Dr. Marshack’s blog postings are short and timely. She shares tips that make your complex relationships work better. She also posts questions because she wants to hear from you and share ideas. Bringing people together to help each other is one of her missions.
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Dr. Marshack has been publishing professional articles, news columns, and expert interviews nationally and internationally for over thirty years. Along with her books, she has written on a variety of topics relating to complex relationships. When you are ready for a deep dive into the research that has shaped Dr. Marshack’s focus on how to empower her clients, this is the place to start reading.
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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?
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 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 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 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.
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.
The coach could also help the employee draft emails and reports so that they are “friendlier.”
The coach can act as a guide in meetings with the employee’s supervisor or manager.
The coach can help the NeuroDiverse employee debrief their day and resolve their stress.
The coach can act as a mediator with coworkers and supervisors. This is tough because the NeuroDiverse employee may offend others unintentionally.
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.
“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.
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:
Developing the Resilience to keep rising out of the ashes until you get it right.
Getting a proper Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, if appropriate, instead of defending against the reality of this Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
Using the Empathy Triad to resolve all differences.4
Be Brave. You need courage to embark on this journey.
Take Breaks, instead of blowing up or melting down.
If you don’t have empathy, and can’t even fathom it, it’s OK to develop polite Work-Arounds.
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.
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.
“. . . 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.
What’s it worth to have another person “get it”? What’s it worth to finally be heard after decades of being lonely in a NeuroDivergent relationship? What’s it worth to reclaim your sanity from conversations that go nowhere? What’s it worth to be seen, heard and affirmed?
The answer is that it is worth plenty to join a group of like-minded people to learn that there is relief. By helping each other, in a similar situation, we come to know and share lots.
That you are not alone.
That others want to help.
That there are answers, if only you know where to look.
That it feels wonderful to help those new to the NeuroDivergent journey to clarity.
That you can heal and reclaim your sanity.
I started this membership group, “Asperger Syndrome,” Partners & Family of Adults with ASD, back in 2009, right after publishing my first book, “Going Over the Edge?” Even after publishing this book, I wasn’t sure anyone would really understand my life — the life of a psychologist who had lived with an ASD mother, married an ASD man, and adopted an ASD child. But I hoped I would find you, and I did.
Over time our little once a month lunch group, grew to national and international proportions. We have members from every continent, and almost every country. It’s stunning when you think about it. Regardless of nationality, native language, age or gender, we have grown from a small group of interested people, to a community who “Gets it.”
Julie Gets It.
I was talking with Julie, our Ambassador and new Membership Manager, the other day. It was a Zoom call of course, since I live In Oregon (USA) and she lives in New Zealand. We were laughing about how we first me, and how we have grown over the years.
“I was on a vacation with my family in Egypt, when I decided I just had to attend one of your teleconferences, Dr. Kathy.” Julie recounted her trepidation on that first call.
I said, “I had no idea that you were on holiday and that you took time to listen in to one of my calls.”
“I had to. I had to know that I was sane. I was worried that you wouldn’t understand what I lived with. I was so worried that I didn’t want to give my name.” Julie admitted.
We both laughed. “Yes,” I said. “Many of our members are so afraid that no one understands or that they will hurt their families, so they keep silent or even disguise who they are at first. Eventually, though they come to love our little community and open up completely.”
Julie has grown from that first timid phone call, to become a regular at events and eventually tapped to be our Ambassador. This is an important role, since the Ambassador helps “newbies” find their footing in our community. Julie knows what it’s like to be new and uncertain if you will be accepted. Of course, with her warm spirit “newbies” don’t feel new for very long.
In fact, because of Julie’s talents she has been promoted to Membership Manager. With Daniela leaving this position at the end of the year, it seemed a natural fit for Julie to expand her role as Ambassador to include Membership Management. After all who better to answer your questions about our community than Julie, someone who “Get’s it,” — gets what you live with day and day out.
Where’s my rocket ship taking me?
A few years ago, I had a premonition that appears to be coming true. I dreamt that I was remodeling a long-forgotten rocket ship in my basement. It was a rocket ship that was specifically meant for me, but until I retrofitted my ship, it wasn’t ever going to lift off. I think it is ready now, with the addition of Ambassador Julie, and my first ever online recorded course, “Asperger Syndrome”& Relationships.
Even as I write this blog, I am drafting yet another course, Conversational “Aspergian.” This second course will take an even deeper dive into what I know about NeuroDivergent relationships. It is once again designed for the NeuroTypical and the NeuroDiverse, so that we use the 7-Step Interface Protocol to resolve the problems when ASD and NT worlds collide.
These courses are an opportunity to augment what I offer in my books. The courses are a place to learn skills for sure — but also a way to share with others in the community. I’ll soon set up a convenient online meeting room for those taking the courses. This is where the real healing takes place, isn’t it? In conversation with others, we come to know who we are and where our rocket ship is taking us next.
I am looking forward to meeting more of you. Thank you for being part of an amazing, healing and loving journey.
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 email@example.com