Can Gaslighting Ever Be Unintentional? — One Autistic Woman’s Perspective

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When you hear the word “gaslighting”, you may imagine a cruel and manipulative spouse, boss, or family member slowly and purposely driving an innocent person insane by continuing to make them doubt their own experience of reality.

But, is it possible this kind of abusive behavior could be unintentional, even accidental on the part of the perpetrator? As a late-diagnosed autistic woman who has been on this planet for 41 years, I say — yes.

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Unintentional gaslighting is possible when it comes to the significant communication differences between neurotypical (non-autistic) people and neurodivergent (autistic) people because we speak two different social and neurological languages!

Let’s look at the definition of gaslighting from Oxford Dictionary: “[To] manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.”

Purposeful gaslighting happens when somebody manipulates a person into thinking their memories and experiences in life are incorrect.

For example, a husband tells his wife that he’s going to paint the house. She picks out a color, and he agrees to do it.

They talk about it for weeks, discussing the type of new furniture they want on the deck to go with this new terra cotta color. One weekend, while his wife is out picking out the new deck furniture, her husband paints the house — robin’s egg blue.

She comes home with the new furniture, sees what her husband has done, and starts yelling at him. He looks at her like she’s lost her mind.

Not only does he continue to tell her that they talked about painting the house robin’s egg blue (what even is “terra cotta”??), but that he has the paint swatches from the hardware store to prove it, and he produces them, all the while insisting that’s the color they’d agreed on while his confused wife breaks down in tears.

That’s purposeful manipulation. That’s cruelty. That’s gaslighting.

As I said before, autistic and neurotypical people speak two different social languages, and we experience the world and process information differently, as well.

This can lead to chronic and lifelong miscommunication between the neurotypes, which can look like and have the same effect as intentional gaslighting. This often results in the autistic person developing complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).

RELATED: Why 'Gaslighting' Is Such A Powerful Weapon Of Emotional Abuse — And What To Do If It's Happening To You

Here’s an example of unintentional gaslighting from my eBook, Unintentional Gaslighting Causes Complex PTSD in Autistic People (A Comprehensive Guide for Neurotypicals):

“Ralph is 6, autistic, undiagnosed. He has lived with his mother and older brother since his father passed away. Ralph’s older brother, Robert, loves jamming out on his guitar in his bedroom, talking loudly on video chat to his friends, and watching movies at full volume. Ralph, who has a bedroom right next to his, cannot stand this constant noise.

He often pounds on Robert’s wall and tells him to stop being so loud, but his brother ignores him. After all, their mom said it’s not too loud for her, so what is Ralph complaining about? He’s just overly sensitive. He won’t make it in the world that way, their mother thinks.

Seeing that Ralph seems to have an intolerance to not only the noises his brother makes but even traffic noises such as honking cars and radios playing inside them, his mother continually tells him to stop covering his ears and “get used to” the sound.

She even takes him to a doctor who does exposure therapy to try to get Ralph to become more used to everyday noises. For months, Ralph would scream, cry, and cover his ears when exposed to the sounds, but now, he just sits and stares into space.

He doesn’t complain much about the noise anymore, but he has also stopped speaking and engaging with his mother and brother. He sleeps all the time and is prone to breaking down into tears easily. His grades are failing. But he doesn’t seem to be affected by the loud sounds anymore.

The unintentional gaslighting here is that Ralph’s mother believed exposure therapy would be good for her son so he could function better in the “real world”. She sees him no longer complaining as success, when, in fact, he’s completely disassociated from reality to protect himself and is now spiraling into depression.”

The Takeaway

Autistic people living in a neurotypical world experience unintentional gaslighting simply by being autistic people in a neurotypical world.

The only way to prevent complex PTSD in your autistic loved one is to learn our language by listening to autistic adults talk about their experiences and reading books written by autistic people.

Otherwise, both of you will spend a lifetime truly believing the other is purposefully screwing with the other’s head, and that can result in frustration, anxiety, resentment, and PTSD is both neurotypes.

Learn each other’s languages. Autistic people have been expected to change and accommodate neurotypical people every day of our lives. The least neurotypical people can do is meet us in the middle.

That’s what turns autism awareness into autism acceptance.

RELATED: 6 Myths About Autism We Wish You'd Quit Believing

Jaime A. Heidel was diagnosed on the autism spectrum in 2015, at the age of 35. In addition to writing, she also has a YouTube video series called "Why Autistic People Do That."

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.