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.