Our one big mistake.
There is one big mistake that all of us make, whether NeuroTypical or NeuroDiverse. This is the assumption that we are operating in reality and that we know the truth, when in fact, we are operating in our “map of reality,” or our perception of reality. Therefore, the truth as we know it, is a fabrication of our conscious processes.
Wow! That’s a serious philosophical way to start this blog, but I wanted to put it out there right up front. Once you get it that your mind can play tricks on you, you should be better able to understand the differences that abound in a NeuroDivergent relationship.
If you want your relationship to go more smoothly, to be more loving, and to be understanding and understood, you must follow these five steps.
- Slow down in order to access your conscious mind, not just your intuition or instinct.
- Be conscious and listen to all of the cues you are receiving from the other person; and those cues you are sending.
- Be consistent, so that you are saying what you mean and use the words that convey this meaning. Check your intuition for consistency, but don’t rely on it alone.
- Correct your errors of perception. This is not so easy to do, but if you get resistance (or disagreement from the other person) you are not being consistent. Change your approach.
- Stay in the flow. You know you are in the flow when your consciousness and that of the other person are in synch. If you aren’t in the flow, go back and (1) slow down, (2) be conscious, (3) be consistent, (4) and correct your errors of perception.
The basic nature of consciousness.
On October 3, 2022, scientists published a new theory that consciousness is a function of episodic memory — that consciousness arises from our memories. Stay with me while I walk you through the basics of this theory. More importantly, this theory will help you understand why your NeuroDivergent relationship hits the skids so often.
Simply, it is the fact that the NeuroTypical and the NeuroDiverse process and store episodic memories differently. If, as the researchers suggest, consciousness develops (i.e., grows and matures) as a function of memory (episodic memory or the things that happen to us and the people we meet along the way), then each NT and Autist will acquire consciousness very differently from the other — and build a map of reality that is unlike their partner.
Further complicating the communicating and relating parts of the relationship is that we continue to confound each other with new memories based upon the old constructs in our mind — and wander even further away from each other.
This process of developing consciousness is unique for all of us, of course. No two “maps of reality” will be the same, due to a variety of human temperament, personality, culture, etc. However, for those in NeuroDivergent relationships, the maps of the partners are profoundly different — and explain the divergence when trying to connect.
First comes memory – then consciousness.
There are different types of memory but let’s stick to a short discussion of “Declarative Memory,” which includes semantic and episodic memory. Declarative memory can be consciously recalled (as opposed to unconscious memories which need a little prodding to surface), such as facts and knowledge. Autobiographical memory is one type of declarative memory. While semantic memory involves the recollection of facts, episodic memory involves the recollection of previous experiences in life. (Read this again.)
This is key to our discussion. Studies of those with ASD show impairments to their episodic memory but preservation of their semantic memory. If consciousness is formed through retrieval of our memories, and the NeuroDiverse rely heavily on words and facts (semantics), then conscious awareness of who they are — and who are others — and their sense of contributing to the community in which they live — is about the parts of life, or the details.
On the other hand, if NeuroTypicals rely heavily on episodic memories of experiencing life, then conscious awareness of who they are — and who are others — and their sense of contributing to the community in which they live — is about how the parts interact, or the whole of life.
Think about how critical this is to communicating, to relating, to knowing yourself in relation to another. If our NeuroDiverse loved ones store their memories semantically and develop conscious awareness of the truth of who they are, and we are, through these semantic memories — well that leaves those NeuroTypicals without a way to use experiential/episodic learning as a method of connecting. This often leaves the NT feeling misunderstood, unheard and even emotionally invisible.
The loneliness of A-Synch communication.
A NeuroDiverse client of mine complained that my description of him as transactional was pejorative. He offered that his communication with his wife may be “A-synchronous” rather than merely transactional. He knows that he loves her and that he wants to improve the relationship, so he reasons that he can’t be transactional. However, he is aware that he is not always conscious of her meaning when she talks. Often, he needs time to process her meaning (which is characteristic of the semantic processor).
This is a perfect example of semantic memory versus episodic (whole experience) memory, and the underpinning of their marital problems. Semantic memory predisposes the NeuroDiverse spouse to use facts and very specific words to retrieve memories and meaning (i.e., his insistence that I use the term A-synchronous rather than Transactional). The episodic memory predisposes the NeuroTypical to use intuition and feelings to retrieve memories and meaning.
Those of us living in NeuroDivergent relationships know how much slower our ASD loved ones are at processing their own feelings, and ours. We watch as they pause, close their eyes, or inexplicably walk away from a conversation. Occasionally NTs have to endure an outburst of anger, as the NeuroDiverse person feels confused, overwhelmed, and even threatened by the NTs request for “deeper” emotional meaning. On the other hand, if given enough time to process (even writing down their thoughts), the NeuroDiverse person can reach some of those episodic memories that have been stored as life-experiences-with-others.
The NeuroDiverse individual develops a transactional consciousness as a result of relying on semantic memory. The NeuroTypical develops an interactional consciousness as a result of relying on whole life experiences memory (episodic memory). Let me give an example.
Tasha, a NeuroTypical wife says, “Hey Hon. Would you mind picking up the living room before our guests arrive?” The wife gives her spouse a prompt to affirm her (i.e., “Would you mind. . .”).
“OK,” says Gustaf, the NeuroDiverse husband, but he wanders off to his study instead. He does not recognize his wife’s emotions, nor does he figure in the timing of taking care of her request. In other words, he does not retrieve episodic memories of similar interactions to help him recognize what his next move should be.
“Hey Honey,” she prompts. “I really do need you to pick up the living room. We don’t have much time.” She is relying on his recognition of her anxious concern about getting ready for guests. She appeals to his empathy for her by saying “I really need you. . .” Empathy is a function of episodic memories with others, something lacking in her NeuroDiverse husband.
“I said I would do it. Don’t worry.” He closes the door to his study. Gustaf truly means that he will “do it,” relying on semantics to seal the deal. However, he has not acknowledged Tasha’s emotional need to be understood. Nor has he included a review of past experiences to help guide him in future behavior.
Exasperated, the NT wife starts cleaning up the living room. He walks out of his study as the first guest arrives. As she fluffs the last pillow on the couch he says, “Why did you clean up? I told you I would take care of it.”
As the NeuroDiverse husband smiles a gracious greeting to their first guest, the NT wife is ready to explode, but she has to calm herself for her guests. No one knows that she has had this frustrating exchange with her spouse.
In this simple exchange between transactional spouse (semantic memory) and interactional spouse (episodic memory) there are so many errors that each are making. The Big Mistake for the NeuroTypical is that she believes her spouse will retrieve memories that help him consider the time, timing, his wife’s emotional needs, the mess in the living room, a plan for taking care of the living room, etc.
The Big Mistake for the NeuroDiverse spouse is to respond only to the words his wife is speaking and promising to do something he has no plan for. He is waiting for more data, which doesn’t come until the guests arrive and he witnesses his wife cleaning the living room.
This simple, yet big mistake carries huge consequences. Tasha feels ignored when she made a simple request. Because she wants things to go well for the evening, she takes over for Gustaf rather than nag him to finish the task. Gustaf may feel frustrated too if his wife is angry with him for not doing his part to ready the home for guests. After all, he intended to clean up the living room, but she decided to do it for him. His reasoning is that it’s not his fault that she jumped the gun.
When the NeuroTypical and NeuroDiverse worlds collide daily in these not-so-ordinary moments, the emotional toll is heavy. In addition, over the years the consciousness that grows from the semantic v. episodic storing of memories, leads to a NeuroDivergent life with no connection in sight for a couple. How can the NT feel loved when none of her requests are honored? How can the NeuroDiverse feel loved when he is treated like a child who never quite gets it right?
I’ll be offering a course soon on “Conversational Aspergian,” in which I outline theories and techniques that help us to better understand the mindset of the NeuroDiverse v. the NeuroTypical, such as this theory of consciousness. You can register to be the first to know about it on this page.
As you can imagine, there is a great deal more to this theory than the tidbits I have presented in this blog. However, I hope you get the idea that it takes a lot of effort to cross the boundaries of NeuroDivergent communication to get some understanding, connection, and love.
With this new research published just this month, we can now add to our language of NeuroDivergence the theory that consciousness evolved following the development of memories (in particular episodic memories). As those memories were encoded semantically or whole life experientially individuals developed transactional consciousness or interactional consciousness. The deficit in episodic memory that is seen with the NeuroDiverse (and primarily transactional person) doesn’t mean they lack consciousness of others, nor of their responsibilities in their community — but it does mean it takes them longer to access that level of consciousness.
If these two systems are to be understood and appreciated, both parties to a NeuroDivergent relationship need to accept and affirm the conscious reality of the other person. Correct your Big Mistake with the Five Steps and realize that even if it is disorienting to do so — and it takes a bit longer to finish the conversation — it is better to step into the territory of the other person for a better understanding of how their consciousness works.
Please let me know if you are interested in my new course, “Conversational Aspergian.” Click here to be announced when it’s ready. Or contact Daniela with your interest/questions, at firstname.lastname@example.org