I started the post An Imperfect Science yesterday about a young girl I work with who has Asperger’s. My intent of posting was to share how challenging it is to do the right thing, respond the right way, and have all the right answers—no matter who you are and no matter how much perspective you have. It is hard.
But along the way in writing, I came across a crucial piece that I thought should entirely merit its own post. Throwing a lifeline.
If ever there is a handbook on Asperger’s, let this be in it.
At the end of the day, the little girl I work with, who had been stomping her feet, noncompliant, and very angry, came up and hugged me. Then she asked with a quirky smile on her face and completely void of any emotion, any sign of distress, and anything other than her usual pleasant voice, how come I didn’t love her anymore.
Now, if you don’t have Asperger’s, I’m going to stop you right here.
I’ve been in this situation. I’ve done similar.
This is where the disconnect between us happens. This is where the trains are on very different tracks. I can’t tell you why on both sides. I can only see my side, my track. So I will guess yours and then tell you mine.
The best I can say is when I’ve asked questions like these in moments like these, I’ve rarely gotten the response I needed. In fact, most times, I don’t even get a response. My question is not answered. My question is not addressed. And apart from not answering the question I pointblank asked, it appears that I have brought negativity on the other side and ended up with negativity coming back at me as a result.
These questions seem to be seen as rhetorical. It appears to be believed I said these words simply to cause guilt, to express negative emotions against the other person, to hurt, to sway a situation such as to manipulate or play the victim, or as any other reason than meriting a real response to the question asked.
Or I think they can be seen as rhetorical because people just simply don’t want to answer on their part. It will mean they are owning guilt or maybe they think they will feel bad about something you’re trying to make them tell you. I don’t know… That’s a guess I have from seeing people shirk away, look down in shame, or try to brush it off and make things up to you.
But these questions are not rhetorical. These are questions. And I would much, much rather prefer to have them answered, than to have anything made up to me; and certainly more than the negative eye roll, the sigh, the frustration, and talking about anything else that is not the specific answer.
This is the best teachable time. This is when I am the most reachable. This is when the little girl I worked with was the most reachable. No account of rewards systems, consequences, behavior shaping strategies, observing others, social and emotional studies, lecturing, and pulling her aside to explain the same words even pale in comparison to her receptiveness and openness in this very moment. She is instigating her own questions, she is starting her own search. And she wants and is ready to take in answers.
Imagine her as that little bear she drew bobbing up and down in a lifeboat. She is asking for a lifeline. She is reaching out. Opportunities like this don’t come all the time. Recognize what she is doing and throw her one. Put aside your own emotions. Put aside your own interpretations of being over-dramatic, negative, whining, or stamp-it-out-it-will-pass. Answer the question. Answer it truthfully. Answer it gently. Answer it factually. And answer it lovingly. She wants a lifeline drawing her back to the boat. She wants to understand. You already work so hard in trying to give her ones. Here is an actual moment. Seize it.
In her mind, her question is real. With the signals she is able to receive, with what she has learned about life, and with what she has learned about me, it is seeming to her as if I don’t love her anymore. This is her genuine understanding.
But this is why this moment is so great, she is asking me. If she didn’t love me enough for it to be worth it, she wouldn’t ask. If she didn’t love me so much to try to fix it, she wouldn’t ask. If she didn’t have such a high opinion of me that this out-of-character contradiction bothers her, she wouldn’t ask. If she wasn’t so comfortable with me to be vulnerable in this way, she wouldn’t ask.
This is the opposite of bringing the other person down. Rather, by asking, she is saying out of all the great things I know about you, something is not lining up, something is not right. She is saying, “I know you are better than what I am receiving from you right now, what am I getting wrong? Correct me.” And she is saying, “If there is a reason you don’t love me anymore, tell me and show me so I can fix it. Because I don’t want this to happen.”
If she were any other child, I would treat this situation differently. I wouldn’t take the emotional bait and feed into the fire. I would probably kindle it down. But she is not any other child and she navigates this world differently.
In knowing this in myself, I was able to recognize this in her. Despite her smile, her nonchalant attitude, and her lack of sadness, I knew that her exterior does not match her interior and this is a question to answer.
So I answered gently and very matter-of-fact, “Of course, I love you. I love you very much. What do you mean?” I asked for clarification. By saying I loved her, I didn’t address her actual issues, and that can be seen as a kind of a brush off.
“I just mean that you don’t love me anymore,” she said with the same little smile, not an ounce of sadness.
“I love you very much, what would make you think that?” We went around like this for a little bit. I kept finding ways to ask for clarification nicely and patiently to let her know that I did not understand but would help answer her once she described more to me. She spent the whole time with her arms wrapped around me as I stood there.
Finally, it came out, still void of emotion, “You don’t love me anymore because you don’t let me do what I want.”
“Of course, I love you. But we all have a job. And my job is to help you learn the best I can. And your job is to learn.”
“But you make me work and I don’t want to. And you should just let me do whatever I want if you loved me.”
When I speak to her, my tone and demeanor plays a huge part. When she is receptive like this, she is already taking in the minutest details. I keep my tone flat, soft, calm, and gentle, void of large emotion, slow, and never frustrated or impatient. Without looking like it, she is on hyper-sensitive alert analyzing and picking apart the smallest details. I want her focus to stay on my words, not my mannerisms, and I don’t want to shut her off with any bit of something that could be considered negative, even a frustrated sigh.
So now that she told me what it is, I can address it. “I love you very much and that is the best way that I can love you. What would I teach you if I just let you do whatever you want? What would happen when you are a big person? We learn this now so we are ready when we are older. This is just how life is. If I didn’t love you so much I wouldn’t teach you these things. I give you consequences because I love you. If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t care about teaching you right from wrong. But I do. I don’t like to see you unhappy, but I love you too much not to teach you these things.”
This conversation seems small. The words seem simple. But to her, this is anything but. She had spent the whole day refusing to do anything, angry with her fists clinched, and even sat for three entire hours not even so much as moving. This had rocked her world in some way. She felt crushed believing that I indeed did not love her, and any reasons I could give her other than the truth, would not be what she needed.
After this, for the remainder of the day, she was an entirely new child. She was happy again and she seemed well-adjusted again. This was anything but small. And the following day, she was no longer angry.
Other times in the day, I had tried to talk to her. But it wasn’t under her terms. She had too much stimuli and she was not receptive and was not open. She would not grab the lifeline. The second I saw she was reaching for one through this question, I knew that was a golden opportunity.
Without the emotion matching, it can be hard recognizing these questions and moments for what they are. It can also be challenging realizing that these are not rhetorical and this is something that the person actually needs an answer to, even if it seems like it shouldn’t ever need to be asked. People with Asperger’ s rarely say things just to say things. Usually if it is said in clarity, it is meant. Recognize these moments; such amazing growth and understanding can happen during them. Step out of your world. See that lifeboat. Throw that lifeline.