn to trust other people and their judgements, because I can’t always see what is right there. I don’t pick up on a lot of the subtleties. So it was a matter of conditioning myself, and I think that that’s really good advice, Dr. Attwood, to really, really reach out and trust other people, to build a support system.

Dr. Tony Attwood: Some women with Asperger’s can get it eventually, but we’re at the moment talking about the teenagers who sometimes become intoxicated by the attention of someone, that they’re actually there and they’re pleased to see them and all those sorts of things. What they don’t realize is this person’s intentions are not honorable.

Sharon daVanport: Right. And that is so true. The next thing I wanted us to touch about was a conversation I had with you before, and we got really good feedback every time I’ve ever talked to anybody about this topic. A discussion I had with you on females on the spectrum and their ability really have a sixth sense about them. Talk to us a little bit about that. That was just an amazing conversation I had with you before about that.

Dr. Tony Attwood: This is not exclusive to the women; some of the men can have it, too. It’s the ability to walk into a room and just sense danger or negativity. [Chuckles] What they’re doing is not the usual channels of facial expressions or body language or tone of voice. I think what happens is that there are many channels actually to assess people and the situation, and for survival, our species has had to have a variety of mechanisms.

We’ve talked about people who have a sixth sense, who seem to sense danger: that there’s somebody behind, or that there’s just something going on. And I think some of those with Asperger’s have a heightened awareness of that, like they have a heightened sensitivity to sound, light, taste, touch, texture and so on. So I think there can be a heightened sixth sense, and that person may not know how they got it, but they just feel it. And that’s usually something that they can’t define what it is, and that leads the person with Asperger’s to really feel: “Do I talk about this? Do I say anything about it?” I’ve known some with Asperger’s, for example, know when someone’s pregnant when they haven’t told anyone. “Oh, you’re pregnant.” “How did you know?”, etc. It’s those sorts of things that can occur.

Sharon daVanport: Right. My teenage son has Asperger’s, and he just has an ability to pick up certain things, but I have to work with him a lot just trusting his gut and instinct, because he second-guesses himself. He knows that in so many social situations that he has to work hard and he might not catch subtleties, and he might feel later that maybe he didn’t quite understand something right. So then he doesn’t trust his gut; he takes it to the next step and just doesn’t even trust himself, and I have to encourage him: “No. Go ahead and trust that gut feeling.” Every time he does, he’s right.

Dr. Tony Attwood: Yep. I think what you can do is open up all channels and not fear those channels. And sometimes you can pick up messages, but they’re not by the conventional facial expression, tone of voice. I think something else is being picked up that exists in the animal kingdom, could exist in humans, but in some ways we’ve repressed it in our neurotypical way.

Sharon daVanport: I think that’s amazing, Dr. Attwood, to really point these abilities out. I think there’s so much to learn from the human mind and the brain about this, and the instincts that we have that we do need to trust more.

Dr. Tony Attwood: Yeah.

Sharon daVanport: It’s so important because it’s like a person who may have a challenge with their sight, maybe they have better hearing because they’ve learned to tune into that part to communicate. So it’s like, you don’t always need words to communicate and we can trust other avenues.

Dr. Tony Attwood: Now there’s a new book out by Olga Bogdashina, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Now, Olga is very keen on assessment and strategies, the sensory sensitivity, and in her latest book, she actually explores the sensitivity in the sixth sense, which gives it now some credibility.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. That’s just amazing. Well, I know that we had just a limited amount of time to have with you, because you’d just gotten into Canada today. So in wrapping things up today, I wanted to give you an opportunity to just say anything to our listeners that you’d like—anything to anyone on the spectrum. Give us some words of encouragement. First of all, before you do that and close out the show, what is your website information, Dr. Attwood, so people can go there?

Dr. Tony Attwood: Oh, TonyAttwood.com.au People can also be interested to know that when I was in Dallas, Future Horizons asked me to do an hour and three-quarter session just on girls and women and have it recorded on DVD. And this should be available probably in about a month or two’s time.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, really. Okay.

Dr. Tony Attwood: So if you Google “Future Horizons” and “autism and asperger’s” you’ll find them. That should be available. It’s nearly two hours, actually, that I talk about girls and women and that can be something that people can then show to others to give credibility to what they know.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. So it’s an actual DVD you were filmed doing.

Dr. Tony Attwood: Yep.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. And I know who Future Horizons is. That’s really good to know. So it’s almost a two hour presentation that you did there in Dallas?

Dr. Tony Attwood: Yes.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. That’s good to know. All right. Well, listen, even though it was very brief today, our discussion, I just so much appreciate you taking the time to stop by and visit with us here at AWN radio. You go back on Friday, then?

Dr. Tony Attwood: I do, Sharon, and thanks so much. You’ve asked some very good questions.

Sharon daVanport: Well, we’d like to have you back again the next time you’re in the States, so we’ll be in touch.

Dr. Tony Attwood: I think that’s an excellent idea. Mark me down for that.

Sharon daVanport: Okay; all right. Thank you, Dr. Attwood.

Dr. Tony Attwood: Okay. Thank you, Sharon.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. Bye-bye.

[Dr. Attwood hangs up]

Okay, everyone, that’s going to do it for us here on AWN radio, the Autism Women’s Network on Blogtalk for this special Tuesday edition with Dr. Tony Attwood. This’ll be available for podcast as soon as we’re done here, so you can always go over to our radio page and access that anytime. Again, this is Sharon daVanport for AWN radio, and have a great day.


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  1. […] spectrum are very good at sniffing out danger, its something of a “sixth sense” for us (see here, search for “sixth”).  This has been exactly my experience.  I’ve lived in ~5 […]

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