One very striking result of growing up with one Asperger parent and one neurotypical (NT) parent is that children develop the sense of psychological invisibility. They feel ignored, unappreciated and unloved, because their context-blind Aspie family member(s) is so poor at empathic reciprocity. We learn from dialectical psychology that we come to know ourselves in relation to others. Throughout our lifespan, we continue to weave and reweave the context of our lives, and our self-esteem, by the interactions we have with our friends, coworkers, neighbors and loved ones.
We all need positive messages, hugs and smiles to reinforce our self-esteem so we learn healthy reciprocity in our relationships. Without these daily reminders, children can develop odd defense mechanisms, like becoming psychologically invisible to others and even to themselves.
What does psychological invisibility mean? Here’s an example:
Rose Marie, a high school senior, had a very hard time inviting friends over to her house after school. Her Asperger mother had the habit of locking her out of the house for hours while she took her afternoon bath. Even though she was home all day, she would sit in her nightgown and read until the afternoon. When it would finally occur to her to take a bath, she would stop whatever she was doing and take one. It didn’t matter what time of day or what activities were scheduled. If Rose Marie had a friend visiting, her mother would make them go outside, and then she would lock the door so that they couldn’t get in to bother her.
When only the family was home, her mother would take a bath and wander around the house naked. She liked to sit in her “altogether” to dry off for a couple of hours before she would reluctantly get dressed again. She really hated getting dressed. Sometimes Rose Marie would find her sitting at the kitchen table, naked and reading. People with Asperger’s Syndrome are often overly stimulated by bathing, wetness, or certain textures of clothing against their skin. And they often have difficulty coordinating timing with other things — like Rose Marie’s mother having trouble finishing her bath before her daughter got home from school.
Rose Marie knew her mother cared about her, but the way her mom ignored whatever was going on except for her own perceptions made her feel invisible, abandoned and humiliated.
It’s not that those with Aspergers are trying to ignore their family. It’s just that their context blindness makes tuning into the social environment next to impossible. Even worse, they don’t tune into the specific social cues that distinguish their loved ones from others. Rose Marie’s mother knew that it would be inappropriate to be naked in front of someone other than her immediate family, but she was clueless how humiliated her daughter felt by being locked out of the house.
It is one thing to be treated as if you are invisible. It is another to come to believe it and act like it. When children feel invisible to their Asperger parent, they can come to believe they deserve to be ignored. They develop coping mechanisms similar to psychic numbing, where your own feelings become invisible to yourself. They develop a “tough cookie, no fear” exterior to get past their feelings of insecurity.
In the field of trauma research, there are certainly a lot of explanations for the psychic numbing that results from suffering severe trauma. Until now, few have really looked at the trauma suffered by NTs who are subjected to constant disregard by their Asperger family members. The result of this disregard is what I call invisibility. The daily trauma of being invisible to an Asperger parent or partner who holds an emotional hostage in his or her own home can best be described as ongoing traumatic relationship syndrome (OTRS).
In 1997, Families of Adults Affected by Asperger Syndrome (FAAAS) came up with the term “mirror syndrome” and later “Cassandra phenomenon” to explain the stress of living with Asperger Syndrome family members. But these terms were still too vague. Currently, FAAAS favors the term “ongoing traumatic relationship syndrome” (OTRS). They define it as “a new trauma-based syndrome, which may afflict individuals who undergo chronic, repetitive psychological trauma within the context of an intimate relationship.”
Even if someone comes into a relationship with a strong sense of self-esteem, it can be demolished in short order by a partner or spouse who has an empathy disorder. How can those who feel invisible cope?
Among intelligent and well-educated people, it’s quite common to come up with an explanation of why life has turned out the way it has. But these explanations change nothing. In fact, these explanations tend to seal fate. It’s really a way to be invisible to others, locking the door to new relationships. People come to know you only through these explanations. No one has had the chance to know the person you are today.
An old-fashioned Southern euphemism is oddly appropriate for neurotypicals in this situation: “No explaining; no complaining.” If you think about it, this homespun advice makes a lot of sense. Explanations are used as a defense against the sadness of being ignored. Explaining and complaining are defensive maneuvers that we use when we feel trapped. They are attempts to prove to ourselves that we are okay; whereas if we are truly okay, then what is there to defend?
I have heard plenty of explaining and complaining from NTs with AS parents or partners, and it is usually the explaining that NTs cling to. Complaining is more of a victim kind of thinking. Complainers accept that they are trapped, but they don’t like it — and they tell everyone about it. Blaming others takes the burden of responsibility off the complainer. However, it still makes them feel out of control of their lives. Analysis and explanation provide a surefire way to feel in charge of a situation. When an NT child takes responsibility for her parent’s actions, it gives her a false hope that she can change the parent. It’s not true, of course, but it feels much better than complaining.
Everyone who wants to cope with these feelings of invisibility must stop explaining or complaining. Everything you can talk about is now — what you are feeling or hearing or seeing or smelling right now. Don’t analyze. Don’t blame others or yourself. Don’t judge either. No complaining. No explaining. Remember, the minute you say, “because,” you are probably launching into an explanation once again. Stop it. Take a deep breath. And begin again.
This will enable you to experience feeling truly okay, acceptable, fully alive — even without an explanation or a complaint. The no explaining, no complaining exercise helps with learning how to “just be.” It opens up a world that holds the opportunity to know that you are loved whether or not you have a good explanation. Explanations are for the invisible. When you feel free to show the world who you really are, no explanations are necessary.