How Do We Find Each Other?

“Look me in the eye.”

I watched my daughter as she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know?” I had just asked her where she got the new Barbie clothes I found in her room.

“Phoebe,” I said sternly. “Look me in the eye. Where did you get these new things?” Again, she evaded my look, but said nothing. She looked uncomfortable, knowing full well she was trapped.

“Mrs. Burton told me that you took these things from Lauren when you were playing Barbies next door. Is that true?” I was hoping she would come clean before I had to press again.

Phoebe raised her voice a bit and did indeed look me in the eye. “Lauren said I could have them!” she said defiantly.

“Phoebe,” I said. We both know that’s not true, or why would Lauren’s mother come to me with the problem. “Nope, you took them without permission. And you will give them back. In fact, we are going over there right now and I want you to apologize.”

Of course, Phoebe was humiliated and looked away in shame.

Most parents have used this expression a time or two – “Look me in the eye.” It’s an expression meaning that we want to determine if the other person is being truthful. It’s assumed that if the person can look you in the eye with confidence, they must be telling the truth. If there is a hint of shame or embarrassment, then we assume the other person is lying.

However, only those on the Autism Spectrum believe that an ongoing conversation requires looking the other person in the eye. They mix this up all of the time when they accuse NeuroTypicals of wanting them to make eye contact. In fact, when we NTs talk about making eye contact, we don’t mean that either. After all, NTs don’t make eye contact all of the time. We frequently look away or down or up or side to side, as part of the nonverbal signals we send and receive in a conversation.

So, what do we mean? It’s just one of those expressions that has a deeper meaning. To make appropriate eye contact is a request to connect, interactionally. To validate and affirm the other person is the first step in an empathic conversation. Nodding, smiling, looking at the other, leaning forward, shaking hands — these are all nonverbal gestures that NTs use to connect first with the other person.

On occasion, we might assert our authority with a child and tell them to “Look me in the eye!” But mostly various types of eye contact are viewed as polite ways to acknowledge the value of the other person.

It gets confounding for NeuroTypicals when NeuroDiverse individuals avoid eye contact, or stare for too long, or make exaggerated eye rolls at the wrong moment. It’s hard to trust people who do not make reasonable eye contact — or we tend to think the person is immature — at least that is how NeuroTypicals feel.

“See what I mean?”

NeuroTypicals use a variety of expressions that are intended to foster emotional connection. We use sensory words to reach the other person through their feelings first.

  • See what I mean?
  • Does that sound right to you?
  • Let’s stay in touch.
  • That resonates with me.
  • Ah, yes, that rings a bell.

We also express distress similarly. And this is where it shows up as a disconnect in NeuroDivergent relationships.

  • Why don’t you ever listen to me?
  • He’s so cold.
  • Don’t give me that look!
  • Why can’t you see me?
  • Do I have to scream to be heard?

These expressions “fall on deaf ears” when NeuroTypicals use them with their
NeuroDiverse loved ones. This is because Autists are transactional, not interactional. They wait patiently for NTs to finish the small talk of emotional connection. They listen to the words, not the interpersonal connecting language. Thus, they miss the person who is speaking, in favor of the content of the wording.

“You just don’t get me!”

With Empathy Dysfunction (EmD) our NeuroDiverse loved ones fail to grasp the NeuroTypical need to be affirmed interpersonally first. Before moving on to a topic of conversation, we NTs seek to connect, emotionally, empathically. Without this connection, it can feel as if we aren’t heard or seen, or that we aren’t seeing or hearing the other person.

“I feel invisible, Dr. Marshack.” Ashleigh was in tears as she tried to describe the emotional disconnect in her NeuroDivergent marriage.

I nodded a look of understanding, and Ashleigh continued.

“I mean I know that Roald loves me, but he is so cold. He doesn’t listen to me. He doesn’t see me. He doesn’t get me.”

“Yes, Ash,” I said. “It’s like he is hearing your words, but not you — the woman who is speaking — the woman he loves.”

“Exactly, Dr. Marshack. Why can’t he understand where I am coming from?” Ashleigh believes it should be easy.

Can you recognize Ashleigh’s confusion? Do you understand her pain? Does it make sense that she feels so distraught just because Roald doesn’t use empathy to communicate? Can you imagine Road’s confusion too, since as a NeuroDiverse man he diligently listens to her every word?

“How do we find each other?”

It’s such a tragedy that a NeuroDivergent couple falls out of love because they can’t get past this barrier to connecting. Transactional people listen to the words. Interactional people listen to the person. That’s a big difference and it means all the world to “finding each other.”

That’s the question, isn’t it? “How do we find each other?” Presumably, there was love once and it can be reignited in these NeuroDivergent relationships. But it won’t be because those transactional NeuroDiverse folks suddenly shift to interactional NeuroTypical language. That’s because the NT language is more than words.

Empathy is more than words and requires a type of energy that is like music. Like a symphony orchestra playing a stirring rendition of “The Imperial March” by John Williams. Music has the capacity to transcend the words and create meaning that connects heart and mind — within and among us.

So how do we find each other in a NeuroDivergent relationship? Perhaps it is to start with the knowledge that we don’t speak the same language. If we can stay detached or neutral, and stretch to understand where Autists are coming from — maybe the Autist will get it that their NT loved ones are holding space for them. The NeuroDiverse may not see us, or hear us, or touch us with unspoken “words,” but maybe a kind of trust can grow as we search for a way to bring these divergent worlds together.

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