By Dan Coulter
Do you know someone with Asperger Syndrome who has trouble letting go of painful memories? This is not listed as a symptom of the condition, but I'm aware of a number of people who have negative Asperger-related flashbacks. I wondered how common this is, so I did an online search. I didn't find the flashback phenomenon widely mentioned, but when it was, enough people responded to convince me it's worth discussing.
If your young or adult child with Asperger Syndrome is having disturbing flashbacks, it can be hard to know how to help them move on. Especially when you feel that focusing on the past is holding them back.
What's this like? Let me share my experience.
First, I should say that I'm lucky. My biggest challenges with Asperger Syndrome came when I was in elementary school and middle school. I still embarrassed myself in high school and after, but, on the whole, my life has been terrific. That includes a wonderful marriage, great kids, and a fun and rewarding career. I have decades of happy memories.
Still, there have been times when my wife has turned to me and said, “What's wrong?” She asked because she noticed me flinching, or cursing under my breath for no apparent reason. Sometimes I said, “Nothing.” Other times, I explained. But in both cases, I was reacting to a negative flashback.
A sight or a sound or a situation reminded me of something embarrassing I said or did when I was 6 or 16 or 26. The details were not as vivid as a total immersion virtual reality simulation, but the emotion was. I felt as stupid and humiliated as I did then.
After I was diagnosed, I could tell myself to give myself a break. It wasn't my fault. Asperger Syndrome kept me from understanding what people expected. I was just trying to be one of the gang, to say something cool. And my social faux pas probably made a much greater impression on me than it did on others. (As an adult, I tested this by mentioning a middle school Asperger incident to a friend who was with me at the time. I was sure he'd remember. He didn't.) This helped. But there was no magic wand to wave that guaranteed no more flashbacks.
It's hard to force myself to remember examples, but here's one.
During high school, I was with friends at one of their houses. Our hostess was showing us photos and we were laughing. I pointed to a skinny kid in one picture and said something like, “That guy looks like a squirrel.” The hostess, who was holding the photograph, said, “Oh that's my brother, Donny, he's been sick.” When I remember that moment, I feel the same punch in the gut that I felt then. It's hard to describe just how worthless and helpless I instantly became. Like I'd committed a huge mistake that I'd give anything to be able to take back.
Some people are affected more intensely. There are people who engage in self injurious behavior (like hitting themselves in the head) to distract their minds from painful memories. Others can become depressed.
What's the best way to support someone with Asperger Syndrome after a negative flashback? It depends on the person, but here are some things I've learned.
Let's say you're the parent of a son who has a flashback.
Be supportive. Objectively, it's easy to think a child is over-reacting. Especially if he tells you about the memory and it sounds insignificant. But he may have difficultly explaining just how deeply the memory affected him, or why. Or, he may intentionally hide details out of shame or humiliation. If he's upset, telling him not to dwell on the past (as if he could control his flashbacks) could make him decide to hide future flashbacks from you.
One of the best ways to understand what's happening to your child is to listen. Listen without jumping in to offer solutions to solve the problem then and there. Listen through the silences your child needs to process and form his thoughts. I know how hard this can be. But I've been on both sides, as a parent and as a person having flashbacks. Trust me when I say that offering a patient, sympathetic ear is a good strategy if you want access to your child's mind. The more information you have, the better chance you have of finding a way to help your child understand and manage disturbing memories, instead of being at their mercy. This may require a long-term strategy.
In the moment, when you've learned all you can from listening and you can do so gracefully, change the subject. Guiding your child to focus on positive things that build his confidence is a good counter-balance. How fast you can initiate this transition depends on your child.
If your child's flashbacks affect his or her quality of life, it's a good idea to seek professional help. I've read about recommended techniques people can use to manage their own flashbacks, but I'll leave that to the pros. In this short article, I just want to make the point that flashbacks can be more serious than they appear. Helping your child deal with them may be an opportunity to calm significant fears and insecurities.
Looking back, I think I've been less prone to negative flashbacks when I'm feeling positive and happy. Keeping up the morale of a person who has Asperger Syndrome may help reduce opportunities for negative flashbacks.
With this in mind, it helps to see yourself through the eyes of your son, daughter, parent, student, friend, co-worker, or client who has Asperger Syndrome. If you were in their shoes, would you look forward to seeing you? Are you a positive, up person around them? Do you primarily praise or criticize?
If you show this person your best, you'll not only provide a buffer against negative flashbacks, you'll also be more likely to get their best back.
And the best a person with Asperger Syndrome has to give can be amazing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the author the book “Life in the Asperger Lane” and 13 videos about Asperger Syndrome and autism. Dan's videos are available as downloads and DVDs. You can find more articles and information on Dan's website: www.coultervideo.com.
Copyright Dan Coulter 2016 Used by Permission All Rights Reserved