“It’s a relation thing.” This is how Hannah Gadsby responded to the question posed by the talk show host, Fredrik Skavlan.
Skavlan was trying to get at what stops Gadsby from feeling comfortable with people in a social situation. He said, “So, is that the thing… so as long as you are home with yourself… autism is like nothing?”
Gadsby, an Australian comedian continued. “Yeah… when I am by myself, I’m smooth. I’m good at life… but when someone else comes in… with all of their facial expressions and stuff and it really throws me for a loop.”
The first time I heard this odd expression (“It’s a relation thing) it was from my former husband, Howard. He actually wrote it in an email to me, shortly after we separated. In an attempt to understand why our marriage was failing, he wrote, “I think it’s a relation thing.”
Since then, I have learned a lot about “Asperger Syndrome.” I not only recognized the Autism in my former spouse, but also in my mother and my eldest daughter Bianca. Being surrounded by Autists all of my life, you might think I understood them better. Instead, they had the opposite effect on me. They puzzled me. They made me feel like something was always wrong with me. Our relationships were oppressive and tragic.
It’s a relationship thing.
Take a good look at this word — relationship. How do you feel about it?
Now look at these two phrases:
It’s a relation thing.
It’s a relationship thing.
Do they feel (or sound) the same to you?
NeuroTypicals (NTs) have relationships with others. I perceive the world this way too — through my relationships with others. But for Gadsby and Howard and others on the Autism Spectrum, they exist in relation to others — separately and discreetly.
Gadsby is overwhelmed when others enter the room, “. . . with all of their facial expressions and stuff.” She prefers being alone rather than in the world of relationships, where all that “stuff” is part of the interactional and connecting world of NTs. When she is alone, autism is not an issue, because autism is only relevant in relationship with others — where it stands out and feels odd.
Yes, the energy of interactional people is a lot to track, but if you are NT, you just jump into the flow. You don’t worry about categorizing or listening to every word. Instead, you engage in a friendly exchange.
If you listen to people, their language reflects their underlying belief system and view of the world. In this very brief interchange between Gadsby and Skavlan you get to observe how a transactional woman and an interactional man discuss the same topic — social situations — but from dramatically different points of view.
For Skavlan, he wants to know the person. He encourages Gadsby to open up about herself, revealing what makes her tick. For Gadsby, she answers the questions and nothing more. With each of Skavlan’s questions, she politely gives an answer, along with a quirky facial expression that makes the audience laugh— and then waits for the next question. She has observed that Skavlan likes to ask questions, so as far as she is concerned all she needs to do is answer those questions.
Skavlan is an entertainment professional so he can handle his guest, but does he wonder why she doesn’t engage — engage in relationship building? She ignores the other guests on the show. Do they wonder too? Skavlan and his guests all keep smiling but there is no opening to engage with Gadsby.
Autists are intimidating.
Gadsby is puzzled that people find her “intimidating” (her word). She doesn’t intend to be intimidating. In fact, she wants to make people laugh. Yet she admits in this interview that she is not the least anxious when she performs on stage. As she puts it, she feels “dead inside.” That sounds intimidating to me.
That “dead inside” expression tells me a lot. She is not engaging her audience the way an NT comedian might do. In a transactional manner, if the audience laughs, she is successful. On the other hand, if an adoring fan wants to hug her after the performance, she rejects the hug, thereby rejecting the person. It’s OK not to want to hug strangers, but an NT would offer a kind gesture instead, such as a smile, or a handshake, or a high five — or an autograph — something to let the fan know they are appreciated.
I suppose appreciation is not what Gadsby is after, either receiving or giving it. If it’s just “a relation thing,” then all of that dynamic, interactional, friendly give and take is not necessary. It may seem unkind to think of Autists as intimidating but for NeuroTypicals the lack of social reciprocity leaves us cold.
Love is more than “a relation thing.”
Hearing Gadsby use that phrase, “it’s a relation thing” and describing herself as “intimidating,” and watching her ignore Skavlan’s bids to connect — this brought clarity to me about why I have felt alone most of my life in my relationship with my “Aspies.” I kept trying to have a relationship with people who saw me as a transactional object. In relation to them, I served a purpose. If I served the purpose to their liking, I was accepted. If not, I felt discarded. They answered questions or asked them. Once they got what they were after they moved on.
I remember a moment with Howard when I discussed filing for divorce. He looked surprised and said, “But I thought we were getting along better.”
Even though this was a painful moment for me, I was amused by his response. I said, “Howard, I understand why you thought we were getting along better. That’s because when I decided to get a divorce three months ago, I stopped talking with you.”
Howard was quiet for a long time. He sat very still with his eyes closed. He must have been thinking about what I said. When he finally opened his eyes, he said, “I think you are right. We haven’t been talking.”
This was his world, a world in which all was well as long as Howard was satisfied — and left alone. But for me, love is much more than “a relation thing.” It is an alive, exciting, energetic give and take between people that helps us both grow personally and interpersonally — stronger, smarter, more creative, kind, and aware — over time.
When Howard spoke those words, my resolve crystalized. I had spent over two decades with a man who was cocooned in his own world and seeming oblivious of his wife and children. He literally watched TV, while listening to NPR with earbuds, and at the same time sitting in front of his computer working on legal briefs. There was no room to invite me (or the children) into his world, nor would he step into ours. After 23 excruciatingly painful years of this mistreatment, I quit.
I felt invisible to my NeuroDiverse mother, husband, and child. Serving a purpose in the lives of NeuroDiverse family members is a role — in relation to — not with them. A purpose or role does not feel affirming, or appreciative, or known, or loving.
I spent a lifetime not understanding the irony of being in a family where the NeuroDiverse were satisfied when I left them alone, while I desperately wanted to connect. I missed the joy of being in relationship with those I loved because they didn’t know how to love me back, interactionally, as NeuroTypicals do. This has been a terrible loss for me to come to terms with — a lifetime without love.
However, with this discovery of my authentic self, I recognized an incredible opportunity. I am grateful that I prefer creating relationships — or loving connections — to a “relation thing.” This means that I am free to feel and enjoy the love all around me, anytime I choose.
It’s also true that I can freely honor those with NeuroDiversity like Hannah Gadsby, to choose the comfort of being alone. I find it odd, but I get it — I just wouldn’t choose it for me.
To know, know, know you, is to love, love, love you.
~ Bobby Vinton, Singer/Songwriter
Love is a conversation.
As Bobby Vinton suggests in his 1969 song lyrics, there is a profound connection between knowing you and loving you. Can you truly love someone without knowing them? Does the love grow stronger as you get to know them better, through shared life experiences? Can love fade if a partner fails to keep up with the knowing part?
I chose the title of my book, “Empathy is More Than Words,” (to be published), because to know someone is far greater than just the words spoken, or the rules defining the encounter between people. It is more than an accumulation of data researched on each person. That data set may include facts about the person, or noticeable facial features, or common gestures they might use. But to really know someone is to connect at a deeper emotional level.
To feel loved is to “know, know, know you” — and to know, know, know that the other knows you too.
The love can come in many forms, can’t it? As Bobby Vinton croons this tune, he is alluding to romantic love. But whether it is between lovers, or friends, or parent and child, or even the fondness for a neighbor or coworker — when someone knows you, more than just a passing data point, but knows the heart of you — that feels like love.
At least all of this appears true for NeuroTypicals who use an interactional approach to their relationships. For them, Love is a Conversation.
But what of those NeuroDiverse folks who are transactional? Hannah Gadsby is an Australian comedian whose YouTube videos and comedy performances reveal the mind of one Autistic woman when it comes to knowing another person. She admits she has a social interactional problem, something she calls a “relation thing.”
Even more complex is the relationship world of a Radiant Empathy Angel. Let’s compare all three worlds of the NeuroTypical, the NeuroDiverse, and the Radiant Empathy Angel — when it comes to knowing you and loving you.
To “know you,” Asperger Style.
The camera panned in on celebrity comedian Hannah Gadsby as she pondered the question delivered by her Norwegian/Swedish television talk host, Fredrik Skavlan. In this 2019 YouTube vignette, Skavlan encouraged Gadsby to speak about her diagnosis of Autism and how her life has been affected by this relatively new diagnosis for her.
There are many traits of autism that Gadsby alludes to in this interview. She jokes about needing routine and that she doesn’t like surprises, so she eats the same breakfast and lunch menu day after day. She quips that her facial expressions are hard to read because she hasn’t “told” her face to catch up to her feelings. She makes no eye contact with her host or the others on stage but does offer exaggerated eye rolls that bring laughter from the audience.
In fact, it is her humor that is charming enough to get the audience and host past the off-putting Autistic behaviors. However, she speaks about other more painful traits as well. Three major obstacles for Gadsby are her social anxiety, her social awkwardness, and that others see her as “intimidating” (to use her term).
“It’s a relation thing,” she said of Autism. And so it is, but I would refine that definition a bit. Those three major obstacles (social anxiety, social awkwardness, and intimidation) are reflective of Empathy Dysfunction (EmD).
Puzzled that Gadsby would be willing to meet on a talk show, with other guests and to converse with the host, in front of television viewers and a studio audience — especially with her stated social anxiety — Skavlan wanted to know how she has the courage to do it. He says, “You come in here . . . “pointing to the stage and the other guests and the audience laughing . .. how do you do it?”
Gadsby points to her nose and then to Skavlan, tilting her head and looking knowingly over the tops of her glasses, in an exaggerated gesture to mean she “knows” him. She says, “I’ve done my research though.” More audience laughter.
In NeuroTypical fashion, Skavlan is delighted that she has researched him and wants to know what she knows about him. He leans forward and smiles at her invitingly, probably with the assumption that she got to “know” him during her research. He expects a conversation.
Instead, Gadsby describes what she has observed in her research, “You’re just one of these people — just one of these people who want answers to questions.” Again, the audience laughs.
Skavlan smiles and agrees with her observation. No surprise there since most of us assume a talk show host has the gift of gab and knows how to get his guests to talk about themselves. But he still doesn’t understand why knowing this about him helps her social anxiety.
“This [the talk show setting] is easier than a social situation,” Gadsby offers. “Here I know the rules. You are asking the questions. And I answer them.” She goes on to explain that she would get flustered and overwhelmed if she had to ask and answer questions of everyone on the stage — conversational style.
In other words, Gadsby is transactional, not interactional.
She can answer questions, but not easily engage in a reciprocal conversation.
She researched the talk show host only to learn the rules ahead of time. But she didn’t research the talk show host himself — only the rules.
She declined to make small talk with the other guests on the show because she would be overwhelmed by their need to chat/connect.
She knows that eye rolls and quirky behaviors make the audience laugh, but she doesn’t engage the audience.
She hates surprises so she controls the outcome by researching the rules, and/or sticking to her routines — which is all in service to her emotional comfort, not the relationship with the talk show host.
Gadsby uses her social anxiety and social awkwardness and quirkiness to amuse us. But there is a touch of sadness when she discusses that others see her as “intimidating.” She believes this is because she is autistic, but I believe it is because she is transactional.
This is the tragedy of being Autistic and having Empathy Dysfunction (EmD-0). It’s not so much her social anxiety, or her social awkwardness, or even her goofy eye rolls that are off-putting to NeuroTypicals like Skavlan. It is her transactional style that makes her intimidating to others.
Transactions don’t feel inviting. They don’t invoke a sense that the other person wants to know you — or even cares about you. NeuroTypicals feel the transactional style as cold and calculating and they instinctively pull away. Yes, it feels intimidating.
To “know you,” NeuroTypical style.
NeuroTypical knowing is very different than the transactional knowing of the NeuroDiverse. In fact, NT knowing must be interactional to be knowing at all. Here are some examples:
A new mother can distinguish the sound of her baby crying, from among the other babies in the hospital. Her baby is calling out to her and she has to pick up her child to connect.
Before we had caller ID, we often knew who was phoning because of imperceptible cues (i.e., time of day, or following a brief thought about the person). A friend is reaching out.
A glint in someone’s eye that they are happy to see us. Smiling back seals, the emotional connection.
Leaning forward and offering a compassionate comment, “How are you?” This comment brings a flood of tears from the other person — because you affirmed them.
Finishing my sentence for me, just as I intended. In other words, “Knowing where I am coming from.”
Looking at just one of these examples of interactional knowing, that is, “Knowing where I am coming from,” gives you a solid example of the difference between transactional knowing and interactional knowing — and loving.
Andrea was in pain. It was clear from her distressed facial expression. “Dr. Marshack, what am I supposed to do when my ASD spouse gets angry with me? I mean, I tell him that I am just trying to explain my feelings so that we can resolve a problem, but he accuses me that I always have to be right!”
“Andrea, your spouse is NeuroDiverse, so he struggles to understand where you are coming from. He thinks you are arguing or debating just because you express an opinion that may be different than his.” I wanted to explain more to Andrea but she burst in urgently.
“Yes, I understand. I try to tell him that it’s OK that we don’t agree on everything. I have just asked him if he could meet me halfway? I just want him to know where I am coming from. What am I doing wrong? I am at the point of giving up and walking out, but we have two small children!” Andrea is in tears.
For Andrea to “know you” is to know where she is coming from, and to offer her husband recognition of where he is coming from. This is what she means by “meet me half way.” In order to meet her half way, her spouse has to know more about how she thinks, what’s important to her — and he needs to kindly explain where he is coming from. He needs to acknowledge the love between them first — as a starting point. But instead, he argues the facts, or the rules.
Like Hannah Gadbsy, Andrea’s husband only seeks the information that would comfort him or win the point. He doesn’t engage the two of them in a win-win. He has no idea what Andrea means by “meet me halfway.” To a transactional NeuroDiverse person, that is just so much “NT-splaining.”
To “Know You,” with Radiant Empathy.
Years ago, when I was a child protective services social worker, I learned the importance of Radiant Empathy in bringing vastly differently people together and working toward creating a win/win solution. I was young and fresh out of graduate school, but for some reason, I believed that I had an important job to do. It wasn’t to rescue abused children or follow government mandates. In my mind, it was to help families work through the abuse, to resolve their conflicts, to learn the art of parenting, to forgive and to ask for forgiveness.
I wasn’t always successful, of course. Some people are so traumatized by life on this treacherous planet, that they cave to their fears and harm others. But every once in a while, I made “contact.”
I remember this one day when I met Larraine, a single white mom. She lived in a hovel of a rental in a frightening inner-city neighborhood. She couldn’t lock her front door because the door frame was out of alignment, so she held the door in place with bottlecaps nailed to the frame. She had already lost one child to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Her teeth were in disrepair. She and her other son had a noticeable odor about them from lack of bathing. She had no heat in her home. Nevertheless, when I showed up, she invited me into her humble home. She trusted me for some odd reason.
I went through the drill. I told her she had to send her 6-year-old son to school. I explained that he needed clean clothes and decent food. I asked if she had taken him to a pediatrician. But I also saw a frightened mother who had already lost one child to poverty. I knew she believed she had no way out.
I sat on her filthy couch and took a cup of coffee from a cracked coffee mug. I accepted her hospitality because I knew that she knew I had opinions about her. As she warmed up to me, I offered that I wanted to help — if she would let me — if she trusted me.
I explained that there were Food Banks nearby where she could get free food. I suggested social service programs that would help her pay for heat and water and electricity. I said, I would stop by again in a few days — just to see how she was doing. I knew she probably felt threatened by the young white social worker in the government car. On the other hand, I took the time to “know” this mother. I know that Larraine felt acknowledged.
I waited a couple of days and then I visited Larraine again. She seemed happy to see me. I was happy to see her too. She smelled better. Her house was tidier. I knew that she felt more in charge of her life even though she and her son still lived in abject poverty.
It was on this second occasion that I leveled with Larraine and told her about the child abuse report. Larraine had disciplined her son by holding his bare bottom in scalding water in the bathtub (not too long, but enough to make him cry). She used this method as punishment when she felt he needed it. The burns on his bottom were why she had not sent him to school for a few days.
I explained to Larraine that she would have to appear in court because it was a crime to abuse a child. But I also told her that I would help her through all of this. I gave her the phone number for a social service agency that would help her with learning appropriate parenting skills. I gave her a list of resources to get money for heat and utility bills. I told her that if she followed up with my recommendations by our court date, I would persuade the Juvenile Court judge to recognize her desire to cooperate.
Larraine was shaken. Child abuse is serious and she was terrified of losing her son. As I walked to the door — the door with the bottlecaps — she implored, “Will you be at court too?”
I was surprised at her request since I had delivered devastating news. I looked at her — I saw her — I knew her — Larraine, the mother who had lost a baby, and the mother who was struggling to care for a little boy with no father. I looked at her sweet, frightened face and offered love. I said, “Yes of course I will be there, Larraine. I can pick you up and take you there if you want me to.”
Larraine smiled slightly and seemed relieved. “Thank you, Kathy. I have no car and no money to pay a babysitter. I would appreciate the help.”
“No problem, Larraine. That’s why I am here. I want you to get this all settled so you and your little guy can get back to life. Pick you up at 8:30 Friday, Okay?”
Larraine nodded. I gave her a hug and patted her son on the head. He laughed. It was heartwarming to see this child smile.
I have no idea what happened to Larraine and her child over the intervening decades since we had this encounter. I believe that she believed I knew her and was there for her, in Radiant Empathy style. I also know that she gave me something special too. She trusted me and I believe she knew me too — the heart of me that wanted to help her. Larraine demonstrated courage to allow me into her world.
Radiant Empathy is to know, know, know you.
Compassion is important but it does not carry the force of Radiant Empathy — the force of knowing and loving flow between people.
Returning to the interview with Skavlan, we can see that Gadsby has compassion, though not Radiant Empathy. Gadsby gets serious for a moment as she explains a cherished belief of her own. Because she has found fame and fortune, she doesn’t believe she should just rest on her laurels. She believes she has a responsibility to use her platform as a public figure to make a difference for others with autism who are still “suffering” to use her term.
This is an admirable position, particularly considering how hard won her fame is. As a woman who struggled for years to find herself, who had a mental health breakdown, who went from job to job, who was homeless for a time, who lived during a period of Australian history when it was illegal for Lesbians to marry, who was diagnosed with autism at midlife, who discovered how to use her sense of humor to save herself and entertain others — well, Hannah Gadsby is remarkable.
Yes, Hannah Gadsby is a role model of toughness and compassion. She has earned all of those awards that have been bestowed on her, such as an honorary doctorate from the University of Tasmania in “. . . recognition of her role as an ambassador for all LGBTIQ+ people world-wide.”
Yet, Gadsby does not have Radiant Empathy because she is not able to integrate the three aspects of Radiant Empathy, namely (1) interaction, (2) the Empathy Triad, and (3) courage. Having a strong sense of purpose is not enough. Compassion is not enough. Becoming famous and having a public platform is not enough. Why not?
“It’s a relation thing,” says Gadsby. But I think it is much more.
Radiant Empathy is of the moment — this moment, not an abstract charitable thought.
* It requires being there for others, not gathering information on how to be more comfortable in their presence;
* It requires listening to the heart and mind of the other person, seeking to understand where they are coming from, not seeking to be understood;
* It requires affirming the other person’s right to exist and be different;
* It requires conveying being there and listening and affirming in such a way as the other person feels loved and protected — not intimidated.
* It is there — unspoken yet profoundly moving — “I know you.”
Because Gadsby is autistic and transactional, she misses the opportunity over and over again to connect on this profound level, while at the same time she is brave and compassionate in her own way.
All the same, she is wrong to quip that Autism is only “a relation thing” as if that is a small detail. It is not small to all of those NeuroTypicals who seek to know and be known — so we don’t feel so alone in this difficult life — where a little bit of love means so much.
“To know, know, know you
Is to love, love, love you
Just to see you smile
Makes my life worthwhile
“To know, know, know you
Is to love, love, love you
And I do, and I do, and I do,
Yes, I do”
~ Bobby Vinton
Have you ever watched a suspenseful movie and found yourself wanting to advise the protagonist to hold fast?
Or have you watched a game show and yelled out the answer when the contestant appeared to freeze?
Or how about watching a professional athlete miss the easy free throw, and wonder why they missed when they are a superstar?
The only explanation is fear, that inexplicable feeling that interferes with a perfectly good strategy. Even just a split second of fear can slow us down, give the opponent the edge, or build into a torrent of panic, leaving us in a puddle of distress.
When we are watching the movie, or the game show contestant, or the athlete, we don’t feel the same fear as they do. We aren’t in the spotlight, are we? We can watch from our comfortable arena seats or living room sofa. Without a speck of fear, we can advise the movie hero to take the right action or shout out the correct answer to the game show question, or masterfully shoot the perfect free-throw.
It’s not so easy to master fear when we are in the middle of frightening situations, though. When there is a lot on the line, in terms of money, or prestige, or love, or safety, we become more intense. With increasing intensity comes risk. And with risk, we just might make a mistake. It is our fear of mistakes that hold us hostage. So, let’s take a look at how to break through this phenomenon.
I have noticed that members of our Meetup group express lots of fear. They fear that their NeuroDiverse spouse will become angry and rage. They fear those sensory overload meltdowns will wreak havoc in their homes. They fear that others will discover that they are seeking professional support and psychotherapy. They fear that their children will suffer in a NeuroDivergent household. They fear that they aren’t doing enough to help their NeuroDiverse loved ones. They fear that friends and family won’t believe them about their NeuroDivergent life. They fear retribution for speaking up about their suffering. They fear that they don’t have enough time in the day — or week — or month to accomplish all they need to keep life going. They fear going crazy or losing their health. They fear losing their sense of self.
Where does all of this fear come from? First of all, it is normal to be afraid about all of these things. Fear is a natural reaction to those things we have no control over. I have felt all of these fears and I know darned good and well that these fears are based on reality. I also feel fear because I have been judged harshly — just because I Iived with NeuroDiverse folk.
Can you relate to these examples?
1. I was scolded by a total stranger when my ASD teenager had a meltdown in public. He told me that I should have more control over my daughter.
2. My therapist told me that I should be more sensitive to my ASD spouse because he was upset with me.
3. I watched my ASD spouse tear the door off a kitchen cabinet, in a fit of rage.
4. I comforted my crying NT child when her ASD father chased her and kicked her to the ground.
5. I had a business associate tell me I should keep quiet about problems with my NeuroDivergent child because the associate has problems with her own mother.
6. I used to fall asleep in the car as I waited for my children to finish with soccer practice, piano lessons, or art class. Fearful to turn this duty over to my forgetful NeuroDiverse spouse.
7. I created color-coded calendars to help my NeuroDiverse spouse keep track of our family schedule because he would show up late or not at all.
8. I stayed up late on Sunday night cooking food for the family for the week, for fear that my NeuroDiverse spouse would forget to feed the children.
9. I was targeted frequently by police and city officials when my NeuroDivergent family members accused me of wrong doing, even though they assaulted me.
10. I have been verbally maligned too many times to recall. Why? Because chaos reigns in my household.
Make a list of your own. This will be the first step toward setting you free from your fears. Once you make that list, you will see how outrageous it is that you should be afraid at all. In this case, yes there are real fears because real consequences abound in ASD/NT relationships and NeuroDivergent families. However, if you are doing your best to hold together your NeuroDivergent family, you can reframe that fear — you are a hero.
Go away from fearful people.
While we can’t stop the normal human predilection to feel afraid of lots of things, lots of chaos, and lots of people, we can learn how to squarely face our fears and do as Churchill suggests. Don’t waste the opportunity that is presenting itself.
The Kanji for “Crisis” is two symbols meaning “Danger” and “Opportunity.” You can either crumble in fear, give up, be a helpless victim, scuttle and hide — or you can take on the opportunity in the danger of these NeuroDivergent relationships — to take you to the opportunity of developing Radiant Empathy.
I have introduced the concept of Radiant Empathy because it goes far beyond being kind or empathic. Those with Radiant Empathy are brave. They have the courage to face their fears and those fearful people — and take the right action. How can anything change if you allow your fears to swamp the right action?
A few years ago, I went to Court for my arraignment on charges of assault, resisting arrest, lying to the police, destroying property, etc. The charges were all false and I was eventually fully acquitted, but in the meantime, I had to fight for my freedom (emotional, financial, physical, and even for my children) from my unscrupulous estranged NeuroDiverse husband.
Standing before the judge I requested to be set free on “my own recognizance,” which he agreed to. Given that the judge was my neighbor, and that his daughters had been my babysitters, we were in an awkward situation. But the facts were clearly on my side, even though I had spent two nights in the county jail.
I asked the judge if I could leave town to attend a church conference since a stipulation of my release from jail was that I not leave town. The conference was several states away. But the judge agreed since he knew that he could trust me.
I felt the fear dissipate in the courtroom and even more as I flew to Minnesota for the conference. It all felt surreal actually. How could I have been arrested when I was the victim of assault? How could I be up against powerful people who wanted to harm me just because I dared to speak out? I was learning that fear is a warning and not to be ignored. But this fearful situation was also an opportunity.
Once in Minnesota, I checked into my room and soon I headed over to the conference. While I didn’t want to miss the keynote speaker, I also wanted to take advantage of the assistance of a Spiritual Director. If anyone needed to talk with a lay minister it was me! After all I had been through, I wanted to know the spiritual meaning behind this false arrest, and all of the people who wanted to bring harm to me.
The spiritual director lead me through an exercise in which I imagined myself walking up to the highest peaks of the Himalayas. Once there I was surprised to meet an enlightened spiritual master.
He asked me, “What do you want?”
I told him about all of the troubles I was having and how frightened I was of the harm these people wanted to cause me. I asked, “How do I handle all of this?”
The master told me, “Look down the mountain and see all of the people below who are threatening you.”
I looked and was surprised to see them from such a lofty position. “Yes, I can see them,” I said. “What am I to do?”
He said, “Go away.”
Ironically at that moment, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. Such a simple solution to conquer fear. Let it go. Go away from frightening people. Do not engage with them.
Go away and let me add more.
Let me add that going away from upsetting and frightening people will set you free from the grip of fear, if not the feeling. To go away does not mean to go away from your loved ones, or your commitments. It means to go away or separate from your fear of those people who want to harm you. Then step up to Radiant Empathy and speak your truth.
Take care of yourself. Know that you know what you know about this NeuroDivergent life. Don’t let anyone be unkind or cruel. You are worth much more. When you come from this strong, self-loving position — you have so much more to offer to your NeuroDiverse loved ones. You have a whole, amazing, empathic, intellectually brilliant, Radiant Empathy Hero to offer.
This photo was posted on Facebook by Eduard Koller, a Seattle resident. It was taken by journalist Francesco Malavolta. Polish mothers left these prams and strollers at the train station, for Ukrainian refugees when they arrive in Poland with their children. (March 6, 2022).
Empathy is More Than Words.
Empathy is more than words, and this picture reveals the true meaning. These Polish mothers stepped into the reality of Ukrainian mothers (and fathers and grandparents) who were not only fleeing to safety with their children, but who needed to know that they and their children are welcome.
Mothers are like that, aren’t they? I remember one time when I was driving the family to church on a Sunday morning. I saw something alarming and quickly turned onto a side street and parked the car. As I jumped out of the driver’s seat, I said to my husband Howard, “Stay here! I’ll be right back.” My two children were tucked into their child seats in the back, so I once again looked sternly at all of them and said, “Don’t move! I’ll be right back.”
As I dashed across the street, I kept my eye on the toddler. No more than 18 months old, he was dressed in a yellow footed sleeper. No adult was in sight. The child was walking across the front yard of an apartment complex, now perilously close to the parked cars, the only protection left between the toddler and a busy two-lane city street.
When I was within inches of him, I dropped to my knees on the wet grass, and reached out my hand. He stopped walking, looked me in the eye — and smiled. He laid his precious baby hand in my outstretched one. I gently turned him away from the oncoming traffic and asked him, “Where do you live Little One?”
I got a little “Baby Babble,” but nothing to help me find his mother. I looked around the apartment complex and noticed that one door was open behind a screen door, so I took the chance that this might be his home. I didn’t pick up the child because I didn’t want to frighten him or his mother since I was a stranger, but he held my hand as I steered him toward the open door.
I knocked a few times. Eventually, the baby’s mother awoke and came to the door. When she saw her son standing outside with a stranger, she screamed at the recognition that she almost lost her baby. But all was well. I got one more sweet smile from the toddler before I left — and took my family to church.
Radiant Empathy Requires Courage.
The Empathy Triad consists of Empathy, Context and Conversation. At least at its simplest this is true. But to develop Radiant Empathy requires taking action to make the world a better place. Whether the action is motivated by a mother’s heart, or a spirit of justice, or to create beauty and light in the world — Empathy is much more than kind words, much more than being highly sensitive, and much more than being a good listener. To function at the level of Radiant Empathy requires courage.
The courage can be simple such as rescuing a toddler. Or it can be heroic such as defending one’s country from an aggressive invasion. It can also be as dedicated as working tirelessly on behalf of your NeuroDivergent family. The members of our group have certainly learned how to do all they can — and a little bit more.
A few years ago, when I developed the membership website, “ASPERGER SYNDROME & RELATIONSHIPS,” (www.ASD-NTrelationships.com) I wanted a logo that represented this empathy and courage. Our members are strong and loving and kind. They have faced incredibly tough conditions in raising their autistic children, or growing up with an autistic parent, or parenting with a partner on the Autism Spectrum. I decided we needed a logo that represented the soft side of courage which is demonstrated by the Radiant Empathy Angels in our group.
The sunflower is perfect. It is a bold beautiful blossom that radiates cheer and hope all day long as it follows the sun. The sunflower is also resilient. Our logo shows the sunflower in the rain, still vibrant and strong even in a storm. If you have ever seen a field of sunflowers following the sun, or even just soaking up the rain, you know how radiant they are.
On a Personal Note.
On a personal note, I find it a marvelous serendipity that the sunflower is also the national flower of Ukraine. Considering that my grandparents were refugees from Ukraine with one of the “Russification” purges in the early 20 th century, it is a stunning message. The sunflower is just a flower after all, but it represents the courage to take your empathy to a higher level and to “be the change you want to see in the world,” (Mahatma Gandhi).
Thank you all for being a part of our group and my life.
“Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
When love meets repulsion.
“I’m not sure how much longer I can do this, Dr. Marshack,” Marti said. She had a pained look on her beautiful face. Even with the pain, her classic good looks shone through. No makeup — not even a touch of lipstick — her golden brown hair hanging in swirls over her shoulders. Marti relied on her inner loving nature to carry her throughout the day as a professional counselor and mother. Mostly this worked just fine, except when she came home to Danny (her ASD spouse).
“I know it’s tough to love Danny, when he makes you feel so alone, or chastised, or invisible,” I said. “I hope we can help him recognize the need for therapy before he loses you.”
Marti’s face brightened a bit as she realized I understood and that it might be safe to tell me more. Even so she hesitated to say the unspeakable. “I have never had this feeling before — like the love might go away,” she said.
“Where do you feel that feeling?” I asked. “I know that is an odd question but I suspect it is a visceral feeling. Tell me where and what you are feeling.”
Marti looked even more curious and seemed to recognize that I was tracking her. “Yes, it is visceral,” she said with surprise in her voice.
“Like when you are talking with Danny, and he says something unkind, do you feel like all of your blood just drained out of your body? Or perhaps like there is this odd, coldish feeling in your chest? Or even a touch of distaste — dare I say ‘repulsion’ — like you want to shut down and get away?”
Marti’s eyes widened. “Yes! Just like that! How did you know?”
How do I know?
How do I know? Besides being a psychologist and hearing many of my clients expressing this dilemma, I have felt this same conflict with my ASD daughter, Bianca. One time I didn’t brush it off as I had so many times before. I noticed it. I swallowed it because I prayed that love would conquer the feeling. But I still noticed it and it frightened me. I love my daughter so much that I can’t imagine feeling repulsed by her, but there it was.
We were sitting in the movie theater, waiting for a Harry Potter movie to start. She read every Harry Potter book voraciously. She loved the movies too, so when a new one hit the theater, I offered to take her. She was nearly 19 years old but still very immature, as so many young adult Autists are. I decided to take a chance and bought her a book about girls and women on the Autism Spectrum, authored by Liane Holliday (“Pretending to be Normal”). I gave it to her in the movie theater. It turned out to be a mistake and she lashed out at me.
“Are you making fun of me?!” she exploded with an accusatory look on her face.
“Not at all Bianca. I thought you might like to read a book about a woman who discovered her own autism when her daughter was diagnosed.” I decided to be honest and hoped that she would accept that her mother loved her enough to want to help.
But the look of hatred on her face was intense. Even before I felt the shock of her rebuke, I felt my repulsion drain me. It left me feeling totally devoid of loving feeling for her. I wasn’t angry, or hurt, or afraid. I felt none of that, just the self-protective feeling of repulsion. Her hatred had flooded in where I offered love.
Just at that moment, the movie started and Bianca was distracted. I was relieved to have 90 minutes to come to terms with our relationship. It would never be the same. She sealed our relationship in that toxic black and white way of immature people. She went to live with her autistic father and I have not seen her since.
Repulsion is normal.
I could never have admitted this feeling before I understood the survival mechanism that fostered it. Safety and survival instincts are strong. When my daughter treated me with such disregard — as if I was worthy of utter disdain — and potential destruction — my survival instincts surfaced. In the face of psychological obliteration by someone I loved, I felt the love drain away. Fortunately, a mother’s love is stronger than this primitive instinct. I stood my ground and my love did not go away, even though she left me in the long run.
It is important that you forgive yourself for feeling this repulsion. It is normal and even healthy to protect yourself — to survive. However, if you take a moment to reflect on the feeling, you are not in danger — if you persevere with love. It’s just that you are in the presence of a loved one with Empathy Dysfunction (EmD), who may have no idea how harsh and heartbreaking their words (and looks) can be.
Think about the meaning behind the old expression, “If looks could kill.” Apparently the feeling that Marti and I both experienced has been noted before. NTs find it confusing to be treated this way by their ASD loved ones. Autists are often befuddled that we shut down and pull away.
The solution isn’t to cave to this abuse, however. The solution is to forgive.
Forgive and let love carry the day.
Bianca has not forgiven me. It has been 16 years since that day in the movie theater and I have had no contact. I have reached out repeatedly to her, without a response. As you can imagine my heartbreak is intense. However, I also know that I love her and will be there for her until the end of time. I have forgiven myself and Bianca. I know that her life is far more distressed than mine — because I refuse to let hate eat up the love.
The bottom line is this. You may not be able to reach the loved one who leaves you with that cold feeling. But if you can find it in your heart to forgive them and forgive yourself for not “getting it” soon enough about a NeuroDivergent relationship, you will be free to let the love flow — between you and among others.
The other day I got an email from a young woman with High Functioning Autism, whom I had treated when she was in middle school. She is in college now and wanted to update me on her progress. She said, “Well, I hope this email reaches you, I just want to say that although I’ve had many ups and downs since we last met, some harder than others, your presence in my life helped me become who I am today and where I’m going in life.”
It is odd isn’t it that we may not be able to reach our own special loved ones, but others will benefit if you banish the hate and the defensiveness and the survival instinct — and allow the love to flow.
As for me, I try to remember that “Love is the absence of hate.” What this means is that hate and repulsion cannot exist in the same space in my heart as Love. What a relief!
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.