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.

5 thoughts 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.

  2. This is an amazing post! You have broken the social misalignment down so well! I have two teens. One boy, diagnosed Aspie, and one is a girl, (so you know why they never diagnosed her Aspie, but she did get an ADHD diagnosis.) Anyway, she’s very social, so wants to remain in public school, but it’s tough. Letting her do some online message boards really boosted her self esteem because she was among more like-minded kids there. This filled that need and helped her to let go of wanting everyone to like her, including the mean kids. She was better able to avoid conflicts with them and focus on bonding with more like-minded kids at school. I had to take my son out of public in 5th grade because the bullying was becoming life threatening. He’s done fantastic at home, since he never really had much social drive, but he does have one best friend, who is also Aspie. She’s started to take acting classes. It’s a good fit for her and probably will help her pick up more ways to fit socially in many situations.

  3. My experience is a little different. I am an Aspie but I have encountered many, many neurotypical people that are far more aggressive than I and direct. They are the first ones to bully me when I have done nothing to precipitate it. They usually do something like non-conforming to something, or doing the opposite of what was expected and then when I try to point it out and correct it instead of blowing it off then it looks like I am being direct and of course they then want to be conflict aversive. For example the boss tells Person A to relieve me at 12:00 but they don’t for whatever reason. I am left trying to find out why they didn’t come and I have no way to leave and when I try to ask them very meekly and mildly may I add (never yelling or being overdirect) they get the attitude and I become the victim when they were in error for not relieving me. It is always this sequence for me. Another example, Person B was told by the Manager to clean the table and Person B was defiant and didn’t. I cleaned the table. I mention to Person B that I cleaned the table nicely but somewhere down the line Person B takes offense. The manager says the last person balances the drawer. The last person does not balance the drawer but yells at me for not doing it and I point out that I can do it but it was originally their responsibility they then get mad. I try to explain it in a non-threatening way but they can be threatening I am finding out. May be the truth is what upsets them. I am just reiterating the way it was supposed to go and am not really angry at them but I know I hold strong may be in a obsessive compulsive way to the truth. But, where is the responsibility on the person who didn’t do what they were supposed to do and made me get involved? Didn’t the person cause the conflict themselves by not doing what they were supposed to do or remedy it? Anybody have a perspective? It is almost impossible for me to let it go. I am so wound up about it and I have no way to control it. I don’t yell. It is just a conversation with them pointing it out, and why it happened and if they did it which goes on and on and round and round with little understanding from them? It is very hard for an Aspie to lie. Perhaps they want me to cover up their lack of responsibility but is that fair? I know emergencies happen. If they came to me and communicated to me beforehand that they cannot relieve me at 12:00 but Person X will come instead, I am perfectly fine with that. But, I need that piece of information and if I don’t get it I have a meltdown. I know I don’t yell at that but it is a lot of explaining and I am shaken. I think it is harder nowadays because people are not dependable like they used to be. I have seen people blow off things they are supposed to be doing and getting an attitude and I find that wrong and they get away with it. Please help.

    1. I wish I could help … I wind up in the same quandaries from a different angle. It’s like there is some sort of Muggle code we’re not privy to, and they use that code to get awya with shit that is both illogical and inconsiderate.

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