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How My Undiagnosed Autism Contributed to Personal Conflicts

I was diagnosed with ASD late in life, about three years ago at age 46. The prescribing doctor called it Asperger’s syndrome, even though the diagnosis was no longer included in the DSM-V. I’ve come to refer to it as autism and myself as autistic.

I discovered late diagnosis brought with it unique circumstances for which I have found little applicable support. I’m certainly not saying it’s worse for those of us diagnosed after our “formative years” by any means, but it’s different. It requires a different approach.

I’ve decided to write about some of my experiences thus far with the intent of offering some ideas and posing some questions we can all consider together. I can only speak for myself and share my own experiences and observations, but hopefully others will relate and benefit from it.

This time I would like to share some thoughts on how aspects of autism have affected interpersonal conflicts — at least for me.

Contrary to what I had thought pre-diagnosis, my inherent negativity, depression, anxiety, poor self image, rigid thinking and many other less than desirable characteristics were likely related to autism all along. I just thought I was “normal” and other people were the same. I hadn’t known it, but I experienced atypical reactions to not fitting in and not understanding the way other people think. Others seemed to communicate and operate together with relative ease, and they mysteriously appeared to be able to bypass conflicts I was unable to avoid.

It turns out my impaired ability to interpret vocal intonation, subtle gestures, facial expressions and other nonverbal nuances (these relative inabilities are common autistic traits) contributed to misinterpretation of others. They often resulted in inappropriate or confusing reactions from me, which sometimes led to confrontations or disagreements.

As a bit of a side note, I suspect many of the times I encountered conflicts it was actually as a result of me not knowing someone was actually trying to be friendly with me, or at least just thinking they were being “playful.” I’m not sure.

I remember conflicts, especially in school and at work, which often arose from what I perceived as people trying to skirt policies and abuse liberties. If it was “wrong,” something had to be done, and that was my responsibility… or so I thought. Social justice!

It’s enlightening to see it now, almost looking in from the outside, like Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Past.

For me, confrontations can progress to a sort of emotional meltdown. It may not be “typical” to many Autists, but it’s my form of meltdown. Usually it’s more of a shutdown, in which I can’t really think or process. In the worst instances I can become reactivate, angry, and even irrational.

When confronted with bullying as a youth, I would usually freeze. I remember instances in which I would cry, not understanding how to react to whatever taunting was occurring. Naturally that would only serve to encourage further abuse from emotional predators (bullies). I still remember their names and the feelings I felt, 40-plus years later.

As an adult with rigidity of thought (what counselors and publications I’ve read have repeatedly referred to as black and white thinking), I “stick to my guns” and refuse to waver, sometimes allowing conflicts to escalate and even become worse than the initial trigger I had originally thought was the cause of the conflict. I feel that instinct to want to affect justice and right the wrongs.

I would (and often still do) get the sense if someone is not 100 percent with me, they are essentially an adversary and are not to be trusted in any matters, especially those of importance. Black and white, on or off. There is little in between.

In conflicts as an “adult,” sometimes those childhood tears can well up and reopen the stinging wounds of youth, leading to associations which can further escalate the matter inside my head. I hold the tears back, but what does that look like to others who don’t understand what’s happening to me? Generally expressionless as I am, with flat affect and monotone voice, they probably have as hard of a time interpreting me as I do them.

Even after my diagnosis, I hadn’t considered autism could be a root cause of many of the issues I’ve faced throughout my life, but I can now see it has often been a key element. I now have the opportunity to learn how to control or at least minimize these effects.

That brings up some questions…

How do I consciously recognize and adjust to these events in real time, as they unfold?

What can I do to to slow down reactions and avoid my own internal escalation?

How do I accept that the other party has an opinion or viewpoint that is in direct opposition to mine, yet not believe they are (by the transitive property) also then completely opposed to me as an individual? All in, or all out (black and white).

If things break down, how do I later explain myself without looking foolish and sounding like I am using my diagnosis as a crutch or a “convenient” excuse?

Typical of my self-doubt… Am I actually just overanalyzing and misinterpreting what a heated argument is for anyone (autistic or not) and this is just what conflict is?

These are a few of the issues a late life diagnosis can bring to the forefront. Hopefully they can become a pivot point from which I can affect positive change.

I’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s good to have something to look forward to and develop strategies for improvement.

So far, I am focusing on being less reactive and recognizing that I need more time than most to process emotions, especially in traumatic or challenging circumstances. Usually it’s at least a day before I can assess things clearly, but that’s not always possible.

Hopefully I can report back in the future with answers and solutions to many of these and other questions. If you think of any, let me know. For now, maybe it helps to know we are swimming against the same tide (though I don’t like to swim).

Getty image by George Rudy.