Autism Spectrum Disorder and High Conflict Personalities: Working with Cultural Differences

©2023 Ekaterina Ricci and Bill Eddy

For the past 15 years, High Conflict Institute has been focused on developing methods and teaching skills for managing the behavior of people with high-conflict personalities—primarily in family, workplace, and legal disputes. Such high-conflict people tend to have four key characteristics:

  • Preoccupation with blaming others,

  • A lot of all-or-nothing thinking,

  • Unmanaged emotions,

  • Extreme behaviors.

Recently, we have been getting requests for knowledge about people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Some of them have difficult interpersonal behaviors, which can sometimes escalate into high conflict. Do our methods of managing high-conflict people (HCPs) help those with ASD? Or do they need something completely different? Or a combination of both?

The answer seems to lie in understanding the different cultures of people with ASD and how to relate to people in their culture. The following article addresses several of these cultural differences, followed by adaptations that can be made to be more effective in working with those with ASD.

The Nature of Autism Spectrum Disorder

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder frequently have the following general patterns of behavior which can impact interpersonal relations:

  • tend to be visual thinkers, which results in conflict with individuals who base their thinking on words and logic

  • tend to display behavioral patterns with some similarities to Borderline, Narcissistic, Histrionic, and Antisocial HCP described in DSM-5

  • tend to require a longer than average time to process information/answer questions

  • tend to lack eye contact, be clumsy, have difficulties with coordination and motor planning

  • require predictability of events (planned events need to be shown in advance to avoid anxiety or spiraled-up emotions)

They tend to have three different levels of functioning:

  1. High-functioning ASD is characterized by extreme intelligence. An example is Temple Grandin who is a successful author and expert on animal behavior. This type possesses higher-than-average intelligence and requires little or no support at all. High-functioning ASD is often very focused on learning a particular topic that an average individual would not find attractive. They do not have average reasoning and approach things differently.

  2. Medium-functioning ASD possess atypical social behavior (difficulties in conversation during which they may just walk away from the conversation). They also have a high interest in learning specific topics, difficulties managing behavior, and may have extreme emotions. They possess greater maladaptivity when compared to high-functioning ASD.

  3. Low-functioning ASD involves intense deficits and requires constant support. They may display extreme behavior (mood swings, hurting someone, etc.). Switching tasks is a significant challenge and they may have no vocal speech and not be able to have a job.

Working with People with ASD

People with Cluster B personality disorders (most HCPs) and individuals with ASD both have difficulties maintaining relationships because of their personality traits. The appearance of superiority in ASD is similar to narcissism; mood swings and intense emotions are similar to borderline personality disorder; lack of remorse is similar to antisocial personalities; and seeking of attention is similar to histrionic personality disorder. For this reason, techniques used with HCPs appear useful with individuals with ASD.

Visual Aids and Processing Time

When it comes to analyzing options and following through with the task to completion, ASD individuals require visual aids and a sequence of events to visualize rather than a deadline (date and time). Visual aids can be, for example, a time clock down to show when the meeting ends, making a whiteboard with tasks to complete, and a form of reward for it (kind word, good job, appreciation). ASD individuals require longer than an average time to answer questions, so pausing for a bit longer than average between questions/answers would benefit productivity.

Steps, Tasks and Direct Communication

When speaking with ASD individuals who appear not to listen or may look away, it helps them concentrate by giving them steps and points of the task to complete. Although they may not appear like they are listening, they are usually paying attention. ASD individuals understand and follow through with information that is given in bullet points or simple sentences. Remember to speak to them directly, even if they are with a family member or assistant. Communication must be clear and written to avoid “you never told me that.” Handouts and follow-up emails may help.

Comfort Zones and EAR Statements

Because of higher-than-average anxiety, ASD individuals seem to benefit more from online meetings than in person. This is because home is a comfort zone whereas the office is not. A comfort zone is a source of emotional stability and prevents anxiety. Meeting on Zoom allows them to regulate the volume/noise in the computer, which is difficult when the meeting is in an office. Remember, some individuals with ASD are noise sensitive. If things go the “wrong way during the meeting,” using an EAR Statement™ and the CARS Method® can help pass through intense emotions. In some cases, more EAR statements can be appropriate.

High Conflict methods that seem to help:

EAR Statements (which show Empathy, Attention, and/or Respect):.

I can understand that it is frustrating when …

Tell me more, I want to understand…

I respect your efforts to…

CARS Method®

Connect (with Empathy, Attention, and/or Respect)

Analyze options (help them see more than one solution or make proposals)

Respond with BIFF (Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm emails, texts, etc.)

Set Limits (by focusing them on their choices and consequences of choices)

Additional Tips

  • Focus their attention on the task to complete with the given endpoints

  • Use more visual communication such as setting a timer for the meeting to end and visual aids that will let them know about the complete task

  • Give breaks during a meeting so as not to overwhelm them

  • Know about difficulties they have with remembering directions

  • Recognize that they often have noise sensitivities and food sensitivities

  • Provide directions in simplest form (bullet points rather than complex sentences)

  • Realize that they can become hyper-focused on a particular topic

  • Be aware most individuals with ASD who seek legal help are high-functioning ASD.

Conclusion

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can benefit when professionals and others communicate with them using some of the same methods that help those with high-conflict personalities. Specifically, EAR Statements (which show empathy, attention, and/or respect for the person) can calm upset emotions and anxiety. You can also use the CARS Method to organize your approach. In addition, using the tips provided here would give more effective communication and a productive work environment. Just as we have learned over the years that people with high-conflict personalities can benefit when professionals, supervisors, family, and friends use calming and focusing techniques, people with ASD can also benefit from the same methods plus additional methods that fit their unique needs.


EKATERINA RICCI, MDR

EKATERINA RICCI, MDR is a recent graduate of the Masters in Dispute Resolution program at Pepperdine University School of Law Straus Institute of Dispute Resolution. She is also an Extern with the High Conflict Institute.

Headshot of Bill Eddy

BILL EDDY LCSW, Esq.

BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.

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