Dealing with conflicts in your important relationships is challenging. Most teens and adults with high-functioning autism fear rejection and will do what they can to avoid it at all costs. So, when conflict arises, it can be extremely upsetting because it triggers feelings of rejection and shame. The instinct might be to avoid conflict. Unfortunately, most if not all relationships go through periods of conflict. Avoiding conflict can mean avoiding deep, meaningful relationships. So, knowing how to cope with and respond appropriately to conflict is an important skill to have. Today I will talk about coping with conflict when you’re neurodiverse and provide you with some resources you can use to cultivate intimacy in your relationships.
The Negative Impact of Shame on Individuals with Autism
If you’ve tried to mask your autism traits, conflict may feel very triggering because you worry that it means you’ve been exposed as different or defective. That brings up painful emotions from past traumas of being invalidated, rejected, or bullied due to your differences and leads you to go into fight or flight mode as an act of self-preservation.
A fight response may entail becoming defensive, explaining or defending your actions, or arguing with others. A flight response may include withdrawing, self-isolating, walking out or running away, not talking, looking at your phone/computer/tablet, or avoiding eye contact.
How to Cope with Conflict as a Teen or Adult with Autism
Work on Reducing Your Shame
In order to lessen the amount of conflict that’s occurring in your life, you need to be introspective and deal with your internal shame. This will help you truly heal. If you love yourself and deal with the shame you feel inside, you will be less likely to jump to negative conclusions when conflict arises.
If you can approach conflict with a clearer head, then you will have the mental capacity to empathize with your partner which is critical in dealing with conflict in any relationship.
While a fight or flight response may temporarily make you feel better, it doesn’t eliminate the conflict and the root of the issues you’re having in that relationship. Furthermore, it may hurt the person you’re in conflict with. It can cause them to feel very invalidated or ignored. And, as you may know, that’s a very painful feeling. It may also cause them to lash out at you to protect themselves, which causes further conflict.
Over time, the cycle of conflict continues until it escalates and the relationship or friendship usually ends or gets stuck. It can get stuck as a dissatisfying relationship, lacking intimacy, safety, and trust.
Another thing that’s important to do when you experience conflict is slow down and take deep breaths. Fights happen so fast and can easily trigger intense emotional responses that make conflict worse. It actually can be helpful to even ask for some time to process how you are feeling. Let the person know how much time you need, such as two hours or a day. Make it clear that your intention is to talk with them about this in the near future. If you don’t make that clear to them, they will likely think you are just avoiding them. This could trigger them to feel like you don’t care about them.
After you have told them you need time to process how you’re feeling, make sure to set aside time for this. You might process the feelings alone or with another trusted person. For instance, you can process feelings alone by journaling or looking at emotion words. Do a google search for an emotion wheel or emotion word list. Use this emotion resource to identify how you are feeling and why you are experiencing a strong reaction. If you talk with a trusted person, select someone who listens to you and doesn’t immediately try to jump to solving your problem. You need time to process your feelings, reactions, and thoughts, before you consider problem-solving.
Slowing down and advocating for time to self reflect is all way easier said than done, especially when you’re in the heat of the moment. Conflict is even more triggering when you’ve dealt with the traumas and microaggressions most of your life, like many individuals with autism. For many people, conflict triggers fight or flight, which activates parts of the brain involved in basic survival rather than rational thinking. This is why conflict is so hard for people to cope with in relationships. We can do and say things during conflict that are hurtful because we are reactive and not thinking clearly. Simply breathing deeply for several seconds helps slow down the fight or flight response. This might give you enough space to say your line about needing space. It is important to practice this line, so it will be easier to say in the heat of the moment, when your prefrontal cortex is not fully functioning.
Empathize with Others- even when you don’t agree
One thing that’s very important to keep in mind when dealing with conflict is how powerful empathy can be. Remember, just because you empathize with someone, does not mean you agree with them. So, you can emphasize with the person you’re arguing with, and have a completely different perspective. Emphasizing with the person you’re in conflict with is very challenging. But, it can be the key to defusing tension quickly and effectively.
The first step in showing other’s empathy is identify the emotion they’re expressing, and ask yourself if you’ve ever felt that emotion before? If you have, then you can emphasize with them. What matters most is that you offer them that you express to them that you understand the feelings behind their complaints. Then, validate their emotions and offer a mini-disclosure.
Here’s an example:
Your friend is upset with you for “blowing them off” and going home when you were supposed to hang out after work. But, you weren’t trying to blow them off, you just needed to recharge your social battery and they took it the wrong way. Here’s a suggestion for handling this conflict:
- Breathe and identify their emotional response:
- Instead of going into fight or flight mode, take a deep breath and ask yourself what’s the emotion that they’re trying to express? Are they frustrated, disappointed, or feeling rejected?
- Think: Have I ever felt that way? If the answer is yes, then you can emphasize with them.
- I have felt hurt and rejected before, and I didn’t like it
- Validate their emotion
- I’m so sorry you felt ___. I know how painful that can feel. I did not mean to make you feel that way.
- Offer them a mini-disclosure
- Sometimes, when I feel overwhelmed, I need to go home and re-charge my social battery, it’s just the way I am wired.
Empathizing and Validating Takes Practice
Emphasizing and validating doesn’t come easily to everyone. So it’s important to practice it. At our California autism therapy clinic, we practice this in every social skills group. It’s called the peer consultation model. Every week one group member shares about an inner personal problem and conflict they’re having. Then group members ask questions to understand better. These questions are open-ended questions about how they are thinking and feeling. Then, each member validates how the person sharing feels. This includes the three steps above and also sharing positive and affirming things about the person sharing and giving advice when appropriate. We never give unsolicited advice and always check with the person sharing first.
If you’re interested in our social skills groups, you can learn more about them here. Right now we are offering all our groups via online therapy to California residents.
How to handle conflict with neurotypical individuals:
If you’re in a conflict with a neurotypical person, then it’s important to communicate your needs to them. Often neurotypicals communicate in less direct and non-verbal ways. This may be very hard for you to understand. So, you need to tell them that. Explain to them that because you’re neurodiverse, non-verbal or non-direct communication is confusing to you. Tell them that you can’t read their mind so you need them to be clear and tell you verbally how you’re feeling.
My last point on the subject of managing conflict is, make sure the person you’re in conflict with is willing to extend you the same understanding and validation you’re extending to them. They need to be willing to put in the work and learn how to communicate too. Otherwise, your relationship will not work, or you will be taken advantage of.
Looking for more? Begin online autism therapy in California:
If you are looking for support in learning how to communicate effectively with others, then I encourage you to consider beginning autism therapy. If you live in the state of California and are interested in working with our team of autism therapists, we would be honored to meet with you to learn more about your needs and discuss the ways we can support you. Currently, we are offering all our autism therapy services online to individuals living in the state of California.
To begin online autism therapy in California, follow these steps:
- Contact us for a free phone consultation using this link. You will meet with our care coordinator.
- Like us on Facebook. On our page, we post useful information about our practice
- Sign up to receive our newsletter.
Autism Therapy Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
Our autism therapy clinic located in the South Bay Area serves teens and adults on the autism spectrum. We help high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed ASD traits, and their families.
Right now, we are providing all our autism counseling services online. Our autism therapists offer a variety of counseling services including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. Also, we run several different social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, neurodiverse adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. Contact our autism therapy office for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation.
About the Author
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. She is also is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice specializing in autism therapy services in the South Bay Area, near San Francisco, CA. Dr. Oswald specializes in helping neurodiverse teens and adults and facilitating social skills groups.