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.
If you have a specific interest, please use the Search function at the bottom of the blue sidebar.
“. . . 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
When I looked into the Zoom screen, I saw a beautiful woman sitting in front of me. We were meeting for the first time for a psychotherapy appointment arranged a few weeks earlier. From her intake forms, I knew she wanted help with her Neuro-Divergent relationship, but other than that, I knew very little about her.
“Good morning, Shirleen. How can I help you?” I said.
Shirleen smiled shyly and looked into the camera as if to let me know she was “seeing” me. She took a long pause and said, “Thank you for using my name.” This comment told me a lot about Shirleen right away.
Addressing someone by name, especially their first name is a social skill that most of us take for granted. Yet, I want you to consider the impact of recognizing the person behind the name. “Shirleen,” is a woman, a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a neighbor. But more than all of those roles she manages to juggle, she is a human being — a soul. When I greeted her by her “given” name, I honored the unique individual in front of me. In that moment, she became more than a role. Shirleen is.
If you are Neuro-Typical in a Neuro-Divergent relationship, you may be tearing up, as you realize how seldom — if ever — your Neuro-Diverse family member uses your name. My autistic mother never used my name. She called me “daughter,” my role. My former husband, also autistic, did not use my name either. He just started talking at me. Even my autistic daughter, Bianca, never called me “Mom.” Instead, she spelled it out, “M.O.M.”
Think about it. Failing to use your name is just another example of the Empathy Dysfunction so common among our Neuro-Diverse loved ones. Autists can recognize your significant role in their lives, such as daughter, mother, and spouse, or someone to talk to. But without empathy, they don’t recognize who you are. They don’t know how to honor and respect and lovingly connect with the special person who is right there in front of them.
Years ago, when my autistic daughter Bianca was participating in Portland Symphonic Girl Choir, I had a stark comparison between my own child and another mother’s daughter. Bianca forgot part of her uniform for a performance, so I dashed out of the concert hall to buy her a pair of pantyhose. As I raced back from Fred Meyer, I found the girls all lined up, ready to go on stage, with only a few minutes for Bianca to wriggle into her pantyhose and get back in line.
As Bianca jumped back in line, she said rather loudly, “Thank you M.O.M.” Then she turned to face her group.
Out of the sea of girls, I heard a delightful voice saying, “Oh my goodness. My Mom spells her name the same way!” Then there was a burst of laughter from several of the girls, as they started walking on stage.
I felt oddly special but I couldn’t put my finger on it way back then. Now I realize that this other mother’s daughter recognized me and recognized Bianca in one short amusing quip. (Plus she connected with the energy of all of the girls at the performance). Whereas, my own daughter treated me according to the function I served: M.O.M. brings pantyhose to the rescue. The other daughter recognized the Mom who cared.
The simple act of empathically connecting with another person by using their name is important, isn’t it? Shirleen was so hungry for this connection, that she felt overwhelmed with gratitude when I started our conversation with her name. If you spend years being nothing more than a role in the lives of your Neuro-Diverse family members, you may come to feel invisible. You may even forget who you are.
Human beings need each other. We come to know who we are in relation to others. Without these almost imperceptible acknowledgments (such as using your name), we can come to feel unimportant, inadequate, and depressed. After all, empathy between people is love — and without love we are alone.
How to Leave the Anger Behind in NeuroDivergent Relationships.
Where does the anger come from?
The answer to this question is complex. I have heard from both sides of the NeuroDivergent equation and 90 percent of the time anger is expressed. NeuroTypicals (NTs) and NeuroDiverse individuals (Autists) both complain bitterly that they are not only “not understood,” but they feel disrespected, maligned, even abused. Some go so far as to tell me that they “can’t take it anymore.” Others resign themselves to a life of loveless, damaged relationships — or loneliness.
I felt the same in my life with “Aspies.” My mother, my former husband and my grown adopted daughter are all on the Autism Spectrum — and they all made me feel worthless, neglected, hopeless — and yes, angry. I have since learned that they felt the same about me. Of course, I was shocked since I consider myself a caring, empathic, nurturing, and kind person (as do many others). How on earth did this happen?
None of the therapists I consulted could help me. None of the books I read, nor the research I explored could explain it. As a result of my own suffering, I dedicated my professional life to digging into this conundrum. There had to be answers beyond the current psychological paradigms. While I can’t explain everything I have learned from my research in this short blog, I want to provide you with a little light on the subject.
Those of us in NeuroDivergent relationships have been looking for the answers in the wrong places. Instead of trying harder to explain yourself — instead of blaming the other person for not “getting it” — instead of taking it all so personally — the question needs to be “How does it make perfect sense that they are behaving this way?” Once we get it that NTs and Autists use very different “operating systems” we can begin to unravel the mysteries of our communication problems.
For sure I know what won’t work. Demanding that the other person change is a losing proposition. Dragging your NeuroDiverse or NeuroTypical family member to therapy so that the psychologist can fix them won’t help. Running away from the problem is a temporary fix, but you are left with a nagging feeling that you didn’t finish a life lesson. Castigating yourself for being a terrible, horrible person keeps you a victim.
What works? I’ll explain more here in this blog and in my upcoming book, “Empathy is More than Words.” But in a nutshell, the answer requires three things.
Stop the blame. Anger is your response to the conundrum, not the answer. They can’t fix your anger. Only you can do that.
As Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Forgive yourself too. All of those mistakes we are making is part of the journey of enlightenment here on Planet Earth.
Be open to new thoughts. Expand your paradigm. There might just be a new way to look at things that your “difficult” NT or NeuroDiverse loved one is confronting you with through their inconceivable behavior.
When worlds collide, we are given an opportunity to step up to what I call Radiant Empathy. I know it is a painful collision to live in a NeuroDivergent relationship, but this collision of NeuroDiverse and NeuroTypical thinking is an opportunity to see life in a new way. With Radiant Empathy you can use this experience to rise to a new level of love and enlightenment.
Last fall (2021) I got an email from Darlene, a woman identifying herself as autistic, and who wanted to set me straight. She began her email with these words:
“Hi Kathy! Do you know what ableism is? It’s a form of discrimination or hatred against disabled people. Also known as what you have deticated [sic] your one and only very precious life to doing.”
Over the years that I have published on the topic of NeuroDivergent relationships (ASD/NT relationships), I have occasionally been scolded by an Autist who threatens to “cancel” me for daring to speak out about the problems inherent in these relationships. They justify their angry messages on the grounds that I am a biased “ableist,” and hateful, and spreading malicious lies about those on the Autism Spectrum. For example, Darlene was so enraged that she threatened to “. . .be watching. . .” me to make sure I changed. She continued in her email:
“My hyperfixation on justice is no joke so please take my advice and do not treat it like one. We are not hell bent on destroying you. We are hell bent on destroying your hate and ignorance, the very thing that is holding you back and destroying YOU. You have the opportunity to become a better person. Take it. Now. Use that empathy that you claim to have so much of and reflect on the harm you have caused. The truth will be screamed so loud that it will ring in your ears for eternity. That is a promise.”
I am not sure when I first heard the term “ableist” applied to NeuroTypicals (NTs) such as myself, and I don’t want to dismiss Darlene’s threats as just another distressed individual who needs to vent. Yes, she does need to vent and who better to be angry with than a psychologist who gets it? Though extreme and melodramatic, there is some truth to her comment, just as there is validity to her pain.
Of course, it is not true that I hate disabled people. Nor do the NTs who come to me for help resolving problems with their autistic loved ones. Likewise, my NeuroDiverse (ASD) clients do not hate their NeuroTypical family members. Both are searching for answers to their interpersonal distress. They can’t quite put their finger on the problem but they rightly assume it has something to do with the way they are interacting with each other.
This is not to say that my clients are not angry with each other. Often therapy is explosive during our first few sessions. The blame and shame are tossed around as each party demands to be heard. This might be the “ableism” phase that Darlene is stuck with. For example, NTs frequently complain that their ASD loved one fails to “listen,” or fails to “connect,” or is “rude” and “self-absorbed.” Likewise, the NeuroDiverse partner complains that their NT loved one is “never happy” with them, or “is always finding fault” with them, or simply
“talks too much.”
I agree with Darlene that if Autists and NeuroTypicals stop here, then they will both be discriminating unfairly against the other person. Can you see the black and white thinking in the complaints both have about the other? Can you see how this thinking lends itself to “ableism”? That is, at this stage of distress each party is clinging to the belief that “if you are not like me, you are wrong or bad.”
The problem with “ableism” is that it does not serve anyone of course. Darlene’s rage is due to a mistake she is making when she steps into the fray and blames. She feels blamed so she attacks back. How does it resolve anything for her to threaten me? Even though retribution is very typical of human beings, let’s see if we can’t do better for our NeuroDivergent relationships.
It is not easy to release oneself from the angry phase. I don’t necessarily think that anger is bad either. Neither is grief. These intense feelings are pretty normal in NeuroDivergent relationships, or whenever we are confronted with a reality we don’t like or don’t want. These feelings aren’t meant as the answer, but as a signal that a paradigm shift is needed.
Darlene is still stuck in her anger and it has grown to rage. She takes no responsibility for her own behavior, but instead seeks to punish for the wrong she has suffered. She and apparently some others she references, believe that their mission in life is to “cancel” me for shining a spot light on these very tough NeuroDivergent relationships. That spotlight is not meant to blame or shame but to enlighten.
Like I said, it is not easy to step out of the anger unless you take full responsibility for your life and all of the distress in it. This doesn’t mean that others have not harmed you, but being grief stricken or enraged over it — and seeking “justice” — just leaves you stuck in your emotions and feeling worse every day. Taking full responsibility for your life means to seek to understand yourself in relation to others. It means to seek to understand others in relation to yourself. This interactive process is what I call empathy.
Empathy within the context of what I call the Empathy Triad is part of an interactive process of reading the context of the situation between people and discussing the vital aspects of the context. The Empathy Triad (Empathy, Context, and Conversation) is something in the moment that creates instant recognition, understanding, affirmation and connection.
The first step toward freeing yourself from the anger and grief is to step out of your judgement of the other person or yourself. Be the Analyst. The analyst is looking at the facts or the science, devoid of emotion. If you use this objective approach, you might be able to understand the relationship better. You may be able to see the other person for who they are, instead of how they make you feel.
General Systems Theory helped me recognize something extraordinary going on in NeuroDivergent relationships. What General Systems Theory proposes is that solutions to problems exist where two different systems connect or collide. Thus, I started looking at the collisions between NeuroDiverse and NeuroTypical people. It’s not a matter of who is right or wrong. It is a matter of having two diverging mental operating systems.
This discovery has made it so much easier to help my ND couples and families get past their distress with each other. I realized that NTs use the Empathy Triad to connect with their loved ones, while Autists use words/topics. I explain more about this in my new book, “Empathy is More Than Words,” but let me give a little more explanation now.
Another way to look at this connecting/colliding mix up is that NTs are interactional, meaning that their communication style is to connect with the other person, person to person — before they discuss a topic. While Autists are transactional, meaning that they listen for the words or topic first, not necessarily to the context of the person who is speaking.
Without exception when I explain this difference to Autists and NTs, they both agree. They get it and the recrimination stops. For the first time they understand that neither of them intends to cause harm, even though it feels disrespectful. NTs feel disrespected because they want their ASD loved one to acknowledge and affirm them before proceeding to a topic of conversation. NeuroDiverse individuals feel confused and disrespected by the myriad ways the NT is prompting them to listen — to them — when the Autist is listening — to the words.
Darlene doesn’t know she’s stuck, but she has to know she is filled with anger about her situation — something she blames upon me. You don’t have to be stuck like this. You have at least one tool now to help you take back your life. Use your inner Analyst and General Systems Theory to look for the logical mix-ups that occur when systems collide. Turn these collisions into connections. Below is an excerpt from my new book, showing how a NeuroDivergent couple navigated an Interactional/Transactional rough spot — allowing their love to grow exponentially.
One day, when Jez was feeling particularly low, her ASD spouse Redding seemed not to notice, even though she was quietly crying.
“Hey, Jez. Should I order our airline tickets to visit your parents this Christmas? We should do it soon to get the best deal.” Redding was proud of himself for thinking ahead about something important to Jez.
Instantly tears spilled over Jez’ eyelids and down her cheeks. Redding looked puzzled. Though she felt almost too choked up to speak Jez said, “I just don’t know if we will be together for Christmas.”
True to EmD-0 [Transactional or Autistic] form, Redding fastened on the wrong part of the interchange when he said, “Oh – um – well then we can buy refundable tickets.” Again, he beamed that he had come up with a sound solution to the problem of buying tickets, if not the deteriorating relationship. He totally ignored the tears or their meaning to Jez.
Jez was ready for him this time. She could have responded in typical NT hurt or outrage. She could have complained that all he thinks about is money or his convenience. But no — Jez took a deep breath – reminded herself that her husband does love her – and then she laughed – a deep full-hearted laugh. “Oh Redding. That is so like you.”
Redding grinned back. “What?” he said, not truly understanding the joke.
“Well, dear one,” she smirked. “I was speaking about the fact that our marriage is dangling by a thread and I actually wanted some encouragement from you — that maybe you believed of course we would still be together at Christmas. But instead, you went for the lowest common denominator.”
Redding was still smiling but Jez could see he was not totally getting it. “Redding, I think it’s a hoot that your way of responding to my tears and heartache is to crack a joke about getting refundable tickets. I know you didn’t mean it as a joke, but it’s the funniest thing I’ve heard from you in months. Thanks for being so darned cute!”
Transactional people do not use the Empathy Triad. Yes, I know this will make Darlene angry again, but it is true and once you face it, you have alternatives. Waiting for a transactional person like Redding to speak to Jez’ feelings first and the topic second is not going to work. Feeling badly that he gets it backwards for the NT will not work. For the Autist to become offended when his offer of refundable airline tickets is rejected, is a waste of time too. This couple discovered the value of understanding each other’s system, but they took it one step further — to what I call Radiant Empathy.
Becoming what I call a Radiant Empathy Angel is a worthy goal for all of us even if we are not enmeshed in a NeuroDivergent Relationship. There is a lot wrapped up in this concept but in a nutshell, it encompasses forgiveness and acceptance of the other and oneself.
Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa represents the Radiant Empathy Angel. Instead of fighting for “justice” as Darlene suggests, where there are winners and losers, he preached for “restorative justice.” Restorative justice is a nonviolent way
of bringing people together to resolve the problems they both created because of a lack of understanding, skill, and forgiveness. This creates a win-win solution.
One of my favorite quotes by Tutu sums it up for me.
“God created us for fellowship. God created us so that we should form the human family, existing together because we were made for each other. We are not made for an exclusive self-sufficiency but for interdependence, and we break that law at our peril.”
What’s your next step?
People like Darlene have every right to feel angry about the wrongs they have suffered. They are also entitled to their opinion. But I am not sure those rights, emotions, and opinions help restore damaged relationships. Instead of blame or grief, recognize that your worlds have just collided. Use the power of analytical observation and accept that you are at an impasse that is logical, if confusing.
Letting go of anger and recrimination is powerful and freeing. Being able to laugh at your loved one’s transactional interpretation of reality — and still know that he cares about you — feels great. Knowing that your interactional loved one seeks a type of empathic meaning that escapes you, doesn’t mean you failed. Forgive yourself for being autistic and laugh with her about your empathic missteps.
Not all of us will reach the level of Radiant Empathy Angel, such as Desmond Tutu. Or if we do achieve a moment of radiance, it may slip away again. Trust me, it is inevitable since living on Earth is such a challenge. But if you can forgive yourself your anger and hurt and mistakes — and you can forgive the other for their anger and hurt and mistakes — well then love finds a way to make the NeuroDivergent system a bit easier to live with.
I frequently hear this comment or another variation: “Aren’t we all on aSpectrum?” The answer to the first question is “No.” The answer to the second question is “Yes.” So let me clear up this confusion.
We are part of something greater than a “Spectrum.”
I’ll start with the second question first. As human beings, there is a wide range of what is considered “normal” human behavior, including intelligence, physiology, and personality, to name just three. In fact, human beings are really unlike any other life on the planet in this regard. We have hundreds of languages, temperaments, interests, and diets. We can live in a townhouse, near a river, in a sandstone adobe, in a metropolitan area, in the Yukon or the Amazon. Human beings are remarkable in our diversity.
There are even finer distinctions that can be made. If you are playing poker, one person will be able to win with a pair of threes, while another folds their cards when they have less than a “full house.” Or some of us have that broccoli gene and we can’t stand the smell of broccoli cooking, while others can’t wait to eat the savory vegetable.
Another amazing quality of human beings is our ability to transform ourselves. For example, some of us are lucky enough to have inherited the “happiness gene.” Yes, it apparently exists and I didn’t get it. But what the rest of us can do is indulge in a variety of psychological exercises to increase our happiness potential. We may not see the bright side of a disaster at first glance, but with enough therapy, meditation, prayer, and good healthy living, we can come to appreciate the lessons in our misfortune.
I suppose we can describe this multitude of diverse traits as “a Spectrum” of human behavior, but I think that is selling us short. We are so much more than a collection of traits, great and small. Sure, we can categorize our height along a spectrum of short to tall, but that’s where the “Spectrum” analogy ends.
Milton Erickson, M.D. used to remind us that no two people have the same fingerprints (true). DNA researchers tell us that our DNA is remarkably similar to a frog’s. Good grief, this leaves us in a pickle if we are looking for a “Normal Human Spectrum.” Rather it makes more sense to me to consider people as part of a complex system of interacting systems, producing infinite varieties of Human Beings.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to say that we “are made for each other,” which has nothing to do with a compilation (or Spectrum) of traits. What we Humans are capable of is coming to know who we are — and who the other person is — by relating to each other as special, unique, lovable gifts from God.
Autism is defined as being “On the Spectrum.”
Don’t be waylaid by the term “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” While the diagnosis is grounded in scientific research, the term itself (Autism Spectrum Disorder) is just a concept invented by the American Psychiatric Association when they updated their latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The term represents what they felt was the “best fit” for the diagnostic criteria. However, It tells you nothing of the complexity of each human being with this diagnosis. It only helps you understand one little part of the complex interacting systems of the Autist’s life.
In other words, your Autist is just as complex as any NeuroTypical. In the Autist’s Venn Diagram of their interacting traits and experiences, they have a bubble for Autism Spectrum Disorder (and a bubble for their relationship with an NT). For NeuroTypicals, the Venn Diagram includes a bubble for having a relationship with a person with ASD. You can expand this concept exponentially.
Yes, I have spent much of my adult life pondering the components of this diagnosis — and how it affects the quality of life and interpersonal relationships. I do think a diagnosis helps us better understand how our Autists think. And that knowledge is vital to improving our NeuroDivergent marriages and families. In fact, it might even be critical. But it is only one part of the human experience for ND couples.
We are part of something far greater than aor theSpectrum.
If you are following me so far, what you should get is that Autism Spectrum Disorder is a micro concept — a way to categorize a handful of traits and create a diagnosis. But who that person is? — where they fall into the macrocosm of Human Life — well that is for us to discover withthem. That’s what Desmond Tutu meant when he said we are “made for each other.”