I recently participated in a panel about art therapy. When it was my turn, I shared about how art therapy differs from doing art on your own. After my lengthy explanation, the moderator asked me, “How does art as a healing tool differ from art therapy?”
I was baffled by the question. Hadn’t I just answered that? I immediately assumed I must not have been very clear and tried to explain another way.
Later in the panel, the moderator asked another panelist another redundant question. The panelist simply replied, “I believe I’ve answered that question.”
I was floored.
It never even occurred to me to say that. I immediately assumed it was my fault.
This is actually a common occurrence for autistics. We take 100% responsibility for how well a conversation goes.
Prior to a conversation, we rehearse all of the possible scenarios and how we could possibly respond appropriately.
During the conversation, we’re constantly self-analyzing to make sure we’re saying the right things, having the proper body language, making the right amount of pauses, and more.
After a conversation, we can be especially brutal on ourselves as we pick apart how we handled something, what we said, what we wish we said, and more.
What we seldom pause to think about is that a conversation is only 50% on us. The other person is also responsible for what they said or how they behaved.
We can quickly forget this and slip into self-blame, just as I did with the moderator. The moderator was actually at fault for asking a redundant question. I did not need to re-explain myself. I wish I would have replied as calmly as the other panelist, “I believe I’ve answered that question.”
I do think it is possible for us as autistics to move closer to that kind of response. It first takes recognizing what is happening: seeing that we take 100% responsibility. Once we see things, we can change them.
We have to admit that we need a more appropriate balance. We can do this by catching ourselves when we’re rehearsing or reviewing conversations. We can remember, “Oh yeah, they also could have done some things better.” Or we can remind ourselves, “There will be things outside of my control.”
When we are in the moment and stressed, we can practice reminding ourselves that both parties are responsible. If we are uncomfortable, it may not fully be our fault.
I’m not trying to make us into victims here. Quite the contrary. I’m trying to say we need to take more ownership of ourselves. We have room to grow in our self-confidence - to acknowledge that our feelings, needs, and perspectives are valid. While we can always finesse our delivery, we cannot ultimately control how others feel about what we share.
Sometimes we get so worried about our impact on others and how others feel about us that we don’t share our full selves. This can lead to deep self-alienation and lack of connection with others.
I understand that this is an ironic essay given that autistics are most often accused of being “too blunt” or “abrasive” or “harsh.” These stereotypes can lead us to be extra self-conscious. Many of us think very deeply about the impact of our words. We don’t want to harm others. Most of us have experienced a lifetime of othering and pain. We certainly don’t want to make others feel that way.
We can at times be blunt and straightforward, but we also may beat ourselves up about it and feel like a conversation was a “failure” because of it. The truth is there is far more at play. It is not just us who are responsible.
In the past, I would have beat myself up for how “horrible” that conversation went. I can now recognize that it is not just my responsibility. Other people are also responsible for their words and how they behave. It is not just me.
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