FEAR in NeuroDivergent Relationships: Danger or Opportunity?

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

~ Winston Churchill

The Fear Factor

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.

NeuroDivergent Fear

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.


Do All That You Can — And a Little Bit More

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.

Love is the Absence of Hate

“Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Mahatma Gandhi

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!

Thank You for Saying My Name

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.

When Worlds Collide

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.

  1. Stop the blame. Anger is your response to the conundrum, not the answer. They can’t fix your anger. Only you can do that.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

“Aren’t We All On the Spectrum?”

I frequently hear this comment or another variation: “Aren’t we all on a Spectrum?” 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.”

SeI’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 a or the Spectrum.

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 with them. That’s what Desmond Tutu meant when he said we are “made for each other.”

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