Communication Breakdown: Where’s the Context?

There are times when my ASP says words to me yet leaves me clueless as to what he means. I could understand the words he said, I just couldn’t see how they were strung together or what they had to do with anything relevant. This problem is always worse during an argument, when he will respond to my perfectly logical responses with some off-the-wall tangent that seems meaningless to me. It often feels like he’s intentionally trying to de-rail the conversation, and without fail, he does this every time I logically prove my side of the argument. At best, it seems that learning I’m correct about something sends him into “Aspie Overload” and he ceases to function in any sort of normal way. At worst, he can’t stand being wrong and so refuses to validate me, trying to distract me instead. My reactions to this problem have ranged from fury to just having to laugh. Usually fury though.

Now I know from practicing the Aspie Way that this problem, like all of the others, is stress related. Now when I’m careful to keep things low-to-no stress, we don’t argue and therefore there’s nothing to send him into overload or any reason for him to try to derail me. Now that our environment in general is one of love, trust and compassion, he rarely approaches me out of the blue with random thoughts that are meaningless to me. I’ve come to believe that the Aspie brain works faster when under less pressure. This is the opposite of how I work. The more stress I’m under, the faster my brain seems to fly, trying to find solutions.

So why does a slower brain help ASP make more sense? I believe it’s because of how ASP retrieves information from his brain. I think it stems from the lack of theory of mind that all Aspies have. The Aspie brain, for whatever reason, can’t access the information needed to provide communication tools – mainly a context – that are customized to their audience. In order to find a context that will make sense, he has to “scan” his brain for all the information he has available to produce a context that will make sense to *me*. NT brains seem to do this instantly and automatically. But the Aspie needs a low stress, calm environment so he can take the time to scan the relevant information to provide what will allow his audience to know what he means.

Let me use an example. Imagine a little boy has a special toy duck. He says “duck” to his mother because he wants that toy. But Mom doesn’t know if he means he wants the special toy duck, the rubber bath duck, or if he wants to go to the park and feed the ducks. The NT little boy would quickly learn that Mom calls his special duck his “duck buddy,” and so he will say “duck buddy” when talking to his mom. But if he’s talking to his babysitter, he’d know she doesn’t know the nickname “duck buddy,” and so he would learn to ask for “my special toy duck.” Do you see how the theory of mind plays in here? The boy has to understand his audience and what they need to hear in order to understand him. He has to figure out what context is needed for his particular audience. Now consider the Aspie boy. He has no easy way to retrieve the theory of mind information that would tell him to give Mom the context clue “duck buddy.” He only knows he wants his duck and so he says “duck.” He gives no context because he doesn’t realize mom’s point of view or that mom can think of three different things he may mean by “duck.” Mom has to ask little Aspie, “Do you mean your duck buddy?” Then little Aspie can say “Yes.”

So bring this forward to the adult Aspie. He probably knows enough to know that context is needed. Yet finding the right context for each situation requires really processing and thinking it through. But if he’s under a lot of stress, especially if he’s in an argument, his brain is jumping all over the place, trying to keep up with all the information being thrown at him. He has no calm time to process and find that context. So out comes seemingly random thoughts, words without context. He knows what he means and how it’s connected, but his brain is so jumbled up by stress that he can’t sort it out enough to explain to his audience. Take away that stress and give him plenty of time to process, and then ASP can find the correct context to share. Suddenly he’s making sense and you’re having a productive, albeit slow, conversation. I’ve found I strongly prefer this to all the yelling and fury I used to produce from trying to make sense of thoughts without context. I know ASP likes it better this way too.

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When getting ASP to do Chores is a Chore

We had a serious problem getting chores done around here and the problem lasted for years. I don’t have a job outside the house, and ASP and I both entered this marriage thinking I’d be the housekeeper, cook, maid, laundromat, and so on. My expectation changed once I started homeschooling and saw that other families treated homeschooling as a job and both partners contributed to the remaining work. Even so, I was happy to do most of the work, but I wanted him to be considerate of me and, most of all, appreciate all that I did. We resolved all this, over a period of years, before I knew anything of the Aspie Way.

Applying the Aspie Way to this problem would mean asking him, every day, over and over, to do all the things I want him to do. The Aspie Way does require patience and repetition, but I believe it would require super human patience to be able to do this every day, all day, for every task, for as long as needed, maybe years, maybe forever. I believe handling it this way would lead to eventual learning by the ASP, but maybe the way my ASP and I handled it could help speed things along.

[update: it’s been three years of doing The Aspie Way and he’s learned so much that I don’t have to ask him for regular stuff anymore!]

The goal here, as with anything when dealing with your ASP, is to keep the stress level down.

The resolution was that we assigned chores, very specifically, between us. I made lists, I made spreadsheets, I made flashcards, and I made post-it notes. Aspies tend to be visual learners, and so I did all I could to get the visuals in front of him so he might remember without my constant reminders. We even had who was the “boss” for the kids on different nights: Monday, Thursday and Friday are my nights “off.” He has off Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tuesday is family night and we work together. I am in charge of laundry and dinner, he is in charge of yard work and after dinner kitchen clean up. Everything else is my job to manage but he does most of the actual labor as I direct. (“Would you please vacuum the stairs?” “Would you please mop the kitchen?” etc. etc.) The Aspie Way has taught me how to direct him in a way that doesn’t lead to meltdowns for either of us.

I’ve told him repeatedly that I want his appreciation, but he never really understood this until after I’d modeled it for him for a few months. Now that I say please and thank you so much, he does too. He goes out of his way to comment when he notices something I’ve accomplished (of course he misses a lot but it’s still nice.) Also I’ve learned that he does appreciate all that I do or he wouldn’t be so willing to go do whatever he thinks I want. So your ASP is telling you, in his language, that he appreciates you when he cleans up as you ask. It will take time and patience, and in the meantime, you’re still dealing with years of patterns that are hard to break. It’s tough. But stick with it as much as you can, and before you know it, your home will be just as you want and you won’t have done all the work alone.

Why ASP Avoids You, and Learn the Golden Rule

This may be hard to hear, but chances are, he’s avoiding you from fear of what you might say or do. I’m not saying you’re doing anything wrong. What I’ve learned is that perfectly normal behavior on the part of the NT can be terrifying for the AS. This is just the nature of the different brain types. I’ve also learned that the NT is better equipped to figure out the problems and set the example to make things better.

So my suggestion to you is to find out what your ASP is afraid of. Is it sarcasm? Do you get emotional with him? (Scary to an ASP). Do you threaten him or bully him out of frustration because nothing else has worked? I did all of these things and worse. I had to really take a look at myself from my ASP’s point of view and stop the behaviors that made him want to avoid me. Instead, I had to learn to remain calm and to treat him with the same kindness I wanted in return. Aspies go through so much abuse trying to get along in the world that they really need a safe place while at home. I learned that I would only be allowed to share that safe place with him if I proved to him that *I* was safe and that he had nothing to fear from me. This took a few months of unnatural behavior on my part, but the rewards have been worth every difficult moment along the way.

Like any marriage, It’s an ongoing journey. I just found out yesterday that he’s been hiding his stress from me, which led to the first meltdown he’s had in ages, and I realized that I’ve been unkind to him lately because of my own stress. I’ve been expecting too much from him, I’ve been expecting him to handle things well when I haven’t been. His meltdown was a (horrible) cry for help, but it’s put me back on the right path of expecting no more from him than I can give myself. I must treat him how I want to be treated, which means learning his fears and being careful of them, just like I want him to do for me.

It’s the golden rule: treat him the way you want to be treated, and soon, you’ll have again the man with whom you fell in love.

Why ASP is at His Worst When You Need Him the Most

I was so buried in self pity and hopelessness for so long that I couldn’t see a single thing that my ASP did “right.” It took my friend pointing things out to me before I learned to recognize all the ways my ASP was trying and the ways he communicated his love for me. All I could see were all the things he wasn’t doing as I wanted and expected.

It’s by focusing on the good in my ASP that I learned to minimize the bad. The ways he messed up that made me so angry didn’t seem to matter as much. I took a step back and saw a bigger picture where he was trying so hard, rather than focusing day in and day out on every little time he communicated badly or otherwise disappointed me. I started to try to understand what he meant rather than getting all wrapped up and offended when he stuck his foot in his mouth. I learned he loved me and meant well but just lacked tact and the natural ability to say the “right” thing, especially in an emotional situation.

The more emotional the problem, the more he screwed up. This is why my illness brought out the worst in him. Not because he didn’t care but because he *did* care. Those emotions just twist him up and bring up his walls and make him say the most hurtful things. Or, even worse, he would avoid me, but this was out of fear of hurting me. All I knew was that he wasn’t there for me.

Now I know he was protecting me as best he could. So here’s how to use the Aspie Way to have a true partner in your time of need: let him know you understand his fear, let him know you appreciate his trying to protect you, let him know it’s okay if he isn’t perfect, and then let him know you need him now. Do not remind him of his failures. Try to let go of the expectation that he just “know” what to do. Tell him and say please. This approach has allowed my ASP to really be here for me when I need him now.