Reflections of and on a probably Asperger's parent parenting an Asperger's kid (or 2)!

dragon pups

dragon pups

Friday, March 1, 2013

On the Power of Apology...

This is going to be VERY long and detailed, because I have no other way to say to it.  My coping mechanism is finding context, so I build it...

A week or so ago, a page I follow on FB that is run by an autistic adult [a population who has been telling parents to start "passing the mike" instead of misrepresenting them] posted a picture/ explanation of meltdowns.  As I understand it, the author's point is that she seldom addresses meltdowns because they can be avoided (for the most part) with appropriate thoughtfulness ahead of time (accomodations, self-advocacy).  I TOTALLY agree on that point.  Ultimately we all face the task of helping the people around us perceive our "rose" as worth our "thorns" - of making people comfortable with our weirdness because we can show them our gifts.  My life has brought me to places that labeled my strengths, to people who valued my abilities, to conditions that enabled me to work well and synthesize my experiences.  I find that I am less defensive about my "thorns" because I can help others "smell my roses".  The language of "sensory processing" has been my most effective tool - allowing me to legitimate my needs and differences - as well as those of the people around me.  It has enabled me to label and use those strategies that "make it not personal"...

I believe that was the point the author was trying to make - that lashing out/ the melt down is NOT personal.

BUT - does that absolve the person having the meltdown of responsibility for their actions?

The advice (as I read it) was to ignore them, to completely disregard and dismiss them.  This is, ultimately, the same advice given to parents by all elders - ignore the behavior so that we only reinforce "good" behaviors, the ones you want the child to practice.  If you only offer positive reinforcement (NOT negative) then the child is more likely to demonstrate the behaviors you wanted in the first place.  Ultimately this is the philosophy behind dog training, and ABA (as I understand it). It IS often an effective means of dealing with a behavior.  But there are many who find that a little bit of negative reinforcement balances the positivity, and drives points home.  I have often pointed out that "a person only sits on a cactus ONCE".  There is brain-based research cited in the mediation workshops I have been taking about exactly that phenomena - that our brains are "wired" to learn faster and more permanently from fear.  But history also proves that fear is a weak motivator in the long-term...  I am as much about building human dignity as the next guy - want to build MY dignity, so I want to build yours too - but my teaching experience has led me to find that there is an appropriate place and use of discipline and negative reinforcement.

So - the meltdown.  The argument (as I understand it) is that the meltdown is uncontrollable, un-stop-able, and as such, the person melting down should not be held accountable for the meltdown.  Like a seizure?  

So here what I typed in response to being told to "ignore it"  [as I have been told to do for my husband, my grandmother, other members of the family - since I can remember] :
I think this conversation has hit on the crux of the issue... I TOTALLY understand the desire/ need to say " mean things", to lash out verbally, even physically... I mean I have done it myself my whole life, but it is NOT socially acceptable to scream insults. The school does NOT forget, and basically builds a criminal record for the child... seen it happen time after time, and the child becomes the " usual suspect", and their self esteem is DESTROYED because they are the constant "bad guy"... and as for an adult... my husband CLEARLY engages in this cycle, and the implied threats at minimum leave me feeling completely without value....I have been told by close and outside sources they this is verbal abuse... it is NOT ok. I too dread the thought that my son will hurt another woman like I have been hurt... I tell my son (my whole family)- "you can be angry, but you CAN'T be mean!". NO ONE deserves to have insults hurled at them, and the reality is that the insult hurling makes people afraid. While I TOTALLY understand the need to manage the meltdown, I find it also imperative to decrease the number- to channel the energy into a place that is NOT threatening to others. I understand that advocacy can help to decrease the trigger- and the world is responsible for respecting and meeting those needs, but the autistic person is responsible for not insulting me, or anyone else. I know from experience that holding in those insults leads directly to self injury, but that's the point. The rules of freedom are that you are allowed to abuse yourself, NOT others.  PLEASE, do not misunderstand me. I TOTALLY believe that behavior = communication, and that the only answers and strategies lie in looking for context in the environment- self knowledge and self advocacy. 

 At the very least, I think demanding a sincere apology is reasonable... not because the autistic person doesn't have a right to melt down, but because I have the right to KNOW they "didn't mean it" - if I have the responsibility of putting up with the verbal abuse, they have the responsibility of apologizing, right? I mean is the act of apologizing "punishment"? There is still an underlying need to change the behavior/ re direct it, right?

I too RAGE against the universe.  I was OFTEN berated and disciplined as a child for "being willful", for yelling and screaming, for using the strength of my limbs to try to communicate the level of distress my words could not.  I broke doors, punched walls, lashed insults, tried to find the most hurtful thing I could think of to get people to just leave me the hell alone, I was... desperately unpleasant....  Certainly not all the time, and certainly my parents love me none-the-less, but there have been many who have crossed my path to point out that I lash out, that I am immensely hurtful with my language, tone and actions, and that I am just too excitable/ mean/ single-minded.  I have often said that my son displays behaviors seen in MANY other members of my family; he is not out of context... in fact, he is well within it.  

I certainly was NOT treated like these outbursts were "unconscious" like seizures... I was held responsible for the hurt I caused, and expected to not only remedy that hurt but to improve my behavior.  Did I feel like I could control it?  No.  But whether I felt like I could control it or not was not a requirement for fixing a problem (hurt) my behavior created (or compounded).  I was taught/ forced to apologize for my outbursts.  I was expected to tell the people I had said mean things about that I was sorry.  I learned to say sorry A LOT.  And I was berated for saying that too - told that I clearly didn't mean it since I didn't suddenly change my behavior.  As I moved into adulthood, I was told to quit apologizing for myself, but I just couldn't.  I kept lashing out and being hurtful, doing things that I didn't mean to, saying things I shouldn't have, surpassing my threshold and being passionately loud in my protest.  The screaming until I lost my voice transitioned into tears.  I spent many, many nights through high school just crying on my porch.

This "lashing out" and being insanely hurtful is not singular to me.  My husband has also done it.  I have been married 15 years, and have known him a  total of 20.  We had MANY, MANY episodes in which his frustration threshold was surpassed... If the freeway traffic was bad, I got a tongue-lashing.  If I forgot an item, especially if it resulted in embarrassment, he made me feel very, very tiny; but I somehow felt that he didn't mean it.  I spent many years telling myself that I should not sound like an abused person.  I cried and prayed, but I also recognized a piece of myself in him - a thing that was so very like me, that was not named, but so clearly "there".  My family had reservations about our relationship, but I was determined (obsessed?) - my decision made, my commitment final.  And I sought strategies.  I learned that when a decision had to be made (whether it was to go to a restaurant or buy a car) I needed to spend as much time as possible preparing him for the choice.  It wasn't even as if I had to talk him into what I wanted, it was that I just had to help him be ready to even make a choice.  The story of our engagement is indicative:  2 years from promise ring to engagement ring.  6+ months from "will you marry me?" to a ring on my hand.  NOTHING happened fast, and there was always MUCH negotiating, processing.  His coping mechanism is not about widening, his is about narrowing.  A valid mechanism, but not one I understood.  And he learned that mechanism from his family too...

What I heard from his family is exactly what I heard in mine - "consider the source and ignore" - he/she can't help him/herself to say hurtful things, it is just "how he/she responds to stress", so just pretend you didn't hear them.  Just don't take it personally when you are called an idiot because of frustration with an inanimate object, or circumstances beyond your control...

IS the person having the meltdown absolved of responsibility for their actions?

This question of violent language and action is mentioned in several other responses on that FB post - by many others besides myself.  We, parents of autistic kids, have been told over and over that it is part and parcel of the condition, that we should just "suck it up" and put our child's needs before EVERYTHING else - even public safety (or the perception of safety).  One mother outlined a situation EXACTLY like mine, where her son yelled through the school halls that he hates people and will kill them.  I don't feel like those threats define his personality!  While these threats are easy to "dismiss" in a 5 year old, the school system is, none-the-less, required to document these incidents and builds a "history".  We felt our only option to protect him was to remove him so they don't have the opportunity to build that history!  They are clearly not providing the supports he needs if it has gotten to this meltdown stage - but once he gets there - HOW DO WE FIX THIS?!?!?!  Ignoring it is NOT a realistic/ viable option!  How do we follow up?

Here was the response, to my specific comment:

you are making the meltdown about you. That is never okay. If you are sincere that you have empathy for the person having the meltdown than that sincere can translate to you being able to drop it just as easy as you asking for a sincere apology. You (and all you guys) should spend just a few hours over the next weeks reading how it feels from an autistic perspective after a meltdown. We all feel like shit really badly. We do not have ability to express and you talking about it and especially talking about as if it is about you, will invalidate our emotions and needs at best and destroy us (our self esteem) at worst. Over time (as your child grows) you will be able to do more and more talking about this. Most of us actually largely outgrow meltdowns.

I admit that my experience colors my perception of this response. 
First of all, I am hearing that I a need to prove my "empathy", that I need to prove that I am autistic "enough" to "get it".  In fact, the first draft of this included lots more about my behaviors to prove that I really do understand what it means to have a meltdown, but I have removed them to protect my loved ones from the embarrassment of analyzing my relationships with them publicly.  It has taken YEARS for me to understand what information would embarrass others, and I am using that insight... I do not wish to hurt them further.  I am VERY peeved by the open insinuation that I just have not tried hard enough to "see it from an autistic perspective".  I certainly will NEVER see it from your perspective, I am not you - but you're not me either - so don't assume that I "don't get it"...
Secondly, I feel like I have to prove that I understand the crappiness felt by the person in the aftermath.  Again - My first draft included a description of the guilt I have carried for YEARS, about my destroyed self esteem, about my suicide attempts, about the self injury - but social decorum says that is my baggage, not for public consumption - don't assume that I don't understand...
Thirdly, I can tell you that NOT all adults "outgrow" meltdowns - my husband sure didn't!  I feel like I have been able to redirect, but ONLY through open exploration of the before, during and after - only by seeking the widest context for the meltdowns and accusations and threats made to me by ALL the family who have done it as well as those made by me.  It has taken years of reflection and empathy about the relationships I have built and how I have maintained them, both with specific people who I feel hurt by as well as my general patterns of behavior.  IGNORING it did NOT solve the problem...

And FOR ME an APOLOGY is an important part of the process.  

First of all, it reassures both me and the receiving party that I really DIDN'T mean it, that it was an uncontrolled outburst - that neither one of us has to buy that hype.
Secondly, it protects me.  It is no secret that cops and judges will reduce consequences for truly repentant perpetrators.  We do it to each other too.   By offering the immediate apology, as well as the one days later when I've thought about it, I protect myself from the worst of the very real consequences of violence I incited (no matter how justified).
Thirdly, it DOES help rebuild my self esteem.  Once I can clearly identify how I hurt someone and I act to rectify that hurt, I can respect myself again.  I can forgive myself more readily because I have acknowledged their feelings too, and made them and myself equally important emotionally.  I am effectively communicating how crappy I feel about it with out the self injury.
Fourthly, it is a tactic that is widely socially acceptable and understood (at least in my context of a Judeo-Christian West - but I think it is more universal than that, I just don't have the personal experience to vouch for it).  It is a mechanism that crosses that divide of assumption - that place where I am, or am not, autistic enough to create a sense of relatedness, a sense of being understood.  

Regardless of whether the person "means" they are "sorry", it is an important social construct - like being sorry for stepping on toes in a crowd, or bowling someone over on the street.  An apology opens the door for that honest/ frank conversation about what the "real" problem was (the need that should have been met in the first place).  That opening door will lead to healing.  And I am not talking about the "you are so weird you need to be cured" healing, I am talking about the ability to forgive one's self, the place where you really can hear/ feel what the other person felt, the reflection that enables self advocacy because you honestly know how to "meet in the middle", that place where you get frustrated enough with yourself that you create change, the ability to grow - the healing that gives you permission to be patient with yourself.

I stay with my husband because he has learned to say, and mean, that he is sorry - to show me that he finds my "roses" well worth my "thorns" and that he really is trying to respect me, not just use me as his overload dumping ground.  I want my kids to develop that ability too - to be able to use the language/ vocabulary that connects them to forgiveness (by self & others).  Do I think my 8 year old really "means" he is sorry?  Yes - I KNOW he is, because we have been dealing with the aftermath of his guilt for over a year now (regarding his violent outbursts).  But how would he be able to even broach that guilt if I he didn't know to say he was sorry?  I would HATE for him to think he had to bear that hurt alone...

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