Ask Richard: Asperger’s Syndrome Complicates Some Common Problems of Coming Out

A Plethora of Problems

Dear Richard,

I am a senior in high school, and, unknown to nearly everyone, I’m an atheist. My parents don’t know, most of my closest friends don’t know, and no one at Church knows. I was not very diligent about covering my ideas early on in my atheism, and this makes it difficult to keep up my theistic façade. I am considering “coming out.” I want to stop living a lie, but I don’t want to hurt anyone. I want to be in control when my atheism comes to light.

A little background on my life is in order. I have Aspergers Syndrome. While I may be gifted mentally, I have serious problems relating to people emotionally. I really do love and care about my friends and family, but I have trouble showing it. I’m afraid that I could come across as callous, cold, or condescending while trying to come out to the people I love.

My family situation is complicated too. My family is Catholic. I am the oldest. I have four sisters, and one brother. My parents have been separated once, and divorced once as well. They do love each other, the divorce let them sort out their problems, and was a reminder of what they value in each other. They still have problems though, they are very different people.

My dad is very similar to me in some ways. He’s analytical, and his mindset has served him well professionally. He occasionally reads up on religion, and I don’t know why. I think he may be trying to validate his beliefs. My mother is a very fervent believer, is more willing to take things at face value, and is well versed in the teachings of the church.

I feel that my father would be more accepting of my worldview, and may even embrace it himself in time, but I know my mother would have a problem with my atheism. I worry that coming out could divide my parents and trash their marriage all over again, or unite them against a common enemy: me. I’ve seen them at war with each other, and their powers combined would be a force to be reckoned with.

I worry that I would make the kids ask difficult questions and that my parents would resent me for it. This is compounded by the fact that I think the kids SHOULD ask difficult questions.

I also fear losing friends. Only a handful of friends know of my atheism, and I’ve chosen to tell them because they are also atheists. All my other friends are Christian. Many of them became my friends through church. I’d like to think we could still be friends even if I come out.

The people of the church are of the least concern to me. I find them pleasant, but not a major part of my life.

I want to be able to come out, but I don’t want to hurt anyone. I want to be accepted by my family and friends, and I want them to accept me, not my façade.

Sincerely,
Overwhelmed

Dear Overwhelmed,

I commend you for caring so much about the feelings and well being of your parents, siblings, and friends. Your initial concern is about the possibility of hurting others by revealing the truth of your atheism. This shows you have a selfless and compassionate nature.

From what you have described, I think much of your apprehension is misplaced, because you are taking on responsibility for things that are not yours. Sorting out what is your responsibility and what is others’ is not about being uncaring; it’s about you owning your behavior, and letting others own theirs:

You are not responsible for preserving the strength of your parents’ marriage. If there is friction between them about your atheism, that is their problem, not yours; it is their job to reconcile conflicts between them, not yours.

You are not responsible for any resentment that your parents might feel toward you if your younger siblings start asking difficult questions. If your brother and sisters have any of your (and perhaps your father’s) curious and questioning nature, they’re probably going to ask difficult questions anyway, and I agree that they should. If your parents want to blame that on you, that is simply their missing the reality of their other children’s minds.

You are not responsible for any feelings of disappointment, hurt, fear, anger, guilt, shame, or any other negative feelings that your parents, family, or friends feel, as long as you have made the effort to present your truth to them in a respectful, thoughtful, and sensitive way.

This is where your Asperger’s Syndrome becomes a challenge, but it’s one that you can handle.

For the readers here who are not familiar with Asperger’s Syndrome or AS:
The emotional cues in ordinary human conversation are very complex, often subtle, and almost always a bit ambiguous. Only a small part of what we feel is communicated by our specific words; most of it is expressed in the tone, volume, and pace of our speech, our facial expressions, our body language, and the context of many other events that might also be happening. Reading this barrage of clues and hints accurately can be very challenging for even the most perceptive and skilled listeners. “Overwhelming” is a good description not just for the “plethora of problems” described in this letter, but also the bewildering salvo of non-verbal data that is thrown at a person during normal conversation.

People with AS have difficulty perceiving these cues in face-to-face dialogue, and even if they do, they have difficulty interpreting them accurately. By not being able to reflect accurate empathy, they sometimes give others an incorrect impression that they don’t care about others’ feelings, or that they don’t have feelings of their own. This is far from the truth, as is clearly demonstrated by the heartfelt love and care expressed in this letter.

Not all, but many people with AS are otherwise very intelligent, even gifted, and often have a remarkable ability to concentrate on tasks involving intricate and meticulous detail. It’s as if the intelligence that most people use in reading each other’s emotional cues has been shifted over to be added to the AS person’s puzzle-solving ability and other very useful aspects of their intellect.

Overwhelmed, although you have difficulty showing your love and caring for others in face-to-face conversations, you certainly don’t have any trouble expressing your feelings in writing.

So use that ability. Work with your strengths.

You write very well. You explain your thoughts very clearly, and you express your feelings in a way that makes it easy to empathize with you. Despite your fear that you would come across as callous, cold, or condescending in a verbal discussion, the impression you give in this letter is that you’re sensitive, earnest, and respectful.

So when the time comes that you decide to tell your family and friends, write them letters. Remind them of how your Aspergers’ makes you awkward reading and expressing feelings while talking. Say that this is why you’re writing to them so you can clearly express how much you care about them and how much you value their acceptance of you. Then tell them about how you came to be unconvinced of gods, and other thoughts you have regarding religion. Dispel whatever misconceptions you anticipate they might have about atheism, such as the common ones about having no morals, no values, and no meaning. Close your letter with a restatement of your love for them, and your hope that they will accept you as you are, instead of your façade.

Then, having done all you can to be honest in a respectful and sensitive way, their responses are their responsibility.

Timing is important. Only you can know how much the social risks are counterbalanced by your internal pressure to be open and honest, to drop the pretense. Many atheists come to a point where their fear becomes less important than their need to be themselves without apologies. There is no set age for this to be premature or overdue. I have met people in their late 50’s who still keep up the façade, and I do not judge them as being delayed, deficit, cowardly, or anything like that. Only each person can be the judge of what is right for them in this decision.

Generally, the younger a person is, the more vulnerable they are to coercive pressures from their family to “return to the fold,” especially by a withdrawal of love. This is emotional extortion. It is shameful, and it should be called shameful. Occasionally, young people face the prospect of losing material benefits from their family, such as being able to live in the family home, or being helped with college funding. Such coercion is absurd and almost always backfires, and it is very destructive to the relationships. Remember to not take the blame for the reactionary excesses of others who might try to emotionally or materially blackmail you. That is their moral failing, not yours.

You might start first with your father, as he is the most likely to be approachable, since he seems to share your analytical and inquisitive traits. He will be motivated both by his relationship with you and his relationship with his wife, so he might feel a bit conflicted. Whatever he feels and whatever he does I must stress again, are his responsibility, not yours.

If he or anyone else begins to overwhelm you with questions or arguments, you always have the right to say that you’re feeling overwhelmed, that you need to think about what they said and organize your own thoughts. You can reply to them again in writing if that is the way you feel the most comfortable. You can play this by your own rules and your own needs.

You might lose some of your religious friends, but don’t worry, if any one of them rejects you, they’re not worth keeping anyway. A handful of friends who love the real you is far better than a roomful of friends who only love your act.

Never let your challenges define you. Always define yourself by your response to your challenges.

Please write again as things develop. We can all learn from your experiences.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Atheist Diva

    Richard Wade, you are amazing.

  • Liz

    As a person with AS, this letter and response were an incredible read. Thank you for your understanding Richard, and best wishes to “Overwhelmed”!

  • Edward Tarte

    Richard, you are a genius, almost certainly unsurpassed on the entire planet in what you do here at this website.

  • MegaZeusThor

    “no one at Church knows”

    I often forget that people have to go to church. My family never went and I didn’t start as an adult. (I’ve had to go to some services – disliked them all.)

    My problems are: how chatty do I get with co-workers if religion comes up. It would be kinda awful if I had to pretend to be religious or show up to a church.

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      My advice, if religion comes up at work and they question you about it, is to just act casual. “Oh, I don’t go to a church.” “Oh, I don’t belong to a religion.” “Oh, I’m not Christian,” etc.

      Of course, I don’t know where you live, so it’s possible the casual approach might not work in places like the Bible Belt.

      • meekinheritance

        I usually just say, “I’m not superstitious.” But I work at a large company with policies that discourage people from making unwanted religious overtures.
        But many people seem to accept, “I’m not religious” or “I don’t go to church” and leave it at that.

        • boop

          HAHA, “I’m not superstitious” — that’s great, I’m going to use that. Not necessarily rude, but hopefully inspires a bit of thought for the recipient.

        • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

          Don’t think I would have the guts to say “I’m not superstitious,” but I might go with “I don’t believe in the supernatural” if pressed on why I don’t belong to a religion.

          For people who are in hostile environments, it might be better to keep it vague: “I don’t believe in things like that,” “I have my own belief system,” “I don’t discuss my beliefs at work,” “It’s not really my thing,” “I consider this a personal matter,” etc.

    • Tainda

      It depends on the situation I suppose. The people who work in my department know I’m an atheist. I work in a very large (and liberal) hospital in Missouri. If someone outside of my department and I didn’t know very well were to say something, I would probably say “I don’t go to church” and leave it at that.

      Of my close family and the people I work with, only my daughter and a cousin’s son are atheists (that I know of). When religion comes up I usually walk away or don’t say a word.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    I caught my breath as I was reading through your response, as I realised the brilliant suggestion you were going to make.

    You write rather well yourself, Richard.

  • Lurker111

    It’s unclear from the letter whether the writer has gotten through college yet. My general advice is to say nothing until you’ve matriculated OR have a full scholarship in hand. Cynical me.

  • Ronlawhouston

    Since autism spectrum disorders tend to run in families, Overwhelmed might be surprised at his family’s reaction.

    One thing I have a hard time understanding: Why must we assign labels to ourselves? Overwhelmed is not really atheist. He is Aspergers. Unlike many of us, Overwhelmed simply has a natural biological disposition to not believe in God. Assigning any other label to a natural result sees to be part of the problem.

    I also want to chime in on Richard’s total awesomeness. I love reading his posts. I say Richard needs to write a book.

  • Mario Strada

    After reading the letter, but not Richard’s response, my first reaction was that anyone reading that letter would have to at least be sympathetic with his plight if not his beliefs.

    In his call for help he possibly makes the very best argument he could for coming out to his friends and family.

    Then reading Richard’s response I can only agree that the best move will be to write to most of the people he wants to keep close and with some I would actually share the letter we have all read.

    If my came out as a “Christian” to me (The closest parallel I can make) and sent me a letter similar to this one, it would go a long way toward understanding her and her reasons. I can’t imagine that the people around this young man, if they are really worthy of his love and friendship would react any other way to his arguments.

    If they do. If they decide to exercise emotional blackmail and shun him after reading his heartfelt letter, then they wouldn’t be true friends anyway.


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