As a result of what I’ve experienced from around the time that I moved from Southampton to Portsmouth, I’ve increasingly been researching and reflecting on (neuro) diversity, (certain) personality disorders and inclusivity. This includes the neuroscience behind how otherization and cruelty come about.
I continue to make astonishing discoveries and gain delightfully sparkling insights during this journey.
Me, I’m neurotypical with well-above-average but far from stellar intelligence. In many respects, I’m pretty middle of the road (as per thorough psychological assessments, including MMPI; it was slightly disappointing to hear that there is nothing special about me, but it was also reassuring).
For some people, I am very easy to overlook and underestimate, but as long as folks don’t actively interfere negatively in my life, that’s usually perfectly fine with me. If they do interfere, then I prefer to try to avoid them as much as possible, move away from them if I can. That’s because I don’t like wasting my time and prefer to choose my battles wisely. When I avoid negative people and don’t do battle with them, they may wonder if I am autistic or learning-disabled. No.
I believe in justice and equality and I do sometimes make a stand. I am a pretty strong person and I have always believed that being a strong person comes with a duty to stand up for those who are less strong and less able to stand up for themselves.
Among other things, my recent experiences have made me realize how challenging the world is for so-called high-functioning mildly autistic people. They get no support, but they have what some of them seem to call “faulty software” (or a lack of certain software) while their hardware works fine. They can build up a lot of resentment, frustration and anger over time. They can undoubtedly often feel very powerless. Professionally, they may find themselves sidelined without understanding what happened. This can lead to resentment but it can also push them into isolation.
See, I discovered that I’ve known a woman who is slightly autistic for decades. I’d had no idea of that. I’d always said that I didn’t know a thing about autism and didn’t know anyone who was autistic. I’ve lost my patience with her a few times in the past; I’ve recently apologized for that and for my misunderstanding of where she was coming from. She’d meanwhile confirmed that she’s autistic.
I also turned out to have known a woman with a (mild) so-called narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) for decades, and I actually like her a lot. I suppose I’ve always seen the person, separate from the “symptoms”, the person who she was often so scared to show to the world. She’s very smart, classy, down to earth and she’s got a great sense of humor, too.
Unlike many people with NPD, she has insight into how she ticks. As an undergrad, she took some psychology courses and about ten years ago, she was seeing a psychologist. Her partner confirmed that. She’s also told me that her partner had said to her that she was “always scheming”. (She repeated it to make sure I had heard her and get a response. I said nothing.) She’s told me that she has this insane inner drive to want to be perfect at all times and how it sometimes tears her apart. She later told me about something that she had done to her by then ex-partner, and what the psychologist had said when she told the psychologist about it.
I am saying these things not to betray her in any way but (to defend her, maybe, and) to express my admiration and appreciation for her and to counter the myth that people with NPD are always lying and always try to hide their negative side. My friend’s never done that. I got to know her after I was teamed up with her because I was deemed strong enough to be able to handle her. (This was specifically said to me, yes.) Half a year later, she invited me over for Christmas. I admit that I had some doubts about whether I really wanted to do that, but I accepted the invitation and spent a day with her and her mother. (She grew up without a dad; he’s deceased now and so is her mother.) I also admit that I was taken aback by how she interacted (verbally) with her mother, but again, she did not try to hide that from me. I withheld judgement. I told myself that other families may have dynamics that I may not understand and that may not be what they appear to be at first sight.
(From learning more about autism, I am becoming more aware of the fact that we humans often pay too much attention to the spoken and written word as the only way of communication. Human language is flawed and autistic people are highly aware of that.)
In an e-mail, my friend later oddly enough wrote about someone else, someone who she does not know and I don’t really know either but had encountered years ago, someone who is based in this county, that he is a malignant narcissist. (She called him a psychopath, even.) The fact that she mentioned narcissistic personality disorder made me look into what that was. That gave me the answer to questions I had about her and explanations about things that she’d said to me over the years that had puzzled me.
She trusted me. At least, she used to. If she no longer does, that’s fully on me (and my crazy circumstances in Portsmouth), not on her. I hope that she will be able to rebuild her faith in me and accept that I am far from perfect.
To another woman who I knew for a long time, I once said that it was peaceful to be around her, or something similar. To my surprise, she replied that I was very well grounded, then. She too is witty and super intelligent – IQ 165 – and I miss interacting with her too. She can be a little pushy, but I didn’t think of her like that. She is highly driven and a perfectionist. She’s put up with many of my antics and also for example supported me when I was trying to find a PhD spot in the States. She’s highly talented in many ways (including visual arts and oboe, which was very important to her but I’ve never heard her play and she seems to have abandoned it at some point).
(Many scientists are also highly talented musicians who perform in public. This instantly makes me think of Martje, now deceased, and of Rineke and Robyn and maybe also Judy, but I don’t know if Judy’s performed. I used to know another scientist, also deceased now, who was a very talented modern dancer. One of my fellow geology students played the pipe organ as well as piano. After he quit geology, he applied to the Conservatorium in Amsterdam, which is like Juilliard. Two of them are gay, by the way, which is yet another form of diversity. One of them is Irish/native American, one of them is an American of Italian descent, while the others are Dutch.)
I don’t have to win arguments (by which I don’t mean quarrels, but the negotiation around differences in opinion), as long as the other person does not instantly reject what I say but listens and considers it. I don’t have to agree with everything someone else says. I don’t have to like everything someone else does. It is okay to keep your distance a little and not choose a friend’s side when a friend wants to argue with a stranger who won’t let her into a store at closing time, on Christmas Eve. You can let the person blow off steam, vent the disappointment. Then you can say to her: “Come on, that guy just wants to go home and celebrate Christmas too.” Maybe you can then hug the person to make her realize that you share her – or his – disappointment. But move on. Don’t dwell on it, don’t argue over it, don’t pay more attention to it, don’t judge a person for it, but understand what’s behind it.
We all have pluses and minuses. We also all have issues. It’s part of being human. Autistic people, like no other, are aware of the limitations of human language. We sometimes pay too much attention to it and overlook the essence of people. (That said, I often find the habitual English refusal to use human language very challenging to deal with!)
A few years ago, I lost an old friend to MS. She too was super intelligent and super witty. We disagreed about many things. You don’t have to agree with people all the time to enjoy their company. (To the contrary.) She and I interacted in periods throughout our lives since the late 1980s, but we always hit it off. She’s always been someone I thought about from time to time. People can be in your life without being in your life. You think of the essence of them and feel loads of gratitude for having known them, having encountered them. (This may be what the concept of “heaven” refers to. Good people go to heaven; your keep them alive by keeping them in your mind.)
All these women are in other countries. Both the woman with the NPD and the autistic woman have Master’s degrees, one in law and the other one in science. They both, like me, got their degrees later in life.
One of them – guess which one – has pulled stuff on me here in the UK. She sent me a set of towels as a birthday or Christmas gift that she turned out to have drenched with bacteria that she was working with at her lab (which she had told me about). They were non-pathogenic but stank up the place. I initially thought my laundry detergent was to blame, that it had for example been allowed to freeze during storage or transport.
When I contacted the company here in the UK, they oddly enough instantly apologized and sent me a fancy shiny coupon for new detergent by postal mail. The coupon didn’t work, however.
(I’ll leave it up to you, dear local readers, to ponder that intriguing combination.)
When the towels increasingly stank up the place, I put my scientist’s hat on, did a few web searches and put two and two together. Then I washed the towels at far hotter than 60 degrees C at which I normally did my laundry, which she knew and at which these particular bacteria thrive. Problem solved.
Note that this sort of behavior tends to make scientists in academia raise their eyebrows. Note too that the woman in question works with severely pathogenic bacteria as well. She was not out to harm me, just wanted to mess with me a little.
Did I find it unsettling? Of course. Initially, I found it very unsettling.
People with a narcissistic personality disorder, of which there are different versions and various degrees, want to be accepted, unconditionally. They want loyalty. This is for example why Donald Trump said of Mike Pence that Pence “very greatly disappointed me” because Pence wouldn’t and couldn’t overturn the election results that ended Trump’s presidency. It’s also why he once asked Richard Branson if he would join him to go after someone who had disappointed Trump in business. Trump sometimes has trouble accepting reality when that reality doesn’t embrace who he is and he then expects other people to fix that for him or he makes up an alternate reality and may actually believe what he makes up. He may have to, to stop himself from going to pieces.
Being from a different culture can really help in the beginning because it can make you ascribe any peculiarities to cultural differences. So you don’t fuss or argue about them and accept things the way they are. You observe without judging, because the cultural differences allow you to withhold judgement (until you have a deeper understanding of the new culture, and even then you can choose to not judge).
I also know a woman with a PhD from a university of technology and her own business who has a very well managed bipolar disorder. (She’s had to fight to keep the medication that works for her, though; that must have been terrifying, infuriating and degrading.) I am pretty damn sure that my own dad had a severe borderline disorder that seemed to have been triggered by something that happened in his childhood. I’ve also had a colleague who openly talked about her dissociative identity disorder (DID) and the long road of discovery and change that she’d been on. She has a Master’s degree.
(Why am I mentioning these women’s level of education? To help counter certain stigmas and misconceptions, partly or maybe mostly. Also because I like hanging out with smart people. I like learning and I enjoy their thinking and quick wit. I was present at the graduation ceremony of one of them.)
Here’s something that I want everyone to get. That I am starting to understand more of how some people’s puzzling and often unsettling and even destructive behaviors can come about is not the same as ignoring the devastating effects these behaviors can have on other people’s lives. It does not mean that I want all these people to come live with me either.
I’m talking about things like sadistic stranger-stalking and living with a spouse or partner who has severe NPD. I am particularly mindful of so-called narcissistic abuse and I do not wish to alienate folks who have experienced it. See this post with some musings about boundaries and autism.
Walking the line of compassion for both sides (target and perpetrator, or tamagotchi and keeper etc) is a very challenging balancing act.
It also includes the fine art of signaling where one’s boundaries are, which can be really hard to see for certain other people.
Most of us for example would not break into a stranger’s home to do that person’s dishes, but there are people who truly don’t see the problem with that, particularly if they pick the locks so that nothing gets broken. 🙂
This has not literally happened to me, but my locks have gotten picked a lot. Vandalism and other nonsense including interference with equipment and animals was carried out while I was away.
Life is a challenging balancing act for the lock-picking folks, too. I get that. However, I am not OK with anyone breaking into my home, regardless of whether the person picks the locks or busts them. I am not OK with anyone deliberately sabotaging me or controlling my life either, no matter how you explain those actions to yourself.
On the other hand, I also heard it said recently that currently (in the western world and in this time frame), a lot of neurotypical people have little emotional awareness. They don’t know how they themselves tick and why they respond a certain way to certain things.
There can be many similarities between how neurotypicals experience autism and how they experience NPD. The main difference is usually mostly in intent. Motivation. That is one reason why it is important to know what you are dealing with. It also is an important distinction in knowing how to allow and enable autistic people or persons with NPD to calm down when they are upset.
- If you want to know more about autism, then following the wonderful Henny Kupferstein and her work is a good start. I also recommend that you discover part of her story in this KQED podcast. Her work includes helping (notably non-verbal) autistic children express themselves through music, also long-distance. Watch the video below, for example.
It’s not true that all autistic people are unable to hold eye contact. In fact, if you believe that, you might conclude that Chinese people who respect you and therefore may look away from you are autistic. In addition, I once read that autistic people do things like distinguish between right and left socks. That strikes me as nonsense. After all, sometimes, manufacturers produce socks with and L and and R on them and you might as well conclude that people who always wear their right shoes on their right foot and their left shoes on their left foot are autistic.
Here are some resources that I have heard mentioned (by Leon Brenner) and that may be useful to you as well.
If an autistic person ever asks you something along the lines of “Does my washing machine bother you?”, be sure to add a qualifier like “provided you use your washing machine between 8 in the morning and 8 in the evening”.
Books by Donna Williams:
- Nobody Nowhere: The Remarkable Autobiography of an Autistic Girl
- Autism: An Inside-Out Approach: An Innovative Look at the ‘Mechanics’ of ‘Autism’ and its Developmental ‘Cousins’
- The Jumbled Jigsaw: An Insider’s Approach to the Treatment of Autistic Spectrum `Fruit Salads’
- Exposure Anxiety – The Invisible Cage: An Exploration of Self-Protection Responses in the Autism Spectrum and Beyond
- Somebody Somewhere: Breaking Free from the World of Autism
- Autism and Sensing: The Unlost Instinct
- Like Colour to the Blind: Soul Searching and Soul Finding
- Not Just Anything: A Collection of Thoughts on Paper
Book by Bruno Bettelheim:
Books by Temple Grandin:
- The Autistic Brain: understanding the autistic brain by one of the most accomplished and well-known adults with autism in the world
- Thinking in Pictures
- Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns and Abstractions
- Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism: New Edition with Author Updates
- Navigating Autism: 9 Mindsets For Helping Kids on the Spectrum
- Temple Talks about Autism and Sensory Issues: The World’s Leading Expert on Autism Shares Her Advice and Experiences (Temple Talks about . . .)
- Different… Not Less
- The Way I See It, Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition
- Anyone who wants to learn more about narcissistic personality disorder (NPD, which like anything else to do with humans and neuro-diversity is not a simple yes/no issue of ticking some boxes or a number or score) may want to look into “Sam Vaknin” for more than a moment. There was a time in his life when he deliberately focused on hurting others. He would find out what they likely felt vulnerable about (such as a Holocaust background in the family) and then he targeted those perceived vulnerabilities, with the aim of pressing these people’s emotional buttons. Sometimes, this is how they express how much they hurt, the only way for them to express it. “This much is how I hurt.” You may want to watch either of the two documentaries that are on YouTube about him (Documentary 1, Documentary 2, Part 1 and Documentary 2, Part 2).
Blessed with high intelligence, Vaknin developed insight into himself and now helps educate the world about NPD, partly in ways he may not be aware of. He may still in a way resemble an angry and hurt young boy although most of the anger is likely gone now. He seems to be much more into philosophy these days, in fact. Some years ago, I watched some of the videos by him and about him. It probably gave me a good idea of his nature, a sense of how he ticks. I found it useful. He often calls himself a psychopath, but he’s a so-called malignant or grandiose narcissist. There is a documentary about him and in it, among other things, he gets tested to find out whether he is a psychopath. He was grandiose about himself in that way too. In that documentary, you can also see him get angry from time to time.
If you have someone like that as a colleague at work, that won’t be easy to deal with, but don’t grant the person control over your emotions and thoughts. You know who you are and you know what your strengths and weaknesses are. What anyone with NPD says about you does not change that.
Understanding where such people are coming from, however, can be really helpful.
This a really good article to start with: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/dec/04/when-exactly-do-everyday-fantasies-go-from-little-white-lies-to-memtal-disorder
Don’t get into arguments with them. Design little “escapes” for yourself, to recharge your battery if you need to.
An example? When I was temping somewhere while I was wrapping up my Master’s, an older woman would sometimes walk over to me and start talking to me, likely well aware that I couldn’t leave my (physical) position, hence couldn’t get away from her. She wasn’t a pleasant person. I remember that one day, when she had really gotten to me and I was fuming, I called someone else at that company, someone who would also take over if I needed a bathroom break, told her to take over for me for 10 minutes, left the building and went for a walk around the block. It worked. It takes you out of the environment and the physical activity helps as well.
NPD with psychopathy is a different story, with a lot of similarities. To understand that and take it out of its Hollywood hype context, read this: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/06/when-your-child-is-a-psychopath/524502/