I knew something was wrong when my normally happy mother suddenly smashed her prized Royal Albert tranquil garden teacup against the wall in a wave of hot Darjeeling.
‘Why are you so angry?’ I exclaimed in shock.
‘I’m not angry’ she shouted, sending the matching saucer to a shattered fate. ‘I’m frustrated.’
To my neurotypical eyes, it looked a lot like a temper tantrum. Apparently, I was wrong. Welcome to the Aspergers meltdown.
It’s only happened a few times. Mam is blessed with the Aspergers gift of being pretty even tempered. Not much gets her down. But when she loses it, she really loses it. So what had sent her into such a meltdown and sent the Royal Albert to an untimely demise?
I had brought up a situation in which Mam had hurt my feelings. She denied it.
In a neurotypical person, I would label her repudiation of wrongdoing with terms like denial or low self-esteem. With an Aspie, their denial of any wrongdoing may have another source: honesty.
They truthfully either cannot remember what they said or they cannot understand how it was hurtful. Being a minority in a culture defined and dominated by neurotypicals, many Aspies develop a kneejerk reaction to criticism. They fear they’re being manipulated by the NT for our own selfish purposes. It’s happened to most of them. Their naivete being played and taken advantage of by neurotypicals for their own nefarious purposes.
So when you come to them claiming emotional pain where they believe none should exist, they automatically assume they’re being gaslighted.
It took many hours of conversation before I learned this was the exact scenario Mam and I had bumbled into together. I was hurt. She couldn’t understand it and feared I had ulterior motives.
During our conversation, I desperately attempted to help Mam understand my emotions by using analogies. By switching the roles and putting the situation in other terms. Over and over I tried to make her understand my feelings. I tried analogy after analogy.
She couldn’t understand any of it. All of my analogies fell on frustrated ears. I could see her edging closer and closer to another meltdown as I slowly moved the cream and sugar bowl out of her reach.
She wasn’t the only one upset. Her failure to understand seemed willful. Malicious. ‘You’re refusing to understand,’ I wanted to scream. ‘You’re not stupid! So that means you don’t want to put yourself in my emotional shoes.’
I was wrong.
She couldn’t understand.
That’s just Aspergers. Someday, months or years later, she may suddenly understand.
Mam and I got through that meltdown, both of us wounded and sobbing, but it was worth it for the insight into the Aspergers mind. Now when Mam hurts me through word or deed, I take a deep breath and calm down before speaking to her.
Sometimes, I decide not to speak at all. Choose my battles. Knowing she never means to wound, I let the less painful moments slide. Why create a row?
For middle-of-the-road gaffes, humour is your best bet. Let your Aspie know they’ve wounded you or stuck their foot in their mouth, but do it mildly, calmly, with humour. Aspies know they have propensity for foot-in-mouth disease.
For the most painful wounds, sit your Aspie down and very gently tell him or her, ‘I’m not gaslighting you. I have no agenda. I’m not playing you here. But you hurt my feelings’. You must win their trust before they’ll take you seriously.
Explain it to them, slowly, but do not expect them to understand. Don’t look for validation or a spark of ‘Oh, I’ve been through that too’. It probably won’t happen.
A good-hearted Aspie will be apologetic and regret hurting your feelings. They’ll try to amend their behavior, but not in the way you or I, as neurotypicals, change our behavior.
For them, it’s a code. A computer program. A list of Thou Shalts or Thou Shalt Nots. Something they must do or must not do to fit into a society that makes little sense to them. They will try to amend their behavior but they may never really understand why.
An Aspergers meltdown is shattering, both for the Aspie and for the NT who witnesses their pain, their frustration and the smashing of crockery. But, with a little sensitivity on both sides, hopefully meltdowns can be avoided.