Arguing Effectively With An Adult With Asperger’s


Five simple suggestions can change the way you argue with your Asperger's partner

A few simple suggestions can turn arguments with someone who has Asperger’s into productive discussions

“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.

Consider Writing

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.

Be Literal

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.

3 responses to “Arguing Effectively With An Adult With Asperger’s”

  1. Steve Lyman says:

    Thank you, Dr. Ken. This article is quite helpful.

  2. Darth Autist says:

    Great article! I’ve found this information to highly valuable when debating with my autistic (Asperger’s) colleagues at work. Now, in light of this information, I can effectively discount his perspective knowing that I fully understand his position, no matter how complex, as I Asperger’s are likely confused about their own arguments. My co-worker has this very annoying habit of pointing how appeals to emotion do not make my factual evidence any stronger, and this I find to be infuriating. I can only imagine the great Greek orators felt the same sense of frustration when Socrates pointed out that a heartfelt oratory wasn’t the truth simply because it was more theatrical.

    What’s more annoying is when my colleague will argue that, although emotions are important, they do not necessarily govern good decision-making and that sometimes other perspectives do not hold water. He used this line of reasoning to discredit the notion of moral relativism. How self-important can he be!? I mean, really, first he was just an indignant asshole but now he’s a eurocentric racist too?

    As for their inability to interrelate data, I’ve noticed this to be the case at all points. Although my colleague is exceptional at his engineering work, I find that he has difficulty understanding why me appeals to emotion should underwrite his logical thinking. It’s almost as if he’s incapable of feeling anything at all. Maybe I should smack him upside the head; I’m sure he’ll feel that! Haha… He always responds by telling me absolutely insane “facts”. His favorite defense is pointing out that Wittgenstein was autistic and that many, if not most, of the silicon valley mega-corporations, are run by Asperger’s and that their work of combining number theory, linear algebra, and social engineering to create their products proves that Asperger’s can think multidisciplinary. Most frustrating of all, he then tells me that I shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover,” which infuriates me because I know for a fact he doesn’t really understand what that expression means as idioms are incomprehensible to the autistic mind as your research suggests.

    I’m sorry for the long post but these Asperger’s can be so tiring… It’s as if nothing I say ever gets through to them no matter how often I try to appeal to their higher senses. Anyway, thank you for this article. I’ll be sure to pass it along to my Asperger’s colleague in the hopes that he may understand himself better and make the workplace that much more enjoyable for us all.


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