When the “Difficulty-with-Editing” Trait Becomes an Asset
By Dr. Sandra Wise, Licensed Psychologist, Owner of Eye of A Horse
We’ve heard it over and over: “Individuals with Asperger’s don’t edit themselves when interacting with others.” This behavioral characteristic is typically viewed as a detriment. I’d like to revisit that perspective by describing a context in which this trait proved to be beneficial for all parties involved, and, moreover, provided psychology graduate students an opportunity to take a fresh look at our society’s current dictum that attempts to restrict speech to only that which is judged to be “politically correct.”
I was scheduled to teach “The Dynamics of Group Psychotherapy” to doctoral students in the Clinical Psychology program at Florida Institute of Technology. I wanted to include an experiential “hands-on” component so that the student therapists could learn how to lead an interpersonal process group right in the classroom. This specific type of psychotherapy calls for a small heterogeneous group of individuals to interact directly with one another to explore their interpersonal style and the impact it has on others. The goal is to have individuals who are experiencing ordinary “problems of living” (rather than severe psychopathology) create a microcosm within the group, reflecting their style in “the real world.” Members are encouraged to give honest reactions/responses to each other about anything that is happening within the group, but are discouraged from focusing on personal events or situations outside the group. There is no particular theme or format. All of the focus is on what is happening in the present moment between the members sitting in the group.
This type of group psychotherapy is very challenging to facilitate, as compared to a “psychoeducational” group, which is more like a class with a leader serving as teacher. It also differs from a “diagnosis-based” group, such as a group consisting of members who have all been diagnosed with cancer or an anxiety disorder, and thus maintains a tight focus on a single theme.
Instead, a process group is about pure interactive process. And this is exactly what makes such a group difficult to facilitate. Most group members try to be overly polite and are hesitant to give honest feedback to one another, even when experiencing a strong reaction to a fellow member. It often takes months of weekly sessions for members to feel comfortable speaking their mind, whether about their own or others’ behaviors in the group sessions. Moreover, I have found that the recent trend toward “political correctness” has made this tendency to “over-edit” even more pronounced in such group settings, as many individuals are more than ever concerned about being criticized for saying the wrong thing or using the wrong language and “offending” someone.
Unfortunately, I only had twelve class meetings in which I could schedule a group for the doctoral students to co-facilitate. Even if I could recruit individuals to be in a group, it would likely take them so long to generate some honest and direct group process that it would not serve as an effective learning exercise for the doctoral students or as a therapeutic experience for the group members.
This is where College Internship Program (CIP) saved the day. Having worked with many of the students at CIP in a different context, and being aware of this “difficulty-with-editing” trait that is so prevalent, I approached the Melbourne campus about the possibility of recruiting six of their students to be in the psychotherapy process group for my class. I explained that the group would not focus on Asperger’s per se, and that the doctoral students would not initially be told anything about the group members, other than the fact that I had recruited these six young adults for this experience.
This plan indeed proved to be the answer to my dilemma. From the very first group session, the CIP students provided open and honest responses and reactions to each other. With only minimal guidance and rule reinforcement, they essentially ran their own group and demonstrated to the psychology doctoral students the richness of honest, direct, present-moment interaction.
I believe that the success of this graduate course rested in great part on a trait in the group members that is so often viewed as a detriment. When told that they were expected to be honest and straight-forward, yet kind, the CIP students were immediately able to do so, unlike most typical members who would take many weeks before allowing themselves this advantage. Because of this ability, these CIP students themselves benefited from the group psychotherapy experience, even though it lasted only twelve weeks. (Traditional standards suggest that such groups should be maintained for at least a year in order to be effective.)
Additionally, the feedback that the psychology students provided at the end of the course was effusive. Many described this class as one of the best learning experiences in their entire doctoral program due to the quality of the honest and direct interpersonal interactions they were privileged to observe on the part of the group members from CIP.
This win-win situation should make us all stop and consider the impact of attempts aimed at limiting speech, whether through mandates of political correctness or through chastising those who tend to speak their mind and see no need to overly edit. Yes, we all need to be kind and considerate, but could there be times when over-editing might work against us? Under the right circumstances, saying what you honestly think and feel can give others a true read on who you are, can validate opinions the listener holds himself but has been hesitant to voice, or can make him think about long-held opinions that need revisiting. If sensitively expressed, such open, honest, and direct speech can model behavior that could counterbalance today’s misguided tendency to play word games in the name of being politically correct. In the proper context, possessing the ability and willingness to speak one’s mind can be a valuable asset. Maybe this is just another lesson we can learn from folks on the spectrum.