Sunday, 4 March 2012

Aspie Reactions to Criticism

Most aspies seem to really, really struggle with personal criticism. I’ve seen it mooted that this is because of our lack of Theory of Mind. I feel it’s more complex than that, and so I want to list here some possible reasons for why we react so badly to criticism.

1) Being Emotionally Hyper-Sensitive. It’s true that many of us, despite our lack of awareness of the non-verbal stuff, are actually acutely, and almost psychically, sensitive to emotional ‘vibes’ – and if hostility is coming our way, we can feel overwhelmed, bludgeoned, and extremely stressed by it.

2) Not Being Able To Predict It. Because we are so poor at that non-verbal stuff, and often ignorant of the more complex social nuances, we’re not able to see frustration or anger building up in others. So criticism seems to just ‘come out of nowhere’, throwing us off balance and uncertain of how to react to it. The overwhelming feeling is “what the hell did I do?” We can then spend hours, days or even years going over past interactions, analysing every word we said or didn’t say, every last little action – and still not get to the heart of it. This process can be extremely stressful, damaging to our self-esteem, and in the long run lead to withdrawal from further interaction with others, because we just don’t know when and where criticism is going to come from. The more indirect people are in their criticisms, and the more they prevaricate about speaking to us about what’s on their minds, the worse this problem is.

3) Not Knowing If The Criticism Is Valid. Because we’re such poor judges of others, we often don’t know how to evaluate their criticisms. Is the person is just having a bad day and lashing out? Are they just a nasty person in general? Is it simply a misunderstanding on their part of something you’ve said or done? Is it a lack of understanding of what having Aspergers means? Or has there been some real error on our part? How seriously should we take these criticisms? We just don’t know. Once again, the more indirect and vague the criticisms are, the worse this problem gets, and the more stress we experience (and the lower our self-esteem plummets), and usually there is no resolution for either side.

4) We Don’t Know How To Put It Right. If we’re not totally sure of the above, there’s no way we can know how to react. Should we just apologise, even if we aren’t sure what the problem really is, or don’t feel we did anything wrong? Should we try and explain ourselves? Stick up for ourselves? And if so, how? On the other hand, if there is something about ourselves that needs changing (eg the way we approach others), what do we change it to? And how? How can we be any different than what we are? We often just don’t know HOW to change, without specific guidance from others, that is usually not forthcoming. We’re expected to ‘just know’, and our lack of the correct behaviour presumed to be sheer arrogance or bloody-mindedness on our part. The hostility levels ramp up, and our distress increases with it.

There’s no easy way out of these situations. For myself, I finally came to realise the only way I can handle criticism is to –
a) make it plain that I don’t understand, and keep asking questions until I do (or people’s patience runs out!). It goes against the grain in some ways, to do this, and I know I risk being thought stupid, weird, rude, stubborn, rigid, crazy, or whatever, but I don’t care anymore, or at least not enough to stop. It’s necessary in order to preserve my own sanity.
b) at some point, when I’ve processed things as much as I can, and I start going round in mental circles, I have to ‘draw a line’ under it all, let go of it, and move on. It’s not easy, but I’ve accepted that many people will never understand (or even want to understand in many cases) where I’m ‘coming from’, may not like, tolerate or want to know me. So be it. I prefer to get along with people whenever possible, but you can’t win them all. Many times, I just have to accept less-than-perfect resolutions to any difficulties with others. It stinks, but it’s the way the world works. NTs don’t necessarily all get along perfectly, or handle criticism well either.

I’d be interested to know how other aspies/auties handle criticism, and what does - or doesn’t - work for them.


  1. Oh, dear God, Penni, you've done it again--spoken for me. This post is the story of my life. They're going to engrave that on my tombstone: "But what did I DO?" Unfortunately I don't have any hints or tips, because I've *never* figured this one out. But I really, really thank you for posting it

  2. True man! story of my life too! you have actually spoken on my behalf. thanks dude!

  3. OH... MY... GOSH...

    SO WELL EXPRESSED! UGH! I almost cried while reading this.

  4. To say nothing of how the "performance review" cycle fails an aspie.

    1. Or the 'observations' I had to undergo ad nauseam. I was excellent at my work (they said), yet never quite was 'excellent' when observed. Funny that.

  5. I've been told I am hypersensitive to criticism. I believe at least for me it's that our public schools overemphasize being right and not making mistakes, by punishing and humiliating students for mistakes. So those of us with forms of Autism tending to have oversensitive amygaldas, learn to associate being wrong with fear of punishment. In my experience this lead to thinking, "If I'm wrong people will humiliate me and authority figures will punish me, I can't be wrong at all costs."

    This is why it's been hard for me to accept criticism. It's been associated with feelings of fear and helplessness. Just consider that we have a punishment in our schools called detention, where children are held against their will, forbidden to go home. I watched a documentary about tactics used to increase fear in prisoners, one of them was telling the prisoner they'd never go home again. Now I'm imagining you're thinking, "It's only an hour long, how's that even comparable to something like Guantanamo Bay?" It's the idea that kids already are experiencing seperation anxiety from their parents. That telling them they can't see their parents creates obedience through fear. This might work on neurotypical children, but with kids on the Autism spectrum it creates nothing but fear and helplessness. This is why so many people on the Autism spectrum graduate with a post diagnosis of PTSD. They feel perfection means survival, it means they get to go home.

    Criticism brings back the fear that they've done something wrong and will be punished for it. I find most of the times I have a desperation to know what I did wrong so I can fix it. Or feel like apologizing and begging forgiveness. That sounds like the mindset of someone in an abusive relationship. Our schools have a history of emotionally abusing special needs students to a point they become submissive. It makes them easy targets for abuse, and prone to being involved in abusive relationships. When you've been taught being wrong means you're self-agency will be taken from you, that no matter how much you beg scream or cry it won't save you, you feel you have to be right.

    Let me share a story with you before I go. I was in 3rd grade, I had two teachers who held me after class for not being able to finish an assignment. I screamed and cried I wanted to go home, they laughed at me and said I couldn't. For those of you who are horror fans, remember the scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre where these two guys tied a girl to a chair at the dinner table, and laughed at her screaming to let her go? That's how this felt. I wanted to be a good girl, I couldn't finish the assignment. I was writing stuff I don't even know how I understood outside of having an experience like in The Butterfly Effect movie where an older version of myself took over. I said I wanted to die, to commit suicide. My best guess is I learned about that from seeing the video for Metallica's song One. I was in 3rd grade and terrified out of my mind I'd never see my parents again. This is the kind of thing they torture adults with. I can't even begin to understand how they thought this was okay, playing mind games on a child.

    That's when I learned perfection meant survival. That criticism was to be feared, and being wrong was unacceptable. It says alot I got more understanding from the creators of horror films regarding my fears than I ever got from school teachers. Until I saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a teen, I didn't realize just how wrong teachers treated me. Horror films taught me what was not okay, while school was teaching me abuse from authority figures should be accepted. It's remarkable that the fears of those with mental disabilities are so regularly invalidated they have to turn to horror films to find validation. That's why criticism is so hard to take for anyone on the Autism spectrum. They were raised to fear it instinctively.

    1. Jackie, this is undoubtedly true. I would not limit the damage to that done by schools either. Many others will criticise us throughout life, and it begins in childhood.

  6. I feel 'criticised' to 'death'. I wish 'they' would start looking at themselves sometime. 'They' are very good at finding fault with me but very slow at considering their own faults. I'm always blindsided by them. It always comes out of left field, as it were. They are experts at bullying me though, yet they can't discern even that.