Communication Breakdown: autism and anger

Autism and anger. Symptom or coincidence? Or is it even that simple? See below…

We may be prickly but we’re really quite soft inside. Cacti at Rotterdam Zoo.


Is anger a symptom of autism? This appears to have been a matter of some debate and, like a lot of autism-related talk, the material dealing with this appears to focus entirely on how the problem might manifest in children, as if it were invariably an issue one grew out of and/or involved unstoppable tantrums requiring Ritalin or that ever so patronising “breath of fresh air” folk sometimes suggest you need with little regard for whether their own apparent ignorance of the obvious might be the cause of your ire.

The subject of temperament issues in children with ASDs have been pretty well documented, those caused by sudden unexpected changes in routine especially so in TV documentaries like Channel 4’s recent Born Naughty? series.

But I have a theory as to what can cause the problem to extend into adulthood – and it goes back to that classic Aspie symptom of impaired communication.

You see we (perhaps I should say I) try to communicate in subtle, advanced ways. And we fail because for whatever reason people aren’t thinking “this equals that” the way they seem to think WE’RE deficient for not thinking when they try to hint they don’t like something we’re doing.

People sometimes get frustrated with us Aspies. Friends, relatives, employers – sadly it’s a fact of life in this generation. They try to communicate some important point to us, maybe something they wish us to stop doing, maybe something they’ve raised before where we’ve taken their request on board but somehow we haven’t quite got into new habits. Anyway, for whatever autistic reason, it doesn’t get through and eventually they reach the point where they either raise their voice or just plain old tell you you’ve been working at this company, living in this house long enough to know/do better. They even have the gall to say there’s no need to stew on it or that it’s water under the bridge. How can it be water under the bridge if we can’t even trust ourselves not to make the same error again, perhaps in a moment of heavy focus on some newly raised matter and receive the exact same treatment or worse. Try telling them, certainly with friends, you didn’t like how they spoke to you and it’s not unlikely you’ll get “Well I’m sorry but I couldn’t see any other way of getting through to you,” or with employers “Yes but we’re trying to hang onto our jobs here.”

But remember, neurotypical friends, that we don’t just have trouble reading your communications, you sometimes have trouble reading ours as well. And it makes us feel exactly the same way. Like you, we sometimes have things we want to get across in not too many words so we keep it short. An example from real life follows, from the halcyon days when both parents were alive. I would happily have cited this example to them if this topic ever arose between us and I mean no offence to their memory.

“I won’t be going out Friday night after all because Katherine’s 21st birthday meal’s been cancelled” I told the folks one day during one of my periods back at home.

Can you see what I was inferring? To me it was simple: I won’t be out for dinner Friday equals I WILL be at HOME for dinner Friday. There was no issue with shortage of ingredients or shortness of notice on my part that I was aware of. And yet the hint went completely over their heads and my father, responsible for the cooking that night, said “Well you didn’t tell me that meant you’d be requiring supper,” and my mother stood by him in this.

Now how do you think that made me feel? I didn’t go completely off my head but I have to confess I did respond pretty tersely. I was living and having evening meals at home at the time. I was even paying for the counselling I was receiving at the time in lieu of housekeeping (Mum’s idea) so I don’t see that I was sponging in that respect. It’s those who’ve expected the most from you over the years whether parents, teachers, employers or some other senior role from whom you come to expect much in return.

I did get my grub that night but there was still a two against one argument prior to this about whether I’d made my position clear enough etc. And I thought I was the one who was supposed to have trouble reading hints!!!

The above example is tame compared to some others I could share but I have no desire to humiliate the living who might recognise themselves in such examples.

People get shirty with us when we don’t deliver what’s expected of us. And likewise we do when people don’t understand things we say the way we’ve been led by their position as parents, teachers, employers etc to expect that they will.

I could probably write a whole lot more about this issue. But I’ll save that for another time.