I’m going to try not to get too graphic here, for obvious reasons. I don’t want to kick off the week with a megadose of negativity or trigger a meltdown or shutdown for anyone. After all, that’s not exactly conducive to fostering mental health, nor is it the true spirit of my little ongoing informal Mental Health Monday series. That said, those who are particularly sensitive or feeling fragile today might want to tread somewhat carefully. ❤
I have read countless stories and brief anecdotes of the various forms of abuse that are easily recognized as such. Thus, I don’t really want to go into too much depth about that here. That’s not to shove anything under the rug, remain silent and unaware, or slight/ignore those who have suffered in any way. It’s just that those stories have been written by the people whose stories they were to tell.
Today, I would like to shed some light on a few “other” forms of what I believe to be abuse. The tricky part is that I will probably encounter some disagreement, because this area is relatively unexplored and these actions don’t necessarily fit into the stereotypical, clear-cut-and-dry definitions.
I should also disclose at this time that I’m in a lot of physical pain, and for me, physical pain often interferes with my cognitive function, so my words might be a little slow or clunky in coming. 🙂
Today I’m going to discuss one of two caregiver behaviors that I believe are subtle forms of abuse–perhaps unintended abuse, but abuse nonetheless.
- Restricting access to “special interests” too readily, which is the topic of today’s post, and
- Restricting, criticizing, or attempting to stifle “stimming” activities, a topic for a future post
Before I begin, let’s define the basic vocabulary: what exactly is abuse?
Good ol’ Dictionary.com to the rescue. The aspect of the definition applicable to our purposes is:
“to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way”
HealthyPlace.com goes further yet, offering a definition of emotional abuse:
“any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth”
HealthyPlace.com lists a few examples of emotional abuse (I’m issuing an obvious Content Warning/Advisory on this part for sensitive individuals). ❤
I’ve selected a few of those that are especially relevant to this discussion:
- Making an individual fear that they will not receive the food or care they need
- Socially isolating an individual
- Withholding important information
- Ignoring or excessively criticizing
The list above is merely a collection of examples, and is not at all an exhaustive or complete list. It’s only intended to give one an idea or “feel” for the nature of emotional abuse, and I would venture to say that the list consists mostly of the most egregious examples; I also venture to say that there are many, many other examples that are far less obvious but nevertheless equally devastating.
Now, let’s tackle the topic of “special interests” and how the excessive restriction thereof could be considered abuse.
I’m still reading Tony Attwood’s definitive “Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome”, and that’s slow-going, too, which does not have anything to do with the quality of the book, but rather, my own limitations. I have recently reached the part about “special interests” and the various information and recommendations he gives for handling these interests.
For the most part, he’s singing my song. Of course he is; it’s a book on Asperger’s and I am indeed Aspergian, so that’s a natural connection to make. 😉
Unfortunately, there are a few parts with which I take issue; I’m an Aspergian/autistic person, after all, and he isn’t. As forward-thinking as he was for his time (and still is), there’s no mistaking the fact that like any human being, he’s going to tend to fall back on what he knows, which will be influenced by his training.
He characterizes “special interests” very accurately, describing them quite clearly. Where we differ somewhat is where the recommendations are concerned.
He mentions restricting access to the special interest, and the attitude he takes toward doing this is far too casual and cavalier; in my opinion, his willingness and readiness to do this are all-too-quick-and-easy, seemingly downplaying the internal effects that this restriction might have, and up-playing the necessity for doing so.
To be clear, I’m not talking about situations in which a “special interest” poses genuine threat of harm, significantly impacts the person’s ability to live a decent quality of life, or genuinely unduly negatively impacts another person. If someone is headed for a psychotic episode because they’re severely sleep-deprived due to having spent 23 hours a day engaged in their niche area of interest, then that’s a problem. The same could be said for someone who is about to fail high school because they won’t study anything except the “special interest” subject, especially if their parent(s) or guardian(s) are still supporting them. (Some might say that that stance is “ableist”, but I maintain that one’s rights end where another’s begin, which is the only logical stance to take, because otherwise, whose rights are more important, and who gets to make that judgment call?)
So yeah, the extreme situations are not what I’m talking about. If an intense interest is a genuine problem or poses a significant risk or impact, then yes, it needs to be restricted or otherwise altered so as not to have that negative impact.
When I make the thesis statement that restricting access to a “special interest” might be considered a form of abuse, what I am talking about are those situations in which a person, usually a child, is denied access to–or the ability to engage in–their area/activity of interest for no reason other than, say, a punishment, for example, or perhaps “just because”…
“Just Because you shouldn’t spend that much time on one thing.”
“Just Because you need to get out more.”
“Just Because it’s something you do by yourself and it’s ‘weird’ that you’re so comfortable by yourself.”
“Just Because it’s time to do something else now.”
“Just Because we don’t understand what you’re doing (and that which we don’t understand, we start to fear and loathe, but rather than admit our lack of understanding, we’re going to shine the uncomfortable spotlight on you because after all, you’re the weird one).”
In each of these cases, there is no good reason for restricting access to the “special interest”. The interest itself isn’t the issue, nor is there a problem with the Asperger’s/autistic person themselves; they were doing just fine, minding their own business.
In the “Just Because”s above, the only real issue (and the common denominator) is the non-autistic, third-party observer, passing judgment on either the Asperger’s/autistic person, their area of interest, or both. The way I see it, most of the time, the judgment is low-hanging fruit, stemming from a deeper feeling of resentment, or perhaps a lack of acceptance, or maybe even something else, completely unrelated, in that person’s (the one doing the judging) life.
In those cases, the Asperger’s/autistic person becomes a scapegoat (whether the emotions from the other person are related to the spectrum person or not). Except that while some of those non-autistic people (I say “those” because I know very well that none of this applies to many of the non-autistic people out there) might have no qualms about openly taking their frustration out on the spectrum person, others wouldn’t resort to that, at least not openly.
It’s tough to talk about deeper issues; on the other hand, it’s much easier to talk about surface subjects.
So, for the frustrated non-autistic person, especially those who may not realize their frustration or don’t want to admit it, the “special interest” may become the scapegoat.
The “special interest” becomes the topic. In my (theoretical general) example, the resentment toward the autistic person or the fact that they’re autistic would be the deeper, more hidden, less comfortable issue.
It’s much more comfortable (for the non-autistic person) to say (often in exasperation), “why are you so interested in trains??” or “you’re always on the computer; online isn’t the same as face-to-face, you know. Get outside and make some ‘real’ friends” than it is to say, “I don’t understand you and I wish you showed me you love me in the ‘usual’ ways” or “you’re different and nobody can change that, and I’m concerned about the attention (I think) you draw when you don’t act the same as everyone else, and I’m afraid people will think we’re inferior, which I don’t want because I’m insecure and I care too much about what strangers think”.
“I formed a set of expectations for you based on society’s rule book and playbook, and if you diverge from your pre-destined path, then society won’t respect you, nor will they respect me…and I care too much about what I think they think.”
“I made plans for your life for you, out-of-line and prematurely, and I expect you to live up to my expectations, even though you didn’t have a hand or a say in making them, but rather than admit that I depend on you to live out the elements of my own childhood that I didn’t get to live, I’m going to stop you from doing the things that remind me you’re different.”
It’s a lot easier to blame the Asperger’s/autistic person outright, and it’s easier yet to blame the objects or topics of interest, than it is to expose and admit to one’s own insecurity and superficiality, even to oneself.
And of course, once the “special interest” has been identified as an acceptable target of the frustration, any time the Asperger’s/autistic person is observed engaging in it or referencing it in any way, this triggers the cascade of feelings in the non-autistic person with the unresolved inner issues.
So the “special interest” must be stopped, or heavily curtailed. Wouldn’t want the neighbors to see Jaime building too many trains in the garage instead of going to school to become a doctor or lawyer, after all, now, would we?
There’s one (serious) problem with that…
The world, to an autistic person, is likely an overwhelming one. It’s a difficult one. It’s a confusing and chaotic one. It’s often even a painful one.
This can cause the autistic person to experience stress, anxiety, confusion, despair, depression, even hopelessness. I’ve felt the whole range of these myself, and I hesitate to say that it’s absolutely universal, but I know for a fact that it’s common among Asperger’s/autistic people.
I describe my own experience of interacting with the world as a constant low-level stress-buzzing that jars and irritates my nervous system. I am often repeatedly bombarded with reminders that I’m odd, weird, different, and sometimes inadequate. I have a choice between these feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, or feelings of isolation and alienation. The choice is not pretty, and it must be made moment by moment.
There is, however, a third–and much more palatable–option.
The area of intense focus, on the other hand, is one of the few ways in which an escape or space of calm can be found. I could describe it as a sense of relief, a safe and quiet space–created by me–for my brain, a pressure release valve. As long as I am engaged in my “special interest”, this makes being alone much more enjoyable, which makes the decision outlined above much clearer and my solution more pleasant. This translates to a much more fulfilling life.
To deny me access to that interest is to remove my pressure release valve, my main go-to strategy for relieving stress, and demolishes my inner sanctuary, my brain’s calm and happy place.
The irritating “buzzing” would begin to build up in my system again, quickly and disastrously.
If denying me access to my interest is indeed for my own good, because it would harm me or someone else, then that’s one thing: alternatives would assuredly have to be found, or at the very least, modifications would probably have to be made. A special interest in fire or tornadoes, for example, would have to be curtailed or altered; substitutions would probably have to be found. Or if I’m running myself or someone else into debt because I like to collect diamonds or gold bars or something, then that can’t be allowed to continue as-is, either.
But if I’m simply collecting rocks or listening to (a lot of) music through headphones or browsing digital art for hours after school, then there’s no reason to ground me from the computer, especially if my homework is done and my grades are decent.
Restricting my access to my interest to 15 minutes or an hour a day is like saying, “you’re subject to intense stress from an intense world during all 18 of your waking hours, but you only get to relieve it for 15 minutes at a time because any more than that makes me feel uncomfortable about having a weird kid.”
Can we say selfish?
And of course, the medical model-based clinicians are of no help. They don’t–and wouldn’t–understand. How could they, when they see Asperger’s/autism as a disorder in the first place? All they end up doing is reinforcing the neurotypical “standards” (“you need to get out more”, “you need to make more friends”, “you need to be studying more (even though your grades are fine)”, “you need to choose a career (and it had better be a respectable one”).
With (some) medical/psychological professionals and (some) caregivers in the same camp against the wants and needs of Asperger’s/autistic people, it’s no wonder depression, anxiety, PTSD, under-employment, under-achieving, etc, are so high among people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum: we (those of us to whom this has happened) never had a chance to be ourselves. Many of us never even had a chance to find ourselves. And we (those of us to whom this applies) certainly never knew what it felt like to be accepted and loved for who we are.
Many of us who were denied sufficient time to engage in our interest grew up stressed and depressed, and this doesn’t just go away in adulthood. A childhood (and what is said and done to a child) writes the first chapters of their story for them. It sets them up, for better or worse (depending on exactly what is said and done), for their adult existence.
Hence the fact that this topic qualifies as a mental health post.
Why is restriction or denial of an interest a potential form of abuse?
Because, if we look back near the top of the post, where the term “abuse” is defined as “any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth”, it might be tough to see at first, but upon deeper thought, the connection becomes clearer.
If a “special interest” is needed in order for an Asperger’s/autistic person to recharge, recoup, cope, etc, with a world where the intensity is turned up too high for us to enjoy a decent quality of life, then denial of, or too tight a restriction placed on, the interest could indeed be injurious.
Before anyone protests that I’m going too far with this, simply look up the consequential symptoms that arise from excess chronic stress. I don’t have hard numbers nearby (I do somewhere), but chronic stress leads to a huge chunk of not only chronic mental health issues, but also chronic physical health problems, including a surprising amount of chronic disease. Examples include insomnia, high blood pressure, diabetes/insulin resistance, weight gain, immune system suppression (with its accompanying frequent colds and flus), poor wound healing, upticks in allergies and even changes in the gut microbiome (“Stress-induced changes to the microbiome may in turn affect the brain and behavior.”)
So yes, given the psychological and physical effects of stress, and the well-known fact that “special interest” engagement is indeed an excellent (and sometimes the only) method of adequate stress relief for many Aspergian/autistic people, then yes, withdrawal, excessive restriction, or denial of access/adequate time with a special interest may indeed be considered a potent, even if subtle, form of abuse.
In short, I have a few summary tips for non-autistic people:
- Think twice before removing the Asperger’s/autistic person’s stress relief strategy or limiting it to too brief a time period.
- Consider the potentially real reason for wanting to restrict access.
- If you truly must restrict the activity, add before subtracting (try to get them interested in another topic or a safer/cheaper/less time-consuming version; maybe see if they’ll collect high-resolution pictures of diamonds, or quartz crystals instead of real diamonds).
- Consider the world as best you can from a spectrum person’s point of view. Empathy can be lacking, and must be cultivated, on both sides.
- Identify as many of the autistic person’s stressors as possible and mitigate them as much as possible, to reduce the overall stress load, so that they may not need as much time to recharge and relax with their interest.
My antihistamine is kicking in, which means I’m about to stop making sense, so I’ll quit here, while (I think) I’m ahead. 🙂