As a person with Autism, I’m somewhat predisposed to saying or doing the wrong thing and offending someone. This means I get a lot of opportunities to practice my apology skills—not a natural area of strength for me. It’s not that I don’t care when I’ve wronged someone (quite the contrary actually.) The problem is that it takes me a while to even realize that someone is upset, even longer to identify what I might have done wrong, and longer still to figure out how I can resolve things. By the time I work all this out, the optimal moment for an apology has often passed. Nonetheless, I’ve learned a few important things along the way.
First, I don’t like apologizing for the sake of apologizing. My logical Aspergian brain needs to know why I’m apologizing or it feels like a lie. How can I mean it if I don’t even know why I’m doing it? I know that some people can apologize promptly as soon as they notice they’ve upset someone, but that’s not me. This frustrates my wife to no end; when we have a disagreement she is quick to apologize for her part in things, and then becomes frustrated when my response is simply, “Okay, thank you” without a proffered apology of my own. She’s had to learn that she must let me stew on it for a while, after which I am more often than not able to come back and finally take ownership of the altercation.
Thanks to my wise father (a psychologist with an EQ as high as mine is low) I’ve learned that I almost have something to apologize for. This was a tough concept for me to grasp. I’ve always believed that apologizing means I accept responsibility for the altercation and am admitting that it was may fault. As an Aspergian, that’s a real stretch—even if it really was my fault. However, I’ve come to realize that in any given altercation, both parties inevitably have some culpability. Even if one person “started it,” the other most likely engaged as well—otherwise it wouldn’t be a conflict. Armed with this new perspective, I now know that I can safely apologize for my part in the altercation without automatically accepting full responsibility. Or to put it another way, “fault” doesn’t have to be black and white. “I’m sorry that we had a disagreement and I apologize for contributing to it” doesn’t mean, “I’m sorry, it’s all my fault.”
When trying to address a conflict after the fact, a sincere apology right up front can often disarm the entire conflict and prevent simply rehashing the entire argument trying to figure out who started it. Taking ownership of my part of the altercation is often unexpected, and it creates a safe space for the other person to admit their own culpability. It also sends a message that says, “I really don’t want to keep arguing about this topic, and I’m sorry I contributed to it getting out of hand.”
Of course there are plenty of occasions when I am simply in the wrong, and the conflict really was my fault. I may have used the wrong tone, been insensitive to the other persons feelings and perspective, I may have raised my voice, or I may have lobbed some personal insults as I became increasingly frustrated. This is famously easy for people on the Autism Spectrum to do because emotional regulation is a struggle to begin with, and most of us have a hard time hearing ourselves in these moments. Obviously in these cases it’s important to acknowledge all this and avoid the temptation to defensively jump to how it was also the other person’s fault.
When things go awry, I often find it helpful to explain my neurology to the other party. This may be as simple as acknowledging that I should have acted faster to resolve the situation, but if I’m comfortable with the audience, it may entail some level of disclosure about my Autism Spectrum Disorder. When doing so, it’s critical to emphasize that, “This is an explanation, not an excuse.” Having Asperger’s doesn’t mean that I’m not responsible for my actions. To the contrary, it means that I have an obligation to be that much more diligent about my behavior. Yet it can be helpful for the other person to know the context of my disability, and know that I would never be intentionally rude and hurtful. More times than not, I have been pleasantly surprised by the positive response this respectful explanation elicits from the other party when trying to put a conflict to rest.
Apologizing is an important component of human communication, and an essential element of conflict resolution. For me it remains a work in progress, as my spouse will readily attest. But I’ve certainly gotten better at it over the year and I hope my lessons learned may be helpful to others in their journey with Autism.