“Tom is so argumentative. Anytime we discuss a topic that is emotional, he disagrees with everything I say. He’ll insist he’s right, and when I try to reason with him he quickly gets annoyed, then shuts down. It’s one of the most frustrating parts of our relationship.”
Communication problems of one kind or another occur all the time for adults with Asperger’s. When this takes the form of arguing, it can be the most trying experience for a non-Asperger’s person, be it a friend, colleague or spouse.
Someone with Asperger’s may feel raw emotions but not be able to identify what it is about or why it’s happening, and frequently it is expressed in a heated or angry way.
The Asperger’s person often has no idea what he or she is feeling, and even less how you are feeling.
Discussions tend to stay at a superficial level, often focused on facts, ignoring subtly and nuance, and with little regard to multiple perspectives on any given position.
Talking about disagreements often increases the person’s stress level, reminding them that conversations don’t resolve differences since they’ve never worked before. The difference between constructive criticism and hurtful criticism is hard to see for many adults with Asperger’s.
But resolving disagreements is absolutely necessary for a lasting relationship, so finding a way to argue effectively is critical if you want to stay engaged with someone who has Asperger’s.
Here are some suggestions for improving the chances of disagreeing successfully with your Asperger’s partner.
Choose The Right Time
Don’t address problems when he or she is angry. Wait until later, when both of you are calm and relaxed. If an argument starts, stop the conversation. Go away, if necessary, and give yourself time to settle down. You may need to be the voice of reason and to do that you can’t be angry.
Focus on Problem Solving
Don’t try to score points or prove you’re right. Remember you are trying to solve a problem. That should be your goal, not winning a contest or showing you know more.
Deal with issues one at a time. People with Asperger’s don’t see how things are interrelated, especially topics that are personal and emotionally driven. Mixing these topics confused them.
Consider whether you are arguing about facts or opinions. If it’s about facts, keep your argument to what can’t be disputed. If it’s an opinion, yours or others, be careful about trying to convince your Asperger’s partner that you’re right. You are certainly entitled to your opinion but that doesn’t mean he or she has to agree with you.
Talking directly to someone with Asperger’s about a disagreement often leads to a standoff. He or she doesn’t understand your position and you can understand theirs. Try writing to each other. This gives both sides some distance from the complicating emotions, and it allows reason a chance to organize and shape the discussion.
Some consider writing to be an impersonal form of communication, a less effective means of solving problems than talking face to face. However, when emotions cloud one’s thinking and interfere with problem-solving, as often happens with Asperger’s, the detachment of communicating through writing can turn a struggle into a cooperative undertaking.
It’s also helpful often to have a record of a face-to-face conversation by writing down the outcome afterward. You can refer to it later on if there is a dispute as to what was said and agreed upon.
Adults with Asperger’s don’t understand metaphors, generalizations, jokes, analogies, and sarcasm. It’s fine to use examples to illustrate your point but stay away from language that has multiple meanings.
Likewise, be specific about what you are arguing for or against. The more clearly defined your points are, the easier it will be for your partner to understand you and follow your argument.
Stick With It
Don’t be discouraged if arguments to end up going nowhere. Chances are your partner with Asperger’s doesn’t understand you and/or can’t shift positions in a way that leads to a different outcome. But this is a matter of the unique characteristics of Asperger’s, and the above suggestions are ways around this problem.
People with Asperger’s tend to be determined. After all, they’ve had to deal with differences and obstacles from early in life, and they can appreciate persistence. With patience, knowledge of Asperger’s, and flexibility on your part in approaching arguments, you are more likely than not to succeed in the long run.
Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Asperger’s psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. To ask a question or schedule an appointment, please call 415-922-1122.