It’s sometimes said of us on the spectrum that we are anti-social, that we cannot form communities or groups or associations. I think the formation of autism rights and/or social groups run by and for those on the spectrum, both online and face to face, proves this wrong.
However, we do have one particular problem that I believe needs addressing, and that is our lack of conflict resolution skills. Put simply, when things do go wrong between us, all too often we don’t know how to mend them. Instead things tend to spiral out of control very fast, with furious exchanges of insults, huge dramas, ‘trolling’ behaviour, and acrimonious splits. We end up reeling away hurt and confused and angry, or ‘bad-mouthing’ our opponents to others. Of course this sometimes happens between NTs too, but we seem particularly prone to having small misunderstandings or disagreements spiral quickly and devastatingly into huge ones.
The reasons for this are complex. One big cause is that we have often been the recipient of decades of hostility, put-downs, sneers and criticism from NTs – often ‘out of nowhere’, for reasons that we simply don’t understand. We have become over-sensitised and hyper-vigilant, and can sometimes assume insult where none is intended – or angst endlessly over whether it was or not. Add in our difficulty (even in our more ‘mature’ years) with reading others’ intent, problems with emotional regulation, the crippling effects of the ‘autistic shame’ I have written of before, a myriad of other stresses in our lives, and then put a group of us in a situation where one of us says something that inadvertently ‘strikes a match’ on our tender souls… and you have a recipe for a huge blow-up.
So how to solve this, or prevent already bad situations deteriorating further? What works for NTs often will not work for us, but I want to list a few points to remember that might help.
1) Autistics don’t do ‘subtexts’. If we say someone is fat, unemployed or has a big nose, we usually mean they are fat, unemployed or have a big nose. End of. NTs, however, tend to load apparently simple statements with multiple layers of ‘subtext’ or ‘hidden’ meanings. The problem is, having spent most of our life around NTs, we’ve frequently become hyper-sensitised to these subtexts, even if we’re not sure what they are. But coming from another autistic, chances are that there aren’t any. Remembering this might prevent at least some misunderstandings. Ask for clarification, before you assume ‘hidden’ insult.
2) The other person may just be having a bad day. Sometimes people just want to let off steam, and have a general grumble, and their comments aren’t directed at you at all. Or even if they are, it could just be you’ve hit on what’s a sore point for them. Everyone has their own issues and ongoing problems, which probably have nothing to do with you. Remembering this can stop your own issues and sore points being triggered.
3) Make ‘I’ statements, not ‘you’ statements. This is something I learnt in an NT communications skills group years ago. It basically means we stick to describing our own feelings, thoughts, etc, and not resort to insults or generalisations. So, for instance, we might say “when you said ------, I felt -------, -------- and --------” (the ‘I felt’ bit is very important), rather than lashing out with “how dare you, you --------, you are so -------” etc, etc. It isn’t about bottling things up - we communicate, we share our feelings and get them out, but without personal attacks on the other person. Hopefully, they will respond in kind. If not, at least you know you acted with dignity and integrity.
4) If necessary, agree to disagree. We don’t all have to have the same opinions or viewpoints on anything, not even autism. Despite our common experiences as autistics, we often have hugely differing personal stories. The world would be a very boring place if we were all the same! I have friends who have different political or spiritual beliefs to mine, are of a different generation, live in different countries, or come from different cultural backgrounds. It’s possible to believe different things, and still respect each other, like each other, and get along. Or to simply avoid those who you can’t get along with. It’s not the end of the world, either, if you find you simply don’t much like any given individual, but still have to put up with them in your group or political cause or social circle. (Irritating maybe, but not the end of the world!!)
4) Learn to let it go. Sometimes you’ll reach a point where it’s obvious that continuing discussion about a disagreement or upset is only making things worse, not better. Or you’ve talked it through with the person or people concerned (sometimes best done ‘behind the scenes’ through private messages or conversations), and either resolved it as best you can, or just agreed to disagree. At that point, it’s time to drop the subject and move on. Bitch about it to yourself or your closest friends in private if need be, but not in the open group, forum or Facebook page. We do like to perseverate, but sometimes enough is enough.
If we’re going to build a fully effective community and social movement, we need to learn to resolve our differences far better. Back in the day, I was involved in the feminist and anti-racism movements in New Zealand, and watched many groups implode or fall apart because they couldn’t handle disagreements. Sometimes this considerably harmed the movement’s ability to achieve its aims. I would hate to see us go the same way. So I’m hoping this little bit helps.