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People with Autism: Communication and Conflict Resolution

  • Published: 2014-02-11 (Revised/Updated 2015-11-30) : Author: Disabled World : Contact: Disabled World
  • Synopsis: Information in regards to communicating with people who have autism and suggestions on possible conflict resolutions.

Main Document

"It is very easy to take everything personally, especially because looking at things from another person's perspectives might not be natural for you."

When it comes to conflict, not many people enjoy it and many of us are not really sure how to handle it appropriately. Many times, we have a difficult time saying what we really feel because we do not want others to become angry with us and some of us might have a hard time trusting that we have the ability to control our own anger. For people with autism, conflict resolution is challenging at times because they are not sure what is and what is not appropriate to say or feel, or they do not know how to balance their need to be honest with their need to be accepted by the people they are talking with.

As frightening as conflict often is; however, it is unavoidable at times. Most people, not just people with autism, have things that are very important to them - feeling that overwhelm them and beliefs they are passionate about. People are all individuals and at times a person's wants and needs are bound to clash with another person's. If you find yourself unable to speak up, others might never even be aware that their needs conflict with yours, or that their behavior is troubling you. Due to this, it is important to learn how to handle conflicts.

Remember That All Feelings are Alright to Have

People with autism many times get caught up in wondering if their feelings are alright to have. They might worry that they are getting angry over something that does not bother others, or that their emotional response is not appropriate. While it is often helpful to look at the thoughts behind emotions, all emotional states are indeed legitimate. It does not matter whether another person would feel angry about a particular situation, the fact that you do is important and you need to honor it.

Chart showing steps to conflict resolution for people with autism and others
About This Image: Chart showing steps to conflict resolution for people with autism and others
Emotions are not somehow mandates to act in a certain manner and this is where it becomes easy to get tripped up. A number of people think that if they are angry and feel like screaming, yelling, or shoving another person that it somehow makes it alright to do so; it does not. Allow yourself to feel sad or angry about another person's behavior and then decide how you want to deal with the situation.

Separate Your Feelings About What Someone is Doing From Your Feelings About the Person

People with autism many times view things in black and white, which can make it hard to judge situations or navigate relationships. A number of people with autism think that if they are disappointed or angry with another person they can no longer love that person. They seek to suppress the anger they feel because they believe that if they become angry at someone they can no longer have a relationship with that person. In the same way, they might be afraid that if someone is angry with them the relationship is over.

Clearly, it does not have to be this way. Instead of idolizing some people while demonising others, make your best attempt to view people as just being people. Everyone has some qualities you like and others you do not. If you like more of a person's qualities than you do not, the person is someone you want to keep in your life.

Exercise Empathy Before You Approach a Conflict

It is very easy to take everything personally, especially because looking at things from another person's perspectives might not be natural for you. After you have acknowledged your feelings to yourself and processed them a bit, the next step is to attempt to view the situation from the other person's perspective. Doing so is important for a couple of reasons.

Sometimes, empathy helps to turn down the intensity of your own feelings. You might be angry at another person's behavior and unable to think clearly, yet if you can see it from the other person's perspective - it might help to tone down your anger. For example; if you are angry that someone did not return your phone call, using empathy might help you to see that the other person is particularly stressed or busy at the moment. You may still be angry, but you will not be so angry that you are unable to deal with the issue.

Empathy can help the other person hear you once you address the conflict. No one likes to hear that they are all at fault, or that they need to change. Those types of attitudes place people on the defensive. If you can come from a place of understanding the other person's point of view it makes it easier for them to hear what you have to say.

Empathy can stop you from making assumptions. Many times, we assume that people are doing things to us, or to bother us, when the reality is the other person was not thinking about us in the first place. If we can look empathetically at another person's behavior, we can see that the behavior may not be about us at all and are less likely to accuse them of something, or act as if they are attacking us personally.

If You Need to Calm Down, Walk Away

For many people with autism, the uncertainty of an unresolved conflict provokes extreme anxiety or even panic. People with autism want to work through conflicts immediately so they know their standing with others. Unfortunately, this approach does not always work. If your emotions are too intense or high, you will not be able to take all the steps needed to successfully resolve a conflict.

Do not be afraid to take a little time. Taking time and walking away does not mean that you are giving up on the relationship with the person, or somehow giving in. It means that you are taking the time you need to come to a successful resolution. If you are concerned that someone else's feeling might be hurt by your desire to take some time, you can let them know that you are doing so to help the relationship. You might say for example, 'I am really upset, I don't want to attack you with my words. I am going to take some time to calm down and we can talk about this at a later time.'

Listen as Well as Talk

Chart showing steps to take when another person is speaking during a conflict
About This Image: Chart showing steps to take when another person is speaking during a conflict
Taking the time to fully listen to the other person is important to every type of communication. It is particularly important in conflict resolution because people's emotions run high and both parties have a need to be heard in order to be able to resolve the conflict. When the other person is speaking about their emotions it is important to:

Doing these things shows the other person you are listening. You should also pay attention to what the other person is saying to you. Do not concentrate on what you are going to say next while the other person is talking. When the other person has finished and you have summarized what they said to you, wait a second to see if the person is going to say anything else. If the other person is done talking, you can start to say what you want to.

Try to See the Other Person as Being on the Same Side

A lot of people, both with autism and without, view conflict as a competition where one person somehow, 'wins.' Such an attitude is counter-productive because it keep both of you fighting. Instead, look at the conflict as a challenge to overcome. Both of you have feelings, needs and desires that conflict. The challenge is to find a solution that benefits both parties.

Using listening skills helps to dissipate competitive attitudes because when you listen to the other person you give up being, 'right,' in favor of understanding what the other person's feelings, needs and desires are. After you have both communicated your side of the conflict it is time to work on finding a solution to the issue. It helps to use a dry erase board or a pad of paper to think of solutions. During the brainstorming process do not reject any idea as being, 'wrong.' Write down all of the ideas that arise and then listen as well as communicate to determine what solution may work best for both of you.

Conflicts are difficult for everyone. There is no set formula for resolving conflicts like there is for science or math problems. If you work to resolve conflicts in a way that improves everyone's self-esteem, everyone benefits. Do not expect yourself to be perfect at it, particularly when you are first starting. Simply do your best to approach conflicts in a mature and open-minded way and you will find that you get more of what you want and experience less stress when conflicts do arise.

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