Conversational Aspergian: Lesson 1 – Sensory Sensitivity is Not Empathy

“I happen to know that my sensitivity is my strength.” ~ Hannah Gadsby

Is your partner just insensitive?

It occurred to me that NeuroDivergent couples regularly make the mistake of assuming that their words mean the same thing to both the NeuroTypical and the NeuroDiverse. Clearly there is more to the words than each realizes. Arguments erupt over this mistake as the couple circles around and around mincing the words, arguing over their meanings, and eventually believing the worst of their loved one.

The transactional partner (the Autist) states things as if they know the truth of the matter (which is only from their point of view). Or they may ask a question that makes no sense to their NeuroTypical partner. The interactional partner (the NeuroTypical) keeps tossing out prompts to get the two of them on the same emotional page. These are very different goals and they never seem to meet.

Eventually the NeuroTypical complains that their NeuroDiverse partner doesn’t “care about me.” The NeuroDiverse person complains that their NT loved one is “illogical” and has a “double standard.” Both come to worry that their partner is just not that sensitive.

What’s the difference between transactional and interactional communication?

What they are both missing is that the same word or sentence can convey a very different intent depending upon whether the person is primarily transactional or interactional in their thinking and processing their thoughts and feelings.

Let me give you the example of Ruthie and Ronnie

Ruthie is obviously annoyed as she describes an incident at dinner this week. “I asked Ronnie to pass the salad,” she said. “But do you know what he did? It’s unbelievable!”

“No, I don’t Ruthie,” I said. “What did he say?”

“He asked me, ‘Which salad?’ I was stunned. I pointed to the only salad on the table, sitting right in front of him, and said, ‘That salad! The one in front of you!’ I was exasperated and he knew it. How could he get salad mixed up?”

I turned to Ronnie to seek some clarification. “Ronnie, was there perhaps another salad you thought Ruthie was referencing?”

Ronnie looked embarrassed as he admitted he had become confused. “Yes,” he said. “I thought Ruthie might have meant she wanted me to get the fruit salad from the fridge, that was left-over from last night. Why is Ruthie so upset over salad? All I did was ask a simple question.”

If this sounds familiar, I’d like to introduce you to a schema that might help clear up these crazy mixups. “Conversational Aspergian” is my light hearted title for an online course I am creating to help you get to the bottom of these misunderstandings. If you are going to find a healthier and more loving way to communicate in your NeuroDivergent relationship, you will need to learn Conversational Aspergian.

When one person thinks transactionally and the other person thinks interactionally, the result is nearly always a confusing mix-up. Once you get it that no one means harm, you can slow down and try a new approach.

For example, interactional Ruthie might have said, “The salad sitting in front of you, honey. Did you have another salad in mind?”

Transactional Ronnie could have said, “Oh I was wondering if you wanted me to take the fruit salad out of the fridge.”

Ruthie could have followed up with, “Oh, I see your confusion. I was planning to mix a little whipped cream into the fruit salad to serve it for dessert. I guess I forgot to mention that to you. Will that work for dessert for you?”

Now that Ronnie has more clarity about “salads,” he could probably have relaxed and finished his meal with a smile, as he awaited the delicious dessert his wife had in store for them.

What does sensitivity mean to a transactional person?

Hannah Gadsby is an Australian comedian, who tackles difficult topics such as gender politics, mental health, and social issues. She is also autistic.

In the quote above she self-describes herself as sensitive and that it is her strength. But what does that mean to Gadsby. How does she know she is sensitive? How does her form of sensitivity contribute to strength?

How would you interpret her comment? I suspect that NeuroTypicals would interpret sensitivity very differently than Gadsby and most Autists.

Gadsby is aware of her emotions, that she is sensitive to her feelings. That is a kind of strength. To know that you are feeling something is an awareness of being alive and reacting to the world around us.

However, Gadsby is not very clear about why her sensitivity is a strength. It just is. This is a transactional concept, a black and white statement of fact. She leaves the interpretation of sensitivity to others, as if all that matters is how she feels — to herself.

Taken from the interactive NeuroTypical perspective, sensitivity is a strength because it allows us to read the other person, to connect on an emotional level to others, to be able to relate interpersonally.

To be sensitive to one’s emotions and to notice them is a strength, but it is hardly empathic. Empathy means to take the awareness of your feelings in relation to the other’s feelings, and to see oneself as part of an interactive whole experience.

Is transactional sensitivity empathy or just cleverness?

The reciprocity of empathy is not what Gadsby suggests by the strength of her sensitivity. I have watched her on talk shows and it is clear that she is highly intelligent and quickly picks up on the patterns observable in the behavior of others. She comments on these behavioral patterns, even mocking other guests on the talk show. She gets laughs but is this sensitive or just clever?

During one of these talk show interviews, and when Gadsby was asked if she would like to continue the conversation after the show, she promptly declined. She admitted that her autism is a “social thing” that creates anxiety for her when put on the spot to have an interactional relating moment.

Applying Conversational Aspergian

If you start using the principles of Conversational Aspergian, it will be easier to read between the lines to get the meaning. When Gadsby says, “I happen to know that my sensitivity is my strength,” I doubt she is referring to empathy, but to her own ability to sense the emotional field.

Using the new model, a conversation with transactional and Autistic Gadsby may go like this.

“So, I heard you say that your sensitivity is your strength. I am curious about what you mean by ‘strength.’?”

Gadsby might say, “What has helped me survive so much hardship has been my humor.”

“I can see that having a sense of humor certainly can help you survive the tough life you have had. But I don’t see what that has to do with sensitivity. Could you explain?”

Gadsby might quip. “Yeah, I get that a lot from people who have never had to go through what I have!”

“That’s a bit presumptuous Ms. Gadsby. You don’t know much about me and I have been through some very tough times myself. But honestly, I was asking about your definition of sensitivity — you know as it applies to you – and why you think it is your strength.”

At this point, I suspect Gadsby would draw a blank look. Overwhelmed by my strong position and questions, she may pause, close her eyes to think. Then perhaps, should would say, “Well you know it’s an Autistic thing, to feel a lot.”

Assuming Gadsby will allow me a teachable moment, I might try to help her with her confusion. I could be wrong and she won’t allow it, but let’s see where this goes.

“Would you be surprised Ms. Gadsby to learn that all people are sensitive to their own emotions — albeit some more than others? And I can confirm that being sensitive to one’s feelings is a strength too. But if you are only aware of your feelings and don’t know how to communicate with others about their feelings, then how is being sensitive a strength? In my mind sensitivity is a strength when you can use it to connect to others.

“Empathy is the ability to be sensitive to yourself and others, while at the same time, speaking to the points between you that bring understanding, rapport and mutual respect. The real strength is using your sensitivity to reach out to others and touch them where they are sensitive too. Empathy is far more than being sensitive. It is to share the human experience.”

Share the human experience with Conversational Aspergian

I wouldn’t say that learning to speak Conversational Aspergian is easy, but I can say that it is necessary if you are to restore the love to your NeuroDivergent relationship. It is a kindness to slow down and try to speak the other person’s language. It is also a kindness to yourself, to insist that your partner consider another way to look at the world — through your eyes.

Try to remember that love grows where both people try to create a win-win conversation. Use your sensitivity to understand the other and to connect.

Autism-Friendly Workplace: Can it be done or is this just pie in the sky?

How do you make a way for Autistic children to find work as Autistic adults?

In honor of “Autism Awareness Month,” or what is also euphemistically known as “Celebrate NeuroDiversity,” I think we should take a hard look at how impossible it is to make the world a better place for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Honestly, it is admirable for employers and educators to investigate ways to create an “Autism-Friendly Workplace.” It is the right thing to do too. However, no matter how many adaptions are made in the classroom or the workplace, there is one element in the system that is not being addressed by these compassionate educators and employers.

What’s that One Element?

The NeuroDiverse person themselves, and their Empathy Triad Blindness will keep getting in the way1. The Autism-Friendly agenda doesn’t account for the fact that most NeuroTypicals rarely accept the oddities of those on the Spectrum. NTs avoid the NeuroDiverse, mock them, or at best pity them (and try to rescue them). So even if you provide sensory sensitive environments, and Special Ed. Teacher’s Aides, and remote work schedules, etc., the NeuroDiverse still have to interact with their NeuroTypical classmates, and coworkers, and supervisors, and customers. And it rarely turns out well.

  • All children on the Autism Spectrum grow up to be adults on the Autism Spectrum.
  • Most adults on the Autism Spectrum are under-employed and struggle in the adult NeuroTypical world.
  • No amount of compassion for the NeuroDiverse will changes how the bulk of NeuroTypical people relate to the Autistic population.
  • Empathy Triad Blindness means that the NeuroDiverse will never understand what they are missing, nor can they truly understand the world of the NeuroTypical. This is a terrible disability.

Think about Neil, an ASD kid with a fascination for studying every war in the 20th century. The local Army Guard Reserve took an interest in Neil when he was in high school. They created an honorary rank for him within their unit as a historian. They bestowed on him a set of Army fatigues and even a helmet. He proudly and frequently wore his gear to school. While Neil had a community to belong to for a while, what was he supposed to do upon high school graduation? How can he use these “skills” in the world of work? How does an employer make an “Autism-Friendly Workplace” for a young adult who wants to wear an Army helmet to the office?

Or consider my daughter Bianca. Bianca taught herself to read when she was four. At the time I thought she was gifted. Her sensitivity was sweet. Her lack of social skills was not. She refused to bathe, even as a teenage girl. She couldn’t seem to turn in her homework or even finish it. She was mocked for dressing oddly. Sometimes the other children would scream at her, even hit her, for being so very different from the rest of them.

I protected Bianca the best I could, but what is a mother to do when even the school psychologist is afraid of Bianca? One day I got a call from the psychologist when Bianca was having a meltdown. The specialist, who is supposed to know how to handle these “special needs” students was so overwhelmed that she demanded I pick up Bianca immediately, or that she would call the police to have my daughter arrested.

I encouraged Bianca’s love of reading because there was nothing else, she liked. I got her a library card when she was six. Books were always among her presents for birthdays and holidays. To this day, in her mid-thirties, Bianca lists her skill-set on LinkedIn as “Book Lover.” If she had a degree in library science this might make sense, but instead she looks for jobs where she can sit all day eating snacks and reading books.

There is no Autism-Friendly Workplace for Most Autistic Adults

Let’s take a look at some typical Autistic adults. Think about these questions as you read the brief summaries, I have written about each.

  • What do they have in common?
  • How would you relate to them in the workplace?
  • What kind of workplace “accommodations” would help them adapt to their NeuroTypical coworkers?

Marleese

In the days before COVID Marleese was lucky enough to find work as an independent contractor working remotely. In fact, the only way Marleese could keep a job, was to work remotely, doing hourly contract work. She managed her job as a medical transcriptionist by working between the hours of 11:00 pm and 5:00 am. All she had to do was call in and listen to the doctors’ recordings, type the notes, and file them electronically. The neighborhood was quiet at this time of night, so she could work undisturbed, with her cat Tulip purring on her lap.

Dennis

Dennis is a quiet, unassuming guy, who worked from the IT department in a municipal agency. He liked helping employees who had computer problems, especially those not terribly computer literate. These employees loved him too. They knew that whenever they got stuck, they could call Dennis and he would be at their desk with a smile. The problem is that Dennis’ supervisor thought he was too slow. Instead of quickly resolving the technical problem, Dennis seemed to be oblivious of the time. As a result, Dennis was placed on a corrective work plan — which he failed — and then had his hours cut to part time — before he was eventually laid off.

Said

Said is a well-educated mechanical engineer who can’t seem to find a job in his field. He was ecstatic when he got hired by an international truck manufacturer, even though the job he was offered was not as an engineer, but as an assistant to a project manager. He hoped he could eventually transfer into an engineering position. The problem for Said is that he was very awkward socially, so he kept to himself even when coworkers went to lunch together. He also seemed unable to understand his assignments, simple as they were. He asked numerous questions of his supervisor and coworkers because he feared he would make a mistake. He was viewed as inept because of his “pestering” questions and lack of social graces. Eventually Said quit the job as his depression grew to intolerable levels and he missed many days of work.

Cheryl

Cheryl is a paleontologist. She is well respected in her field because of her research and publications on paleobotany. She has a prestigious job as a professor at a North American university. The problem for Cheryl is that while her students love her quirkiness , and her administrator admires her brilliant research, and even her colleagues enjoy picking her brain for tips on their own papers — Cheryl goes home alone night after night and drinks too much to cope with a lonely life.

For a truly Autism-Friendly Workplace Hire a Coach

I have written my share of recommendations in support of workplace accommodations for my NeuroDiverse clients. Often my reports saved my client’s job. Sometimes, the employer was able to set up some simple accommodations to make the workplace more comfortable for the Autistic employee. For example, we moved one man’s desk away from a busy hallway, where the interruptions were intense. In many cases, the employer was willing to allow the autistic person to work remotely, to avoid the hustle bustle of the office. In another case we reduced the number of meetings the employee had to attend, since gathering with others is stressful.

However, none of these accommodations made much of a difference in the interpersonal world of the workplace. The NeuroDiverse worker was still considered an outsider. They were still devalued because they couldn’t empathically communicate with others. They were rarely considered for promotion since they couldn’t manage team members. Worse, the rest of the staff had to endure the quirky behaviors of the NeuroDiverse employee such as talking too loudly, or interrupting with an inappropriate question, or hygiene problems, etc.

As far as I am concerned there is no way to make the workplace “Autism-Friendly,” as long as there is no real understanding about this pervasive developmental disability. And to expect the entire world of NeuroTypicals to jump in and learn about the minds of the NeuroDiverse — is just unrealistic.

However, there is a partial solution. Autistic children do better in school when they are protected by a caring adult, usually an Aide who hangs out with them throughout the day. In fact, I had my Nanny attend preschool with my daughter Bianca so that she would have a guide regarding the social world of preschoolers. It could be the same for the NeuroDiverse employee.

Marleese, Dennis, Said and even Cheryl would have done better had they had an office coach. Here are just a few ways the coach can work on behalf of the Autistic worker in the workplace.

  1. The coach could be responsible for explaining to the NeuroDiverse employee what is going on in the workplace. For example, NeuroDiverse employees often fail to grasp the inuendo at meetings.
  2. The coach could also help the employee draft emails and reports so that they are “friendlier.”
  3. The coach can act as a guide in meetings with the employee’s supervisor or manager.
  4. The coach can help the NeuroDiverse employee debrief their day and resolve their stress.
  5. The coach can act as a mediator with coworkers and supervisors. This is tough because the NeuroDiverse employee may offend others unintentionally.
  6. The coach could work with a group of NeuroDiverse employees, teaching them skills for navigating the workplace together.

This last point is particularly important. Knowing that you are not alone, that others have similar problems, and that there is someone who cares to help, can make a huge difference in making the workplace more “Autism-Friendly.”

Build a bridge between NeuroDiverse and NeuroTypical

While it is compassionate to create a day, a week or even a month to “Celebrate NeuroDiversity,” this is no answer to the real problem that Autistic adults have fitting into the NeuroTypical world. It is also unrealistic to announce that a company has an “Autism-Friendly” workplace when the few accommodations that are offered only keep the NeuroDiverse more isolated.

Keep the accommodations. The NeuroDiverse need protection for their sensory sensitivities and Empathy Triad Blindness. However, they also need the protection of a job coach who can provide the psychological structure the NeuroDiverse lack. Navigating the dominant culture of NeuroTypicals is daunting enough for NeuroTypicals, let alone the NeuroDiverse. A coach can help build a bridge between the worlds of NeuroDiverse and NeuroTypical to truly create an “Autism-Friendly” workplace.

1 Empathy Triad Blindness is defined in my book, “Empathy is More Than Words: Groundbreaking Tools for NeuroDivergent Relationships.” It is defined as a disconnect among the three parts of Empathy (Empathy, Context and Conversation). https://www.amazon.com/Empathy-More-Than-Words-Groundbreaking/dp/B0BQ5DRV3R/ref=sr_1_1?crid=BGLGID8C70D&keywords=Empathy+is+More+Than+Words+Marshack&qid=1672973470&sprefix=empathy+is+more+than+words+marshack%2Caps%2C178&sr=8-1

I Can’t Stand My Spouse

Contempt in NeuroDivergent Relationships

“You live out the confusions until they become clear.”
~ Anais Nin

The range of Contempt.

Cheryl has no contempt for her ASD spouse. Long ago she decided there was no hope for her NeuroDivergent relationship, but she has no desire to leave. Instead, she has affairs with men who are not terribly emotionally available either. They give her a sense that she is in charge of her life when her spouse makes her feel invisible. She tells me “she sort of loves him. . . like a family member.” Why does she stay? It’s convenient and the children have a home.

Martin adores his ASD wife. They met on a sunny Spanish beach, while on vacation. When they get away, just the two of them, he still enjoys the time with her. But back home he is tortured. She is busy with all of her special interests and expects Martin to busy himself too. They argue each night because Martin cannot accept that he is married to an ASD woman who wants no connection with him — unless she determines she has time for him. Why does he stay? Because he can’t concede there is no hope.

Starr is so angry with her ASD partner Mara, that she snaps on a daily basis. She is caustic to Mara, even when there is little provocation. Mara is a low key “Aspie” who is comfortable with her strong-willed partner Starr. But she offers little to the relationship. If Starr has a strong opinion about anything, Mara disappears from the room, frightened of the encounter. This makes Starr feel like “it’s not OK to be me.” Why does Starr stay? Because she can’t explain to others why she would leave a “nice” person.

All of these NeuroTypicals have a form of contempt for their NeuroDiverse loved ones. Perhaps you do too. Contempt emerges when you have tried everything you can think of to resolve the lack of connection with your NeuroDiverse loved one. However, it is tough to accept that you can’t figure it out, especially for those who are smart, articulate and “good with people.” Rather than accept and surrender to the mystery, some people develop animosity toward the person who makes them feel inadequate.

The guilt of contempt.

Magda feels guilty for behaving contemptuously with her ASD spouse. She reports that she has yelled and screamed at him. She has threatened divorce. She has withdrawn into passive aggressive silent treatment. And she feels terrible for choosing such immature behaviors. But at least she is asking for help from her therapist, a specialist in treating NeuroDivergent couples.

Magda’s therapist comforts her. “You aren’t alone with these feelings, Magda. Becoming frustrated, angry and even contemptuous is very human when confronted with an unsolvable problem.”

“It is made worse when we have NeuroDiverse partners who are frustrated, angry and contemptuous too.”

“Remember that you can’t solve a problem within the system that created the problem. If you are using an interactional approach, seeking a conversation, and a mutually agreeable solution (which is NeuroTypical)—- and your partner is using a transactional approach, seeking information/facts, to determine who is right or wrong (which is NeuroDiverse)— how do you get anywhere?”

“The first step is to forgive yourself for not understanding what was going on for so many years. How could you have known? Accept and forgive. Your anger is human. So is your ability to forgive.”

Guilt means you are taking responsibility for the outcome of the problem. While it is important to take a look at your part in creating a problem, blaming yourself doesn’t help. Instead take responsibility to seek other options. One of those options is to learn more about NeuroDivergence.

NeuroDivergence means that the systems of NeuroTypical and NeuroDiverse clash in significant ways. I discuss this more in my books and online course, “Asperger Syndrome” & Relationships.1 It is important to arm yourself with information if you are to resolve the contempt that has plagued your relationship.

No ordinary contempt.

If you just can’t stop blaming your partner, or your parents, or your therapist — you may not have ordinary contempt. Or if your partner, parent, or child can’t stop blaming you — you are not dealing with ordinary contempt. You may be confronting serious narcissistic dysfunction.

Rarely have I had to deal with a client or student or colleague who is stuck in narcissistic contempt. This is not the norm, and it probably doesn’t apply to you, but I bring it up so that even this level of distress can be recognized and helped.

Nan is a social worker in the Midwest. She has a level of contempt for her ASD spouse that is so extreme that she is filled with rancor toward her spouse and her therapist. She complains that her therapist doesn’t understand her pain and suffering. She complains that her therapist is not helping her fix her NeuroDiverse spouse. She complains that her spouse has contributed to her health problems and most everything that is wrong in her life.

While it may be true that her NeuroDivergent relationship is a major contributing factor to her problems, contempt and blame is not the solution. As painful as it is to face, it is important to accept the complications of a NeuroDivergent life and seek to rise above the conflicts. Take the high road. Forgive each other. Focus on what you can do with your life, not who’s to blame.

When someone blames incessantly and will not take a step back to evaluate their own part in the problem, then this may be a situation where either the NeuroTypical or the NeuroDiverse person are a Narcissist. In this case, you can’t move forward with a solution until the abuse stops. Remove yourself from the abusive person.

I tried to run away.

I love this quote by Anais Nin: “You live out the confusions until they become clear.” I wish I had understood this sooner. I kept trying to run away from the people and things who traumatized me. That’s what contempt is. It is an unwillingness to face your fears, your uncertainties, the mysteries that surround your life.

Once you accept that contempt just means you don’t know something — that you don’t have the answer — that you are lost and confused — then you can begin to resolve the problem. You may not have the answers right away, but at the very least you know you are just experiencing the human condition. You are not alone.

The solution to your contempt is to forgive yourself the confusion. Stop blaming yourself or the other person. Seek the guidance of a wise therapist who is well trained in treating NeuroDivergent couples. Lean into the problem with the supreme confidence that you have what it takes to clarify a new way of being.

No doubt this new way of being will not look anything like your idealized version of the relationship you thought you would have. On the other hand, you might discover the incredible power of forgiveness and self-love. Self-love goes a long way toward strengthening your relationships.

Sources

1 https://drkathylearningcenter.thinkific.com/pages/asperger-syndrome-relationships-course

Autistic Masking

Use the 7-Sep Interface Protocol to Break-up the Masking

Autistic children mask at an early age.

Jerome looked into the video camera and said, “Oh that’s what you call it — Masking? I know what that is. I remember deciding to Mask when I was four.” Jerome was matter of fact in this revelation, although it startled his wife.

Isolda looked at me in wide eyed amazement. I had just finished explaining to the couple the concept of Masking as it applies to those on the Autism Spectrum. Still wide eyed, Isolda leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees, as she turned toward her husband. “What do you mean you ‘decided to Mask?’” she asked with a demanding tone.

“Well, it was clear to me that I didn’t fit in and wouldn’t be liked at all if I didn’t mask who I was. Been doing it ever since.” Jerome was attempting to answer Isolda’s question, but that wasn’t her real question, was it?

In that one brief moment Isolda (NT) got insight into her husband Jerome’s (ASD) world. Her heart softened as she realized that Jerome had been Masking all of his life. “Could that be why we never seemed to be on the same page? — You know, all of that pretending?” Isolda thought.

Just as quickly an even bigger question came into her mind. “So, if he has been masking all of his life, who is the man I married?” Isolda was feeling a great deal of anticipation, as she turned to me and said vehemently, “What the heck!”

This was my third or fourth time meeting with Isolda and Jerome. We had already spent a lot of time discussing the “problems” that each of them thought they had — with themselves and each other. But now I wanted to switch the conversation toward better problems solving than to blame. I wanted the couple to look at a bigger picture, one that involved how a young NeuroDiverse child may have developed Masking as a coping mechanism.
There is far more to Masking than what I explained to Jerome and Isolda that day, but here is the explanation in a nutshell:

Masking was first observed in Autistic children, many of whom apparently learned and practiced certain behaviors so as to better fit in with the children around them. They either practiced engaging in certain behaviors, or oppressing others that might be socially unacceptable.

The presumption is that many on the Autism Spectrum acquire what they perceived to be pro-social behaviors through masking, or mimicking others. They also try to suppress behaviors that others disapprove of such as stimming and odd special interests.

As the autistic child grows up, they don’t stop masking. Instead, they acquire a large repertoire of behaviors that work in most social situations. In fact, they often have very complex social scripts to help them through most social situations — though not all, especially with their loved ones.

In other words, Masking is “Pretending to be Normal” to borrow the title of Liane Holliday’s book.1 But why? What purpose(s) does it serve? And is it a conscious choice, as Jerome seemed to indicate?

All children mask when they are young.

The truth is that all children mimic and mask when they are young. This is part of normal child development. Children are keen observers. And one thing children love to do is watch others, especially other children. This is how children learn to speak, and put their shoes on the right feet, and even how to read. This is how they acquire socially/morally acceptable behavior too.

But at about age 6 there is a distinct difference starting to emerge between NeuroTypical (NT) and NeuroDiverse children. We begin to see the development of empathy among NT children. Not so with NeuroDiverse children.

Empathy is the ability to “read” the other person, to speak their language, to step into their shoes, and see the world from their perspective. Mimicking no longer serves to do this. Instead, the NT child begins to adapt their words and behaviors to reflect how to connect with others in ways that bring them closer together. Emotional connection comes before copying a behavior.

On the other hand, NeuroDiverse children continue to acquire mimicked behaviors, those behaviors that they observe in others, and hope will pass for normal. Often at a tender age, the Autistic child is aware that this mimicking or Masking is not quite right, but without professional guidance they do not learn about empathy. Instead, they acquire a large catalog of well-rehearsed behaviors, or scripts.

Along with their repertoire of scripts, the NeuroDiverse child has also developed a great deal of anxiety over having failed socially. It’s painful and confusing to work so hard to imitate others, and yet still be mocked and shunned when you think you are doing it right. Unable to fit in, the older Autistic child and teen takes refuge in a solitary special interest that doesn’t involve direct social interaction.

Sometimes these special interests, such as trains, tearing apart motorcycles, or playing video games leads to an acceptable career path. If the NeuroDiverse child can distinguish themselves in some way that is acceptable to society, they don’t feel as much pain. But they still feel alone.

The Masking child turns into a Masking adult.

There’s a lot more to this process than I can explain in one short blog, but are you getting the idea how divergent the worlds of NeuroTypical and NeuroDiverse become by the time the Autistic person has been masking for 20-30 years or more?

Is it any wonder that NeuroDivergent couples and families have such complex and chaotic lives?

In fact, is it any wonder that communication fails between these two groups, time and time again?

And with failed communication, the love fails too.

Autism is defined by psychologists as a “Pervasive Developmental Disorder.” This means that the NeuroDiverse child fails early in life to grasp the empathic interactional method of communicating and relating to others. Even though they want to connect and enjoy the company of others — everywhere they go, they struggle with empathy, and thus with their relationships.

Pervasive means just that. With family, friends, teachers, neighbors, classmates, teammates, coworkers — and later with their life partners and their own children — NeuroDiverse folks fail to connect because of this Pervasive Developmental Disability.

Instead, they continue to create a NeuroDiverse reality that consists of rules that fit the mimicked behaviors they have acquired. Even though the NeuroTypicals around them do not accept the rigid rules they have established, the NeuroDiverse individual continues to operate in the blind — pushing their transactional system. . .

Until the relationship with their NeuroTypical partner or child or friend breaks down.

Use the 7-Step Interface Protocol.

It is obviously not easy to get past this breakdown, after years of misunderstandings and heartache. However, if you truly love someone, there is motivation. Both NeuorDiverse and NeuroTypical need to take a step back and recognize how this Pervasive Developmental Disorder has shaped them. Then together, with patience and kindness — just maybe you can untangle the mess.

One tool that I offer to help with this untangling is what I call the 7-Step Interface Protocol. I’ll briefly outline the steps here, but to get a good grasp of this tool, please read my book “Empathy Is More Than Words,” 2 or register for my online recorded course.3

The 7-Step Interface Protocol consists of:

  1. Developing the Resilience to keep rising out of the ashes until you get it right.
  2. Getting a proper Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, if appropriate, instead of defending against the reality of this Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
  3. Using the Empathy Triad to resolve all differences.4
  4. Be Brave. You need courage to embark on this journey.
  5. Take Breaks, instead of blowing up or melting down.
  6. If you don’t have empathy, and can’t even fathom it, it’s OK to develop polite Work-Arounds.
  7. Forgive yourself and the other person, all of the myriad mistakes you have made and will make. A sweet Apology can make a huge difference.

The 7-Step Interface Protocol

Sources

1 Liane Holliday Willey (1999). “Pretending to be Normal.” London: Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

2 Marshack, Kathy (2022). “Empathy Is More Than Words: Groundbreaking Tools for NeuroDivergent Relationships.” US~Observer Publishing.

3 https://drkathylearningcenter.thinkific.com/pages/asperger-syndrome-relationships-course

4 The Empathy Triad is explained in more detail in the resources above.

Merry Christmas: To My NeuroDivergent Loved Ones

“. . . It’s a cold and very lonely Hallelujah.”
~ Leonard Cohen, lyrics from “Hallelujah” 1984

The loneliness of autism.

The December holidays tend to encourage us to believe in love again. We attend church services, decorate with colorful ornaments, bake sugary goodies, light candles, invite guests to feast on turkey or prime rib or Chinese buffet. We select gifts for our loved ones and wrap them carefully. We hold in our hearts the belief that all of our woes will magically disappear with a bit of holiday glitter.

For those of us in NeuroDivergent relationships, the illusion of a “happily ever after Christmas” is hard to swallow. For us the holidays are even more lonely than the rest of the year. As Leonard Cohen’s lyrics suggest the December holiday season holds a “. . . cold and very lonely Hallelujah.”

It’s a puzzle isn’t it that so many listen to Cohen sing his rendition of “Hallelujah” and yet miss the words. The music is mesmerizing, but the lyrics are just as transcendent as the reverberating chorus, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.”

To me, the lyrics represent more than the typical loss of love between lovers. The poignant lyrics, carried on the primitive melody and sung by the throaty Cohen, is about the loneliness that comes when two different types of love don’t seem to come together (i.e.NeuroDivergence).

Clearly this is no ordinary Christmas song, delivered from the heart of a Jewish man.

Growing up alone with an Autistic mom.

Shortly after my mother Irene died, I had a dream about her. I had hoped that she would visit me after her death — to say a loving goodbye — to let me know she had passed through the veil — that she would always love me.

In the dream I was in the home of my Aunt Patty and Uncle Ray, as it was when I was a child. My cousins and my aunt and uncle were sitting around their large kitchen dining table. We were enjoying lively conversation. It was warm and loving and fun, just as I remembered it on my many visits to their southern California home.

Mom walked through the back door into the kitchen dining area. I was the only one to see her. I was surprised that no one else saw her — but then, even in my dream, I knew she was dead.

I watched her walk through the room. I held my breath. I was speechless. I wanted her to notice me. I wanted her to smile and tell me she loved me. I wanted her to reassure me that she was OK (safe and in God’s hands) and that I was safe and loved too. But nothing. She walked through the room — as she had in life — unaware of me or anyone else.

I awoke with a feeling of aloneness. I feel that way most days, even now.

I didn’t realize that my mother was probably autistic until many decades later. It may have helped to know sooner but I am not sure. I would still have grown up with an autistic mother, who treated me as if I were invisible.

My mother was not loving or comforting. She was an enigma. When she looked in my direction there was no expression on her face — rarely a smile. Her eyes were blank — no energy. I don’t think I ever heard her use my name.

I always knew that my mother was filled with intense anxiety. I walked on egg shells around her to avoid triggering tirades of vulgar language directed at me.

No matter how much I tried to be a “good girl,” I disappointed my mother. But it never made sense to me, even when I was a child. I knew her outrageous anger outbursts were some kind of mental illness — that it couldn’t be me.

That’s the problem though. If a child is to know who she is, she needs a loving mother (and father) to bond with. She needs to feel that she is loved. She needs to know that she belongs to her parents. Children want to belong. It is the belonging that makes a child feel special enough to engage in life as the unique person she is becoming.

I didn’t belong to my mother. We had no emotional connection. Irene engaged in many of the tasks of mothering, except the most important one — to love me unconditionally.

Mom left me as she had lived. She walked right past me, without recognizing me, her daughter, her beloved child. I have suffered ever since with a sense that I am alone and don’t belong to anyone.

What’s in a name?

When my daughter Bianca was a young preteen she approached me with a disturbing problem.

“I don’t think I know what love feels like,” she said.

Immediately I felt alarmed that I had failed her somehow. I looked at her with a worried mother expression and said, “Oh Bianca. You know that I love you, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Bianca said matter-of-factly, without a trace of warmth. “I just don’t know what love feels like.”

Like my mother, Bianca is autistic. I knew it at this time of her life but I hardly comprehended how she really thought — or felt. When Bianca mentioned that she didn’t know how love felt, I leaped in as any NeuroTypical mother would. Firm in my belief that love is an interactive process, and that I could resolve her dilemma by offering my loving concern — it never occurred to me that she was analyzing the concept of love, rather than embracing the emotion.

I really thought that if I offered her my love in that moment, she would know what love feels like — right then. In fact I assumed she wanted to experience my love for her, when she was clearly on a different track. I was skunked once again.

Bianca’s behavior reminded me of my mother. I knew I loved my mother. I even knew somehow that she loved me. But I never felt loved or acknowledged or affirmed. Even more confusing is how I knew I was loved. It was through words alone. My mother never used my name, but when I was very young she called me “Angel Baby.”

You’d think this sweet nickname would make me feel special, but it was the only name Mom used with me. In fact, my younger sister Debra thought my name was “Baby” until she was about seven. I used to tease her about it. In front of other children I would ask her what my name was. When she said “Baby,” we would all laugh at her and make her cry.

Mom just could not affirm who I was. When I made childish mistakes, Mom accused me of all kinds of wrong doing, when it was really a failure on her part as a mother. She never seemed to understand normal child development. This is yet another way Mom left me hanging. Her child was left to navigate normal child development without maternal guidance –and yet it was all wrong somehow for me to be a child. For example,

  • Mom reported that I was a difficult baby and refused breast milk. Others reported that I was a sweet, easy baby.
  • She assumed that I did not like being held when I was a toddler, because I would slip off her lap to run around. Don’t two-year-olds do that?
  • She accused me of being stubborn and always having to have my way. I presume I was just asserting my right to exist.
  • She scrubbed my face raw in an attempt to clean the tiny bit of acne I had as a preteen. How could she not know it was normal for a 12-year-old to have pimples?
  • She did read to me for a brief time because my Grade 2 teacher asked her to. Once the teacher reported that I was in the top reading group, my mother stopped reading to me. Deed accomplished I guess.
  • She never comforted me when I was ill. Instead, she told me to go back to bed and sleep it off. “That’s how you build immunities,” she said. It’s true that I am extremely healthy to this day.
  • Not once did she attend any of my school concerts, even the ones in which I played a solo in the band. Who was I playing for if not for my adoring parents?
  • She always bought my clothing and shoes two sizes too large, because she claimed I would “grow into them.” This goes beyond practicality if you ask me. I never felt pretty and none of my friends admired my new school clothes.

BUT — I had a T-shirt when I was about five that I loved so much I cried when I outgrew it. The shirt was striped with my name — Kathy-Kathy-Kathy. No wonder I cried since that little T shirt was about the only thing that affirmed me.

Bonding with your child is their first experience with love, especially the kind of love that is unconditional. Using your child’s name is important in honoring their uniqueness in the family. Kathy may be a relatively common name in my generation, but there is only one of me and my mother never seemed to know this.

What did that leave me with? Look at this precious child, standing barefoot in the summer sunshine, holding her baby doll and wrapped in a hero’s cape. Yes, and wearing her “Kathy-Kathy-Kathy” T-shirt. How hard would it have been for my mother to sweep me into her arms and tell me she loved me? How hard would it have been to smile at my nurturing instincts and help me put a diaper on my “baby”? But she did none of this. Eventually my doll was left on a shelf in my bedroom – just like my heart.

Heartbreak is proof that you have loved.

Leonard Cohen’s famous song “Hallelujah” is a melancholy rendition of the complications of love in this life. Even King David got caught up in the desires of the flesh and lost track of his duty to God.

And so it is for all of us. We desire to be loved. It starts with our parents and continues with friends and teachers and classmates and boyfriends and girlfriends and bosses and coworkers — and hopefully the love of your life.

We make mistakes along the way but these mistakes make us stronger, more lovable and more loving. Heartbreak is proof that you loved deeply — and can love again.

But what if you grew up with a parent who could not or would not notice you? What if you married a man who did the same? What if you parented a child who said she doesn’t know what love feels like? I suspect if this is you, then you have not really felt loved and lovable. And you have not been able to fully give the love back.

What do you do about this primal need to love and be loved? How do you reclaim your humanness when you started life with a loveless mother? Cohen sings of a “broken Hallelujah.” I cling to his words because that is all I have. No fond memories of a loving childhood. No visits from daughters and sons-in-law and hugs with my grandchildren. But I do have this sense that I am part of something greater.

In fact it is from my loveless childhood that I was first motivated to seek out answers to the dilemmas of NeuroDivergent relationships. I failed time and again to understand that I was not alone in my experience. Apparently I needed to be reminded of my mother’s cold, aloof, cognitve kind of love by marrying an autistic man, and adopting an autistic child. I loved them all dearly, though they never loved me back – emotionally.

Through my books, and online support group, and my recorded video course, I reach and support many people who feel alone as I do. I appreciate them in the ways I needed affirmation from my family members. And they affirm me back. It feels like love to me when I get sweet messages such as this one from Cindy in Canada, regarding an online conference call:

“Thank you again for another hour of connection with women who truly understand the journey. I am encouraged by the sisterhood of similarity. Today’s questions and sharing from other women had me nodding in agreement once again. . . I continue to learn so much from you, Dr. Kathy. Your insights and compassion are so essential. Thank you!”

Two kinds of love.

Jackson, a NeuroDiverse client of mine asked me once how he could be a “better husband.” He knew that his wife was dissatisfied and on the verge of leaving him, but it was beyond his comprehension why — when “I love her so much.”

Further Jackson was deeply troubled by his wife’s anger. She cursed him often because of his lack of empathy. While he could accept that he was more cognitive than emotional – and that he lacked an awareness of her inner state – he was puzzled that she would treat him with such disrespect, when she claimed to be a sensitive, nurturing person. It seemed to him an obvious contradiction for his wife to demand empathy.

I quite agree, but it’s not that simple. Little Kathy wanted empathy too. She wanted to be loved unconditionally (i.e. without having to do anything for it except to belong to her mother). That’s what Jackson’s wife wants too. Only instead of quietly removing herself from life as I did, Jackson’s wife is fighting back. I don’t blame her, even though it won’t work because anger and love are a mismatch.

Another verse from Leonard Cohen’s famous song can help us understand two kinds of love. This could have also been Jackson’s lament:

“I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel so I learned to touch.”

Don’t you think it would be a lot easier if we helped people understand that “feelings” are “touch” as much as “emotions”? That they both create love, enhance love, and help us know our worth in the eyes of the beloved?

Even if Cohen is just singing about a man’s loss of a woman’s love, I like to think of the lyrics as the greater message that we can transcend our human missteps in romance by knowing that God loves us. In this Earthly world of human contradictions loneliness doesn’t have to hang you up if you know God is with you.

“And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”

I wish all of you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

 

If you have a loved one on the Spectrum, please check our private MeetUp group. We have members from around the world meeting online in intimate video conferences guided by Dr. Kathy Marshack.
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