April 7, 2020

Navigating Neurohighways: A Road Atlas for Exploring Autistic/Neurotypical Relationships

Most autistics find themselves in some kind of relationship with nonautistics, whether by design or by circumstance. Both sides can like, love, laugh, and loathe engaging with a partner whose organic wiring is different from their native wiring. It’s not wrong, flawed, correctable, or chideworthy; though, it might be confusing, frustrating, and maddening. It is simply different. Just like you can be right-handed or left-handed, you can have an autistic brain or a nonautistic one. 

Left-handed people and autistics, though, have a bit of a different perspective on the overly simplistic tone and implications of the inclusive-spirit of that statement. Neuro-equality is not a current reality. The NT wiring has set the standard by sheer outnumbering and overpowering autistics in the population. Unfortunately, this control has led to mischaracterizations, misunderstandings, and much worse when NTs attempt to interact with and understand the autistic mind. 

It is tempting to advise everyone to stay in their lane, their own little haven of neurodiversity. Otherwise, navigating neurohighways produces inevitable collisions: one side bashes the other for being ignorant and rigid and abusive; conversely, that side blames the other for not getting it or faking it or being overly emotional or for being rude. 

Asking autistics to think like nonautistics and nonautistics to think like autistics is not simply pointless and unfair. It’s impossible (and unsafe). Rather than switching to the “other side”, or forcing everyone to cram everyone in one lane, expansion of the neurohighways seems most reasonable and safe. 

What follows is an autopsy of classic nonautistic-autistic disagreement. We start with the interaction, embedding in the unspoken thoughts driving the dialogue. We follow this autopsy with immediate triage strategies for the most recent miscommunication as well as preventative, long-term care suggestions. It is the work of the latter that starts to excavate space for everyone on the neurodiversity highway. 

The following table displays the unspoken thoughts and feelings motivating the actions of both participants in the interaction.

Nonautistic Person’s ThinkingAutistic Person’s Thinking
Thinking: “This morning is awesome!”
Unaware that autistic person’s morning routine involved an empty kitchen, or that the austitic person started off frustrated/anxious because the routine was broken 
Thinking: "Why are they in the kitchen? I always have the kitchen to myself. If I just wait, they will go away?"
Thinking: “This is a great morning! Can’t wait to see my loved one” Unaware that the autistic person waited for the kitchen to empty and became more frustrated as they waitedGetting frustrated. Thinking: “The rest of my routine is getting further behind while I wait for the kitchen to clear.”
Thinking: “I’m so happy to see them this morning!” 
Provided a loving morning greeting; expressed genuine excitement for spending more time together
Thinking: "Why are they talking? It's too early for me to process this. This is why I prefer to do this alone."
Thinking: “Didn’t they hear me?” Excitement falteringThinking: “Ignore all noises to get back on routine”
Thinking: “I’ll repeat it louder to be heard and to amplify excitement”Thinking: "S$@&! That was loud! Now I'm anxious. Ugh! I'm gonna be anxious all morning now."
Thinking: “What the actual hell? There goes the morning excitement.”Thinking: "Seriously, why are they yelling this early in the morning?!"
Thinking: “I feel attacked for expressing love and I’m going to defend myself.”Thinking: "That was totally yelling!"
Not understanding that the nonautistic was just trying to be nice.
Thinking: ”And, now, I’m being corrected, scolded, and kicked out. What the actual heck?”Thinking "I'm still shaking from that. Holy cow. What the actual heck?"
Thinking: “This is my house, so I will defend myself.” Thinking: "Working from home means startling people in the kitchen?"
Thinking: “Rude. Just rude.”Thinking: “I just want to get on with my routine.”
Thinking: “I am pissed.” 
Leaves feeling annoyed, rejected, and angry all because of greeting a loved one.
Thinking: "Oh crap, now what did I do?"
Thinking from another room: “This argument isn’t done. I will need an apology.”Thinking "Now they're mad and me AND I'm anxious, GREAT! This is gonna be a GREAT day!" 
Feeling anxious, upset, and confused.

For Right Now: How To Fix This CURRENT Situation

To the autistic: Well, that didn’t go as planned. So, now what?
First, restore your routine.

  • Forgive yourself for events you cannot control.
  • Forgive your loved one for messing up your routine.
  • Restore your emotional equilibrium as much as possible. 

Second, reach out. Before three hours pass, text your loved one: “This morning did not go well. Can we talk about tonight at 8PM?” To prepare for this conversation, 

  • Be able explain the core issue for you, especially as it pertains to your autism.
  • Prepare to hear information of an emotional nature that may upset you or confuse you. 
  • Prepare to offer an apology for hurting feelings, even if you did not do so on purpose.

To the nonautistic: Yes, they upset you. So, now what?

First, calm down and ask yourself, “Does X normally try to hurt me?” Remind yourself this is likely a miscommunication. 

  • Identify the components of the interaction that upset you.
  • Do not exaggerate or incorporate past arguments into this miscommunication.

Second, ponder: “When has something like this happened before?” 

  • Prepare to ask questions about the other person’s actions. 
  • Prepare to communicate why you did what you did. 
  • Prepare to communicate what you wanted to happen.
  • Know and check your assumptions, literally: Explain your assumptions and ask if they are correct

Third, wait for them to reach out. Please, just wait. 

For the Future: How To Avoid This Type of Situation

To the autistic: 

  • Expect nonautistics to speak when they are present - it’s a thing they do, unless you tell them otherwise.
  • Discuss what parts of the day you are used to having time alone BEFORE they happen. See if you can arrange to still have some alone time during these times. It’s important to still have this time to be able to do things like prepare for the day or to decompress.
  • Be willing to explain your routines, preferably during a calm time when routines aren’t broken.
  • Teach your loved ones about the routines that are important to you, ask them to give as much notice as possible when routines change.
  • Try to understand that nonautistics tend to need more physical attention and reassurance in times of stress; this can often take the form of needing to spend more time together. 
  • Talk about your stress reaction, what it looks like and what you need during those times.
  • Plan a code word that grants alone time in a manner that will not be misconstrued as “rude” or “dismissive” or “immature”.
  • Be patient.

To the nonautistic:

  • Be upfront about your needs and expectations, especially if they have changed due to change in circumstances.
  • Allow the autistic a little extra space, especially if you are stuck working from home together. What may seem (to you) to be a great excuse to spend more time together can feel to them like a prison sentence. Nothing personal, but many autistics deeply value their personal time and their routines. 
  • Try to understand that the abrupt changes caused by (very much needed) stay at home orders and working from home is a massive intrusion on the sacred time they have carved out within their day to be able to mentally prepare and decompress. They likely need this time even more right now.
  • Be willing to learn about the autistic’s routines, they are exceedingly important to them. 
  • Autistics need some extra time to adjust to change in both circumstances and routine.
  • Give them some time to wake up in the morning, specifically consider waiting for them to initiate conversation with you.
  • Do not take comments personally, especially if you are upset; and avoid responding when upset.
  • Be patient.

We hope this post is the first in a series that seeks to explore and improve NT-autistic communication and relationships.

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