Paradoxes in social competency and the criteria for Asperger syndrome

I have mentioned that I haven’t had much contact with my mother since I was kid (or even then, if contact means more than just being around), that I don’t really want it, and that the conflict of interest – desire for contact VS desire to be left alone – is stressful for both me and my mother (at least that is the impression my mother conveys).

There are many reasons for my lack of interest. One is habit – the relationship has never really been built up, and so from my point of view there is nothing to build on.

However, I do want to be as accommodating as possible (while still preserving my integrity), so if that was the only reason then I would try my best to build up some rudimentary “good enough” kind of relationship (and I have tried that every now and again), because I don’t want to be a source of hurt feelings – loss – fixation – disappointment – if I can avoid it and preserve my sanity.

But it always fails, because it isn’t really about the past: I did find her hard to take in the past, but the tendencies that trigger me are still there.

I forget the triggers after a while and begin to mellow when I haven’t seen her for a long time. However, even a little communication – like an email from her (especially if it has LOTS OF WORDS IN CAPITALS, large font in bold and colours et.c. – because I read it as an email version of attention-seeking behaviour) revives the aversion.

Most of all, it is her communication style, and her attitude to me, that triggers me.

While I’ve traditionally felt like the “problem child” of my family, I know I’m not the only one who gets triggered by my mother’s communication manners. These reflections turn the whole Asperger’s issue a bit upside down:

 
Normal yet not quite right

My mother meets all objective criteria for being socially well integrated and Normal in a quantitative sense: she is sociable, people-orientated, smiling, talkative, easy going, strong on eye contact, has friends and acquaintances, is well educated, worked full time until she became a pensioner, is extraordinarily good at her profession which is also her big interest (a language), and is active and involved in community activities. She also clearly sees herself as a socially active and well integrated person.

When her life and personality is described in a superficial way, she definitely meets all the criteria for being Normal.

 
Green tick button (clipart)

 
However, in more qualitative social aspects, she has obvious challenges which she seems remarkably oblivious of.

Her conversation style can best be characterised as anecdoche. Once she gets on track with talking, she goes on and on – not really saying anything of substance, and always gravitating towards the same tried- and-tested anecdotes and opinions. It is like loops of words.

She talks with big gestures, plenty of inflections and theatrical expressions in what may seem like lively talk, but after a little while it starts to sound mechanical, and she never really listen to others. She doesn’t seem to get the point of listening: to learn what the world looks like from someone else’s perspective. It is all about churning as many words out as possible and get heard as much as possible (increasing the volume of her voice to beat the competition). I don’t think she even truly understands that people have perspectives, and what it matters: that each person’s reality is unique and has its own unique and valid inner logic.

She interrupts and talks over people, invades personal space, maintains relentless eye contact, makes no pauses, doesn’t grasp irony, seems to have no sense of conversation rhythm and timing, makes confusing expressions and often acts perplexed about peoples’ reactions (especially mine). She seems like always out of sync with people around her. Not “in her own world” – she is very socially motivated, but clueless about social context.

It has always been like that, from the time I started to notice her conversation style: which was when I was an older kid and guests came for dinner in our home, or we were out as a family (or something) and she talked with other adults. She didn’t converse much at home.

I could go on, but I think the gist of what I’m saying is clear enough. My mother appears socially active, outgoing and normal, but upon a closer look she doesn’t really communicate, she performs one-way conversation scripts that look like communication.

Also, she is defensive against any critique of her social manners – if she ever did anything wrong, then it was obviously due to external circumstances and not ever her responsibility [*sarcasm*]… She is not receptive to social feedback. This means that she doesn’t change, her social understanding doesn’t seem to grow over time.

I find it very hard to cope with her communication style because:

  • It causes social and sensory overload very quickly, and she doesn’t notice or understand that, so she goes on and on until I manage to flee (desperately), or I snap
  • The pointless-chat, similarity-seeking conversation style makes it even harder to tolerate the social invasiveness (like her constant stare, need for constant attention, theatrical face expressions, standing too close et.c) and sensory stress, because when the whole conversation seems pointless, why do I have to suffer?
  • If I stay with her, stress accumulates rapidly until I snap. Then I’m the unreasonable daughter with emotional issues, and she’s the unhappy victim. If I stop it before breaking point by directly asking her to stop talking, give me a pause, leave me alone or similar, then I’m the intolerant daughter with rude manners, and she is the unhappy victim.
  • Since my discomfort goes unnoticed and verbal critique is met with a victim attitude, there is no way to fix the communication problems.

So it ends as a lose-lose situation no matter what I do – and it is always my fault.

The situation is awkward because there are no socially acceptable scripts for politely telling someone off. People are supposed to discretely pick up “leave me alone signals” from subtle hints such as physically turning away, displaying “I’m busy” body language, moving away, so that no one loses face, but my mother seems totally blind to such cues and she responds to direct feedback with a victim-attitude, so what can I do? No socially accepted scripts for handling these situations exist.

So: many of my problems with my mother stem from her autistic-like tendencies combined with her defensiveness and her expectations to me (which I can’t quite gauge, but I can tell they are off), and my intolerance to her manners and rejection of her needs in regard to me (whatever they are).

She is stuck wanting something from me very badly that doesn’t exist, and I’m stuck in an unwanted role as a Bad Daughter who has disowned my mother.

 
Who has Asperger syndrome?

So the whole matter of Asperger syndrome isn’t black and white. This has caused lots of confused speculations and doubts since I discovered Asperger and recognised many of my own issues in the experiences of others diagnosed with it … because I recognised many aspects of my parents’ personalities too.

The speculations were: do I have Asperger’s, or have I evolved an Asperger-like personality due to being raised by socially clueless parents?

I’m still confused in some regards, because for example:

I think I can be much more socially insightful and advanced than both my parents in important qualitative social aspects (now) such as the ability to listen, analyse social patterns, and understand that people have different perspectives.

When I compare myself to my mother, then I can pick up many social nuances that I’m sure she can’t. I can see what she does wrong. I can see what my dad does wrong too. My parents can’t see what they do wrong (on the other hand, I can’t see what I do wrong).

My parents sometimes spot each others’ social faux passes, but never their own.

However, when looking at the criteria that measure success in society – then my parents both function much better than me.

I’m the one who had massive social difficulties during my adolescence and young adulthood, who couldn’t get through (or even into) the normal milestones my peer seemed to ace despite being intellectually brighter than many of them – high school, higher education, career, friends, starting a family (although I did achieve many of these things later). The mental barriers were too high.

I’m the one who stumbled through a cavalcade of new beginnings and abrupt endings, because I mysteriously couldn’t fit in anywhere socially. Who suffered depressions and panic attacks and ended up in mental hospital for well over a year in my early twenties; was disorganised and sporadically employed and almost always alone.

I’m the one who still don’t quite “hit the marks” of someone my age – career wise and financially*, socially, family-wise. Who still find small talk and mingling difficult, still don’t see any friends on a regular basis, still don’t have a full time job, who spends a great deal of my time immersed in concentrated hobby studies and projects, wear ear plugs in many situations where other people don’t, and avoid many places due to my sensory issues.

My parents, in contrast, were able to do the things they needed to do to tick all the boxes of normal development throughout the course of their lives, and they consider themselves Normal.

 
Male VS female autistic-like profiles

The paradox of qualitative VS quantitative social functioning level also exists between my parents.

If my dad did a screening test for Asperger syndrome, then I’m pretty sure he would score very high due to his minimal social needs, no friends, low awareness of other people’s needs, aloofness, formal behaviour at home, dependency on routines, attachment to places and hobbies more than people – prioritisation of hobbies above everything else (including family), social oblivion, sciency interests et.c.

My mother would score low because her answers would reflect that she is socially motivated and sees herself as a social person.

Yet, my dad is in some ways charismatic, even if he doesn’t have good understanding of people. His personality is distinct and consistent, easy to make sense of, and he respects interpersonal boundaries. That makes him relatable. He is someone I feel I know intuitively and deeply, even though I disagree badly with some of his choices. He isn’t perfect – or necessarily even good, but he is a real, familiar person.

My mother has a diffuse personality; I’m not sure what she likes and dislikes, how she feels, who she is. She has a poor sense of boundaries and seems like she struggles to see the difference between her own needs and others’. She seems much more social than my dad at a glance, but her personality remains enigmatic even to her close family.

She seems to zealously maintain and defend a social identity that I can’t quite grasp; but I feel it consists mainly of scripts, loops and theatrical expressions, and doesn’t connect to a real person (if there is one). I don’t even know if I would like her if I knew her better.

See the paradoxes? That’s why I find the whole concept of Asperger VS NT traits so confusing… it is full of paradoxes.

 

* Obviously closely related issues…

 
 
 
 
 
 

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3 thoughts on “Paradoxes in social competency and the criteria for Asperger syndrome

  1. Signlady

    wow … this sounded like something my grown daughter wouldve written …
    except my problem is not with idle ‘chit-chat’ but talking about things entirely too deep for ‘acceptable’ chit chat.

    Here is something to think about – bc I really only just realized myself, how imbedded my scripts are … I have been dealing with Aspergers my whole life. I was born in the early sixties. All of my school years, from kindergarten til I quit school at age 16, were this hellish, inexplucable series of WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS – WHATS WRONG WITH YOU?.
    Aspergers wasnt even on the map in those days. Life at home was similar.
    So I spent the first 20 years of my life working to try to ‘act right’ … I wa 20 when I had my fist child … this event added to my anxiety to work hard to try to act normal.

    Think about this and see if it might relate to you & your mom;
    By the time my daughter was 10 or 11 – old enough to start recognizing that I was ‘different’ somehow … I already had THIRTY years invested in script creating and becoming more adept at adjusting – tho the idea of ‘adjusting’ or building is a very slow unweildy process bc of the variety of social siyutations one might find themselves in with a variety of different people – this ongoing idea I have that every new person I meet Is going to be the one who ‘totally’ gets me is usually a disaster – which I will finally realize at some point … maybe days later upon reflection … lol But the point is, I may not have a chance to share that revelation with anyone …

    (btw – I use caps as italics – I wish I could just italicize lc words but my phon disallows it)

    Now I am 53 years old. I only discivered Aspergers about a year ago.
    I had NO CLUE for over 50 years that any other human on this planet knew or understood my mind, my behaviours, etc … that these things about myself had defnite definitions and descriptions that completely ‘fit’ me … its been quite an adventure and amazng and all other such adjectives includng depressing – bc … if only MY mom woulda known … how different our relationship might have been … she KNEW somethin’ was wrong with me – her idea to fx me was to force me to be as normal as possible … my entire childhood memories of her all the way thru my early twenties are her repetative words:
    Whats wrong with you, why do you do this, why are you playin so dumb, youre smart, you do this on purpose, stop staring, stop talking so loud – I can hear you, stop fidgeting, be still, look at me, (as I became a teen she stepped up her ‘program’ to train me to work in her bookstore – she inadvertantly helped me to becme social, even if it is forced … even today, i still hear her words ‘ Greet people, be polite, smile, make eye contact, stop looking away, etc etc day after day after day she prodded and forced me.
    It was an anxiety-ridden existence – but by and by I developed scripts that eventually satisfied her ….
    The point is, if a parent has Aspergers, lets say your mom specifcally for example, you must be able to step far enough back to get a picture of who this woman was and what she mightve been like at least two decades before you came along, and another decade of your life growing up with her where youre just a child and not thnkng of these things..

    The problem is … none of us are very good at realizng our parents were people before us … understanding who they were before we existed requires a good bit of effort … as we are all busy tryin to figure out who WE are – theres not a lot of time to figure out who THEY were too!

    But this brings me to this idea of Aspergers being genetic … which I largely disbelieve … I think you either have it or you dont. I dont think its hereditary like your eyes or your hair or your facial structure … THAT SAID – im aware of how wrong I could be bc Im not a enetic scientist …. what I am much more interested in as an aspie mom … and this should be of some interest to you, is … How much of my bahaviours have becme learned, emulated behaviours of my daughters?
    All children learn from whoever they spend the most time with, AND whoever they live the most, OR whoever they most want love FROM …. so thnking about that as a mother who has spent the last year realizing what a diffcult mother I was … I am completely interested in the dynamics of learned behavior.
    I happen to have been adopted as a baby. Ive thought about and analyzed my parents as much as possible – and Ive concluded they were pretty neurotypical … hence their pressure on me to ‘act right’ … the very idea of ‘scripts’ … scripts by defintion are learned behaviours …. how did my daughter learn to become social? how did she learn that my social ablities were different or off … ?
    Interesting, that even the littke things we cant stand about our parents make their way into our persinality .. as a kid, i hated my dads ‘depressiin era’ lectures’ … but as an Aspie mom, I could take lecturing to incredble heights.
    Neither of my elderly parents were very affectionate – this suited me quite well – but the lack of affection on my daughters was magnified 10 times by me … there have been many studies on how lack of affection affects children …

    Well Obciously I could say so much more … and as is my MO ive said much … but perhaps there is something in this comment that can give you pause to consider something you may not have considered before … something that will open understandng enough to lift some of these pressures – maybe even open a door of communication with your mom …

    This is what I wish and hope for with my daughters thru this journey of life and all the strange things in our minds that make us first people, and also family.

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  2. Anna Post author

    Thank you for your long and interesting comment.

    I do think that for my mother, her scripts and manners and social persona is so ingrained that for all I know, it is like there isn’t anything underneath, no person there. I have thought about whether she was different before she became a parent, who she was earlier on, if she had more of what I would recognise as a personality (less diffuse, more relatable). I have heard her anecdotes about her young life, when she was au pair et.c, but I feel they are mainly rehearsed scripts (I don’t meant to say that they are not true, I’m sure they are, just a selective version of her life and they just don’t give a sense of understanding or connection)… She has also mentioned that she was very shy as a young girl (however, it should be seen in the context of the family being extremely extravert and talkative… that’s the norm).

    I know she grew up with virtually no privacy in a small apartment with her parents and sisters. My granddad was an extremely pedantic (albeit also entertaining and original) man, who couldn’t stand anything being out of place, and who had several serious nervous breakdowns (hospitalised). My grandparents were both very normative (albeit also quirky and entertaining, especially as a couple). They both fit their era’s “Man” and “Housewife” stereotypes perfectly well. I know my mother ran away from home, taking the bus by herself when she was under 2 years old!:-) that’s one of the family anecdotes… and I got the impression that she was considered a bit contrary. My dad has said that she completed her first education even though she had already decided she wouldn’t work in that field, to prove to her dad that she could complete it, because apparently her dad used to call her a nickname that meant clumsy and always failing at things.

    All in all, my mother would have grown up under tremendous pressure to normalise, fit in, be social, suppress any aggression and solitaire tendencies. She had no private life. My grandparents, while they had their good sides, were not respectful of differences and personal space (I couldn’t like my grandmother for that reason, and also found my granddad hard to take in some ways although he was also fantastically great fun when I was little). Probably her personality, if it didn’t fit the mould, was effectively suppressed and she put together another one from bits and pieces, mainly mimicking from movies and TV I think; women considered ideals in the era where she grew up. That would explain the sense of lack of coherence in her personality and expressions.

    I can understand all that, but unfortunately it doesn’t make much of a difference. Because I have never formed a real bond with her (as far as I remember), I have no real empathy for her, and no real desire for connection. I can understand with my intellect that she must be a real person and that person probably suffers from my rejection, but it doesn’t resonate with me emotionally. I’d like her to be OK with me, I don’t like to be a source of grief and a problem, but I don’t really desire a connection. And then add to that how invasive and confusing I find her attempts at communicating with me, then the bottom line is that I don’t feel it is worth it, that it causes too much instability and risk to my current life and relationship and sanity, which is essential beyond anything else, and can not be replaced if broken.

    I do still feel guilty and puzzled, that is why I keep returning to the topic. I’d like to figure out my mother, to get a framework for understanding her. But I don’t want “reconciliation” (the “re-” is also misleading) or regular contact or something like that. I feel the pressure from everywhere: parents who identify with my mother, people who are reminded of their close bond with their mother (which is most people) and feel the rejection must be such a fundamental and unbearable betrayal (because they are unable to comprehend or belief the missing bond; the lack of desire for connection). For those reasons, I have learned to not mention this anomality, to not interrupt peoples’ assumptions about me having a normal relationship with my mother and visiting her regularly (although I don’t lie either, just usually stay quiet and don’t correct whatever assumptions people make about my mother and my presumed relation with her).

    The greatest relief ever would be to get acceptance of the absence of a relation with her, that it is OK to not love one’s parent and not have regular contact. To see my mother give up on me and redirect her hopes to someone else, someone who can actually reciprocate what she needs, would be a huge relief. Nobody understand that, least of all my mother.

    You talk about how kids learn from who they spend most time with OR who they most want love from. I spent most time with my mother, and most wanted love from my dad, but I feel like I’ve learned very little socially from either of them. Partly because neither had good social skills, and partly because I wasn’t very people-orientated as a kid and not good at making sense of what people did or said, so I didn’t get much out of what I observed when I did pay attention.

    (Physical, hands-on roughhousing kind of play and similar always worked for me and brought immediate emotional connection, but that is not the kind of social skills needed for adulthood).

    So when I reached maturity and was supposed to leave home and create my own path in the world, it was like my social skills toolbox was empty… I had no clue what to do, I failed socially everywhere I went, had to give up again and again and again. As adolescent I didn’t get along with my mother and not very well with my dad either (they were divorced by then, and I lived with my mother) so I couldn’t stay home, yet I didn’t have the skills I needed to make even the most essential connections I needed in the world, even just being able to cope with school or make friends. I’m a bit resentful to my parents and especially my mother for not even noticing how lacking I was in social skills until it was too late (and probably not even then… because then it was “mental problems”), but I also know that it is not her fault, she is genuinely blind to that side of life, and her way of “normalising” herself, could never work for me and never looked attractive to me. Mostly for some positive reasons I think: I react to things I feel are harmful to me because essentially I can feel who I am and have boundaries. I’ve come through my own long struggle after many years and, after all, had a sense of direction and personality to guide me. As a result, I’ve ended up as a largely coherent, whole person who can genuinely connect with other people, feel myself, express and understand emotions et.c. So I’ve ended up being privileged in a way my mother isn’t. That’s my view. She probably feels sorry for me for not enjoying the things she likes and which she feels are important in life; for me being so “oversensitive”, having a “violent temper” (that’s her impression only… I’m usually calm and cooperative), having ongoing mental health issues (depressions), lack of friendships and going out et.c. Maybe. I just don’t know how her mind works.

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  3. Anna Post author

    As for Aspergers/autism being hereditary: as far as I know, it is a fact that there is a strong hereditary component, backed by evidence from twin studies. there is also an overwhelming volume of anecdotical “evidence” that it runs in families.

    My own family experience also supports that impression. While I think both of my parents may have Aspergers – or at least be “autistic phenotypes” – I also suspect it about my granddads on both sides, and one of my dad’s younger sisters (who died in her 30s, having been friendless roughly all her life, unemployed, nocturnal, couldn’t blend in anywhere socially). Also, while my mother’s sisters all fit the “normality” template, they have many autistic-like tendencies. I don’t mean they are autistic, but it is like they have a dose of it, it is like a kind of alien fuel that runs right under the surface, fuelling high strungness, OCD-like tendencies, anxiety and worrying, social sensitivity and timing issues, a certain internal communication style, hyper-verbal and literal perception, repetitive tendencies, etc. (not all of them have all the traits)… graceless gaits & moves… and many other things, along with certain positive traits too. Such as for example: excellent systematising abilities, strong passions and interests, rules compliance, strong sense of fairness, and they are all very reliable and rational, besides being friendly and helpful, serious about quality of life, the kind of people that can be counted on. And they are smart too.

    Anyway: there is also an element of random mutation – on some cases it just suddenly pops up in otherwise very NT families. In any case, it is considered genetic.

    As for “You either have it or you don’t”, as much as I would like that to be the case (it is nicely clean cut), I am sure it is not black and white like that. think there are as many ways to be autistic as there are autistic people, and plenty of variations of being in the greyzone too with a mix of autistic and NT traits. In fact I suspect more people are in the greyzone than beyond-doubt autistics.

    For you, it may be the case though. Since you were adopted into a very NT family (I assume), your own autistic tendencies would clash strongly with the surroundings and be very obvious to you (even if they didn’t have a name and couldn’t be defined). So you “have it”, and they clearly don’t.

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