Accommodation and autonomy

In this video Iris is talking about accommodation. Accommodation in this case refers to conflict style, defined as follows by Mind Tools: 

Accommodating: This style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of the person’s own needs. The accommodator often knows when to give in to others, but can be persuaded to surrender a position even when it is not warranted. This person is not assertive but is highly cooperative. Accommodation is appropriate when the issues matter more to the other party, when peace is more valuable than winning, or when you want to be in a position to collect on this “favor” you gave. However people may not return favors, and overall this approach is unlikely to give the best outcomes.

Iris is talking about the case where an individual is somehow stuck in this as her life-style, i.e. to always be accommodating.

She describes the signs of being in this style: the state of basic  discontent which is always in need of something more or different to fill this need and therefore makes the individual prone to accommodate others so that they will provide this something which fills this need. But the satisfaction is only temporary because the need never goes away, and the same exchange is repeated. The key is that the accommodating individual gets something out of the exchange that she needs, and because she continually needs this she is continually accommodating. Typically what she needs is the approval of the other person. Iris uses the example of your friend asking you to bring her a glass of water. If you are in the accommodating style you comply, even if it was inconvenient for you just then, but you expect something in return. Maybe, in this case is just her appreciation. If you don’t get it you feel cheated out of something. If she uses it to water the flower pot, or says it tasted bad you feel insulted or rejected. On the other hand if you are in autonomy mode and she asks for the water, you look inside yourself and  ask: “am I doing something else now or can just as easily go and fetch the water, then OK I do it” and I don’t look for anything in return because I don’t need anything, I am already satisfied within myself. Then I don’t care what she does with the water, I have nothing vested in it. On the other hand  if I am getting a little tired of fetching water for her, because I don’t get out of it what I need, then I shift over into the mode of defiance; go and get your own water you demanding person. But this is not autonomy either, because my level of satisfaction is still determined by her.

Now, autonomy doesn’t have to mean I am totally self-sufficient. I may still find it more interesting and enjoyable to be in a togetherness with you but in a style of cooperation. Then we can both discuss something we are both interested in, like the theory of Dark Energy that those guys got the Nobel prize for. In our discussion, we share our ideas and understandings, and your thoughts get added to mine and I get the benefit of sharing my thoughts with you, and we are both enriched by it.

So how is this different  from the exchange involving the water glass? There you get the benefit of the water and I get the benefit of your appreciation. The difference is that in that case I had no interest in the water, I involved myself in it only to accommodate you. Furthermore, I still continue to have the need for you appreciation. In the other case we are both interested in dark energy and  get our satisfaction from exploring that topic, and sharing it is just a way to make it more interesting and enjoyable.


Autistic Iris, expert at communication

Iris’ ability to read other peoples inner thoughts and feelings seems like a an impossible paradox considering that one of her key “handicaps” as an autistic is that she does not experience emotions herself. But this apparent paradox is resolved upon closer reflection.  Among “normal” people, (also called the neurotypical), interaction, such as conversation, is accompanied by subtle automatic emotional cues given off and picked up almost subconsciously. Since this subtle exchange is happening for the most part below the level of articulate awareness, it’s more like feelings given off and picked up rather than words. However, the fact that the appropriate feelings are picked up means that there is actual information being transferred, in other words each person is learns the other person’s feelings just as if they were expressed in words. From a communications engineering perspective this is not so different from reading each others’ minds. Now, in the case of Iris, the reason she can’t interact in this fashion is not because she can’t pick up the other person’s emotions, but because she doesn’t have emotions of her own that are automatically given off in response. Instead, when she picks up these emotional cues she has to categorize them, put names to them and store them in her memory banks for use in her “acting normal” behavior lists. In other words, what she does is read the other person’s feelings and translates them into words.  I believe it is this skill, which she developed in order to “be ordinary”, that enables Iris to “read people’s minds”. And it is this that helps her see what is actually happening in communication among people.



Here is Iris, the lady in red in front of the white cabinet, holding forth on the art of communication.

Iris, an Autistic Woman, Works With Cancer Patients

Iris,  the autistic author of A Different Childhood, spent some time in her youth working on the night shift in a hospital cancer ward. It was a place pervaded with the fear of death where the staff avoided the patients by running around doing a lot of things, whether they were needed or not. With her amazing ability to read peoples inner thoughts, gained by her diligent observation of how “normal” people function as she was learning to become “normal” herself, Iris was able to see the underlying causes of their distress. In the excerpt below she shows herself as observant as Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, and exceeds him in effectiveness, because she sees the issue ans she knows what to do about it.

“When a patient was restless or anxious I stayed with her after I had done my rounds. I sat down, held her hand and talked about the immaterial. I asked the ones able to talk how it looked in their fears and got many descriptions of hell and all sorts of horrors that humans can imagine. The worst anguish was that so many thought that they hadn’t finished living, that their life hadn’t been good, that they hadn’t gotten out of it what they wanted (as if there is something special to be gotten out of life, as if it could be completed in the sense of “finished product”), that they had been too scared and too bound by duties. That feeling easily shifted into bitterness which they took out on the staff. They were well and had time left.

That envy was dreadful for the dying. They couldn’t help being mean and difficult, and at the same time felt more and more guilt feelings. I realized the hamster wheel they were on and that the patients really wanted to talk about their lives, have some type of connection, and work through their fear of death. I sat down and quietly asked them to tell about their life. I asked them to talk about both the light and the dark. They were often stuck in the dark and it took a long time and many turns before they got through it. I asked them what experiences they had had, what the agonies had taught them and if there was something rewarding they could find in it all. Often then they thought of something and little by little their mood brightened and we began to have a nice time together.”


If you would like to learn more about Iris and her experiences in this and other situations, you can read more on our blog and you can read her book, A Different Childhood.

Synesthetic autism, a scolding becomes a light show

A fascinating thing about Iris’ description of her synesthesia and out-of-body like fantasy life is the hints it offers about the workings of her brain, as well as of others. The  great pattern matching machine, which researchers think the brain must be, has to spend most of its first years learning and storing patterns that it acquires through the senses. Patterns that it receives from the eyes obviously make optical sense and are perceived as such when acquired. However, in Iris’ case with her synesthesia,  audio signals from the ears, and do not make any optical sense, get into her vision system  where they are still perceived as images. But what kind of images can they be. In Iris’ case they tend to be light shows, like fireworks or shooting stars. The brain expects images from the vision system, but when they originate as sound signals, the higher layers don’t have any sensible visual patterns to recognize so it has to create some out of thin air so to speak, which are then perceived. I imagine the situation similar to a computerized pattern recognition system where the IO driver has a bug so that signals from the microphone go to the optical pattern recognizer software, which of course can’t make sense of it.  However, it is programmed to treat stuff coming in as potential patterns so it proceeds to process them as if they were optical signals. Similarly, the higher layers in Iris’ brain treats these nonsensical signals in such a way that she perceives them as light shows, as he describes in the following excerpt from her book. What a tantalizing glimpse into the deepest mystery of the brain, i.e. how it generates experiences, that this story hints at. Is it possible that this, what brain researchers call the hard problem, may yield some of its mystery from the clues here. Thinking about how it works that Iris perceives fantastical light shows in response to sounds, could that maybe lead to some ideas about what is happening in the brain to produce that sensation.

images (1) images (2)

….When I had done something that farmor thought was very sinful and wrong  she would call me up to her. Then I had to stand before her as she scolded and admonished me. This I liked. I stood totally still and stared out in space. Her words were flying around and formed shapes, it was different lights that sparkled. It was beautiful, and you could never predict how it would look. I stood there and was entranced. I flowed into the colors, shapes, patterns, let myself be carried back and forth, up and down. Everything changed shape continuously and I flowed in with it. 


Iris Johansson, the Temple Grandin of Sweden

I consider Iris Johansson the Temple Grandin of Sweden. Like Dr. Grandin Iris has built an amazing professional career starting from a very unpromising childhood. Dr. Grandin has unusual abilities in understanding the feelings of animals and developed them into a tool for designing effective and humane methods for handling cattle on feed lots and in slaughterhouses. Iris has an unusual ability to read people and pick up on what they are thinking and not saying. In her efforts to learn how to be “normal” she paid close attention to peoples’ behavior in different situations and learned how to pick up cues to the feelings that lay behind the behaviors.  Thus, in spite of her inability to have feelings herself she is good at observing them in others. She recognizes the anger in the other person but it doesn’t trigger anger in her, she observes the joy in the other but it doesn’t make her joyful, she notes someone’s disapproval of something but it doesn’t cause her to disapprove of it. This almost clinical relationship to others has advantages in addition to the obvious disadvantage. Sure, in order to learn to “act normal” she had to devote much time and attention to learning and memorizing the reactions one is expected to have in different situations and in response to all the different feelings expressed, but at the same time all this effort has taught how her to read people and how they react to each other so much better than “normal” people. This is probably the reason she has been so successful in helping people with conflict resolution, communication problems, and various dysfunctions such as impulse control, addiction, and eating disorders.. In addition to mentoring care givers and parents of autistic children, she has channeled her unique ability to read peoples’ feelings into work with individuals and families, schools and reformatories, hospitals and jails. As a consultant and facilitator she has worked with governmental organizations and businesses on conflict resolution, communication issues, leadership development for women.   By working with people in so many aspects of life  over an international range of societies (in addition to Sweden she has worked in Norway, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Germany, and Albania) she has arguably had a greater impact on peoples’ lives.