The Rorschach inkblot test is a great illustrator of the point here. A random inkblot can be interpreted in different ways by different people, and based on what they see, a psychologist or psychiatrist can use that information towards diagnosing psychopathology.
So there are two points – the first is, that the same thing can be interpreted in different ways by different people, and the second, is that depending on a person’s life experience, training (or lack thereof), environment or upbringing and all sorts of other reasons, they can have a bias to see things a particular way. Hence the making of assumptions, often incorrect in the case of the autistic people they are assuming about.
I have my own experiences both as an adult with Asperger’s and as a parent of autistic children, of miscommunication and misunderstanding with neurotypical people. And it cuts both ways.
I feel sure that many parents of autistic children out there, can give testimony to their child saying, (or in the throes of anxiety or meltdown) screaming out, things that would be so likely to be misinterpreted by others, particularly others who don’t know the context or the child’s condition. Only today, I also read of a worried mother whose autistic child had gone into school and made false accusations against her father of getting her up in the middle of the night to “beat her up” and then laughingly told the parents later on “I lied to see if you get taken away” and the mother is heartbroken. Clearly the issues here in this particular child, and no doubt others, are low emotional maturity/awareness, low empathy, normal-high intellect and communication deficits – which can be a perfect storm for things getting either taken the wrong way or the child not realising the impact of their words or actions because of autism. My own younger child (aged 9) has said awful things to me, in a calm and cool voice, because I won a game of snakes and ladders against her. Later on, she will say she didn’t mean it, but that she was angry. You would never have known she was angry by the way she said it and the delay after the game finished, before she said it. It was meant to hurt me, because she was angry, but she had also clearly ruminated about losing the game and thought about what she could say to hurt me.
Once, we undertook a family outing to a play centre, my youngest child got stressed inside the soft play area and had a meltdown, I tried my best to calm her down but she couldn’t stop (it’s a runaway train a lot of the time) and in the end I had to take her by the hand and outside to the car. All the toddlers in the centre were staring open-mouthed, at this older child screaming, like one of them having a tantrum – times ten. Whilst taking her across the car park, she was screaming “Help! You’re taking me away!” and I could see people looking wondering whether I was abducting someone else’s child.
There have been many times the children have both yelled things out at home which I cringe at, because I am acutely aware that to a neighbour through the walls, the meaning will sound totally other than what it actually is. And bearing in mind that many autistic children are hypersensitive and hyper-reactive to small things, the frequency of screams and tears and yelling of misconstruable things, can be a big concern for a family.
Because autistic children often say things in a factual way, without explaining further, this is another cause for other people to misunderstand and jump to conclusions without looking deeper or enquiring further. Being misunderstood can have all sorts of consequences, the child may not have the insight to realise they are being misunderstood, or what the implications are, and the parents may be the only people who really know the child and their unique way of expressing themselves and what they actually mean. You cannot raise a child from a baby without picking up what they mean in the way they express themselves, parents of NT children “learn” their children, but parents of autistic children take this to a whole other level. You know how a mum is often the only person to understand the particular babble of their toddler, which everyone else finds unintelligible, or how the spouse of a motor neurone disease sufferer will know by a twitch or eye movement exactly what they mean? That times a hundred, and if the parent is on the spectrum themselves, perhaps that times a thousand.
Then there is the issue of atypical presentation of emotions. Many parents will know of the ‘different behaviour between school and home‘ scenario – sadly even clinicians aren’t fully aware of this and many other professionals cannot grasp it and refuse to accept it is even possible. This can lead to schools denying a child is having difficulties coping and professionals in turn, accusing parents of either exaggerating or even making up their child’s difficulties. This can of course have the potentially devastating effect of the child not receiving the support they need, which in turn affects the child’s mental health and services refusing to accept the problem can be a big strain on a family. I still shudder when I recall recently reading in the comments below a media article on bullying (something many ASC children suffer from) a mother describe how CAMHS’ failure to support her bullied autistic child, led to their suicide. Rates of bullying of autistic children can be as high as 63% (possibly higher as those are only the reported cases). If a child is bullied and the school doesn’t address the problem or accept that it even exists, because the child reports it with flat affect so it is not taken seriously, then this shows professionals are not understanding the unique nature of autistic traits and difficulties.
Autistic children may also display “inappropriate” emotions which an uneducated person would not understand. For instance, laughing whilst feeling distressed, or want to extricate themselves from a situation or environment. My husband does not see, that if he teases the children and they are laughing, that this might hide the fact that they are not enjoying it – I can see that they might be close to tears and the laughter disguises how they are really feeling. Or when he has taken them out, to him they can appear to be fine and enjoying the outing, but the moment they return home either one of them (and sometimes both) can throw themselves at me loudly complaining and almost crying about how they didn’t enjoy it. And it’s complicated by alexithymia causing difficulty understanding and expressing their emotions. So when a parent, often the mother, can see what is happening with their child, they can have immense difficulty getting professionals and services to recognise it. They can be accused of being neurotic, anxious, over-protective, controlling and even more serious things, when they try to seek help for their child and explain the difficulties. Often also, an autistic child will release their distress and feelings with the person and in the place, they feel safest to do so – at home with the mother. They are masking it in front of others and this is why the training and awareness of services and professionals is essential, as is professionals treating parents with respect and listening to them.
Life is hard enough with autism, or raising autistic children, we don’t need misjudging been thrown on top of that.
I will finish by requoting something I quoted in one of my other posts:
“They judge me on the bit they can see and what they are able to see sadly will itself be limited by their own conditioning…” (Lyte)