For people on the spectrum, feeling a sense of connection to others can be a real challenge…not because of autistic traits (I think this is largely a myth). What makes it challenging is that others have a habit of seeing only what they want to see.
As a result, it’s very easy to feel “invisible” around others. Not because you’re “shut down” or hiding…but because others can be blinded by labels and expectations.
I wanted to share a conversation I had on this topic. As mentioned in previous posts, I began therapy at the age of thirty and developed a habit of writing out each discussion from memory. I am currently going back and piecing together all of these sessions, so that I can make them available in one form or another. (Click here to see a sample discussion from a previous post.)
It was a frequent topic: feeling invisible; being concealed behind social labels.
With written permission, the Doctor shared the following story one day.
The discussion for the past few weeks has been: authenticity, and the challenge of being known by other people. Internal life vs. how others perceive us…and how being different can create huge amounts of distance from the world.
A session begins. We talk for a bit; then I begin to feel mentally tired. I pause, drink coffee as a stall tactic. Usually The Doctor waits out silences. Today she asks, “Can I relate a story?”
“I have a client,” she says, “She’s given permission to share this.”
I shuffle my feet, stare at my coffee.
“I met her for the first time a few months ago. She’s sixteen. Had previously received a diagnosis of Asperger’s, but was here for depressive symptoms. Her mother was with her. I talked to the mom for a bit about background info, general history. The daughter sat with her shoulders slumped…looked off to the side the entire time; flat affect. She was silent for awhile. It was about mid-way through the session that she began talking. Very articulate…her vocabulary was amazing. She described high school, her experiences with it. The various cliques, the social structure of it. Her theories on group behavior, personality mechanics. Why…from a ‘purely anthropological standpoint’…she had no chance in life. ‘My neurology is such that it’s a lost cause.’ No emotion as she said this. And it was so striking. The words she chose, the analytical descriptions; I thought, ‘I’ve heard this exact phrasing before.’ She sounded just like you. Word for word.”
She looks at the floor for a bit, thinking.
“Analysis in place of emotions. Depression masking itself behind seemingly-detached statements. I’ve learned this from our discussion and seen it time and time again: Asperger’s lends itself to certain types of defense mechanisms. ‘I’m not depressed. It’s just that factor x…combined with factor y…equals futility.’ Particularly with teen clients, when their social context is beginning to overwhelm…I hear that pop up. With the kids, it’s a little different. I’ll hear the very structured thinking of AS. ‘The world has to work this way…and that way. Always. Period.’ But if depression works it’s way into the picture over time, it just latches on to the structured thinking like a parasite, hides behind it.”
She shakes her head.
“The mom. When she heard the daughter talking…she reacted with genuine shock. She had described her daughter as ‘shy’. As far as she was concerned, the daughter just lacked confidence. And you could tell that she had never really had a discussion with her about it…about who she really was. She mentioned that her daughter ‘never talked’…was ‘too shy to join in with others’. The mom had signed her daughter up for school clubs…church groups…band, and so on. Never saw her interact with others; she just assumed she was anxious, hesitant. At first, when I asked the daughter questions, the mom repeatedly talked over her. Tried to answer for her. ‘I just think she has so much potential. I just wish she’d open up.’ Diplomatically, I had the mom not respond for a bit. And when the daughter began to describe school, analyze it…the mom was really stunned. Her jaw hit the floor. She said, ‘Doctor…I’ve never heard her talk this way before.’ She had no concept of her daughter’s internal life. You know…she was so used to thinking of her daughter as a shy little girl that she could not see the alienated young woman sitting right next to her. When she said, ‘I’ve never heard her talk this way before’, I felt like I was introducing two strangers. ‘Mom…I’d like you to meet someone…this is your daughter. This verbal, intelligent young woman.’ Quite a bit more going on there than shyness. Time to update the construct.”