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  • Sarah Nannery

The Blame Game

I have started exploring some of the local resources designed for adults with Autism. One very helpful group I have found is a "Women with Autism" support group hosted by AANE (The Asperger / Autism Network).

It has been incredible to sit in a room for 2 hours with a bunch of other adult women on the spectrum, and to hear how some of them struggle with the same things I do, how some of them have vastly different experiences, and how many of them transcend ASD as a barrier - using it and the varied traits it brings as strengths in their every day lives.

I've gleaned many new perspectives, ideas, and strategies from the interaction of this group. One idea that has stuck with me the most so far came out of a particularly vivid - and universal - example of one woman's recent struggles.

She was describing how, in meeting with a lawyer, the man essentially railroaded her into signing a document she wasn't fully prepared to sign. He talked over her, telling her it was in her best interest to sign over and over again. He saw that she was upset and it appeared that he wanted to help, but he was not helping in the way that she needed. As someone with ASD, she needed more time and space than someone else might have needed in order to digest what was happening before making a decision.

In the group, this woman shared how she felt that she should have been more prepared, that she should have spoken up more, that she should have been able to think fast enough to understand what he was saying and be able to make a decision in the moment.

You can imagine, this would be a distressing experience for anyone, ASD or no.

The women around the table validated this, many nodding and saying that they had been in similar situations, and had been similarly unable to do the things in the moment that, later, they felt they should have been able to do.

I have been in this situation myself many times - it's an exaggerated form of the "If I'd only said X..." kind of feeling people get, when you think of the perfect comeback an hour after you really needed it. Except for someone with ASD, it happens much more frequently, in much more important situations, and causes much longer and deeper reflection afterwards. I've spent hours - sometimes days - beating myself up mentally over the things that I should have said or done in moments of real-time interpersonal interaction.

I've always blamed myself for these shortcomings. Just as the woman in the support group was blaming herself.

But who - or what - really, is to blame?

The organizer of the group, upon hearing this woman's story, responded in a way that I was not - nor were many of the women around the table - expecting:

"I hear you placing a lot of blame on yourself," she said. "But - aside from the fact that it sounds like this man could have handled the conversation better and not tried to push you into something you clearly weren't ready for - I don't think either of you are to blame. Would you fault someone using a wheelchair for not being able to get up the stairs?"

This question flabbergasted many of us. No, of course we wouldn't.

"Then, how can you fault yourself for not being able to verbally advocate for your needs under pressure?" ASD makes this virtually impossible - with neurological differences that make verbal communication more challenging, that make self-advocacy extremely daunting, and that compound these issues even more when stakes are higher - the fact that the woman who shared her story couldn't speak up in the moment was akin to the fact that a person using a wheel chair can't go up stairs.

This was a new thought for many of us in that room.

I could see, with careful observation, the eyes of the women all around the room asking themselves the same question that I was suddenly asking myself: Is it really my fault that I can't speak up sometimes?

Maybe not.

At first, I cringed at this thought. Did I really want to blame my disability for the fact that I can't do certain things? Or that certain things are much harder for me than for other people? Wouldn't blaming my shortcomings on something that I can't control just give me an excuse to never try to get better, to never overcome the toughest challenges, to never try the things I think I can't do?

But then I realized, it wasn't really about blame.

It was about knowledge. It was about fact.

And knowing that it wasn't because I was simply too slow, or too quiet, or too timid that I didn't speak up sometimes - it was because I literally couldn't, due to a disability and not negative personality traits - made me feel better.

So much better.

It was like the sky opened up. Weights I never knew were there lifted off my shoulders, and I felt in that moment like I could have flown.

Does it mean that I can never improve? Of course not. Does it mean that I can use it as an excuse for not being the person I want to be and doing the things that I want and need to do? No. It is still my responsibility to find work-arounds, to make preparations, to use tools and create systems by which I can overcome my disability. It is still my responsibility to be a successful human being.

But I will no longer blame myself when I fall short because of something related directly to my ASD. Or at least, I'll try not to. :)

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