This week I have the pleasure of sharing with you a podcast I did with hypnotherapist, author, and trainer Dan Jones.
Dan trained with Uncommon Knowledge when we were still running our offline Uncommon hypno/psychotherapy diploma course, training people to become practicing therapists.
Dan is a highly talented therapist and trainer, produces self hypnosis audio sessions, has had over 1.5 million YouTube video views, and has sold over 100,000 books. He has also helped heal and transform the lives of countless one to one clients.
And there is something else about Dan, too. Dan has Asperger’s Syndrome.
But rather than seeing this as a deficit, he describes in his latest book ‘Look Into My Eyes: Asperger’s, Hypnosis and Me‘ how high functioning autism has helped him develop as a therapist in many ways, even though he has suffered personal disadvantages because of the condition.
I think you are going to find this podcast as fascinating and useful to listen to as I found it to record.
In it, Dan describes exactly what Asperger’s is to him, why people still don’t fully understand it (and some of the discrimination he has faced as a result), what it means for relationships, and, amazingly, how it might help some people see human behaviour more clearly.
Below, you can listen to, or download, my podcast with Dan, as well as read the transcript in the dropdown menu.
Mark Tyrrell: It’s been a long-standing interest in hypnosis you have, since the age of 14, as you said in your book. It’s interesting, because often with Asperger’s, high-functioning autism, there is a sort of context blindness as far as when it comes to social interaction and emotions in other people, and so forth… I don’t want to simplify it.
Do you feel that your pull towards being interested in hypnosis was in part because you saw perhaps a way of learning some of the social rules, or perhaps of influencing other people, and understanding other people, as suddenly learnable, in quite a left-brain kind of a way? I mean, I don’t want to put words into your mouth, but was that an element of it, do you think?
Dan Jones: It definitely was. As I say, initially it was wanting to know hypnosis to make… you know, my view of communication was wanting to know hypnosis, to make everyone do as I want. As that sort of control-my-environment type of thing.
Mark: Do you think that a big feature, or a common feature, of Asperger’s is feeling out of control socially?
Dan: Definitely socially. It’s like everyone’s communicating in another language, and you don’t realize what you’re saying is wrong. It’s like the typical – I’m sure there’s comedies around the world like it – but British comedies especially, where the British guy is putting on a fake French accent, thinking somehow that’s going to make him talk in French.
Mark: Well I do that!
Dan: Clearly, he’s not. He’s thinking, why am I not being understood? I’m saying the words really loud at you, in the same accent as you, why are you not getting what I’m saying? Not realizing that you’re not saying the actual words they’re using, you’re not communicating in the same language. That was definitely my experience growing up, somehow I’m not speaking the same language. I think I am, but clearly by the fact that nothing ever seems to work out, or make sense to me, I’m not.
So with hypnosis, people have often said to me, “How did hypnosis help? What did you do?” I’ve met some other people who’ve got Asperger’s who’ve tried hypnosis therapeutically, and said “Well it didn’t help me. I tried hypnosis and it didn’t make me better.”
I point out it’s not so much the hypnosis. I do use hypnosis therapeutically on myself, but it’s not that that helped initially. It was the actual act of learning hypnosis, because one thing you don’t get taught in school, and one thing that, for most people, is supposed to become reasonably instinctive as you grow up, is basic communication skills.
I assumed everyone stared at each other all the time, because you’re always told to look at people in the eye. If I’m making the mistake of not doing that, well that means that everyone else must be not making the mistake, and must be staring into each other’s eyes all the time. That was my assumption.
Then you read in hypnosis books that you can do a hypnotic gaze, where you look at someone for a prolonged period of time, in a way that makes them go inside their mind, and start being hypnotized. You think, well, if everyone is staring at each other, does that mean that everyone is doing that all the time anyway? How is that different to what everyone is doing?
So I start watching how people make eye contact, and realize that’s not what people do. Everyday eye contact isn’t staring in someone’s eyes indefinitely, because that makes people feel really uncomfortable. Obviously I didn’t know that back then, I just assumed that’s what people did.
The pattern I developed was about 5 seconds looking, and then 5 seconds looking away. I would count in my head while I’m talking. I would look in someone’s eyes, or actually I would look through them, so I’d look through the centre of the bridge of their nose, so I didn’t have to actually make proper eye contact. Most people, unless they move their heads a bit, don’t realize that’s what you’re doing. They just think you’re looking into their eyes. I’d then count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, look away, 1, 2, 3… and then look back. That seemed to be a pattern that matched normal.
Mark: What other people were doing sort of instinctively, you were kind of having to think about logically, and then apply consciously.
Dan: Yeah, and then develop an actual pattern to it. In reality, it’s not 5 seconds on and 5 seconds off, it’s… you look at someone while you’re talking to them, and then the person who’s listening looks back. Then as they sense you’re getting to the end of a conversation, they look away while they think about what they’re about to say in return. Then you break eye contact on and off during that, while you think of what you’re saying to them. Then you break away when they’re talking to you, and then you come back.
It’s a dynamic process, and it’s variable, but that’s too complex, especially as a teenager, for me to work that amount of information out. It was easier to just have a pattern that seemed to match what I’m seeing going on, roughly.
It was only hypnosis books that taught about rapport and things. I’d never heard of rapport before reading about hypnosis, and yet I was 14 and had been through a number of years of school, and it never cropped up. No one at home had ever talked about rapport. Then hypnosis books talk about building rapport with people.
Paul McKenna, on his documentary specifically, talked about “I can’t show you how to do hypnosis on TV, but we can have it in silence, and I’ll tell you what the hypnotist is looking for.” It was like, “Oh, so the person does something different when they’re being hypnotized that you’re supposed to look for.” That’s never taught to people.
So I started learning it specifically around hypnosis. But once you know that different things that you say and do make people react in a different way, you can start thinking, so if I talk this way with people, how are they going to react to me? And you think, oh, people start backing off slightly, and they move their shoulders back, and they have a bit of space to you.
So you start, you know… If I talk calmer, and softer to people, how do they react to me? You start noticing that, and testing that. Almost trying to be like a teenage scientist, thinking, right, I’m going to talk to this person in this way and see what happens, and judge it.
My belief is that if I didn’t find hypnosis, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the kind of lifestyle I’ve got now. I don’t know how I’d be. I don’t think I would have made friends easily at all. I wouldn’t have learnt the communication skills, because there was nothing else around me teaching me the communication skills, or seeming to even care about trying to teach me the communication skills.
It was only that I discovered hypnosis, and as a younger child I discovered meditation without knowing it was meditation. It was only because of those things and my interests I developed, and having Asperger’s you become obsessed about things. Normally an interest of some sort, especially something that has a lot of logic to it, and looking for patterns, and things like that.
So that’s what I spent my time doing, looking for patterns in people’s behaviour, and that was before I even thought about it therapeutically.
Obviously as a therapist I’ve taught lots of parenting courses, and I like to throw it out there that actually I think people with Asperger’s make brilliant therapists. Because I go to lots of clinical supervision meetings, sort of group meetings, where everyone else is trying to figure out how to detach from their emotions so that they don’t get clouded in therapy sessions.
And I’m the one that’s sat there normally thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to be attached to my emotions, and to the emotions going on in a session!
Mark: You’re doing it anyway.
Mark: And really sort of hypnosis, and learning about rapport. And of course, hypnosis comes about through communicating in a certain way, but also watching for reactions from people. Learning that I guess helps you naturally see in day-to-day life when people were responding perhaps angrily, or humorously, or sadly, and actually starting to read emotions better. That, of course, helps you in your life immeasurably.
How would you define Asperger’s Syndrome, Dan? How would you actually describe it?
Dan: Well, it’s a sort of social communication type difficulty. There are things that you’re very good at, and things that you’re not very good at. And in the modern world, which is a very social world, often that can lead to a lot of anxiety, and a lot of… you know, someone could become quite depressed.
It’s not true that someone with Asperger’s has no feelings and no emotions at all. I think everyone I’ve met who’s got Asperger’s has probably more feelings; they’re hypersensitive. It seems to be that everyone focuses on the hypersensitivity that people with Asperger’s have in relation to other sensory input, but ignore the fact that you also have hypersensitivity to when an emotion comes up.
You’ve got the tactile thing, people often talk about the tactile nature of Asperger’s, and wanting to touch soft things, and not wanting to wear certain materials, and all that element of it. But they don’t seem to focus on the fact we also have an emotional world.
I’m more emotional now than I used to be, but all my life I’ve gone where I’m not very emotional, and then when I feel emotion, it feels overwhelmingly powerful, and really difficult to handle, and you just want to escape somehow from it.
So I don’t necessarily get it; if I’m sat with someone talking to them, I don’t necessarily buy into their emotion. If I do get emotion in me somehow, it feels overwhelmingly powerful, and really hard to handle.
Mark: I’ve heard somebody else with Asperger’s describe Asperger’s as almost being a protective mechanism against this oversensitivity. You know, that it’s not, as you say, being cold, and un-empathetic, and so forth, it’s actually being quite vulnerable to emotion, perhaps, in some instances. Which is an interesting way of looking at it, because I don’t think that… generally people might not think about it in those terms.
Dan: I think I mentioned in my book that nearly everything I say always ends up… Part of writing my book was trying to learn more about myself, following having a diagnosis. And actually thinking well, I suppose I may as well sit down and try and figure this out a bit, and see what makes me up as being me, and see if I can turn this into something to help other people as well. Those with Asperger’s, and those that look after people with Asperger’s, or have them in their lives. And especially work people as well.
Because I think the thing that led me to seeking a diagnosis was facing a lot of workplace discrimination, and stuff like that. It’s just one of those things that I think people have lots of misconceptions, and you do have these things where you think, well, I care about everyone, I want the best for everyone, but I don’t care about people.
It sounds contradictory. Doing hypnosis I partly like that, especially Ericksonian hypnosis, because I love double-binds and things; I love the fact that something can seem contradictory, but somehow it must make sense.
So as an individual in front of me, if someone chooses not to take any ideas on board, and decides that they’re going to do exactly the same with their life tomorrow as they did today, and that’s going to have a bad outcome for them, I can walk away from that, and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Because as far as I’m concerned, they’ve decided to take that route, that’s entirely their choice, whatever happens is their choice, and I can live with that.
But at the same time, the reason I would help them is because I want what’s best for them, so I care and want what’s best for them, but I accept that people have their own… It’s sort of… everything always ends up sounding contradictory.
The same with the whole I don’t feel emotions generally. I’ve always been called Spock, and all these other things, because of not being emotional, and people saying, no, now is when you’re supposed to be excited. Now is when you’re supposed to be sad. Now is when you’re supposed to feel this emotion, or that emotion. I think, but why? How is that going to benefit this situation?
And yet other times, I think why on Earth am I crying? Like my wedding day, I couldn’t figure out why I was crying on my wedding day, when all I had to do for my speech was stand up, say thank you to the caterers, thank you to people for coming along, thank you to my wife for marrying me, thank you to her family for letting her marry me, and all this stuff.
All of it was very logical things, I knew what I had to say, none of it was anything I felt was emotional. I wasn’t going to tell an emotional story or anything. So when I suddenly started crying… that’s weird, why is that happening?
Mark: It caught you by surprise.
Dan: Yeah, it was like my brain had suddenly crashed, and someone needed to reset me.
Mark: And of course, so much emotion, almost by definition, isn’t connected to logic. That can be, I suppose, hard to process with Asperger’s. And of course, Asperger’s isn’t just a deficit, is it? It can be very enabling for the person who is Asperger’s, in all kinds of ways.
As you say, being very logical, seeing process not just content, seeing patterns, wider patterns. And actually seeing the context. We talk about context blindness, perhaps socially and emotionally, but seeing context that other people don’t necessarily see, with different types of patterns in life.
Dan: And you do notice, once you know that it’s there to see, you become hyper-aware of things like minimal cues.
Dan: So I have had people compare me to Sherlock Holmes for that reason. You know, saying “It’s like having Sherlock Holmes in here,” where you just start noticing… I’ll walk in a room, and I’ll say “Someone’s picked up that book off the shelf, who did that?” “I put it back exactly where I got it, how can you tell?” Well… I can just tell, I just know it’s moved.
Or you’re sat opposite someone, and I’ll just say, “Oh, you think this,” and I’ll tell them what they’re thinking, because I could tell from the context of the conversation that was going on, and I’m trying to follow it. Then I see certain changes to facial colour, certain changes to their lips. Certain changes to maybe their body posture, you just notice all that, and because I obsess about these sort of things, you obsess about trying to find out what it all could potentially mean.
Mark: And you’re not being clouded by emotionality in those instances.
Mark: So you’re seeing very, very clearly. If you read Sherlock Holmes, or watch Sherlock Holmes, then you can quite clearly see that he is seeing very directly, in a sort of uncanny way.
Dan: And it is that whole thing of… because all of this information is coming at you all the time, and you’re constantly… Abby, my wife, often says, “I don’t know anyone else who, in the pitch black, can notice that there’s a beetle halfway down the road, and you’re already getting your camera out prepared!” She doesn’t see it, and yet I saw that there was a beetle down there, and can tell her there’s a beetle over there.
Or from, sort of, 200, 300, 400 foot away, I’ll notice that there’s a butterfly that I want to take a photo of. She says, “But I can’t even see that; I haven’t got close enough to see it.”
Things that I’m interested in, I see really, really easily. Things I’m not interested in, I don’t see at all. Someone can say to me, “What did the person look like you just talked to?” “I’ve no idea, I think they were a female.”
Dan: “What do you mean you think?” “Well, I can’t remember whether they were male or female.” “How can you not remember? It’s a fairly obvious thing to notice!” Well, I don’t pay any attention. I don’t have any interest in what they were saying to me, so I just smiled politely, and waited for them to leave. I didn’t pay attention to who they were, or what they were doing. Things that don’t interest me, it’s almost like I have total blindness for it.
Mark: Yeah, I can certainly relate to that, if someone says was it the one with the red dress, or green trousers? I have no idea. We all pick up, and don’t pick up certain things, depending on our focus, of course.
How did you get diagnosed Dan? Did you start thinking you might be at a certain time?
Dan: When I started working, so 2001-ish, I started working with teenagers with challenging behaviour. I’d gone from working in mental health with people with schizophrenia and manic depression, and things like that, and really enjoyed that kind of work; they had a much more interesting reality, most of the time, in conversations, than the people who I worked with.
I actually preferred spending time with them than colleagues who just talked about what was on TV last night, or something that I had no interest at all in. Whereas they were more philosophical about nearly everything they ever said. So I went from that, gave that up, because they were making some changes, and I have a thing that once something is changing, I really don’t like it. I gets so uncomfortable I just will walk out there and then.
So I did that, and walked into a job with teenagers, with my first shift being that I came into the home, I was just told when you arrive you can walk straight in. So I did exactly as I was told, walked in, and someone bigger than me grabbed me by my throat, pinned me to a wall, and said “Who the F are you? What are you doing in my F-ing house?” And proceeded to want to beat me up.
And I thought, I’ve actually quit a job because I was uncomfortable with the job, to have someone throttling me on my first day.
Mark: Yes, wonderful.
Dan: Yeah. But while I was doing that job, the staff used to joke and say, “They’re like you, they are.” Or “You’re like them, you are.” Just sort of to make comparisons. I used to just joke it off, and not think anything of it, as people do if you’re compared to…
We do it all the time, we compare ourselves to TV characters, to book characters, and say oh, you’re a bit like that character, you’re a bit like this character. You normally just laugh it off, and don’t pay any attention. Then when I started working in family work I ended up getting run over, and could no longer do the job that I was doing, because of being run over, because of my injuries.
So I ended up moving into family work, and doing the family work. On the first day actually employed doing the job, my manager was sat in her car driving us somewhere and said, “I think you’ve got Asperger’s. I think we’d get on so much better if I treat you as if you do. Is that okay with you?” I thought, well, fair enough, it doesn’t bother me one way or the other. If you think it’s going to help, we’ll do it.
That was sort of the thing that instantly made me think, maybe I’ve got something. Then from there other people kept on saying it, and I kept on not doing anything about it, because it wasn’t a problem in that context.
Then I ended up in an employment where it became a problem. Where I had a manager who was constantly discriminating, and had even said, “You have mental problems,” because I was saying I’m really uncomfortable with some of the changes that are being made, and it’s making me not be able to do my job properly.
Things that others might think are stupid, like not having boards up around my desk, which allow me to be able to lower my head down, look at the board, which everyone else would have postcards and all sorts on there, sort of backboards around their desks. I would just have them blank. That’s how I wanted it.
I would be able to look down at that, and that way I could focus, I could shut out all of the noise around me, all the other sights, and flashes, and everything going on around me, and I could just focus on what I need to do. That was my way of being able to get my job done.
I was being moved to an open-plan part of the office where I was expected to be between people talking across me, and having no desk dividers, or anything. It was just… I was getting more and more situations where I was saying, I’m really struggling with this, I can’t do this, I need a certain type of environment to be able to do my job properly.
And I was being told no, you’re like everyone else, you don’t get to dictate how you want things to be, you have things how you’re told they’re going to be. And I was thinking, I need occupational health support here to be on my side.
In a previous job when I was doing childcare I’d tried approaching UNISON union about discrimination I was facing in that specific job, and they said you are being discriminated against, but you don’t have a diagnosis of anything, and you’re a male between 18 and 65, and you’re not standing up for anyone who’s either a minority, or has a disability or something. So there’s nothing legally that you can do about the discrimination you’re facing. All you can do is either leave, or stay present doing the job.
I decided to stay present doing the job, and be a thorn in their side by refusing to be pushed out for being different. That time I hadn’t really thought about that I might have something, I just knew I was different. This time, I did have something I thought I might have, and so I thought well, the only way to get occupational health support is to go to a GP.
And I’ve helped lots of families through the process, to go to a GP and be referred, and let someone, a psychiatrist, decide whether I’ve got a diagnosis of anything or not. It took eight months to go through that process, and by the time I’d gone through the process I wasn’t doing that job anymore anyway.
But yeah, so that’s how I ended up getting diagnosed. It was all the discrimination at work, and it was making me very depressed. I was feeling very trapped. I was feeling very helpless, and feeling like there’s nothing I can do about this situation, other than leaving, and I wasn’t in a position to feel comfortable leaving, and with all the change that involves.
Mark: It’s a pragmatic decision to really sort of get diagnosed in that sense. I suppose another feature of Asperger’s is often taking things literally when they’re not meant literally. Has that been a feature for you as well sometimes? Not getting it when someone’s perhaps joking about something?
Dan: It has, sort of two elements of that. One, taking things literally, and two, I think I have incredibly black-and-white thinking about things.
So I spend all my time therapeutically telling people not to have black-and-white thinking, and doing what I can to stop people having black-and-white thinking, but in certain contexts I find myself with stupid black-and-white thinking that I wish I didn’t have.
I’ll do things like… if my wife says to me just go away, I’ll literally walk out, with no… I don’t even think about any intention of ever returning. I literally walk straight out the door, I won’t say goodbye, I won’t feel upset, I’ll just walk straight out the door with no intention of ever returning again. That’s how extreme I’ll take it.
And… me talking about it here, I know it sounds really stupid, but it’s what happens when I’m in that situation, and I know when I talk to my wife about it, when she obviously phones me and says, “No, I didn’t mean literally vanish, I meant we’re going to have an argument if you don’t go to another room,” or something.
So I’ve always come around, and been talked around, just from someone logically telling me that I had thought about it wrong. But if no one did that, I wouldn’t return; it wouldn’t even cross my mind to return. It’s that kind of totally over the top, black and white, you take things at face value, and that’s it.
Mark: Yeah, and of course one thing about learning hypnosis, or hypnotherapeutic communication is, of course, talking in metaphor, and using analogy, and idioms, and puns even, as part of the therapeutic communication.
Dan: And the good thing about that is that I can see patterns. So for me, I find that really easy. People always want to know how I can come up with metaphors, stories, analogies, whatever, so easily. I think, well, it’s not difficult, you have a pattern there that you’re trying to get across to someone, so you create something that’s got that pattern. You just find another context where that same sort of pattern applies.
Mark: Yeah, so a metaphor is actually quite a logical thing, if you think about it from the outside; it’s only when it’s being enacted that it might not seem rational.
Dan: Everything comes down to contexts. I’m okay at public speaking; that’s not a social situation. I was giving a talk reasonably recently, and somebody said, “If you’ve got Asperger’s, how can you be giving this talk? You don’t like social situations.” Well, this isn’t a social situation.
I know what I’m doing, I’ve got a plan of what I’m doing, I’m following that plan. Part of that plan is to take questions, and to give answers. And if I don’t know… I’ve got contingency plans, I do a lot of mental rehearsal, I’ve got contingency plans for different things that might come up. So if someone heckles me, or someone knows a lot more than me, and tries to prove that to me, that’s fine, I’m more than happy just to say you know more than I do. I don’t mind, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Maybe you can share some of your knowledge with everyone as well, that’s why everyone is here.
Mark: So that capacity to categorize, sort of also extends to things like different situations, or course.
Dan: It’s really easy to give a talk. It’s really easy to do therapy sessions. I remember doing the Uncommon Knowledge training, and I’ve seen so many people since doing that training who are on the same training as me. I think, oh, you were on the same training as me, why are you on this training? They’re on other courses, and I’m doing it because I’m obsessed.
So I’m thinking maybe you’re obsessed as well, why are you doing this? “Oh, I haven’t got the confidence yet to see real clients, I’m just doing more training.” But you had, as part of your training, to sit in front of three students, and an instructor, with a client you’ve never met, and do therapy. If you can do that, why can’t you sit in an empty room with someone and do it?
Dan: If you managed to make it to the end of a course where that was involved, how can you not do it when they don’t even know what you’re doing? You can make as many mistakes as you want, as long as you don’t do anything too bad, they’re probably going to be completely ignorant of it. Whereas, you know, doing it in front of people who are learning the subject, and know the subject, they’re the ones that are judging you.
Mark: Yeah, so you’re looking at things, and what you’ve just done there is in quite a therapeutic way. You’ve actually seen another angle on something that maybe other people wouldn’t have seen in those terms. Which is a mark of a good therapist, to actually be outside of the situation, and actually see some of the patterns. Obviously you need the empathy as well.
Do you find, Dan, that you’ve ever kind of – well, we’ve probably all done this, in fact – that you’ve ever offended somebody, and you’re not quite sure why, because of your literalism? Has that been a feature?
Dan: I definitely have offended people.
Mark: We all have, yeah.
Dan: Yes. I know in school a girl asked me out repeatedly, and eventually she actually said why do I keep saying no, and so I gave her the answer, which was well, you look like a horse. I couldn’t understand why she got upset by that. But that genuinely was the only thought that was in my head when I met her, was, well you look a bit like a horse.
Mark: People tell you to be honest as well, don’t they?
Dan: Yeah, they tell you to be honest, and want you to lie.
Mark: Yes. I’m looking for someone who’s really honest. Are you? Really?
Dan: Yeah, my wife is very used to me now; we’ve been together for 15 years, and that in itself is quite an achievement for someone who struggles with social situations, and social skills, and hates people being near me 90 percent of the time. But we’ll go shopping, or she’ll go shopping and I’ll be with her. And she’ll say what do I think of this, what do I think of that, and because I’m honest, that significantly reduces her spending. Because I’ll just tell her what I think.
And in the early days she used to get quite upset by that. I’m telling her that her tastes are bad sometimes. Now she normally just sort of laughs it off, and thinks, well, that’s just Dan. But people who don’t know me, they’re the ones that are the worst because I will do the same to them if I’m asked a question, and because they don’t know me at all, they’ll take offence to that.
Dan: But then people have made judgments on me. I was on a hypnotherapy training course, and every lunch I would sit quietly just reading in a corner, not interacting with anyone, because it didn’t feel like a context to interact. The way my brain works is when I’m in an exercise, I’m interacting with the person because I’m in an exercise; when I’m on a lunch break, I’m just myself.
Some people were talking, and then eventually a group of them came up to me, and then the sort of ‘lead’ person started having a go at me and saying, “You think you’re better than all of us. You’re really arrogant, and you believe you’re so much better, you’re not talking to any of us, and you’re not interacting.”
And it’s like… five or six days in or something. I’m thinking, I’m just reading, I don’t understand what the problem is.
Mark: You don’t understand it. And it’s being accused, or being thought of as aloof, and stuck up, and all these things, because people of course, if they don’t understand something, they’ll fill the vacuum with what they imagine to be the cause of something.
Dan: What I’ve done, because of experiences like that, is I probably over-disclose now. There was one key thing that really upset my wife, which was me getting run over. Me getting run over upset her as well, but that wasn’t the thing.
Mark: I’m pleased to hear that, I’m not pleased you got run over, I’m pleased to hear that…
Dan: I ended up in hospital, and had my wife contacted, and had my work contacted to say I wasn’t going to actually be arriving that day. I didn’t quite make it all the way there. And they all came to see me at hospital, which I didn’t ask them necessarily to, but they did.
And all my work colleagues, I’d been working with them for about a year at this point, said “Who’s this person here with you?” “Oh, that’s my girlfriend.” They said, “Oh, you’ve got a girlfriend, didn’t know that.” They were just surprised; they didn’t know I had a girlfriend after a year of working with me.
She was very, very annoyed that my work colleagues didn’t know I had a girlfriend a year into working 15-hour shifts with me. They’ve never asked me, you don’t just walk up to people and say “Hi, I’m Dan, I’ve got a girlfriend.” How do you do it, and why? What interest is that to anyone? I couldn’t understand.
Ever since that specific experience, I probably over-disclose now. Say hi, I’m Dan, I’ve got a wife, and I’m going to tell you everything about me now, because that way I can’t make a mistake. I’m going to tell you that I’m going to upset you. I’m going to tell you I’m going to say all the wrong things. And just be honest back, and say you’ve just really upset me, that really hurt me. This is what I’m like, I’m going to tell you that now, because I don’t want all this… people coming up to me, and…
Mark: Making assumptions about what you’re like…
Dan: Let’s rather be honest now, and reveal who I am. You either like it, or you don’t, but at least you know who I am, and why I’m the way I am.
Mark: And of course part and parcel of social interaction is exchanging information, in appropriate situations. Not when you’re doing life-saving surgery, necessarily, with another surgeon. But that is part of it. Traditionally people have assumed that Asperger’s is more of a male feature, but recently people have sort of posited the idea that it’s as prevalent in women, but perhaps presents in a different way. Is that something that you’ve got an opinion on?
Dan: I definitely think that’s probably the case. It may well be slightly more prevalent in men, obviously I don’t know the genetics of it, so it could well be that it’s one of those things that just presents itself genetically in a way that comes out different in men to women. I know there are so many women with it that say that they’re similar, but different. To me, I would think, well why wouldn’t it be equally, or virtually equally as prevalent in women as men?
Mark: Do you think it presents in a different way in women?
Dan: Most likely. I think the main thing is probably around the emotions. I think with women maybe it presents more from the emotional side of things. I think a lot of women that I know of with Asperger’s have said about it being more of an emotional issue for them, rather than the sensory thing.
I’ve mentioned about feeling overwhelmed emotionally at times; I think with women it’s probably that that’s one of the more predominant areas that they’ll get overwhelmed with. Again, would you diagnose them with Asperger’s if they’re saying “I get all emotional all the time”?
Mark: Yeah, that’s right…
Dan: So I think it’s a sensitivity towards the emotional side of things, but it’s being overlooked because it’s emotion, rather than tactile sensations, or colour, lights, sound, whatever.
Mark: Yeah, so people may be trying to diagnose them with male Asperger’s, when it’s female Asperger’s. That’s just conjecture, I don’t know that.
The other thing I think is important to emphasize is that someone who is Asperger’s is, of course, a unique individual who happens to be Asperger’s. Not Asperger’s itself. I used to work with a lot of people labelled as schizophrenic when I worked in mental health, or in an institution in mental health, I should say.
Of course, you very quickly learn that they are unique individuals, and some are more likeable than others. They are people who happen to be schizophrenic; you see past the label.
Dan: I’ve always been very anti-labelling; I think that’s what took me to having to have something that was making my life very uncomfortable for me to seek a label. I believe everyone should be treated as a human being, you are who you are.
Why should I, now have got a label, get special treatment over someone who maybe – say the example of being put in the middle of an open-plan office – over someone who maybe has extreme shyness as a problem They get very anxious in situations, and very shy. They’re not going to have a label, but they might be having a much worse experience than I am.
So I’m not really a fan of labels generally, unless the label is somehow going to help you. And from all my parenting work, one of the biggest issues I’ve seen is people get given a label, and then that’s the end, there’s a full stop. That’s the end of it. They’ve got a label, go home, deal with it.
They don’t get any education, any training. Many parents that I’ve met have written their kids off virtually. They love their kids deeply, but they’ve written off what they now believe their child has for their future, because of the label they’ve just been given. Because they don’t have any… They didn’t know anything about the subject beforehand, because unless you’ve got an interest in it, why would you suddenly know about a subject like that.
Then all of a sudden they’ve been given a label, and they still don’t know anything about the subject. They just get told… You know, you go and seek help because there’s a problem. You don’t go and seek help because your child is a genius.
So they may be a maths genius who can’t socialize, but what you go and seek the help for is the difficulty with the socializing. You seek that help, and then what a doctor tells you is they’ve got Asperger’s. It’s a lifelong condition; they’re going to have it for the rest of their life.
So what you’ve essentially been told, or how you hear it, is the problem that you’ve brought them here to me to see over, they’ve got that problem now, and they will always have that problem, is what you hear. So you then write their future off. They’ve got this social problem for the rest of their life, they’re never going to be able to achieve anything, they can’t socialize now without it ending up with them annoying someone, and then getting in a fight or something. So in ten years time…
Mark: They’re always going to be lonely, they’re always going to be isolated.
Dan: Yeah, so you just focus on that. So a large part of what I’ve always done parenting-wise is trying to put a positive spin on everything. Reframe everything and look at the fact that someone with… Obviously with low-functioning autism, there’s a lot of struggles, a lot of things that are difficult to do, and the person may not ever be able to learn sufficiently to move beyond a certain level.
With high-functioning autism, you normally are quite good at learning, if you’re interested in the subject. You actively choose not to be learning if you’re not interested in the subject. I know in school there were some subjects I used to just think, well how does this benefit my future? What specific role is this supposed to have? What’s making it so that I need to learn French and German? I couldn’t understand any logical reason why I needed to learn French and German, so I didn’t bother particularly with French and German.
But then other things I thought well yeah, I can see the potential in that, or it interested me. Things like science interested me, and things like business studies. I could see the logic in how that could apply to the future. I think if you are capable of learning, you’re also capable of learning hypnosis, or learning communication skills.
There was a horizon, I think… no, it was The Brain, I think, a documentary by… I think it’s David Eagleman. There was a guy on that documentary who had had transcranial magnetic stimulation. He got Asperger’s, had transcranial magnetic stimulation, and they stimulated a part of his brain to make it so that he picked up on sensory cues. And he did, he picked up on sensory cues, and was suddenly able to see these things.
What happens with transcranial magnetic stimulation is when the magnets are turned off, over a short period of time, sort of 10, 15 minutes, your brain goes back to normal. You normally lose whatever abilities you’ve gained from that. It’s been done to help people improve art skills, it’s been done to help people improve piano playing, and things like that. My view is doing it to improve communication skills, you can’t un-see something you’ve seen. So what happened was this guy was still, after it had all finished, was still able to pick up on communication skills, on subtle communication.
Mark: Suddenly that context had been made available to him.
Dan: The scientists on the actual program, who had done the transcranial magnetic stimulation with him, said we can’t understand why it hasn’t stopped with him. And I was looking at the screen thinking, well, it’s logical.
Mark: Yes, it is.
Dan: If you see something, you don’t un-see it. You don’t suddenly the next morning, or 15 minutes afterwards, think, oh, 15 minutes ago I’m sure your eyes were moving in a certain way when you thought that. I’m sure your lips were moving in a certain way when you… You don’t un-remember it.
Dan: It’s always there. And I think that’s what happened with me with hypnosis, that once I saw these things, and learnt these things, it’s always there. So I’m still terrible at it in social situations, there’s too much going on to be good at it.
I’m much better at it in artificial situations. Therapy rooms where it’s me and the person, or me and a family, I can go into that planning that I’m going to be watching for certain things, I’m going to be doing certain things, I’m going to be following a certain structure.
Whereas a random… you’re at an event, a social event, to try and keep track of everything, and think are they smiling, are they doing that? What was the context as they approached to talk to me? Is that to do with a previous context, or is that to do with something I’m now saying here? It’s much easier when you control the context to be able to read all the information, and then make a judgment out of it. I still struggle with sort of unscheduled contexts, versus easily scheduled ones; things that I’ve planned to do.
Mark: And you wonder how many… I read quite recently Jerry Seinfeld saying he felt like he was Asperger’s because he struggled with social situations. At the time of reading that, it didn’t seem to make much sense to me, but of course it does in light of what you’re saying. That when he’s doing stand-up comedy, or he’s learnt his lines for his TV show, it’s a controlled situation. He comes across as very, very good socially, but of course it has parameters, you know. It’s not the same as meeting a bunch of strangers down the pub for the first time.
So you wonder how many people in show business and the arts and so forth, because they’re attracted to the structure of it, and the identity it gives them, might be Asperger’s.
Dan: Well, people like Peter Sellers, who’s well known for essentially not having a personality of his own.
Mark: He said as much, didn’t he
Dan: If you ever met him just as him, there was nothing to him. He was very 2D, and it was difficult to judge who the real Peter Sellers was, because he was always in the character that he was doing at that time; whatever was going on, whatever job he had, that was the character he was. And I can see the appeal in that.
Mark: The search for identity, in a sense. Also because… the observation of what’s funny, and how people think and work, can make people very good comedians, or very good entertainers. Obviously not all entertainers, but it might be an element there. Anyway, who knows!
Dan: It’s definitely, I think, the main thing is wanting to get parents to believe their child can… you know, look at the strengths and the weaknesses, and believe your child can achieve things. In parenting courses I would say, are they good at learning subjects? Are they good at… Oh, they’re very good at this one? That’s brilliant. Are they good at…?
I would get them to say yes to me a lot about things, sort of agreeing about the stuff they’re good at, but I’m using me as the reference. I’m thinking, right, I’m good at this, so maybe they’ll be good at this as well. Are they very logical, and very good at being detached from other people’s emotions, and…
You can learn empathy mimicking type skills, and things like that. And I talk to parents about this, and say I think they’d make a brilliant therapist. I think they’d be brilliant at this type of work, brilliant at that type of work. It’s just about you trying to channel them so you can help them, so that when they reach that age, you’ve helped them to develop the skills necessary, rather than writing them off now.
Mark: Right, that was what I was going to ask you, because you say in your book that you helped, or you worked with families who had kids with Asperger’s. I was curious to know how you help them, and that was one, actually framing Asperger’s as a set of, sort of, skills as much as deficits.
Dan: And using, obviously, therapy skills, I would normally depotentiate the arguments I know I’m likely to get back before they come up. Before I’m saying anything of any value, I already want to say it sounds like it’s a real struggle, it’s really difficult dealing with them the way they are at the moment. The way they do this, the way they do that. I can see that’s just so tough on you, you’re really struggling to deal with all that. That’s probably quite emotional for you.
And you get lots of agreement for all this stuff. Then I bring up the subject of what are they good at, as well as what are they bad at. What are their problems, as well as problems and solutions, so it sounds balanced.
People are normally willing to keep going with you, because you’re keeping it conversational, and you’re bringing in… You’re not just being overly positive, and saying “I know you think that they’re a nightmare, and that’s why you’ve gone and gotten them diagnosed, but I think they’re brilliant!”
They’re not going to buy into anything I say if I did that. So I want to sort of start where they are, but start adding in some of the getting them to focus on the strengths I know that they know are there, they just aren’t really paying much attention to them. They’re too focused on the bad bits that are going on at the moment. Then I’ll shift into the future, of what they may well be capable of, and the things they can achieve, and that’s obviously just using the therapy skills.
Mark: Instilling hope really, and giving them a picture of how things can be. Which is, as we know, very, very good, and you’re a case in point as well for that.
I found that it can be quite difficult to use hypnosis as a tool with some people with Asperger’s, and you have to adapt the way that you do it. Being perhaps less metaphorical, less talking in parallel, perhaps more direct, and directive. I recall having a client, a male client, who was Asperger’s, he was a young guy. It’s a little bit like your telling the girl at school that she looked like a horse, and that’s why you wouldn’t go out with her. That kind of honesty.
He was running up against all kinds of problems socially; he was very, very technically gifted in his job, but he was having these… He said “I don’t understand it, I broke up with my girlfriend on Valentine’s Day.” I said, “Oh, how did you do that?” He said, “She got really upset because I sent her a Valentine’s and in the card I ended the relationship with her.” He couldn’t really see why that might have been a problem. He kind of wanted help, and at first I was trying to use hypnosis, and I could certainly teach him to relax by being very directive, but it wasn’t really working.
Then what I did in the end, thinking okay, this guy has Asperger’s, he’s been diagnosed as Asperger’s, and he clearly is to me. I wrote him out maybe 100 rules, social rules. As I was doing it I thought, really? Is this going to patronize him? But he was delighted. You know, ask people about themselves, don’t just talk to them about what you’re interested in, et cetera, et cetera.
And we discussed why perhaps ending a relationship in a Valentine’s card might not have been the best way of doing it, and why she might have been upset. He just had these 100 rules, and he would follow them. It sounds like a really weird way of doing therapy, but for him it was highly effective, and perhaps a bit extreme. I’m not suggesting that everyone who’s Asperger’s, or on the spectrum, should receive that kind of therapy. But I think it’s indicative of how we need to consider the needs of different types of people that come in for therapy, and not treat everyone the same, yeah.
Dan: Things like that definitely help, yeah. I like the idea of having rules. For example, probably one of the main social things that really frustrates me is my inability to say “Hi” and “How are you?”
I’ll be walking towards someone, I’ll notice that we’ve made eye contact or something, so I can’t avoid this person. I’ll be walking along towards them, pacing along at normal pace. In my head I’m going, remember to say hi, how are you, remember to say hi, and how are you. No, remember to say, I’m fine, how are you. Remember to say I’m fine, how are you. Then they’ll say “Oh hi, how are you?” I’ll say “I’m fine,” and I’ll carry on walking.
Then ten paces later I’m thinking, I still didn’t ask them how they were. I can’t now stop, turn around, and walk back and say “By the way, how are you?” And so I always feel really bad. It’s something that I know is the social thing that people expect, and they think oh, he’s a bit rude. It’s all about him.
Mark: Yeah, yeah, social grooming.
Dan: Right up to me opening my mouth, I’ve said it in my head repeatedly, but as soon as I open my mouth, it doesn’t come out. So having rules, and just being told, these are some of the social norms that people do. It may not make sense to you why it needs to happen, but that’s just what people do.
Mark: Do you think… It’s a huge assumption, isn’t it? That this sort of stuff is instinctive for everyone. It certainly isn’t, and do you feel that some of this, if you like, emotional acuity, could be taught in schools to children? Communication skills, social skills, and that kind of thing. Do you think there’s a place for that?
Dan: I’ve always thought that it should be taught in schools, along with parenting. I think that not parenting called parenting, but things like how you raise kids, how you do care type of work, should be taught in schools, should be taught through later primary school, and into secondary school, for a number of reasons.
One, because there’s a lot of people, not just people with Asperger’s, but a lot of people who struggle with different elements of communication skills. A lot of people grow up in backgrounds where maybe they didn’t get it at home, or aren’t getting it at home from family. And you’re obviously going to be modelling the people around you, so if you’re getting a bad bunch of models, then you’re likely to not even know you’re doing something that’s wrong or offensive, or something.
Mark: That could be a corrective to that at school.
Dan: Yeah, and I think it also sets a benchmark of what’s expected. So, from a parenting point of view, if someone’s grown up in a household where they’re regularly hit, and they just assume everyone else is regularly hit, that’s their norm. Whereas if there was classes at school that said “We’re going to talk about how parents do parenting today, and this is how parents parent, and this is how the ideal way of parenting is, and this is what’s unacceptable for parenting, and…” Even if you don’t change the current generation of parents, who are doing things that maybe they think are right but aren’t correct, you’ve got a whole new generation that have that benchmark…
Mark: Yeah, they have a new template…
Dan: Yeah, new template of what’s expected in a society level from everyone. Doing better than that is good, but here’s a minimum of this is what you’re striving for.
Mark: If you think about how many people in society generally kind of struggle with their emotions… Yet we’re not really taught anything about emotions at school. Well, I mean maybe some schools, but you know, about all-or-nothing thinking, or black-and-white thinking, and explanatory styles…
Dan: I’ve had lots of people around teen depression, lots of people have said to me that… I think it’s a bit better now, because they can search YouTube and the Internet and find things. Although that can also have a downside, because that can scare you even more. But a lot of people have said to me that they were depressed when they were teenagers, and they didn’t want to talk about it, because it was so scary how they were feeling, and they didn’t think anyone else was feeling the same. But they didn’t know what it was, and why they were feeling the way they were. It’s not something that’s just talked about openly.
Yet as an adult, they then suddenly, everyone is talking about depression in all the adult magazines, and everything. They suddenly say, that’s what I used to feel when I was a kid. Suddenly they’re aware of it, and think maybe I shouldn’t have wasted my youth just feeling bad, I could have done something about it, if I knew that there was a way of doing something about it, and it wasn’t just somehow I’m messed up.
Mark: Yeah, somehow I’m faulty goods, and I’m stuck with this, kind of feeling. What prompted you to write your book, Dan?
Dan: A few things. One thing was self-discovery, was thinking. People asked me about me, and I give different answers, and I became aware of contradictions that I say. So I thought if I write things down, maybe I can see patterns in my contradictions. Maybe it’s a case of actually I need to take a step up in something. Maybe actually two things that look like they contradict don’t contradict, if I went up a level and looked at it from a different perspective.
I thought, if I write everything down, I might discover different bits about me, and learn more about myself. I definitely thought that it would be something helpful for people to understand me, and for people to understand others with Asperger’s, to sort of see… The idea was, can I write this through the eyes of someone with Asperger’s? Write it so that it gives a flavour of that, but doesn’t piss everyone off.
I was writing it, and I sent the first draft of the first few chapters to loads of people, loads of writers, and said can you look at that? Because I’m covering the same problems, like social communication problems, et cetera, over many periods of my life, so it’s going to be very repetitive. A part of it is I do get very repetitive, and I do go over the same things, because I like the same thing, and I want to give a flavour of that. But I don’t want to really annoy people and have them think, you spoke about that in the last paragraph.
It very quickly became apparent that the first draft was full of people saying to me “No, that paragraph, and that paragraph, and that paragraph, they all say the same thing.” And I’d be looking at it thinking, well, they don’t, because that means this, and that means this, and that means this. No, you know that means those different things, but to a reader, they don’t read into it in quite as fine a detail as you.
Mark: Right, so you have to put your mind into their mind.
Dan: Yeah, and I couldn’t do that, so I ended up sending it, when it was sent to be proofread and copy edited and everything, and just said “I’m going to trust you to leave some of the stuff in, some of the repetition in, to give a flavour that this is definitely written by me, but if you think this is going to really wind up the readers, take it out.”
So I think something like 15,000 words was cut out of it, after I’d already cut out about 20,000 words before sending it off, to try and get rid of as much repetition. The idea was write something that if someone read it they’d think, that’s what an experience is like for someone with Asperger’s.
I tried to have in the chapters, obviously, the advantage I’ve got is not only do I have Asperger’s, but I’ve worked with children and families for 15 years – longer than 15 years. Many of the children have had Asperger’s, and some of the parents have.
Before that, I was working in mental health, where some of the people were diagnosed with Asperger’s; most had things like schizophrenia and manic depression and OCD, but there was people with Asperger’s as well.
So I thought, I’ve had all that experience as well, and obviously lots of training around therapy, and lots of training around family support, and around… I’ve had lots of experience, obviously in the UK, so it doesn’t necessarily relate to other countries, of helping families take their child from “I’ve identified they might be on the autistic spectrum” through to “what’s the next step?” Going to a GP, getting a diagnosis, what do you need to do to make that as smooth as possible?
I’ve had all that experience of helping families through these things. I thought, I want to make sure I include that in there as well.
Say look, not only am I writing… There’s books out there by people with Asperger’s, that just say this is me, here’s my experience. I thought, what I’ve got extra is that I can say, well, if you’re someone reading this because you’ve got a child maybe with Asperger’s, or a relative, or a friend, you’ll hopefully learn a bit about them, but you’ll also learn how to help them.
I think I regularly point out, I’m only talking from my point of view. I’m aware everyone’s different, because I don’t like labels. One thing about labels I don’t like is that it instantly makes it almost seem like everyone is the same. They’ve got depression. Oh, so have they? That means they must both have exactly the same experience. It’s not the case.
I try and point out I’m only talking from my experience here, I can’t talk on behalf of anyone else. I can talk on behalf of my experiences of working with others. I try and make it so that it’s hopefully a helpful book to people. That someone can read and think, I can understand them better. I can understand why they get frustrated in that situation. Or why they do this, or why they do that. And I can also understand how to get the help that they want, or that they need. Where to go at different life stages.
Mark: Also people can learn about hypnosis, and how in actually learning these types of skills, and what these types of skills are…
Dan: I was very proud that I made it 30,000 words in before properly talking about hypnosis. I, given my choice, would have written about it right from the outset. I made a conscious choice to do my best not to talk about it, until I talk about being 14.
Mark: Yeah, contextualize the whole thing first. Well that’s brilliant. So ‘Look Into My Eyes: Asperger’s, Hypnosis and Me’, and you can buy that on Amazon.
Dan: And paperback.
Mark: Paperback as well, yes, and I thoroughly recommend it. It’s been fascinating talking with you Dan, it really has, and hopefully we can do something else as well along these lines. I’d just like to say thank you very much.
Dan: Thank you.
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About Mark Tyrrell
Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.
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