Conflict Aversion, Assertion, Aggression and Asperger’s

My eldest daughter, Bubbles, will be entering the 5th grade this August and we have been reading up on social interaction and Asperger’s syndrome in preparation for preteen ‘drama’, conflict, or bullying. It has led me to some fascinating information.

People with Asperger’s syndrome are typically very direct. We don’t do (or even know how to do) those little social ‘tells’ of expression, tone and posture that indicate we are expressing an opinion rather than being contentious. We also tell the truth in ways that SEEM harsh to the recipient even though for us the truth is neutral and thus should not hurt anyone’s feelings.  Inasmuch as we don’t ‘soften’ our ideas and opinions when we communicate them, we are frequently mistaken for aggressive or argumentative. The verbal inflections indicating we are upset or hurt are often mistaken as “anger” by Muggles, leaving them with the impression we were fighting when we were discombobulated.  That’s why even very high functioning autistics have such problems surviving day-to-day life. Nobody reacts like we expect them to, and everyone ascribes us motivations or emotions that are simply not there.

It is especially bad for female Aspies, since any outspoken behavior by women has often been socially constructed as bossiness or bitchiness and used against them in the court of public opinion. Women are socialized to be indirect, and the Aspy resistance to socialization makes us women who use ‘masculine’ ways to communicate. Culture hates this.

A female Aspy’s communication style (or lack thereof) is particularly problematic in interactions with  people who are conflict averse. Having a conflict averse personality already comes with its own problems, in that the desire to avoid a ‘fight’ actually creates more tensions and fights than it would if the conflict were addressed earlier. There are three major types of conflict avoidance:

changing the subject, putting off a discussion until later, or simply not bringing up the subject of contention. Conflict avoidance can be used as a temporary measure to buy time or as permanent means of disposing of a matter. The latter may be indistinguishable from simple acquiescence to the other party, to the extent that the person avoiding the conflict subordinates their own wishes to the party with whom they have the conflict.

In dealing with conflict averse people, a simple statement of opinion by an Aspy can be misunderstood as ‘conflict’ by the conflict averse person yet the Aspy probably won’t have a clue that the conflict averse person even disagrees with him or her. If the conflict averse person only indicates distress non-verbally, by facial expression or other cues, the Aspy is not going to pick up on that 99% of the time. Thus, the Aspy is completely unaware any conflict of any type is taking place. The Aspy never had a fight. The Aspy had an opinion and the person listening seemed to agree with that opinion or to at least be receptive to further information.

Meanwhile, the conflict adverse person is seething with repressed anger. These ‘toxic thoughts’ usually spill out via passive aggressive behavior, which includes the indirect expression of hostility, “such as through procrastination, stubbornness, sullenness, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible.” Passive aggressive people also say snide things and insist they were ‘joking’ in order to insult or hurt others while still avoiding direct confrontation.

Any and all of these passive aggressive behaviors upset Aspies something fierce. If the Aspie is conflict averse, they hide their upset and the whole thing just spirals into a complete breech between the people involved, each one convinced the other one started the unspoken conflict. If the Aspie is assertive, that is he or she  expresses their “feelings, needs, ideas, and rights in ways that don’t violate the rights of others … [and are] usually honest, direct, expressive, spontaneous” in communication, then the Aspie will immediately address the passive aggressive action or remark. This is seen as conflict or even “bullying” by the conflict adverse person, leading to a denial of the present conflict and spawning further conflict in the near future.

Worse, an assertive Aspy can often seem aggressive – a person who will “stand up for their rights, but ignore the rights of others; they may dominate or humiliate other people” – to a conflict averse person because the Aspy’s tone, inflection, and bodily posture are all giving the false impression of anger, causing the conflict averse person to shut down rather than risk escalating the conflict. The conflict adverse person thus feels dominated or humiliated. Even normal assertive people can be misread as aggressive by the conflict averse person due to this kind of accidental domination, but it It is much worse when it is an Aspy because a normal person can at least has a chance of figuring out that the conflict averse person is upset. The Aspy will bumble along happily, totally unaware that a friend or family member is angry with them – or even that conflict has occurred at all.

This can lead to accusations of bullying leveled at assertive Aspies by conflict averse people. However, the accidental domination of a passive person by an assertive one is not bullying.

Characteristics of a bullying situation are:

  • an imbalance of power;
  • the intent to harm;
  • worsens with repetition over time;
  • the distress of the child or teen being bullied, often including fear or terror;
  • enjoyment of the effects on the child or teen being bullied by the person (people) doing the bullying;
  • the threat – implicit or explicit – of further aggression.

Although a conflict averse person may perceive an imbalance of power or threat because they ‘fear’ an assertive person might cause another conflict, that fear is a result of the conflict averse person’s feelings rather than any real behavior or intent of the assertive person. For example — telling someone that smoking will kill them ISN’T bullying, even if they fear arguing with you about it because of conflict aversion; telling someone they are stupid for smoking and/or threatening to punish them in some way for smoking IS bullying.

In fact, ‘punishment’ is a key component of bullying.  When a conflict averse person ‘punishes’ or deliberate does something to emotionally harm the assertive person, it is actually the conflict averse person acting as the bully in that situation. If a manger reminds a conflict averse employee know that a project is due, and the employee perceives this as aggression or bullying them because they feel overworked and/or badgered by the manager, so the conflict averse employee deliberately withholds work data to ‘punish’ the manager, the conflict adverse person is the real bully because they intended to hurt the manager.

How will this effect Bubbles? I’m trying to help her understand that someone teasing her, or being mean to her, or even bullying her may feel justified in their behavior. They’re NOT justified of course, but for them Bubbles may have ‘asked for it’ by being direct. I’m trying to find a way to communicate to my daughter that this is not really her fault, but that Muggles in general and conflict averse Muggles in particular can dislike us intensely just because of who we are. I need Bubbles to understand that attempts to placate or appease a conflict averse Muggle who is bullying her is doomed to failure, and the fact that they resorted to bullying means that they are not a potential friend. The best she can do with conflict averse bullies is avoid them. Even if a grown-up tries to intervene, it will just make the conflict averse bully worse because s/he will blame Bubbles for the conflict with the adult. I also need to help her understand when active, aggressive bullying is happening and that it should be reported to an adult.

I am also in the heartbreaking position of explaining to Bubbles that the old saw about standing up to a bully and everything will be peachy is a lie adults tell themselves and children. Standing up to a bully will at best get the bully to find another target, but it won’t make things great. The bully will probably experience a boiling hatred for the person who made them back down and will always be lurking and waiting for a chance to put a metaphorical knife in that person’s back. If that person is an Aspy, their back can be an easy target because they were unable to marshal the sociocultural defenses of a tightly-knit friendship matrix.

Should bullying ensue or become too bad, I am prepared to homeschool Bubbles. However, she is such gregarious and friendly child, I want to give her a chance in regular school instead of assuming I should take her out of the social group based on ‘what if’. I am striving to be proactive & protective without becoming some helicopter-mom enabler.

Being an adult and a mommy is hard.

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One thought on “Conflict Aversion, Assertion, Aggression and Asperger’s

  1. What a wonderful parent you are. As an Aspie woman who is assertive you have just summed up something it took me many, many years, much heartache, confusion and reflection to figure out for myself.

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