What makes it especially challenging to communicate with adults on the autism spectrum is that each individual has different issues, and “hot buttons” (just like neurotypicals!) While it’s true that many people with autism tend to be literal and repetitive, misunderstandings often occur in “gray area situations” which are unpredictable from one person and setting to the next. For example, my daughter Samantha, now 26, has trouble with some—but not all—suggestions and opinions.
“What’s the difference between giving a suggestion and interfering in my life?” she asks, sounding irritated and defensive.
“A suggestion is an opinion or idea,” I reply. “You don’t have to follow or agree with it, and there’s no need to be angry if you feel differently.”
She still doesn’t quite understand. “Can you give me an example? How is your suggestion different from interfering?”
This is not easy-peasy to explain, as Samantha likes to say. “Your life skills coach asked me for suggestions on what you could work on next so I offered a few ideas about grooming and social media. But I did NOT insist or interrupt whatever you were doing that moment and demand that you work on social media or grooming instead. That would be interfering.”
Sometimes I feel like I’m picking my way through a mine-field. This morning I asked Samantha if she planned to do her laundry this week.
“No, I did it last week,” she answered immediately.
Pushing my luck a little further, I inquired: “Do you have enough gym clothes and underwear to go two weeks without doing laundry?”
“Why are you asking me this? Why do you have to interfere?”
“Because I want you to learn to think ahead so you don’t end up wearing dirty clothes.” Or asking to borrow mine at the last minute.
“Are you infantilizing me? Isn’t this interfering?”
No. Maybe. I try to choose my battles wisely. “Not really. I’m just trying to help you to plan your life as an independent adult.”
“But I am an independent adult,” she responds. “I don’t need your help with my laundry. Why did you have to bring this up?”
Speaking as a 26 year-old, her question is legitimate, but so is my answer. “All adults need help. Sometimes I tell your Dad his shirt has a stain and he might want to wear something else. He appreciates that I notice and care how he looks.”
“All adults need help?” she asks, not quite believing me.
Boy, do we ever—especially these days. “Yes! I need a lot of help with technology. I find it very frustrating, even though there are plenty of adults much younger than I am who find it easy.”
“But why do you have to help me? Why can’t it just be my life-skills coach?”
These questions are easier. “Because sometimes if I leave it to the two of you, it becomes MY problem and MY headache if there’s a mistake. Like when I asked your life-skills coach to have you count each set of pills, to be sure you’d refill what you needed for our vacation. You ran out of one of your pills a few days before we went home because you neglected to tell your coach—and I didn’t ask—if you took that medication once or twice a day. Fortunately, that pill wasn’t as important as the others, but you still wanted ME to help you solve the problem, remember?”
“Yes,” she answers, sounding more civilized. “Sometimes you make suggestions or interfere so we can avoid a headache or problem later.”
I smile at her choice of words and inclusion of the royal we. Sometimes these headaches are unavoidable, but mostly it’s just a question of now or later. Mothers of kids on the autism spectrum—no matter what age—can never really go on vacation or totally let go. The challenge is to improve communication with your child so the relationship remains loving and respectful most of the time.