What Narcissists Taught Me about Talking to Allistic People

In case you’ve been in a beautiful fantasy world for the past few years, I have a sad truth to report: the world is, just, full of allistic people. Not only that, but despite their comically overstated deficiencies at staying organized, attaining intense mastery of niche topics, and being at all bearable to be around, they control almost everything. Learning how to deal with their bizarre needs is a necessary life skill for the rest of us, and I came to learn what I have about how they operate from a still more noisome source: narcissistic, emotionally abusive parents.

For those who lack the misfortune of the years of intimate knowledge I possess, narcissistic parents share a number of characteristics. They view their children as extensions of themselves rather than as separate beings with their own personalities and futures. They revise events in their own minds on a continuous basis, and tend to turn on their internal myth-making apparatus as soon as unpleasant conversations threaten to start, making them expert gaslighters who are very difficult to dislodge from any preconceived notions. They consider even the mildest criticism as an attack on everything they are, and turn to self-flagellation when criticized, to try to trick their critics into defending them from themselves. They react with rage if any of these aspects of their narcissism are challenged, particularly when their children stray from whatever design they had in mind when they had them, and tend to pick favorites to encourage infighting and prevent their children and others in their lives from forming a united front against their manipulations. They lash out arbitrarily at perceived social violations and never, ever, ever deal with their adult children as equals.

The strategies I learned for trying to manage my parents rarely worked well or for long with them. A narcissist is never satisfied with the deference they are shown from the people they perceive to be extensions of themselves, and doesn’t so much see through stratagems as blatantly refuse to change regardless of the methods employed. Allistic people writ large are rarely this horrific to have around, but nevertheless, many of the rituals and patterns I developed to try to deal with a mother who considered my very existence a personal affront ended up being useful in my everyday life long after they stopped helping with her.

First and foremost, it is critically important that, in your dealings with the allistic people in your life, that you never actually say what you mean. Allistic people usually bury their meaning in a deep mash of platitudes, status signifiers, social lubricants, and miscellaneous noise, and panic when they encounter statements that are not padded in this way. They often read the absence of this mash as hostile, rude, or just generally off-putting, and rapidly begin to dislike autistic people as a result. Worse, many allistic people will attempt to use the same algorithm they use for speaking to one another on the tidy, accurate speech of their autistic fellows, churning its meaning into nothing and leading to cerebral system lags and other problems.

When dealing with narcissists, what you actually mean is a weapon they will wield against you. You have to ease them into your point with excruciating care, inch by inch, on the off-chance that you can avoid setting off their self-flagellation or gaslighting instincts long enough to actually make your point. A nigh-impenetrable layer of pleasantries and diplomatic praise is the only way to even approach this task, and even that rarely works. A narcissist’s relationship isn’t with you, it’s with their idea of who and what you “ought to be,” and they will not hesitate to protect the idea by attacking you.

So it turns out that the following algorithm, while nowhere near powerful enough to drill through the average narcissist’s armor of lies, is more than sufficient to prevent an allistic person from spinning yarns out of literally nothing:

Starting, Perfectly Reasonable and Comprehensible Statement: “I need you to do Thing.”

Translated into Allistic: “Hey, Person, how’s it going? Really, that’s lovely! Listen, if it’s not too much trouble, I’m in a bit of a bind here and I could use a hand. The boss is breathing down my neck and it’d be great if you could do Thing for me. Thanks!”

This is yours now.

Allistic people are also especially prone to one conversational quirk that can afflict us all and which narcissists make a core trait of their personalities: they are either angelically above reproach or utterly damnable, with absolutely nothing in between. This is the core of why narcissists immediately begin to self-flagellate when criticized to even the mildest degree, and why trying to reassure a self-flagellating narcissist means falling into their trap and allowing them to turn the whole conversation into building them up and tearing you down. Most allistic people are not narcissists, and will not descend to these gross extremes. Rather, they (like many autistic people, to be sure) will instead respond to criticism with insistence that they mean well, do harm only accidentally, should be granted special dispensation to do harm for this or that reason, are trying really hard, and any of various other fairly transparent efforts to put off grappling with their misdeed and extract emotional labor from you at the same time. They are also likely to turn angry and try to engage in tu quoque fallacies, claiming that this or that transgression on your part means that you lack the moral capital required to be allowed to criticize them and should learn your place.

None of the rules governing this situation are clear or fair, because they are designed, from top to bottom, to protect allistic egos. In order to get criticism through this maze, one has to adopt a variation of the previous approach, drenching the request for change in compliments and pleasantries to make it easier for reluctant allistic throats to swallow:

Starting, Perfectly Reasonable and Comprehensible Statement: “This Thing you do causes problems for me. I need it to stop.”

Translated into Allistic: “Hey, Person, can we talk? Listen, you’re a fantastic Person and I’m glad to have you around. Really, we’re such good friends I don’t know how we managed without each other. There’s just one thing that’s not working so well. See, when you do Thing, it causes problems for me. I know you don’t mean to cause problems for me and Thing works for you and you’re a fantastic Person who is wonderful and lovely, but it’d be good for me if you stopped doing Thing. Are we okay?”

In fact, it’s an important addition to these patterns to thicken even more the dense porridge of social posturing that buries every point an allistic person will ever make. For best results, the previous strategies should be bolstered by a several minutes of what allistic people call “small talk.” “Small talk” refers to idle, superficial conversation about the goings-on in one’s life that is not intended to help either participant learn about the other or otherwise lead anywhere. It is common to begin with standard opening phrases that are easy to memorize, such as the famous “How are you?” “I’m fine” reflexive exchange. Like a great deal else in “small talk,” the meaning of this exchange is in the fact of the exchange (engaging in it gives one the appearance of friendliness and charm) rather than the contents. Trading short answers to standard questions helps convince allistic people not to see you as abrupt, rude, or presumptuous when you then ease into trying to change their behavior in any way, as they would if you simply said what you meant and left out the dressing.

These patterns will often fail, because allistic people are a fickle and confusing lot whose sense of what they want is opaque even to them, but they will fail much less often than speaking with the unambiguous clarity and purposefulness that we use to talk to one another. In this way, you can put off, and sometimes avoid altogether, the seemingly inevitable point where the allistic people you have the gross misfortune of being around decide that you are too robotic, cold, reptilian, mechanical, logical, alien, dishonest, mean, unfriendly, or weird for them to tolerate in their midst and start making life even more difficult for you than they already were. The sheer amount of this hand-holding emotional labor that allistic people expect from the rest of us is massively beyond anything we generally think is reasonable to impose on one another, but the allistic person is another breed entirely, constantly judging social positions and expecting information on same in literally every exchange, and they do not know how to function otherwise. Our natural refusal to play this game is deeply unsettling to them, just as narcissists can only rage impotently at anyone who sees through their patterns, and since they pointedly refuse to recognize that they are simply wrong in this matter, we must cater to them for our own survival.

This is why we must seek each other in our off hours: to have time where this exhausting ritual can be laid aside and we can once more speak naturally, to say nothing of being around company that understands the tyranny of blinking or flickering lights, mandatory stillness, and phone calls.

This is why we must never give forthright answers to their small talk: because sometimes, forthright answers lead to friendship, and being friends with an allistic person means all of this nonsense might infect our time off of work as well, and then, the meltdowns will never end.

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What Narcissists Taught Me about Talking to Allistic People

4 thoughts on “What Narcissists Taught Me about Talking to Allistic People

  1. 2

    “This is why we must never give forthright answers to their small talk”
    my parent: “how are you?”
    me, depressed and probably dysphoric, though this was before I was aware of that: “shit”
    P: “no, you’re meant to say you’re good”
    and this is why my parents don’t know I’m back on anti-depressants.

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