Aspergers and conflict management



Social interaction is often/usually a confusing and frustrating experience for people with Asperger’s Syndrome.

  • This is nobody’s fault

Conflict amplifies these feelings and adds an extra dimension of complexity.

There are no real winners in a conflict, just degrees of losing.

  • except for maybe the peacemakers

For Autistic people, conflict is a clear and present danger!


Conflict navigation

Disagreement can lead to conflict, regardless of neurology.

Conflict is also uncomfortable and unpleasant, regardless of neurology:

So much so, that in some cultures, any open display of conflict (and in some cases even just polite disagreement!) is frowned upon.

  • with displays of anger being virtually taboo!

The purpose of this post is not to critique cultures or provide labels with which to condemn people.

My goal in writing this, is to chart a conflict map that identifies conflict escalation points and danger signs.

  • Helping us to mitigate conflict in our lives
  • and where conflict does arise, to limit the damage


The nature of conflict

There seem to be 2 main causes of conflict:

  • Disagreement over facts
  • The desire to control others

There also seems to be 2 distinct styles of disagreement

  • Overt
  • Covert



People can have different opinions about facts and these differences are generally accommodated.

  • This is a function of social intuition

But people aren’t always this accommodating, regardless of neurology.

  • this is human nature

Autistic people are more likely to struggle with disagreement over facts:

  • because we tend to see things in black and white
  • so we often misunderstand social/non verbal cues

We also seem to be hardwired to value factual accuracy over social etiquette.

Particularly if we believe that someone really IS saying black is white

  • whether they are or not 🙂

In fact, one of the graces of social etiquette is allowing people to say that black IS white, without challenge.

  • I have always struggled with this one
  • I also struggle with shades of gray

With Autistic people, I think there is probably a fine line between being faithful to the truth and trying to impose one’s will on someone else.

Or at least a much finer line than is experienced by Neurotypical people.

  • for the simple reason that neurotypical people are more likely to overlook factual inaccuracies that don’t change the world
    • in my social experience, factual inaccuracies don’t usually change the world 🙂
  • Autistic people also tend to focus their efforts on collecting and evaluating information, as I wrote in Asperger’s and the Social minefield


Managing factual disagreement

When disagreement with factual accuracy is at an impasse, there are 2 options:

  • To politely concede (a function of social intuition/etiquette)
  • To escalate into a battle of wills (a general feature of human nature)

I deliberately omitted the option of ‘polite disagreement’ because depending on the other party, that course of action may actually escalate the disagreement into a battle of wills!

The ambiguity of ‘agreeing to disagree’ (itself an oxymoron) is likely to feel uncomfortable to an Autistic person.

  • It certainly does to me

Furthermore, if we do choose to politely disagree, our impaired social intuition makes it more likely that we choose this option when it is inappropriate, unhelpful or even dangerous to do so.


The takeaway here is that a factual disagreement impasse is an escalation point.

  • It takes 2 people to disagree
  • But it takes only 1 person to escalate a situation into conflict
  • and only 1 person to defuse that situation

Conflict also seems to be subject to an unspoken social rule.

The person who openly escalates the conflict is ‘in the wrong.’

  • Factual accuracy then takes on secondary importance
  • and the elaborate costume party begins

If the person who is ‘in the right’ then escalates the conflict further, that person immediately takes on the mantle of being ‘in the wrong’

Form over substance – the very essence of The Social Minefield.


A battle of wills

When the disagreement enters this stage,  the real conflict has begun.

  • either party still maintains the option of politely conceding
  • and for the very valiant, politely disagreeing 🙂

There is nothing wrong with exerting self-will per se.

  • Self-will is a survival tool
  • Without which we face the prospect of being steamrolled by everyone and anyone

Conflict arises when one person tries to impose their will on another, for its own sake, to serve their own ego.


Escalation points and sign posts

Stubbornness is often the first stage of a battle of wills/wits.

It can be very frustrating and annoying, sometimes amusing (at least to an outsider) but at least it is honest.

  • The same 2 options are available
  • Concede or escalate

Escalation is likely to lead to anger and aggression, expressed initially as simple bickering.

  • there is at least some connection to the disputed facts, albeit vague
  • but sometimes the game is changed!


Covert operations

There are many options available to the person wanting to actively impose their will on someone else.

I am going to focus on one area that I believe poses the greatest danger to Autistic people.



The distinction between faithfulness to the truth and stubbornness may not be very clear cut with Autistic people.

  • and without the benefit of mind-reading, it is difficult to know for sure what is in play

However, shifting to passive-aggression represents a huge escalation that places you deep into conflict territory.

  • and in very grave danger!

The conflict here no longer has anything to do with the facts, even if the original facts are mentioned.

This strategy is all about control.

It can be so subtle that you might not even notice, until… start feeling confused, really, really confused.

Confusion is the hallmark of passive-aggression


It is also important to realize that the same social rule described earlier applies here albeit modified.

When passive-aggression is in play, the first person to OPENLY escalate the conflict is in the wrong.

People seem to be free to continue their COVERT passive-aggressive behavior because it wouldn’t hold up in Court.

  • This social rule rewards pretense and dishonesty 

The person who breaks ranks and openly admonishes their passive-aggressive attacker is ‘in the wrong’

  • For being direct and being honest but mostly……..for interrupting the elaborate costume party

Be warned, passive-aggression is psychological warfare



In my experience, the confusion caused by passive-aggression is qualitatively different from the confusion I experience from having impaired social intuition.

My everyday social confusion is often mixed with frustration perhaps embarrassment and sometimes anger.

I have experienced my fair share of conflict and on reflection, looking back over the decades, the escalation patterns now seems so clear.

The frustrating thing is, that I am often unable to apply my logical faculties whilst IN disagreement and conflict situations 😦


But there is always an explanation for ‘social’ confusion and once the ‘rules’ are explained, it does make at least some sense.

  • it’s very frustrating, but unlike passive-aggression, the ‘rules’ are not being deliberately concealed
  • the rules aren’t being spelled out either, because 99% of our species are born knowing these rules
  • and there is also an absence of malice

My reaction to passive-aggression is a pure form of confusion.

  • No anger
  • No frustration
  • and certainly no embarrassment
  • Just confusion, pure confusion
  • and not the intellectual confusion that most people feel with quantum physics either

It is the same confusion I feel when someone lies to me, because passive-aggression is built on lies.

Lies that are packaged with just enough plausible deniability to make them impervious to challenge.

Any challenge to passive-aggressive statements, is likely to be turned around and used as a weapon against you!

  • but always indirectly
  • nothing that would ever hold up in Court

One passive-aggressive weapon is stonewalling.

  • Often the stonewalling is the immediate and only response
  • With the inference that all avenues for reconciliation have been exhausted
  • and the inference that you are being unreasonable, unfair, unkind and even ungrateful!
  • that it is actually your fault
  • and they are the victim!

Always an inference, never a direct suggestion, thereby ensuring plausible deniability.

There is also a crucially important difference between the indirectness of passive-aggression and that of friendly ‘social’ communication.

  • With social communication the motive is benign, the purpose being to actually AVOID offense
  • With passive-aggression, the motive is malicious, the purpose being to confuse and to harm


There are so many more example, that could easily take up an entire post, but that is not the purpose of this post.

The point here is to help you to recognize the escalation points and danger signs.

The acid test that you are under passive-aggressive attack and being flooded with lies is confusion, growing confusion and disorientation.

When confronted with this, my advice to you is to run away, as fast as you can and to stay away.


The People of the Lie

Dr. Morgan Scott Peck, psychiatrist and best selling author of ‘The Road Less Traveled’ (1978) writes about these feelings of confusion in his second book, ‘The People of the Lie’ (1983).

He explains that The People of the Lie are engaged in the most grotesque form of concealed/camouflaged lying.

The purpose of any lying/passive-aggression, is to preserve the self image/ego of the liar.

  • To avoid giving light or oxygen to reality

What sets apart The People of the Lie, is that they will stop at absolutely nothing to preserve their deluded self image.

  • in the face of any and all evidence to the contrary
  • including the deliberate spiritual and emotional destruction of their victim

Based on his decades of medical practice and scores of case studies, Scott Peck describes the 2 telltale feelings he consistently experienced in the presence of these people.


He describes a profound confusion, qualitatively different again from the one I described earlier, in relation to ‘ordinary’ lies.

  • This type of confusion stifles the ability to think at all
  • To the point where he would actually begin to question his own sanity!


This reaction seems to be the acid test in identifying The People of the Lie.

  • setting them apart from garden variety liars

He describes it as a physical revulsion that caused him to want to literally, physically escape their presence.

Suggesting that it is in fact, a survival mechanism.

  • Not against physical harm per se
  • But against emotional and spiritual harm

In which case, this feeling of revulsion is an appropriate and healthy reaction.

He describes The People of the Lie as having Malignant Narcissism, which he also calls the pathology of evil.

  • the root cause of which being an un-submitted will
  • bridging the Spiritual and Scientific realms

I have never experienced this qualitative level of physical revulsion when confronted with lying/passive-aggression, but there have been times in my life when I thought I smelled a whiff of sulfur!

As Scott Peck explains:

‘Some of us are very good, some of us are very evil and most of us are somewhere in between……on a continuum’

Or perhaps a spectrum?



This is not a fun subject to write about but I believe it is a necessary one.

Autistic people are ill equipped to manage the complexities of even non-malicious social interaction, let alone conflict.

  • So my best advice to myself and perhaps to you, would be to avoid it, or at least walk away

However my ability to recognize concealed lies/passive-aggression and the grave danger posed, seems to be very well formed.

This would seem to suggest that this instinct/ability is unrelated to social intuition, at least in me.

If this is the case, this may be one area of ‘social’ interaction where Autistic people are at least as competent as Neurotypical people.

This would be consistent with the suggestion by Dr. Peck of this being a survival instinct:

  • qualitatively different to social intuition


If you should find yourself the object of these telltale signs of Orwellian double-speak confusion:

Your best response may be to run away!

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Janice Haines
    Jun 25, 2013 @ 11:21:27

    As a parent of a nine year old with Aspbergers, I find this enlightening. My son, however, has an added element do ODD (oppositional defiance disorder) this makes it difficult since the “training” tells us to treat him as ASD first, but then the ODD kicks in. Just thought maybe someone might have some insight. He was just diagnosed less than a week ago so this is a steep learning curve for my husband and I. Any help is appreciated.


  2. xandrablackprime
    Jan 07, 2014 @ 11:53:04

    Thank you for this. I am a moderator in an Asperger’s Group & I am always learning new ways to try & diffuse conflict.


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