When parents ask invasive questions

Hi. My parents are always asking me why I do things like rock back and forth or become unable to talk. When I say “I don’t know” they press me until I throw wordsoup at them. If I answer “I was overloaded” or whatever “Why were you overloaded?” “The lights.” “Why did the lights bug you today and not yesterday?” “I didn’t sleep well.” “Why didn’t you sleep well?” They go farther and farther until I say I don’t know, then press me until I make up reasons. I hate it. Help?
realsocialskills said:
That’s hard. There are no universal strategies that work for everyone in this case, and you might not be able to get them to stop, particularly if you are still living with them. That said, here are some possibilities:
Depending on your relationship with them, it might help to talk to them about it when you’re all calm. If they care about how you feel, it might help to tell them that it’s hurting you, possibly along the lines of:
  • Mom, when I am rocking back and forth or unable to speak, the last thing I want to do is talk about it. It really hurts my feelings when you press me for answers. There’s always a reason, but I don’t always know it, and it’s not something I want to talk about when I’m in that state of mind. When I’m rocking or unable to speak, I’d prefer that you leave me be.
  • or:
  • Dad, I get the sense that when I rock or can’t speak, it makes you very worried and you want to find out exactly what’s going on. I know you mean well, but that doesn’t help. Rocking and losing speech sometimes is actually fairly normal for autistic people, and it hurts my feelings when you act like it’s a problem to be solved. When I rock or can’t talk, that’s ok, and I’d prefer that you let me be and stop trying to investigate.
  • This only works if your parents care about your feelings and are likely to believe you. I don’t know you or your family, so I can’t tell you whether or not you have that kind of relationship.

Also depending on your relationship with them, you might be able to unilaterally refuse to talk about these things. This depends on how much power you have and how they are likely to react, but it’s a possibility worth considering:

  • If you refuse explicitly and say “I do not want to talk about that”, they will probably get angry
  • But it’s hard for them to argue with, particularly if you adopt a broken record approach and don’t answer questions like “why not?”, or answer them in closed ways like “That’s private.”
  • Whether this is a good idea depends on what your parents are likely to do if they get angry, and whether you consider that consequence bearable.
  • If all they’re likely to do is get angry or yell at you, it’s probably in your interest to develop a tolerance for yelling and anger
  • This is a good post by Dave Hingsburger about a man with a developmental disability learning to tolerate parental anger

Another possible broken-record approach:

  • When they’re asking, it might help to say “because I’m autistic”, and “because that’s what autistic people do” in response to all of their questions
  • Or something lighter like shrugging and saying “My brain works in mysterious ways”, if you can pull off a light tone with that.
  • This might work better than outright refusing or saying “I don’t know”, since it’s an answer, but it doesn’t get into details

Another possibility: infodump and bore them:

  • If they want to ask you about rocking or losing speech, you might try telling them every single thing you can think of about rocking and losing speech, in as verbose a manner as you can manage
  • And answer every followup question with another longwinded monologue
  • Infodumping can be a superpower of self defense. As Laura Hershey put it about wheelchair users blocking inaccessible doors, such power should not be wasted
  • If you’re infodumping and answering the question you want to answer rather than the one they want you to answer, that gives you power

Another possibility: lie

  • It might help to make up something that sounds plausible and just answer that every time they ask
  • Lying can be easier than trying to tell the truth
  • Particularly if you practice the lie and refine it to become an answer they find satisfying
  • “Why were you rocking?” “Because I was overloaded.” “Why?” “Because of the lights.” “Why did the lights bother you today and not yesterday?” “Today the lights were different. I think the bulbs are burning out.”
  • It is ok to lie when people are harassing you about things that are none of their business, even if they love you, even if they are your parents

Another possibility: Aggressively change the subject when they ask questions you don’t want to answer;

  • This is particularly effective if they have things they are particularly interested in
  • Eg “Why were you rocking?” “So, are you looking forward to the big game tonight?”
  • This doesn’t work on everyone, but it can be very effective with some people

Another possibility: Talk about the things they’re objecting to in positive terms:

  • “Why were you rocking?” “Because rocking is awesome!”
  • “Why weren’t you talking?” “Because words are overrated and the space outside of words is beautiful”
  • This can be disarming, in part because it’s rude to argue with people about things they like
  • They might follow up with: “But other people think it looks weird”, which you can answer “That’s their problem.” or “That’s ok.”
  • They might also say “That’s inappropriate”. I don’t know a great rhetorical response to that one, but people who say that are in fact wrong.

Another possibility: Turn the questions back on them:

  • “Why were you rocking?” “Why do you ask?”
  • This can be surprisingly effective with a lot of people, particularly if you can manage to sound curious or therapeutic.
  • Having a snarky/offended tone isn’t quite as effective, but it can sometimes work too, because it implies “that was not an appropriate question”. That tone will get some people to back off; it will cause others to argue

These are some of the strategies I know. Captain Awkward also talks about parents and boundaries a lot. You might want to take a look through her archives. (That said, take her advice about therapy with a grain of salt. What she says is true for a lot of people, but it isn’t necessarily going to be good advice for people with disabilities, particularly teenagers).

Beyond that, in any case, I think it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t your fault, and that your parents should not be doing this. They may not intend any harm, they may well think they’re helping you, but they’re being mean. The problem is not caused by autism. The problem is caused by them being wrong about how to treat you.

These three posts about dealing with people being mean to you might help: “You’re ok, they’re mean.”, Learning self respect, and When people you love are mean.

I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. It’s an awful situation to be in. I hope that some of this helped.