What is Alexithymia?
In 1973, psychotherapist Peter Sifneos began using the term “alexithymia” to describe difficulties identifying and expressing one’s own feelings. Alexithymia further describes a disturbance distinguishing between bodily sensations and states of emotional arousal. Individuals with alexithymia experience problems expressing and regulating their own emotions, understanding others’ feelings, and recognizing emotions associated with facial expressions. Due to inabilities in expressing emotions, these individuals may have crying fits and bouts of rage, and frequently resort to physical violence to release pent-up frustration. Due to decreased imaginative abilities, alexithymics rarely experience dreams and fantasies, or have extremely realistic ones when they do.
Unlike the form of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome, alexithymia is not a disorder classified in the DSM-IV. Rather, alexithymia is a personality trait that puts people at risk for medical and psychological disorders and makes individuals less likely to respond to treatment for them. Like Asperger’s syndrome, though, alexithymia varies in severity and affects each individual differently.
What are the Similarities Between Alexithymia and Asperger’s Syndrome?
Alexithymia and Asperger’s share many other symptoms and characteristics. People with alexithymia and those with Asperger’s syndrome, or Aspies, both have impaired processing skills and externally orientated cognitive manners. That is, they tend to think in terms of facts and things, and often seem to lack human qualities that influence thinking. Both alexithymic individuals and Aspies may seem dull, repetitive, and unimaginative when they are actually highly intellectual.
Alexithymic individuals and Aspies similarly share difficulties with speech and language. Both groups have speech patterns that sound monotone, dull, and lack the use of metaphor. Speech from these individuals tends to sound very formal and impersonal, too. People with the alexithymic trait and this autistic disorder usually speak about a particular area of interest, reciting fact-based information on the topic without regard to a listener’s interest. For these reasons, others tend to dismiss these people as lacking intelligence, when, in fact, they have very high IQs.
Not surprisingly, interpersonal relationships prove difficult for both groups. As with individuals with Asperger’s syndrome, those who are alexithymis experience problems identifying their own emotions, verbalizing them, and recognizing feelings in others. Since they cannot express self emotions, both groups fail to seek comfort and support from others. In fact, these individuals prefer to spend time alone and avoid the company and pleasure of others. When socializing, alexithymics and Aspies appear detached and seem to lack empathy because of difficulties reading and responding to nonverbal communication. Along with nonverbal communication impairments, individuals with this trait and those with the autistic disorder exhibit stiff posture and few facial expressions.
Much overlap exists between alexithymia and Asperger’s syndrome with cognitive impairments, speech and language problems, and social difficulties. As alexithymia is a personality trait and not a disorder, though, individuals with it do not have the support that may be necessary to compensate for their impairments. Although they may have typical lives and do well in careers as mathematicians and engineers, alexithymics often report high rates of negative life satisfaction - though they cannot elaborate as to why. Their inabilities of expressing their feelings, using language and nonverbal communication, and socializing, as described above, undoubtedly contribute to an isolating and difficult life. Gaining understanding and acceptance from others may do much to improve individuals’ lives, but may be the most difficult qualities to express and find.
Autistic spectrum disorder fact sheet. www.autism-help.org/aspergers-interpersonal-relationships.htm
Fitzgerald, Michael, and Bellgrove, Mark A. “The Overlap between Alexithymia and Asperger’s Syndrome.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. May, 2006. www.springerlink.com/content/238u61255x78m843/