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Cultural Intelligence and Autism: My Perspective

Category: Blogger's Corner, Autism, Cultural Inclusion, development, cultural intelligence

Cultural Intelligence and Autism: My Perspective

Recently, in preparation for a Common Purpose course, I decided to read ‘Cultural Intelligence’ by Julia Middleton. The book focuses on defining cultural intelligence – essentially, the ability to understand people who aren’t like you – and on how people can learn and develop this. I found the book fascinating for many reasons, but for one in particular. As a person with autism, cultural intelligence as Ron Arculli, Chair of Common Purpose, describes it in the book’s forward – as a ‘messy, human’ trait, focused more on feeling and instinct than an application of a system – is supposed to be everything I’m bad at.[1] Yet I found I deeply related to the book’s message – and, upon self-examination, realised I was already doing a lot of it.

Cultural Intelligence is not something which comes easily to anybody; and, given my psychology, I really shouldn’t be able to utilise it at all, at least not without a struggle. One of the key traits of autism is a supposed lack of theory of mind; also known as ‘cognitive empathy’, it’s essentially the ability to put yourself in the shoes of another, and to understand their point of view.[2] Under this logic, then, while autistic people can play a passive role in developing the cultural intelligence of others – since their thoughts and beliefs are often very unique and original, and often at odds with the society they live in – they should not be able to actively develop it without extreme effort.

But cognitive empathy is not the only aspect of empathy; there’s also affective empathy, the emotional drive to care about and to share the emotions of others. There is no evidence that affective empathy is impaired in people with autism;[3] in fact, some studies suggest autistic people have, on average, higher affective empathy than the general population.[4] And while this can be a hindrance just as often as it’s a benefit, when it comes to cultural intelligence, I’ve personally found it really helps.

All people with autism are different, of course. But I’m a person who seeks to gain as much knowledge as possible; to understand as many concepts and ideas as possible. I’m also motivated to understand as many people as possible, as best I can – and while this is not something I’m naturally skilled at, I’ve persevered because I have a reason to do so. Because I genuinely care about the experiences and viewpoints of others – and because, more so in the past than now, it has been such a struggle to actually understand them – I find that I take notice of what they say far more.

It’s also given me a greater impetus to moderate my behaviour in order to put others at ease. I’ve learnt skills such as making appropriate eye contact (because it puts people at ease), taking turns in conversation (because it makes people feel valued), making small talk (because, while I still think it’s pointless in-and-of-itself, it can kick off friendships and lead to big talk), speaking about things I’m not particularly interested in but they are (because it makes them feel better; and let’s be honest, they’re probably not interested in half the things I’m talking about), and being able to tell white lies (because sometimes the truth is not the best thing a person can hear).

And a lot of behaviours I’d have once put firmly in my ‘core’ and considered integral to me, I’d now consider to be my ‘flex’ – they change as the situation changes, because it’s not the behaviour itself that’s important, but the affect it has on the person. Not too long ago, my approach to conversations was to talk for ages at people, reeling off lists of facts and ideas about a subject I find fascinating and hoping they enjoyed having often-unintelligible concepts thrown at them. And that was if I even chose to enter a conversation at all; when I was younger, I was far too shy and quiet to initiate one, and if somebody struck up a talk, often I’d simply not know how to answer.

Now, my behaviour depends a lot more on the other person. If they’re keen to talk, I’ll become more pensive, allowing them to speak most but making sure that everything I say in the conversation is carefully though-out and meaningful; if they’re more quiet, I’ll happily lead a conversation, and as well as talking about my interests, will encourage them to speak about their own. I know from experience that not feeling able to speak doesn’t mean you have nothing to say – and those words they’re struggling to get out may well be key to my understanding of them, or of the issue they’re discussing. It simply doesn’t help to shut people out.

So, while autism may make the initial steps of learning cultural intelligence difficult, it’s also provided me with a drive to persevere; to learn it, develop it, hone it and hopefully, one day – however hard it may be – to master it. As Julia Middleton says, “Men are not islands of themselves”.[5] And nobody knows that better than a man who was born on an island against his own volition.

Or perhaps, somewhere out there, somebody does know it better. I should ask them. And I’ll be sure to listen to their answer.

[1] Julia Middleton, ‘Cultural Intelligence or CQ: The Competitive Edge for Leaders Crossing Borders’ (Bloomsbury: London, 2014), forward by Ron Arculli, p. viii

[2] ‘Emotional Empathy and Cognitive Empathy’, Chris Allen Thomas, Teleos Leaders, http://blog.teleosleaders.com/2013/07/19/emotional-empathy-and-cognitive-empathy/ [accessed 7th December 2014]

[3] Isobel Dziobek, ‘Differentiating Cognitive and Emotional Empathy in Adults with Asperger Syndrome’, MPIB Berlin, https://www.mpib-berlin.mpg.de/en/research/concluded-areas/mprg-neurocognition-of-decision-making/decision-making-in-social-contexts/individuals-with-asperger [accessed 7th December 2014]

[4] Maia Szalavitz, ‘A Radical New Autism Theory’, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/05/11/a-radical-new-autism-theory.html [retrieved 7th December 2014]

[5] Julia Middleton, ‘Collaboration and Cultural Intelligence’, Common Purpose, http://www.commonpurpose.org/how-we-do-it/cultural-intelligence/videos [retreived 7th December 2014]

Vercida works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with Vercida to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please call 02037405973 or email info@vercida.com for more information.

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email info@vercida.com for more information.

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