Somehow I managed to compress roughly eight hours’ worth of work into about an hour and a half, followed by another hour of wrangling with technological glitches, and as a result, my brain is a little clunky. So, now is probably not the time to be making confessions, but…
I have a confession to make: I don’t handle criticism well. This isn’t earth-shattering or revolutionary; it’s a common tale among the Asperger’s/autistic community. It’s also a common accusation that gets lobbed against us fairly frequently. Today, I’m going to tell my side of the story.
Criticism comes in several different forms, with several different intentions. There’s the true blue, plain-Jane criticism that makes liberal use of inflammatory terms, making no effort to be tactful. This can come from practically any source, including dysfunctional parents, impatient teachers, uninformed caregivers, and so on. It can also come from our peers, especially classmates.
Examples include phrases like “you’re so slow”, “you’re too fat”, “you’re stupid”, and the like. They leave burn marks inside, burn marks that are easily recognizable by us, but invisible to others.
The intentions behind these may vary, but there’s usually anger or frustration involved, and the grenade-launcher usually lacks competency, understanding, and/or patience.
Obviously, I don’t handle these well. The inflammation flares up before I can check it at the prefrontal cortical door, and the reaction is instant. Luckily, they’re mostly a thing of the past, as long as we don’t have frequent contact with dysfunctional parents and the other people in our lives have either grown up or fallen off our radar.
There are a few exceptions: dysfunctional significant other-ships and medical atmospheres. When a significant other labels us as lazy or criticizes us for our appearance or lack of activity, or when a medical professional claims that there’s nothing wrong with you, “it’s all in your head”, “it’s ‘just’ depression”, or “it’s ‘just’ anxiety”, and so on, this is both inflammatory and devastating. In essence, they’re minimizing our reality by saying (in so many or not so many words) that we’re “overreacting”, “making it up”, “making a big deal out of nothing”, “faking it”, “making excuses”, or “milking it”.
It might be the adult version, and a bit more subtle, but it’s inflammatory and it burns just the same.
Another type of criticism is teasing, usually coming from our peers, and again, typically classmates. Name-calling and bullying are nestled under this type.
Examples of this type include put-downs such as “you’re a nerd”, “you’re so lame”, “four-eyes”, “teacher’s pet”, and other too-familiar tag lines, usually hollered at us on the schoolyard playground.
The intentions behind this obnoxiousness are more simple and comparatively more benign (although that doesn’t mean that they don’t hurt): to put themselves up by putting you down. Proverbial bonus points are scored (by the source of the put-down, not the recipient, of course) in front of larger crowds.
Naturally, I don’t respond to these well, either. Fortunately, again, these comments, too, generally became a thing of the past once I graduated from junior high and entered high school.
And then there’s another kind of criticism: The Veiled Criticism or Suggestion. It’s sneaky and mischievous, but not in a charming, humorous way. It may or may not burn (that varies), but it can get under one’s skin and stay there, like the other types.
Examples include seemingly-helpful tidbits like “you should do [x] with your hair/wear makeup/get out more (etc)”, “have you tried…?”, “you’re perfectly capable of (something they think you should do but aren’t doing)”, and so on.
The sources of these tired, old “helpful hints” are usually people we care about and vice versa, and the intentions are usually innocent and genuine.
Thus, my reaction to them will vary, depending on what is being suggested and who is making the suggestion.
If the suggestion is something that I hadn’t thought of and doesn’t cause my neurology to knee-jerk and recoil in response, then I’ll actually consider the suggestion and be thankful for it. They’re just trying to help, and the suggestion probably actually helps, likely improving my life in some way. That’s what they were after in making the suggestion, and that’s what resulted. Problem solved, case closed, no harm, no foul.
Sometimes, people close to me make suggestions that don’t sit so well. These people may or may not know better. The Irrational (or is it possibly the Super-Rational?) Me believes that they should indeed know better than to make a suggestion like that; after all, they’re close to me and they know me well! Irrational/Super-Rational Me figures that if the person knows me that well, and I’m not already doing what they’re suggesting, then maybe I simply can’t do it. I’m a relatively intelligent, competent person, so if I’m not already doing something, then there’s probably a valid and sound reason(?).
When someone makes a suggestion that doesn’t jive with me, something inside initiates an immediate negative reflex that (I think) may even be outwardly visible. I think my face changes. I think my expression darkens. I think my face gets red or hot.
I may or may not be mad. I can’t always tell if I am or not. But I know that it probably looks that way to other people.
Because nobody quite understands. Sometimes I feel like nobody understands what I can and can’t do on a given day. They may not understand that what they just said, my brain interpreted as a “slam” or put-down. Some suggestions are neurologically interpreted (by my system) to be critical, to infer that I’m not competent without help, that I’m not intelligent on my own, that I somehow don’t have my life together, that somehow I’m not quite good enough, that I don’t quite measure up.
The person may be trying to help, but the Aspergian/autistic brain has a hell of a storage bank. Storage of old memories, old tapes, old feelings. Too much of that storage, piled high inside us, cluttering our brains, interfering with who we really are and who we want to become. Knocking down our potential, tying our wrists behind our backs, partially paralyzing our minds, whispering things in our ears that hold us back from realizing our potential, whatever that is anymore.
We sequester our storage heap as best we can, with time (and possibly therapy) as our only asset(s). But every time someone brings up a sensitive topic (even without realizing that it’s sensitive), all of that time is stripped away, like ripping a strongly-adhered band-aid off of a sensitive-skinned hairy arm. The scab we had so meticulously constructed suddenly peels off, and the old wound we had tried to forget bleeds freshly.
Since I’m biologically female, I’ll use the suggestion of wearing makeup as a theoretical example.
Let’s also say that mom is codependent and insecure, and makes sure that she has makeup on before she leaves the bathroom attached to the master bedroom.
Let’s say that the female child has acute perception, and has subconsciously made a connection between the mom’s insecurity and the desire to wear makeup.
Before leaving for a family get-together on a major holiday (such as Mother’s Day or Christmas), the mom attempts to put makeup on the female child (who is anywhere from 10-12 years old). Child is sent the message that she, too, must wear makeup to be accepted, and that she is unacceptable without it. Child, being Aspergian/autistic, bucks up against that notion, wanting to be her own person and become comfortable in doing so.
Although the mom is not the pushy, loud, or domineering type (thank goodness), mom gets her way: the child is now sporting blush and natural-hued lipstick. Child despises the way this feels on her face, but, well, she’s eager to please and realizes that she’s untrained yet in how to be a full-fledged woman,. Since she’s not yet aware that there’s any other way to be, she assumes that her particular parental guidance is the only option. It’s all she knows. In fact, it’s all either of them (the mom and the child) knows.
Child grows up to be an adult female, but still never wears makeup. She doesn’t even own makeup. Now-adult female meets with her parents on a weekend visit, and the father, who has always been very…conservative with compliments, exclaims how good her skin looks. Yay! The makeup wasn’t necessary after all. Because she just got a compliment on her skin, without so much as a once-over with foundation or a dusting of blush. Vindicated!
But then, That Time of the Month rolls around, and Now-adult female develops a small, temporary breakout on her forehead. It might consist of only a few pimples, nothing gross or shocking, but they’re there, even if only for a few days. She sees her dad again, on another routine get-together.
The dad, lightly and conversationally, says something along the lines of maybe she could use a little makeup. Followed by a semi-compliment “you’d be a knockout” or something similar.
Now-adult female recoils. Why? For several reasons, that’s why.
First, she inwardly rails against the idea that a female’s self-worth is dependent upon how physically beautiful she is. The phrase “beauty is only skin-deep” flashes into her autistic mind, and her Uber-Logical Brain says, “dude–everybody knows that phrase. And everybody claims to agree with it! Why doesn’t anyone actually follow it??”
Second, she is already doing the best she can, trying hard to keep up, keep her head above water, dog-paddle through life. She already wears so many hats and bears so much responsibility. She’s a pillar in several communities, the co-administrator/owner of a business, the physically-able-bodied partner of a disabled person. She’s found a third end upon which to burn the candle and she’s doing it, dammit! And yet…she’s still not good enough. She didn’t quite succeed in all areas. She still needs improvement. There’s still yet one more thing that’s expected of her. She could still “do better”.
Third, shouldn’t her very family love her for who she is, no matter who she looks like??
Fourth, there’s a slight streak of superficial concern – if she’s only in her 30s now and being told to wear makeup already, isn’t it only going to get “worse” (by conventional society’s standards) from here? What will people say (either to her face or behind her back) when she’s in her 40s? Her 50s? Is she going to lose credibility because she “fails” to (decides not to) wear the female equivalent of “war-paint”?
Fifth, the dad is suggesting something that she had already done (not by choice) as a child. Her brain kicks up a fuss at the very idea of repeating the unpleasant experience. It hollers, Been there, done that. Hated every minute of it. So why would I do it again?? Why do I even have to? I shouldn’t have to!
She fends off the suggestion diplomatically by gently-but-assertively stating that her skin reacts to makeup and it would actually make her skin worse. Dad, a loving man who, alas, is excessively preoccupied with appearances, certainly wouldn’t want that for his daughter, so he accepts and says, “oh, OK” in a manner that is very peaceful and compassionate, without a hint of snark or passive-aggression.
Now-adult female sighs with relief inside her head. Conversation closed; no argument.
Now-adult female gets together with a friend who has different interests than she does, one of which includes fashion. And suggests makeup.
Here we go again. The entire internal cognitive, memory, and neurological processes begin again inside now-adult female, except now, the encounter with the dad (and all of its accompanying emotions, worries, and stress) is added cumulatively to the process, adding even more stress and emotional discomfort to this conversation.
I realize that I’ve been speaking from the biologically female point of view–and thus to a biologically female audience–but I don’t want to leave the males out. It happens to them, too. It might be even tougher in some ways for an autistic male, because the neurotypical world expects them to be even more extroverted. A female’s introversion is a bit more (conventionally) “acceptable”, because females in general are assumed to be more passive, and there’s room in the world for a girl/woman who is “shy”. An autistic female can blend in with that population segment much easier than can a male. A male is expected to be more outgoing, so an autistic male begins to stick out fairly quickly. This is especially true if he’s not into sports or hunting, or any of the other rah-rah stereotypically male activities.
We, the people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, have been accused of “flying into an instant rage” when we’re criticized. But, to sum things up, I think that’s because of a few possible phenomena:
Neurological sensitivity that picks up everything and won’t let it go
Emotional extra-sensitivity that allows peoples’ words to cut to the quick, and a tendency to take them literally, even if they were said for another purpose
Strong systemizing abilities that link up past events with each other and with present ones across our lifespan, making connections with what people are saying now to trauma we endured previously
Long memories that accumulate additional memories and play over and over again (often against our will)
Strict inner value systems that compel us to give most things in life our entire efforts
Constant energy expenditures already put forth in order to survive in a world that does not bend much for autistic people, and we’re tired already; we’ve been trying
A lack of support felt in life in general, from the world in general, and the last thing we need is to be surrounded by people who continue to put us down
A hair-trigger neurological response that we can’t always “check” before it escapes
Sometimes-fuzzy understanding of what is actually meant by other peoples’ words
So yeah, if we seem a little touchy at times, especially to criticism, please understand that there’s probably a lot going on behind the scenes that you may not even be (and probably aren’t) aware of. Chances are that our recoil-response is not solely directed at you. In fact, it might not even be directed toward you personally at all; it may simply be a wincing at a painful memory that had been conjured up by an innocent or well-intentioned suggestion.
If you really do have a constructive suggestion to make, just watch our faces and really listen to the first words we respond with. If the answer is even remotely negative, let it drop–immediately.
If our faces scrunch up, we might either be giving it some genuine consideration, or we might be trying to figure out how to formulate a tactful declination of the suggestion in a way that won’t hurt your feelings (i.e., we really are trying to “check” those responses at the brain-door before they slip out, too bluntly). If our initial thoughts escape before we can filter them and translate them into conventionally “acceptable” phrasing, please don’t take it the wrong way.
Often, suggestions are useful and welcome! Do try to proceed with caution, picking your battles and choosing your words carefully. We can’t stand feeling like we’re being picked at; the world already does that to us enough–sometimes subtly/subliminally, and sometimes overtly and obnoxiously. Never underestimate the powers and reach of our thought processes; chances are, we’ve already thought of something, and if it’s something conventional (such as sports for biological males or makeup/fashion for biological females), we’ve probably already given the topic extensive consideration and deliberation, finally ending up at the point at which we stand.
But, speaking for myself, the way to this Aspie/autistic’s heart is to preface the suggestion with disclaimers like “I have a neat idea” or something similar, and then watch me like a hawk for the initial response. Then give me time to process, especially if the suggestion you’re about to make is verbal. Then, be amicable to whatever my answer may be. It may be no; in that case, don’t take it personally; it’s not a personal affront to you. If the answer is yes, however, rejoice! It’s probably a bigger moment for me to actually be able to accept someone’s suggestion, because to do so is a rarer instance for me than having your suggestion accepted by someone probably is for you. 🙂
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(Image Credit: Android Jones)