Advice on adult autism, mediation and housemates
August 14, 2011 1:02 PM   Subscribe

A question about adult autism anger management issues in a housemate context.

I have four friends who live in a house (with an absentee landlord). One of them was diagnosed with autism as a child. He does not believe that he has autism or that it's a made-up thing or not useful... something like that. I'm not sure the other housemates all know this know about his autism (there was an autism thread on the blue a while back that I really related to with respect to him). We'll call him Ernie.

Ernie is the member who has been living in the house the longest. He has put a lot of love into the house itself - fixing it up, working on the yard, and so forth.

I moved out because I couldn't live with him any more. We're still friends, but his expectations for me as a housemate were unreasonable and manifested in disdain and sometimes anger. Nobody wanted me to go, but I couldn't stay.

I did suggest therapy when I moved out - he is definitely still very depressed, probably in large part about his first girlfriend in a decade breaking up with him - but I strongly doubt that he went.

The person who has replaced me in that household, I've met her, hung out a bit, she's nice, I like her. We can call her Sara. They're all great folks. But I just got a text from one of the other housemates (who we'll call Nicole) saying that they all want to "vote Ernie out of the house." They don't know how to approach him about this.

Ernie doesn't like Sara (I don't know why). Nicole says he "told her she cowers in fear around him and he's sick of it." And so forth. It's a clear case (to me, based on what I know of him from my own experience and what I'm hearing) of an abusive situation.

I'm still his friend (we volunteer together). I don't live there. I have some chance of being able to have a conversation with Ernie before they do. It sounds like this has gotten to the point where something really needs to change. I suspect it will end with Ernie moving out, but I would really like to help make it a more positive and understanding experience for everyone involved.

I'm not able to define my question well. I have been invited to help mediate (probably with the end goal of Ernie leaving), and would like to be able to come at this from a more informed perspective.

My Google Fu is failing me. What online resources can you point me to that will address adult autism, anger management, and roommate situations? Do you have any experiences that you can relay to help me and my friends relate to this situation?
posted by lover to Human Relations (30 answers total)
I think this analysis is built on thin ice.

- How do you know he was diagnosed with autism?
- How old is Ernie - he sounds a bit older - how long ago was the diagnosis? (Diagnosis of autism has changed over time)
- Autism covers wide a range of diagnoses and symptoms
- Ernie's symptoms may not be autism
- Etc.

Are any of you psychologists? It doesn't sound like it.

The fact that you are not getting on with Ernie and neither are the other folks suggests that maybe he is not 'genuinely' autistic. If he was he would probably just ignore you.

And if he was on the autism spectrum, this idea that he has lived in the house the longest and fixed it up, and now some people want to kick him out based on some uninformed diagnosis and labeling, is to me, quite frankly, reprehensible.
posted by carter at 1:19 PM on August 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

The inefficient processing of emotion can be very draining - as the emotion temporarily takes over it can impede awareness and rational thought. The emotional warning signs that are meant to protect you from difficult or harmful situations may malfunction, or work with such a delay that they lose effectiveness. This means that they may be less than prepared to defend themselves verbally (or, in bad situations, physically) in an argument or conflict.
From this website (more good info there)

This website recommends using Socratic Communication with people with Asperger's (which is what I'm assuming Ernie has).

This website advises you to 1) put away your expectations for how communication normally works, 2) ask clarifying questions whenever anything is vague, 3) be as specific and careful with your word choices as possible, 4) consider your non-verbal communication, and 5) adjust your words/non-verbal communication to the point that you're as clear and unambiguous as possible.

I would say this: approach him using Socratic questioning at first - almost play dumb about what's happening - until you hear his point of view. He might be able to offer solutions without you presenting anything at all. If that doesn't yield up a solution, then be direct with Ernie, but avoiding accusatory "you" statements if at all possible. Not: "You are doing this" - rather, "It seems like that action could be interpreted as x..."

The other thing that struck me is that the landlord may have something to say about the housemates voting Ernie off the island. Particularly if he's the one who has lived there the longest and has put a lot of sweat equity into the house. Maybe someone needs to communicate with him or her before anyone takes action.

Good luck.
posted by guster4lovers at 1:26 PM on August 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

You really want to facilitate a process that will involve your friend getting removed from his home? That sounds foolhardy.

As guster4lovers points out, unless one of the other roommates holds a master lease and Ernie is subleasing from them, your roommates do not have the authority to remove him. They can see if the landlord will do it, but why would the landlord do that?
posted by grouse at 1:28 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

If I were you, I would encourage everyone involved to be kind to each other, and then back out of it. You've nothing to gain by getting involved in this.
posted by tomswift at 1:38 PM on August 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

How do you know he was diagnosed with autism?
He told me.
How old is Ernie - he sounds a bit older - how long ago was the diagnosis?
Late 30s.

After leaving the house, I get along just fine with Ernie; we're friends.

One example. He literally ran away from the situation when I addressed his yelling at me and Nicole for not wanting to hang out with him in the garden. Whether or not it's autism, it shares enough in common that those resources will probably be helpful for me in understanding the situation. Again, the other housemates probably do not know that he is autistic. All they know is that he has a very bad temper and they're getting the brunt of it.
posted by lover at 1:39 PM on August 14, 2011

Something else struck me when I reread your question. Autism or not, Ernie sounds like an ENTJ. Read this. I can share more links similar to that if that site is helpful to you.
posted by guster4lovers at 1:41 PM on August 14, 2011

I get along just fine with Ernie; we're friends.

Don't expect to remain friends if you get involved in the process of people trying to remove him from his home.
posted by grouse at 1:42 PM on August 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

One example. He literally ran away from the situation when I addressed his yelling at me and Nicole for not wanting to hang out with him in the garden. Whether or not it's autism, it shares enough in common that those resources will probably be helpful for me in understanding the situation.

Your comment does not make any sense at all. This reinforces my opinion that you should drop this right now.

Ernie maybe needs an empathic therapist. He doesn't need the life-situation-changing outcomes of your back-of-the-envelope diagnoses.
posted by carter at 1:45 PM on August 14, 2011 [8 favorites]

I moved out a while ago and that's irrelevant to the current situation except for context. I'm looking for resources and related experiences. He will not go to a therapist.

I'm probably one of his closest friends and I would like to help him and his housemates work through this to some degree. I won't get too deeply involved - I know how to set boundaries, but I would like to help get my friends working through this process in, as tomswift puts it, a kind manner.
posted by lover at 1:51 PM on August 14, 2011

Seconding Grouse - Who actually signed the lease? If Ernie - I have some bad news for everyone else. These people don't own their own six-person hippie commune, they sublet an apartment. Whoever actually rented the apartment has the final say in who stays and who goes. If Ernie has his name on the dotted line, you may have five homeless friends if they decide to try to "vote him off the island".
posted by pla at 1:54 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

There is no lease. It's a month-to-month situation and has been for years.
posted by lover at 1:57 PM on August 14, 2011

You might consider helping the other housemates realize that he has as much "right" to live there as anyone else, no matter how odd he is, unless he is actually endangering someone, destroying property, etc. I put "right" in quotes because most tenant agreements are at will (that's will of landlord and will of tenant, not will of other tenants vs. will of tenant).

If you google roommate law yourstate, certain things will come up, but at least in New York, the courts don't care that much about roommate arguments. It's about the landlord and him, in the end...and I would hope the LL isn't blatantly discriminatory.
posted by skbw at 1:58 PM on August 14, 2011

Just for comparison, let's say it was a month-to-month in a private house in Queens. The LL can, essentially, put a tenant out with 30 days' written notice. Same is true for, say, a prime tenant in an apartment and an unwanted roommate or subletter with no written agreement. The actual practice shifts CONSIDERABLY in favor of the tenant, though, if there is age or disability involved.

(I was a housing advocate for about 5 years and also worked(!!!!) for a private landlord.)
posted by skbw at 2:07 PM on August 14, 2011

None of the housemates are interested in turning to the law or landlord for solutions.

Whatever the outcome, it is definitely an unsustainable, emotionally abusive situation at present. He's a smart man, and given the right situation, he can talk things through. The Socratic method of conversation is the best advice I've seen so far. Is there any other advice in a similar vein?
posted by lover at 2:10 PM on August 14, 2011

lover : There is no lease. It's a month-to-month situation and has been for years.

Hmm? Consider me confused... I've had a "month-to-month" rental agreement, and I still had a document I signed agreeing to certain basic terms. Perhaps I spoke poorly in calling it a "lease", but, who does the landlord harass if you pay late?

None of the housemates are interested in turning to the law or landlord for solutions.

While nice in theory, that will change the instant your friend gets kicked out against his wishes.

Don't get me wrong, I see that you very much want to smooth this over and avoid it getting to that point. But I hate to say it, you sound like the only one standing up for Ernie, and no longer have much of a say in the matter. Which leaves you with the legal specifics of the situation as your last recourse.
posted by pla at 2:18 PM on August 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

The roommates may or may not be more sympathetic to him if they know that there is a medical reason for his behavior, and I suppose it couldn't hurt to mention to Nicole or Sara that you suspect that he may have autism to some degree (or perhaps even to point them to some informative resources), but it seems clear that they are at a breaking point with his behavior and I doubt there is much you can do to reverse or ameliorate that, and without professional training, it's hard to imagine that you personally trying to take on a formal mediation role will yield much good.

I think that the best role you can play, as someone who cares about him, is to offer your support directly to him: helping him understand what is happening, helping him find a new living arrangement, and continuing to reinforce how valuable you believe therapy can be for anyone dealing with depression, stress or difficulty interacting/living with others.

The only other possible window of opportunity I see here is convincing them to hold a serious house meeting with him regarding their problems with his ability to manage his anger, and having them agree that they will waive requesting his eviction from the house (legally or just interpersonally) for a period of x months on the provision that he sees a therapist weekly and that, going forward, everyone in the house follows a specific, clear set of rules governing in-house behavior.
posted by mauvest at 2:23 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

From my experience with people with autism, he does seem to show some traits that show up on the spectrum:

1. Controlling - This may account for his unreasonable demands as a roommate (it reminds me a little of Sheldon Cooper on THE BIG BANG THEORY - It is not discussed on the show but he must have Aspergers and he also make unreasonable demands on his roommate and friends).
2. Unable to read non-verbal cues - this may account for his treatment of the new roommate
3. Obsessive focus on one subject - His work on the house.

You may also find that he has big problems with changes to his routine or transitions from one activity to another. I would expect that you moving out was traumatic for him.

The socratic method seems like a good idea. So is being specific and direct when you speak to him. "Ernie, if you don't change behaviors X, Y and Z, they will ask you to move out." Be very specific in the description of what he is doing.

One of the biggest lessons I had to learn in dealing with people on the spectrum is that you need to take your ego and emotions out of it.

I really do hope this effort is made in an attempt to salvage his tenancy, not move him out.
posted by cjets at 2:23 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

You want everybody involved to behave as decently as possible, and in this case it sounds like the respectful thing to do would be for the other housemates to give 30 (or better) days' notice to Ernie that they are moving out, and he needs to find new roommates. You can of course suggest to Ernie that that would be a hassle and you are available to help him hunt for a nice one-bedroom, etc. But this doesn't sound like a roommate situation where roommate ethics permit 'voting off.'

2nd that when a lease shifts to month to month it is still a lease, and it seems unlikely that it doesn't have Ernie's name on it. You might mention the question of who is and who isn't on the lease to Nicole and Sara before stuff starts flying; if they are all informally subletting on Ernie's lease, they might be pretty powerless (much depends on your local landlord-tenant law, of course).
posted by kmennie at 2:27 PM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

The landlord has Alzheimer's and her son is drunk and doesn't want the responsibility. The rent gets sent directly to her bank account because otherwise the checks don't get cashed. There is no written lease agreement and it's possible that the last lease was signed by nobody who currently lives in the home.

The last three comments have been useful. I'm heading out for the day, so I'll mark best answers, but would still greatly appreciate more relevant suggestions or links to resources.
posted by lover at 2:34 PM on August 14, 2011

Your question is so nebulous and detailed I'm unable to answer it in any useful way.

One part of your followup that made sense is where you said that he wanted two of you to hang out with him in the garden, you said no, and he yelled at you, and when you objected he literally ran away. I can provide an example of how to respond to that.

If he were to yell at you again, you could say "Don't yell at me," and if he were to keep yelling you could say "I'm hanging up/leaving now." If he needs to run away in response to that, let him.
posted by tel3path at 2:40 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am unclear as to which direction you think the abuse is going.

I've been in roommate situations before where one party turns into 'the bad guy'. In my experience they are not salvageable.

I don't think Ernie's autism diagnosis is relevant except in that it may be helpful to you in your support of him in this situation.

That said, I don't think this is any of your business and I don't see that meddling will have any positive outcome. If you try to intervene with the roommates, Ernie may see this as patronizing and interfering. If you try to talk to Ernie about his behavior - ditto. If I were you I would stay out of it and try to be ready to help pick up the pieces.
posted by bq at 2:41 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since you have already removed yourself from the housing situation, I would refrain from getting involved again with this mess. I can't see a great outcome here. If you mediate, and Ernie leaves, you've ruined a friendship and removed a man from his home (which he has as much a claim to as your other friends, if not more so).

But what happens if they "vote Ernie out" (whatever that means) and he doesn't want to go? Since they don't want to go to the landlord or the law, what will they do to get him to leave? Does he come home one day with all his stuff outside and the locks changed? At this point I would like to be well clear of the situation so that I'm not somehow responsible for what ensues.

People with difficult roomates and who are not locked into a lease tend to move out.
posted by Nightman at 2:50 PM on August 14, 2011 [7 favorites]

I understand and respect that no one wants a legal solution, but before even beginning a conversation on this point, it's important that the roommates realize the ground-level situation--he has just as much right to stay there as they do. That's why I suggested getting familiar with the legal end.
posted by skbw at 3:01 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

the other housemates probably do not know that he is autistic. All they know is that he has a very bad temper and they're getting the brunt of it.

One of the things that I think you don't understand is that in this context, Ernie's autism is only of concern to him, and it is not a concern of his roommates-- the only thing relevant to the roommates is the fact that Ernie is abusive and possibly threatening, and they have to come up with an acceptable living situation for themselves, which is to either move out or get rid of Ernie. Now, from Ernie's perspective, the autism issue is relevant in pointing him in the direction of how he can find intense therapy to teach him how to behave and live with people.

What tends to happen in these situations is that the malefactor tends to alienate everyone around him until he ends up living alone or remains with his last remaining core of friends who tolerate/learn to work around him because he provides some other tangible benefit they rely on from him.

It kind of sounds to me like you're hoping that your role as a mediator will help his roommates understand how to "manage" Ernie in the same way you do, which isn't really something that the roommates should be expected to do-- a person's behavioral disabilities are tragic for him, but they don't entitle him to an "out" regarding the expectations of making their roommates feel safe and not abused.

You may want to have an intervention where you basically explain to him that if he keeps abusing his roommates and doesn't learn how to treat people, he's going to either get kicked out of the apartment or have the roommates move out and be unable to find new roommates, which will ultimately force him to find his own place or go homeless.
posted by deanc at 3:06 PM on August 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

You want specific techniques. If so, I'd read up on non-violent communication. It takes some practice to say "when you do X, I think Y. I feel Z. Would you be willing to ABC?" But that's one of the more foolproof communication modes, and if you suggested to everyone involved that they try to communicate that way, maybe the conversation would be more productive?
posted by salvia at 3:16 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

From everything I know re: Asperger's, he will not leave if they try to 'vote him out' by force (of opinion). He has a temper problem, which basically stems from an inability to deal in a 'normal' fashion with conflict, loss, etc. Sometimes an Asperger's person will withdraw, but he seems the type that digs in, resistant rather than avoidant. Any attempt to push the matter, especially with nebulous reasons based on feelings, will result in him pushing back harder, partly because he won't understand the problem, and will thus very easily feel wronged. This sense of being wronged often does translate to anger. In other words, if they try to vote him out, he'll get angrier and more unreasonable. Neither is he forgiving, most likely-- that is, if you are at all involved with this and it blows up, he'll not only not be your friend but actively despise you. Being 'forgiving' and 'reasonable' are expectations we have of 'reasonable' (ie, neurotypical/normal) people, and it assumes normal conflict processing. Just as an aside, if he is an Asperger's person, calling him autistic is indeed not relevant-- that is, he may very well have a good reason for saying it's 'not useful' to say he's autistic, since autism and Asperger's syndrome aren't the same thing (if related). If he was autistic, he'd be a lot 'worse' than he sounds like he is. If indeed he has Asperger's, generally he would have a logical reason for saying the things he does, even in the case of skewed logic; the thought-process involved is very linear (that's one of the issues, actually). Like, for instance, Asperger's folks (especially male) generally don't like to be touched; if touched unexpectedly, they may get angry. The solution isn't 'anger-management' but not to touch them in any way unless given permission.

In any case, it sounds like the new roommate is doing the exact wrong thing-- it sounds like she's bothered/freaked out by him (and/or his non-normal behaviors), and this has the effect of nails on a chalkboard, and sets him off. It may very well be that they're not well-suited to cohabit, but it's quite unreasonable to assume he's the one that has to move out, and if it's framed that way, he would not be sympathetic. Try to see it from his pov-- by being so obviously bothered by his presence, 'Sara' is treating him like a freak. I don't know if it would help to introduce her to some online resources about Asperger's, etc. The willingness to relax and be 'the bigger person' has to come first. Anyone dealing with a non-neurotypical person has to be willing to expend higher-than-usual emotional/mental energy to compensate for the other's shortcomings. That is, they have to demonstrate somewhat unusual levels of understanding and patience in order not to trigger the other person. I would not expect 'just anybody' to succeed cohabitating with a non-neurotypical person (unfortunately). Even if you (that is, in this one instance) approach Ernie carefully and 'correctly' and ask him questions open-endedly and carefully (non-emotionally, showing no fear, showing no resentment), they (all the roommates) have to be like that on a consistent basis for cohabitation to work. You can't expect this to hinge on Ernie alone changing his attitude through one intervention.

For instance: from what I know, an Asperger's person wouldn't blow up and yell if they were turned down, unless they're turned down (with the garden/conversation thing) in the 'wrong way'. Someone who's 'normal' (but with anger-management issues) would blow up unpredictably, but the thing about autism-spectrum people is that whatever their issues are, they're fairly predictable and manageable, if properly addressed every time. The thing about rejection (with an Asperger's person), is that it has to be done carefully, calmly and logically. "I can't do this right now because X, but we may do this at Y time instead" rather than some more shorthand way of dealing with it, especially displaying any obvious emotion. To be honest, this probably is too much to expect from most people, but at the same time, there's nothing that puts the onus on moving out onto Ernie. It has to be a decision they make based on clear and logical housemate discussion after considering options (specific, XYZ-type options).
posted by reenka at 3:38 PM on August 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

One thing - who has the most financial resources here? Is Ernie able to afford his own place? If he's not, kicking him out (of a house he maintains!!) is pretty cruel, especially if your little group of neurotypical friends could find their own place. This reads an awful lot like "this place would be so perfect now that that annoying guy has fixed it up, let's leverage him out".
posted by Frowner at 4:01 PM on August 14, 2011 [18 favorites]

I don't know what city you are in, but the living arrangements sound a LOT like those loosey-goosey ones that were/are very common in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland where there is a lot of rental churning. One or more original roommates holds the lease, but after that lease is signed, people move in and out and in and out without signing a formal lease or only signing a sublet agreement...and the landlord doesn't care as long as they get the rent paid. Over the years the original leaseholder might have gone and now no-one knows who has signed what when, and the paperwork is nowhere to be found, and the landlord himself might not know what the deal is.

Anyway, if that's the situation, the existing tenants should look up what the laws are in their particular area.

Now it may not be nice to "vote Ernie off the island" BUT that doesn't give Ernie the right to yell at and frighten his roommates, Asperger's or no. I don't believe that any "different" neurological wiring gives one a free pass to treat others shabbily. But the roommates shouldn't be going behind Ernie's back if they can solve the problem with honesty and kindness. Is he at all responsive to a house meeting where the roommates tell him, "Last week you yelled at me for doing X. I don't like to be yelled at. Please don't do it again." If that doesn't work, a professional mediator might be able to help.

In the end, it might be up to the roommates to find a new place. It's certainly within their rights to do so if they don't like living with Ernie. But all involved should know it's not as simple as gathering together and voting Ernie out.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:07 PM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

The fact that you are not getting on with Ernie and neither are the other folks suggests that maybe he is not 'genuinely' autistic. If he was he would probably just ignore you.

I see your qualifiers, but I still want to add that this isn't necessarily so. Some people with autism have friends and care about what other people think about them.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:15 AM on August 16, 2011

I sent "Nicole" the relevant comments and links. "Sara" moved out and "Ernie" got help from a therapist for his depression.
posted by lover at 3:07 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

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