Yesterday I met with a longtime acquaintance for the first time in four years. We were never quite what I'd call friends, or not good friends. I liked her well enough, but her husband is awful--bullying and controlling--mostly to her, but also to anyone in his range, including me––and yet she always defended him and dismissed her own distress.
I didn't want to be anywhere near their dynamic anymore, so I'd dropped away. But when she came by my work last week to ask if we could go out for coffee, I said sure.
We chatted first about all the changes in our city, and then she said she wanted to talk to me about something personal:
she has come to think that she has Asperger's.
She's a little older than me (66?), and ASD wasn't on the radar in our childhoods--and still it often goes unrecognized if girls (more than boys) are on the autism spectrum, and therefore, unsupported.
I immediately said, "Oh, I can see that, that makes a lot of sense."
It does! The possible cause of misunderstandings between us came into focus. Often I would think, "How does she not get how I feel?" when I'd thought it was obvious.
I'd counted on her to intuit it, which, she was telling me, she has never been able to do, with anyone.
I can see that now, looking back.
I also thought immediately of my much sharper unhappiness with her: her relationship with her husband, who I would say is emotionally abusive. It always baffled me that she tolerated him disregarding her opinions, even yelling at her, and alienating other people with his behavior, without her seeming to think it was wrong of him...
In fact, I blamed her for enabling him.
I just now googled and found an article by Jaime A. Heidl, "the articulate autistic"––
"Why Autistic People May Be More Susceptible to Abusive Romantic Relationships"––
Heidl spells out several points that might explain what I was seeing, including, "We [people with ASD] are used to feeling uncomfortable".
And then I totally recognized my neurotypical behavior–– being frustrated with my pal, but not clearly expressing that––in this article about Heidl's work: "An Autism Diagnosis at 35 Inspired Her to Create Change":
“While an autistic person’s [behavior] may cause... hurt feelings in the neurotypical [friend], it can be deeply traumatic for the autistic person when their friend suddenly ... ghosts them after years of friendship,” Jaime says.
[I did that.]
“Furthermore, the neurotypical person hardly ever explains exactly what went wrong in the conversation that caused them to become angry — they just go straight to a friendship ending... as they (mistakenly) believe the autistic person knows exactly what they did...."
[I did that too.]
“Neurotypical and autistic people will never truly be able to connect with one another if the neurotypical person isn’t fully aware of why they have these sudden emotional reactions and they remain unable to explain them to someone who needs detailed and concise information to learn, apologize, and repair trust.”
Of course a HUGE challenge is that I and other neurotypical people are not necessarily fully aware of what we're feeling and why, and don't know what would help things work better.
I felt a little defensive, reading that request that I should provide "detailed and concise information" about my emotions. Doing that requires a very high level of self-awareness and a high skill at communicating in difficult circumstances, like sailing in a storm.
I may be neurotypical, but it's not like I always know what I feel... and yet I'm keeping that information a secret. Often I do not know.
However, yes, sometimes when I know clearly what I'm feeling and why, I still don't want to do the hard work of talking about a messy situation.
With this pal, I didn't want to even start to talk about her marriage. I mean, what a personal thing to do with someone I didn't feel emotionally close to. So I went away.
Now she's reached out to me, I don't know what's next. She didn't ask for anything, and I didn't ask--we left it at "nice to see you, see you around".
I have a friend who was diagnosed years ago as being on the spectrum, and they've done a ton of work to learn about it and a ton of work in telling me about it, which I deeply appreciate. And I've researched it on my own too. Watched movies, read books, etc.
Many people I know or interact with are on the spectrum (an estimated 1 in 100), and the things that help in those interactions also help with neurotypical people.
Who doesn't do better with good communication!? (Well, Ass't Man, for one.)
Knowing how you feel, expressing that clearly, and being able to negotiate for what you and the other person want and need is a great skill!
How many of us grew up learning how to do ANY of that?
This old pal I met up with yesterday is a different case--because it's all new to her--not even confirmed by a specialist yet (though I think she's right in her self-diagnosis), I expect she doesn't know what she wants or needs.
For me, her husband complicates it immensely and makes me want to stay out of her life. And maybe that's the right thing for me to do. I don't know yet.
I will think/explore more about if it might be helpful for me to tell her that... and what I could say if I did.
At this point, I'm going to wait and see. It's not like I don't have a ton of other difficult psychological situations to deal with all the time--mostly at work! (And not overlooking in my own self!)
Reading about ASD this morning, I came across the information that according to the NIH, 1 in 5 Americans has some (any) mental illness, and 1 in 20 has severe mental illness. (ASD, in itself, is not a mental illness.)
I am sure that in my workplace those numbers are much higher, due to the deleterious effects of poverty, oppression, injustice, violence, noise and dirt, torn up families and communities, lack of education––and daily stuff that arises from those conditions, like using drugs to manage anxiety and eating fast food all the time.
It is all so hard and heavy, though as I say, there's a lot of fun and liveliness at work, and I want to be there, it's meaningful work--still it's a lot to carry.
If you have useful insights, experience, or reading suggestions about ASD (and friendship), they are very welcome. You can also e-me about the topic (frescadp), if you want.