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- Mentioned in this episode: Author Suzanne Demallie and her struggle to get support for her son with Auditory Processing Disorder
- Mentioned: ADHDer and family coach Aaron Huey’s episode on supporting neurodivergent youth with extremely maladaptive coping strategies
- I offer a self-paced, starter course on how to develop emotional intelligence as a neurodivergent person on Autastic. Learn more here: Autistic Emotions Explained: A Course from Danielle Sullivan
“Rupture and Repair: Emotional communication, breakdown, and connection from infancy to adulthood” by Hilary Jacobs Hendel LCSW.
- “Rupture and Repair” by Nick Bowditch.
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Transcript of Ep. 46: Rupture and Repair: Trust and Trauma in Neurodiverse Families
(Thank you to Justice Ross for their beautiful transcriptions!)
Hello everyone and welcome back to the Neurodiverging podcast. My name is Danielle Sullivan, and I am your host. I hope everyone is doing wonderfully today. I am very excited to be back with you.
We are going old school today with a podcast with just me. I love interviewing guests; it is wonderful to get the wealth and depth of experience that all of my guests bring to this podcast, and I have been really honored to have some amazing guests here. But when I started this podcast, it was really just me talking about my experiences with being an autistic adult, and being a parent, and all those things, and I’ve had some feedback that maybe some of you would like more of that.
So I’m gonna do a couple of episodes that are kind of old-style, and it’s just me talking about my experiences as an autistic adult, and in some ways what I’ve learned and what I’ve experienced, in the hopes that it can help other people who are in the process of identifying or in the process of learning more about themselves and their families, that I can use some of my experience and maybe you’ll find it familiar. Or if you don’t, that’s fine too! But there is a huge diversity in autistic experiences, and I do think it’s important to talk about ourselves and our backgrounds, to some degree, so that that diversity can be explored as best we can.
I’ll also just say that it is pollen central out here in Colorado today. So if there is, you know, not the best vocal quality today, I do apologize. I can do nothing about it. (Laughs) But I know that many of you are probably dealing with the spring pollen as well. I do love, love, love the flowers and the trees. It’s just the pollen itself that makes me a little less happy.
So, today I want to talk about why I think it is so important to repair relationships with autistic youth, and why I would argue that it’s even more important to parent in a style that allows for repair of relationships—and I’m gonna define that a little bit in a minute—for autistic and to some degree ADHD youth. And some… basically, any neurodivergence that is not neurotypical, there is trauma associated with growing up like that, even in a very supportive, very well-organized, very well-run, very well-parented home. And that means that being able to repair relationships and create trust with family members is even more important. So that’s what we’re gonna talk about today.
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So thank you to my patrons, thank you to the people who support this podcast; I so appreciate you. And I’m not kidding when I say that.
And if you’re just here to learn, and you have no financial resources to throw away at, you know, a random person on the internet? I totally get that, and I’m really glad you’re here. So.
Alright, so let’s dig into this topic of why repair is so important in neurodivergent families, let’s say, or mixed-neurotype families.
What are rupture and repair?
So first I want to talk about: what is this concept of rupture and repair? These are psychological or psychology-sourced terms that we use when we talk about relationships in a family.
And then I want to talk about why I think that they’re so central to being able to bring up a child or children who are able to have the emotional intelligence to understand themselves, to understand what they want out of relationships in life—any kind of relationship, romantic, friendship, platonic, work relationships, everything—and why that kind of thing is just so much more difficult for neurodivergent youth and children than it is for neurotypical youth and children. So that’s kind of all we’re gonna talk about today.
So first, let me talk about rupture and repair.
So there’s this idea in psychology— And, you know, I’m not a professional psychologist [or] anything. There’s lots of resources on this, I’ll put some in the show notes [above], but also, you can Google, and you can find really good resources on this concept.
But basically, these are psychology-sourced terms that describe how we organize our relationships with our family members when we’re very young, and then how we create trust and maintain trust over a long period of time as we’re growing up with our parents.
So, there’s this idea that when you’re born into a family, how your parent or caregiver reacts to you as an infant creates an attachment style. So if you have a very attentive parent who mostly comes when you ask, who mostly comes when you cry, who mostly attends to your needs—it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be pretty good—someone who’s attentive to you, someone who picks you up when you cry, someone who feeds you regularly, someone who changes your diaper. Right? Then you’re creating trust between the parent and the child, and that trust is the foundation of that growth, as you grow up as the child, of being able to trust your parent to understand that they have your best interest at heart, to be able to solve problems together collaboratively. Even through the trials of growing up, to be able to come back to that parent figure as not only an authority, but a loved, trusted individual. Right?
Now, any relationship between parent and child— And I’m just going to use “parent” as a shorthand, you know, guardian, person they live with… All families are families.
But as a shorthand term: Parent and child, right? This is a mutual trust that is created over time. So it is not only the child learning to trust the parent figure, but it is the parent learning what the child is like, what the child needs, and being able to respond to the child in a way that creates trust for the parent in the child. So I know that my kid is gonna mostly follow rules, and mostly do what I ask, and mostly talk to me if something is wrong, and mostly discuss things that they’re not happy about, right? So not just a child who blindly follows what you say, but a child who is part of the process with you. Who is communicating with you, who is talking to you, who is explaining what they think the problem is. Instead of somebody who is going to turn to maladaptive coping strategies like alcohol, drug use, self-harm, running away, leaving the house with their friends and not telling you where they’re going, or even smaller problems, like avoiding chores or giving you “sass,” talking back to you in a way that’s not respectful.
So, this idea of this parent-child relationship that starts very young and that grows as they grow up, too, is based in mutual trust. Now, when we talk about rupture and repair, what we’re discussing is when something happens, because it always will, when something happens in the relationship that causes a “rupture,” that causes a break in trust between the parent and the child, right—and it can go in either direction, so you mess up and you yell at your kid, or you mess up and you blame them for something that you later find out is not their fault, and the reason you messed up is because you didn’t take the time to listen to them and you didn’t trust them, and you didn’t hear what they had to say back, right? That is a rupture. That is, you have broken trust with your child and not allowed them their say, and then you blamed them for something and maybe you yelled. So you didn’t handle it, like, properly, right? And your child, reasonably, loses trust in you.
This can also happen in the other direction, right? So your child agrees to be home by 10 PM and then doesn’t show up ’til 11, that’s a break of trust, right? There’s a rupture. And yes, there might be a good reason and you can talk about it, but it’s still that there was an established expectation or boundary that was set, and it was broken by one party or another. Right? So there’s the rupture. Ok?
Now, repair is “How do we fix this?” And this a process of being able to get out of your own emotional state as the parent—(Clears throat), excuse me, there are those allergies—to get out of your own emotional reactivity as a parent and to, instead, come back to a place of calm where you can hear your child. And as the parent, right, you are the adult. (Laughs) You are the person who is responsible for managing your own emotions even if your child is not old enough to do so, manage their own emotions yet. Right? So to get out of your emotionally reactive state of maybe stress, and concern, and worry that your child didn’t come home in time, and to calm down and to talk to them about it, and to hear their side of the story, and to work together to solve the problem. Now, this is repair. This is solving the problem together. And this is also this idea of not just apologizing and moving on, but of active repair, right? So this idea of, when you look at social justice work, human rights work, reparation. This idea that we don’t just apologize and we move on, but we actively look for ways to rebuild trust in the relationship over time.
And so in a parent child relationship, this can be, like… It depends on what the rupture was, right? But it can be a small thing where you apologize, you fix the problem, you make sure you understand each other, and you move on, and the trust is repaired. Or it can be something where, if you have a series of boundary violations or a series of ruptures, that it takes longer to rebuild trust. Right? We have to repair, and repair, and repair, actively, over a long period of time. And we need to maintain that stance of repair. Ok.
So that’s a very small, and probably a little bit rambly, introduction to this idea of rupture and repair in the relationship. And, again, I will put better resources down below, because I am not a psychology expert. This is just, like, some basic set-up for this episode.
Attunement is harder in mixed-neurotype relationships.
Now, part of this process of rupture and repair, rupture and repair, is how attuned you are to your child’s needs. Right? Now, this can be especially challenging in a mixed-neurotype relationship. Because, as we’ve talked about in earlier episodes of this podcast, and on my blog, and all these places, communication is different.
Communication styles are different, cognitive styles are different, among different family members. And so what you take for granted as a parent as an “obvious thing” that “everyone should understand,” or “common sense,” may not be common sense to your child. And that’s not your child disrespecting you or not trying their hardest, that’s just, like, common sense is a vastly more challenging thing than most people seem to realize. We have different brains. We process the world differently. We communicate differently. And so, again, we’ve talked about, if your communication style is a little bit more florid, or if you use a lot of sarcasm, if you joke a lot, if you use a lot of metaphor and imagery and figurative language, that might be harder for, say, your autistic kid to understand, right? And that’s not, again, a purposeful break in trust, but this is a misalignment or misattunement in the relationship, where the parent may not be totally in sync with what their child needs and what their child is thinking.
This is not purposeful, necessarily. It’s not you’re doing something wrong as a parent. You are trying your hardest. You can still be trying your hardest and still misattune with your child. Now, over time, if you have too much misattunement, then you get a child who feels a lack of trust with their parent. And this can be one-sided. This can be the parent thinks everything is fine, and the child is, quote-unquote, “acting out.” Right? The child is missing curfew, the child is writing on the walls, the child is throwing shoes at your head, whatever it is. And the parent is like, “Ahh, why is this happening?” Like, “I feel like I’m a pretty good parent.” But the child does not feel like they are heard and honored and respected in the relationship, and may or may not be able to communicate that.
So when you have misattunement over a long period of time, or miscommunication, then you have problems in the relationship. And we talked about that with Aaron Huey a couple weeks ago, when we talked about: How do we help neurodivergent teens and youth who are in this situation of taking up very negative coping mechanisms that can cause long-term harm if there’s not an intervention done? I will link to that [above], too, if you missed that.
Ok. So now that we have all that kind of psychology babble out of the way, which I hope at least gives you a framework for thinking about your relationship with your family, now I want to talk about why I think this is especially important for mixed-neurotype families. And I touched on it a minute ago, but let me dig in a little bit.
Story Time: Misattunement in my Childhood Relationships and Related Trauma
So when I was a child, I grew up in a pretty rural area, with my 2 sisters and my mother and my father. I would say they were a pretty good family. (Laughs) I’ve talked about this a little bit before, right, I was born in ’85. So, you know, the way we think about mental health, and especially about neurodiversity, was just not there yet, right? Autism wasn’t a thing unless you were severely disabled. Certainly, somebody like me couldn’t be autistic in that space in time; it was just not really considered a thing.
And parenting was different, too. And I was lucky to get relatively… what we call “authoritative” parenting, which means parents who set boundaries, explain those boundaries, and then hold them. Parents who are kind and honor, respect, the child, but are not authoritarian, are not giving rules and just expecting you to follow them without defining themselves, and not permissive, not parents who are just letting you run wild. Right? So I had what is now known to be basically best parenting style in terms of child outcome. Right? Which children tend to do best as adults, tend to have the best mental health, tend to have better chances at college, and at jobs, and at those kinds of things. So just to sort of set the scene for you.
Despite having a relatively good upbringing for the time period and what we knew about neurodiversity and things, I had constant problems communicating with my parents. Part of this was scheduling, that they worked long hours. Often, they were either not home, or they were asleep, or we were with other childcare providers when I was younger, right, like we did beforecare at school and aftercare at school, and whatever. But the relationship was there, I would say, with my parents. Like, I had a relatively close relationship with my parents.
But I was constantly feeling like an outsider at school. I was very depressed and anxious in transitions, which I couldn’t identify as a child, but now, looking back on it, I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s what’s going on,” right? I didn’t understand how to structure time at all. I didn’t have any systems. And I think this was a mix of— I think parents did try to teach me structures and systems, to some degree, but it wasn’t like today where you could, you know, you would get an ADHD coach or a tutor who specializes in homework. It was just kind of like, “Just do it! Why can’t you just do it? Just do it!” So, you know, it’s like a 50-60% understanding that I’m having trouble but not quite knowing the correct intervention for it.
So, I had a good amount of emotional frustrations when I was a kid. I was relatively depressed, I had a high level of anxiety, I knew that I didn’t fit in, I knew that I didn’t communicate the way other people communicated, and there were often ruptures of trust with my parents. And especially with my father, who, looking back on it now, is basically… (Laughs) I don’t know how he would identify, and I don’t want to pathologize him, but we have a lot in common, how’s that? And so we bounced off each other pretty hard, because we had this idea that things had to be done a certain way, and we were both kind of an anxious personality. We wanted our routines the way we wanted them, and if our routines did not work together for whatever reason, then they kind of… the parent card would be pulled, and they would win, and I would not get the routine that I wanted.
So there was a lot of misattunement, right? Where the parent was doing the best they could for the child, but, for whatever reason, I was not able to communicate how much trust was being broken in some aspects of my life.
Parent Misattunement, Emotional Intelligence, and Emotional Trauma
What this caused in the long term is that I didn’t have a lot of emotional intelligence as a child. And again, this was like, you know, the late ’80s, 90s, when social-emotional learning was not yet a thing; I am so glad it is a thing now. And I had trouble recognizing my own emotions, I had trouble identifying my own emotions, I had trouble identifying other people’s emotions. I did not have the communication skill to explain when trust was being violated for me and when I was having trouble.
All of this, over a long period of time, and my point is that autistic youth, at least in my experience—and I suspect, though I don’t have the evidence for this, all neurodivergent youth—because our thinking styles are different, because our assumptions about the world and the way people work are different than neurotypicals’, we come out of young adulthood with huge amounts of trauma. And this is compounded for folks who are late-identified like me.
We do have a lot of research that says the earlier you are identified, the better you’re gonna be able to integrate that into your personality and the more skills you’re gonna be able to learn. And so your adulthood chances, in terms of mental wellness and some of the socio-economic aspects of, like, being able to go to college, being able to get a good job, being able to own a home, all these kinds of things, are higher when you’re identified earlier.
So for my generation, and many people now who are still not identified young enough—right, we’ve talked about this, that there’s racial disparities, there’s gender disparities, there are certainly disparities in nationality—we come out of our childhoods, even with good parents, we come out of our childhoods with huge amounts of trauma. We are not understood, we can’t explain all the ways that we have been harmed to other people because we may not have the communication skills, and we may not understand it ourselves. And again, I didn’t understand this stuff until I was identified at 34 and really started doing this heavy work of processing what I’d been through. Ok?
Now, if I have and had this amount of trauma, coming from honestly a pretty good family experience, right, how many people just like me are out there who did not have, you know, enough money growing up? Who did not have a home that they lived in by themselves? I had my own room, right? How often does that happen? People who don’t have the— My mother was, for a very long time, a nurse. Both of my parents have master’s degrees, and one of them now has a PhD, so we were from a very highly-educated family, which gave them access to resources that folks who are not from highly-educated families do not have. So there was a lot going on that was of benefit and of privilege to me.
So if I had all of these privileges, is my point: If I had all of these privileges, and I know so many people who are just like me, who led highly privileged lives in some ways, and we still come out of that with huge amounts of trauma related to all of the challenges we have growing up with a different brain… If I can be traumatized, then everybody else is 50 times more traumatized than me. (Shrugs) Ok? Like there’s just, I don’t know how else to say it. And this is not counting people who are subjected to deeply violent lives. I read a study very recently that 90% of autistic women report sexual abuse and rape in their background, right. That is a staggering statistic. And it might be even higher than that, because a lot of us are nonverbal, and a lot of us are not gonna report. We have to deal with a lot, living in a neurotypical society.
Ok, now, if you are a parent now—so I’m obviously, I’ve forgotten, I think I’m about to be 37, so there’s my age range for you—if you are parenting now… And when I think about parenting my kids now, obviously we have a lot more resources now. We have a lot more information. The internet is a thing. Right? But we are also bombarded with information daily.
Examples of How Trust Is Consistently Broken for Neurodivergent People
Your kids, especially—well, regardless, but especially kids who are in public schools, who are perhaps on IEPs or 504s, who are struggling to fit in, who are struggling to communicate to teachers what they need… You, as the parent, are struggling with their teachers to communicate what they need, and with the principals, and with the school board. And, you know, we had Suzanne Demallie on talking about trying to get support for her son with Auditory Processing Disorder, so not even—I mean, that’s still a neurodivergence, but without as many of the communication concerns as autistic people tend to have. And a lot of us are Auditory Processing Disorder people too, so.
My point is that we are still fighting to be heard, to trust our teachers, our parents, our siblings, our friends, and we are still learning that we cannot, we cannot trust people. Because people don’t understand autistic communication styles. People say they’re your friends and then they’re not. Your boss says he’ll promote you; that promotion will never come through. Neurotypical people lean on aphorisms, sayings, that we want to say as truth, that are not… They don’t mean it as truth, but we neurodivergents might take it as truth, right? There’s huge communication gaps, is my point. Even among people who are doing their very best. Right? So your child is up against a lot as a neurodivergent child in the world we have today.
If you’re a neurodivergent yourself as a parent, and any of this rings true to you, or if it rings totally false, please email me, I would love to hear your story. I’m at email@example.com. Or leave a comment if you go to the blog post on this. I would really love to hear your experience with this. But this is my experience. Ok?
My children are still relatively young. But we focus very hard on creating trust, because again, statistically, neurodivergent kids are not likely to live as long, we’re at higher risk of suicide, we’re at higher risk of self-harm, of all sorts of negative outcomes, basically. It’s hard for us to find work, especially in a place that’s gonna support our needs and potentially promote us in a way that we’re due, and that actually allows us to show our strengths. There’s so much out to get us.
And at least in the family, if you want your children to trust you, if you want your children to come to you with these problems that they’re having, their communication problems at school, their teacher being abusive, their friends being abusive, a boyfriend who’s pushing too hard—or, you know, a partner who is pushing too hard, too early, for sex, or for whatever, right. If you want your kid to come to you with any kind of boundary-pushing they’re experiencing, and you want the chance to be able to say “Here’s how we deal with that,” right, “Let me teach you some skills. Let’s build some communication, let’s build some boundaries, let’s do some training on how to do this.” If you want that chance, you need to have this positive, trusting relationship with your child.
And that means—this was a very roundabout episode, but you know what, it’s the way I am, so; I assume if you’re listening to this, you’ve been with me for a while, and you know how I am, so—you need to understand rupture and repair in a relationship. Because your child’s whole life experience, like 85% of childhood for them, might be rupture.
And I know that sucks, and it’s hard to hear. But even families who prioritize children’s rights, who are respectful and clear, who do their research around the neurodivergence their child is experiencing, you are still in a community of people who do not understand. You are still in a school system of people who do not understand. Your child is a child who does not have the emotional regulation, the emotional intelligence, and the communication skills that an adult will. So it is your job as a parent to notice a rupture, to notice when your child has not… [to notice] when you’ve done wrong by your child, basically. And whether it’s small or whether it’s big, right, it’s your job to notice that, and to not always give it to your kid to come to you and say, “I’m really mad about how you yelled at me the other day,” or, “I really don’t feel great that this happened.” Because that’s not their responsibility. They’re the child; they don’t have those skills yet. You as the parent, it’s your job to create the emotional regulation skills and the emotional awareness skills to not yell at your kid. To have open, honest conversations that are non-judgmental, so your kid can come to you when a thing is going wrong. To be able to notice, like, “Hey, my kid’s developing a ton of anxiety at school around this topic, we need to interrogate that and we might need to intervene right now.” Right? Or to say, “Hey, I’m noticing a negative coping behavior popping up. What’s going on there? What is the coping,” like, “What are we coping for?” Right? “Can we intervene right now?”
And that’s a hard job as a parent. And we don’t have easy jobs either. Especially as— I mean, it’s a hard job for a neurotypical parent, I’m not trying to put you guys down. But also, if you’re a neurodivergent parent, you’re more likely to not have these skills, right? These emotional intelligence, emotional regulation, and communication skills. Especially if you’re around my age, you know. Maybe, if you’re a 20-year-old parent, maybe you got more of this, I don’t know. I don’t know. If you are one, email me! I’d love to talk to you.
But if you’re around my age and you’re parenting, right, you did not get social-emotional learning in school. That was not something that happened. And in many areas of the country, at least the United States, children still don’t get social-emotional learning in school. I am very happy that where I live, they do. My children are homeschooling now, but when we were in public school, before the pandemic, and I was touring the classroom and talking to the teachers and hearing about all the ways they incorporate social-emotional learning, I was like, “Ah! Where was all of this when I was a child?” Like, I needed this. No one knew to do it. Right? Occupational therapy wasn’t a thing for children of my needs when I was a kid. I’m sure it was there for people who had been in accidents and people who had, again, quote-unquote “severe” disabilities. But for someone like me who was sort of mostly functional, OT wasn’t an option.
Speech-language pathologists nowadays have all sorts of communication classes that you can enroll in. And some of them are really ableist and crappy, so like, do your research, but some of them prioritize “How do we help neurodivergent people understand neurotypical people, and how do we help neurotypical people understand neurodivergent people,” right? Because both of those things, it needs to go both ways. I’m a huge advocate for, we can’t just train neurodivergent kids on neurotypical communication. That’s not cool. We need to be crosswising it, right?
Ok. So there’s a lot more resources now. As a parent, if you’re struggling, it’s ok. (Laughs) We have all been there. I have a lot of resources on my website for social-emotional learning. I have my class on autistic emotions explained that you can get through autastic.com. And there’s also, if you Google, so many good podcasts nowadays, so many good blog articles and books that weren’t there when I was a kid.
What You Can Do As A Parent
So, if you’re a neurodivergent parent, look into this concept of rupture and repair. Think about, “Am I noticing the ruptures? Or am I seeing these quote-unquote ‘negative’ behaviors from my kiddo and not knowing what’s causing them?” There’s always a cause for behavior. It’s almost never a kid actively trying to be bad. It’s a kid coping the best way they know how. Right? So if you’re seeing a behavior, whatever behavior that is, that you don’t like and you don’t want, it is your job as a parent to figure out “What is stressing my kid out and causing this to happen? And what can I do to support them?”
And that might mean having to put aside your emotional reactivity to your children. Because it goes both ways, right? If your kid yells at you, that gets our hackles up. And that’s reasonable, right? We don’t like to be yelled at either. But as the parent, it’s your job to be able to deal with that, right, and process that, and not yell back at your kid and get their hackles up. And really just be this non-judgmental figure that they can come to with literally anything that’s on their little brain, even if it’s, you know, the latest half an hour “what I did in Minecraft today” screed, (Laughs) right?
And, you know, in another episode I’ll talk about self-care for parents too. Like, you can set boundaries as a parent. So this is not about not setting boundaries with your child; this is about this concept of the trusting relationship and how much your neurodivergent kid needs you to be the trusted adult in their life. Because they do not have it elsewhere. Even with other neurotypical folks that they really love, even with their aunts and their grandparents and your best friend and the kids across the street, communication styles are inherently different. And this is not a slight against neurotypical people, but neurotypical people lie to neurodivergent people all the time without meaning to. Because the way that they use language is different than the way that we use language.
So your kid is dealing with all this stuff, is basically my point, and they need at least 1 person, and hopefully more. But they need at least 1 person who is on their side, who gets it, and who is going to be on their team when there’s a quote-unquote “negative behavior.” Who’s gonna be on their team and say, you know, “I’m sorry this happened, and we’re gonna fix it. And we’re gonna keep fixing it until it’s better.”
[Music fades in]
Thank you so much for being here with me today.
I know that was a little rambly, but I hope that it was helpful to some of you. I have so many thoughts about parenting in general that it can be hard to break them into little podcast episodes. But I am glad to have been prompted by my patron to talk about this a little bit more.
If it was helpful for you, I would love it if you could leave me a review on Apple Podcasts or somewhere, or send this to a friend, or share it in your local autistic support group on Facebook or whatever. It really helps. And also, you know, if you’re interested in supporting this podcast and more episodes like this, go ahead to Patreon.com/Neurodiverging and pledge a buck or 5 bucks a month or up, and get some cool perks, and help me out with keeping this podcast running.
Thank you so much for being here with me today, I really appreciate it. And please remember, we are all in this together. Bye.