Monday, July 30, 2012

Adults with Asperger's and Building Self-Concept

How do adults on the spectrum build their self-image?

I've been thinking recently about this: how my clients have built and maintain self-concept. Most of us use relationships to some extent to gather information about ourselves and build self-image.  Ongoing relationships help maintain and develop self-image.  This is a healthy process (to the extent the relationships are healthy), and a normal part of development.

Development teaches us that the reciprocity of early relationships is the first step in building identity.  It is crucial to bonding and attachment - that seems obvious.  If an infant has an "attuned" caregiver, s/he learns basic trust; that is, if needs are expressed, they are largely met.  This starts immediately after birth: the infant cries, expressing distress.  The infant is then cared for appropriately (whether that means being fed, changed, rocked, etc).  Over time, these reciprocal experiences teach the infant, then toddler, then child, then adolescent, that relationships with people are sources of safety and nurturing.  We learn, as a by-product, that we are worth this safety and nurturing.

What happens, then, when the infant on the spectrum attempts to enter into this exchange? I can think of lots of ways the system may get disrupted.  For instance, many parents recall that their babies (later diagnosed with a spectrum disorder) were inconsolable - obviously physically uncomfortbale, but only able to be soothed sporadically and unpredictably.  Other parents recall babies who didn't cry at all - who seemed to lack the interest in communcation.  Rather than express the need for caregiving, many of these young ones turn to self-soothing.  In some ways they seem almost autonomous from the start - instead of wanting to be rocked to sleep, they rock themselves; instead of playing peek-a-boo with a parent, they flap their hands alone.

If a child is uncomfortable  in a way that cannot be interpreted or soothed by a caregiver, the consequences for attachment can be serious.  I'm not sure many of my clients have found relationships soothing, though they do crave them.  Many Aspie adults I see seem to have given up on bringing their distress to others for relief.  Of course this contributes to self-sufficiency, but also to loneliness, especially when life or feelings are overwhelming.  Their strategy, then, is to keep life and feelings from becoming overwhelming in the first place....leaving their partners wondering why they don't jump in to participate in stressful conversations or share emotional space with people they find unpredictable.

But think about it - what if you couldn't lean on others when the going gets tough?  What if you couldn't make your needs understood in order to get what you need?  What if, instead, you were scolded, mocked or rejected? This may sound dramatic, but think of the engineer who truly does not know how to clean a bathroom, or the programmer who always seems to say the wrong thing.  Over time these experiences teach the opposite of emotional reciprocity.  Rather, they teach that interactions and relationships are often sources of pain.

The first step for healing for adults on the spectrum, then, is often establishing a reciprocal relationship - with self.  I know this sounds corny, but it's true.  If I cannot establish a compassionate and attuned relationship with myself, I'm going to have a very difficult time communicating my needs to a partner.  And partners are often desperate to be of help.  When interdependency does not develop, they are left feeling ineffective, or worse, inadequate.  This contributes to the desperation and rage I see in sessions, where each partner feels shut out, but for very different reasons.

Back to reciprocal relationship with self.  We all must become "attuned caregivers" to our selves.  If we have missed this opportunity in childhood, for whatever the reason, we must develop this skill in adulthood.  The first step of self-care is noticing our internal states, so that we can begin to establish a routine of awareness of self.  For adults on the spectrum this is often new.

If you or your partner has difficulty finding solace in relationships, you're not alone.  You can learn to tune into your own emotional states and find healthy ways to meet your needs.  You can learn to articulate what you feel and ask for what you need.  Relationships with other human beings can become sources of support and love.  I think it's never too late to establish new ways of attaching to others.

22 comments:

  1. Over time these experiences teach the opposite of emotional reciprocity. Rather, they teach that interactions and relationships are often sources of pain. -- This is absolutely true, for Aspies of both genders. The typical reaction to this state is to enter a phase of "fine, the world is so convinced that I'm a bitch/jerk, and nothing I can do will convince them otherwise, therefore I might as well *be* a bitch/jerk." Once that cycle begins, it's difficult - but not impossible - to break out of.

    Two of the major contributors to our problems with neuro-typical people stem from a) alexythemia and b) meltdowns. Alexythemia is our difficulty identifying our emotions and putting them into words; for many of us, it's much easier for us to tell you what we're thinking, than what we're feeling. When working with other people with AS, I always ask "what's on your mind?" rather than "what are you feeling?" The other problem is meltdowns. The tv show Sherlock impressed the heck out of me by depicting an Asperger's-type meltdown very accurately, complete with the usual neuro-typical reaction. To look at the scene through an Aspie's eyes: The alexythemic person has chosen to trust his NT friend and open up to him, letting his NT friend see emotions that he's not accustomed to sharing, and is having trouble vocalising. His NT friend, however, tells him that he's over-reacting, not being rational (confirming the AS-like person's deepest fears), shutting him down, then shutting him out. The AS-like person reacts with hostility that is - to an Aspie viewer - quite understandable: He feels shut down, invalidated, and mocked. And then, just to make it even worse, he is blamed.

    This sort of situation happens to AS people all the time, so we can relate to this scene keenly. To an AS person, this type of NT response just confirms to them that people are not to be trusted and that opening up is the wrong thing to do. Quite often, the AS person is then expected to apologise for their behaviour, to which the AS person quite confidently feels "It won't happen again" - because they will never confide in that person again. Or anyone.

    Understanding about alexythemia and how to handle a meltdown properly are key things for NT partners of AS people. It really doesn't take much effort; what it really takes is patience and respect. An AS person may have difficulty verbalising their emotions but that doesn't render them invalid, but that is the message we receive, over and over and over.

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  2. I don't see where, after having all these "negative" experiences unsuccessfully interacting with non-autistic people, that any sort of "healing" needs to take place. I see it as a lesson learned -- stay away from people because we are incompatible. I am very comfortable being all alone, not trying to make friends, never networking, being introverted, and withdrawn. It is a very peaceful life this way, for me. To "heal" me would ruin that peace.

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  3. Thank you for the great post on this. Adults with Aspergers are not victims, but they can be victimized. I hope my adult son partners with someone as interested in understanding him as you are. Thanks. Andrea

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  4. Well for people on the spectrum who DO wants relationships this blog is a ray of hope IMHO.

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  5. ... You can learn to tune into your own emotional states and find healthy ways to meet your needs. You can learn to articulate what you feel and ask for what you need. Relationships with other human beings can become sources of support and love. I think it's never too late to establish new ways of attaching to others.

    That is encouraging, but I have no idea how to decide what I am actually feeling. I prefer holding back my demands because I can never be sure what I actually want and demanding the wrong things can get harmful in a relationship.

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  6. My husband (Aspie) says he feels like the second commenter (the long comment). What am I (NT) supposed to do? How am I to help him (and myself) when anything I do is likely to hurt him and yet he can't tell me? I'm frustrated because I love him very much, but neither of us are getting much of what we need in the relationship. And when I try to talk about this, he shuts down and I hear nothing until he sends me an e-mail saying he feels like the second commenter. I feel like the *bitch/jerk* but I don't know how to change things. I am perfectly capable of finding "healthy ways to meet your needs," but the question is then -- why be in a relationship?

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  7. I've certainly been burned seeking help, understanding, etc. from people who don't understand AS or me. Repeatedly, though not always, I've gotten the message that when I need help, it's not there. Or that I'll be scolded or negatively judged for seeking help or disclosing my situation at all. Men in particular aren't supposed to express weakness or vulnerability in our society, and even in liberal Seattle, I find that doing so brings hurtful responses. I don't filter myself on Facebook to build a commercial persona; I just express myself. It took me a good while to realize that's not what most people do.

    In college I went through an assertiveness training that I think has really helped me identify and express my emotions appropriately. But people still make assumptions based on my facial expressions that are totally bizarre to me. Because I may only express my emotions verbally (explicitly) and not with my face, they assume I'm robotic and emotionless. In fact, I'm quite sensitive and need praise, recognition, etc. to balance out the criticism, but I don't get it. At least not from the people I'm supposed to get it from.

    In dating, it seems like women want men who are sensitive to and supportive of them emotionally, but not the reverse--men are supposed to be self-sufficient.

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  8. Thanks for another insightful post. I am grateful for the assistance as I try to understand my AS partner.

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  9. EXCELLENT POSTING. You really understand Aspergers in adult partners and I am sure I am not the only one who appreciates your work. Thank you for your insights, as they have been very helpful to us. My Aspergers husband is a wonderful guy.

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  10. you should really write a book. we couples have nowhere to go for help except books that tell us it cannot work. i will be on the list for buying it first! or do some kind of workshop that we can all sit in on. or a talk. please! corine

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  11. THANK YOU. I found your link by accident and we get so much encouragement from your little posts. I hope you will continue to write them. My husband and I feel better just knowing there is a professional out there who gets it. But too bad you're not in NYC!

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  12. GREAT POST ON ASD. THANK YOU FOR HELPING US KEEP OUR MARRIAGE TOGETHER. YOUR WORK HAS HAD A MAJOR IMPACT ON OUR RELATIONSHIP.

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  13. Very interesting. Where's the book?

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  14. "The first step of self-care is noticing our internal states, so that we can begin to establish a routine of awareness of self."

    How? In concrete terms.

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  15. My request is the same as the anonymous poster above, who asks for more specific tools for connecting with self.

    Although sometimes I really wonder if there's anything there to connect with. I mean, I'm aware of my internal state, most of the time. I just don't seem to feel as strongly about things as others. Someone described it as having a diamond instead of a prism. I am never quite awash in the emotional spectrum, and I can't break it down to individual emotions. From personal experience, channeling emotion directly to some kind of visual or musical or kinesthetic output without trying to analyse it helps. But then there are days where this just feels like such an uphill battle and that I'll never get there (i.e. being able to feel and connect with people about what I'm feeling) and why can't the world just accept that this is the way I am and that I'm fine the way I am, and I'll find my own way of living that works for me.

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  16. Thank you for this beautiful post. You somehow helped me understand my partner better. We are really trying very hard to make our relationship work.

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  17. This is the kind of manual that needs to be given and not the random misinformation that's at the other blogs. Appreciate your sharing this best posting.

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  18. A wonderful and unique articles, I love reading and I am always searching for informative information like this! Thank you

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  19. Wow amazing, Nice content I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion Thanks to sharing thanks!

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  20. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful post. Very much informative post. Hope to see such kind of post more and more

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  21. You can learn to tune into your own emotional states and find healthy ways to meet your needs.
    I've been meeting my own emotional needs since birth, that will never change.
    You can learn to articulate what you feel and ask for what you need. Relationships with other human beings can become sources of support and love.
    I've been trying to figure that one out my entire life, so this oversimplification is just that. Pardon me if that sounds angry; decades' worth of social experience has yet to instill how to cultivate relationships at all, let alone as sources of love and support.

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