Mansplaining or neurodiversity?
June 22, 2024 2:29 AM   Subscribe

My elderly relative Robert seems to have neurodiversity (trouble with social cues, low empathy, literally talks nonstop). I've grown to accept those. He also exhibits behaviors that show up as mansplaining, refusing to listen, and toxic masculinity. Is there any chance that these are also a byproduct of his neurodiversity, because he learned simple rules to understand the world, and those rules are bigoted because our world has enormous inequality?

I previously asked a question about my elderly relative Robert. I found the MeFi answers very useful, especially the answers from individuals with neurodiversity explaining their perspective. I've now accepted that Robert has the quirks of blurting out secrets, talking literally nonstop, and telling long repetitive stories. I have empathy and am no longer bothered by those.

Robert also has behaviors that show up as mansplaining, refusing to listen to others, and re-enforcing sexist / racist inequality. I'd like to hear your opinions on whether these are simply due to him having toxic views (unrelated to neurodiversity), or if any of them could be an unfortunate byproduct of his neurodiversity combining with the existing inequality in our world. This helps me figure out how I want to respond to Robert. I would feel differently if Robert is behaving this way because he enjoys male privilege, or if these are his coping mechanisms due to his neurodiversity. 

As context, Robert is in his early 80s and lives in a non-Western country. He is not white.

As Robert has gotten into his 80s, he is easily fooled by online misinformation. He then confidently contradicts friends and family who are actual experts. For example, when speaking to a female doctor who has been practicing medicine for 30 years, Robert quoted online covid misinformation. When the doctor corrected him, Robert told her that she isn't up-to-date and she doesn't know enough about recent developments. Later, when speaking to a family friend who works in technology, Robert shared that he read articles about how next year AI robots will be able to cook all his meals and be a low-cost nurse and maid to him. Our tech-industry friend said that won't be possible next year, and Robert replied impatiently that it sounds like her knowledge of her own industry is actually quite shallow.

When Robert says things that are offensive, if we ask him to stop, he often gets louder and more adamant. At a family gathering, a relative shared with us that she was just diagnosed with a certain type of stage 3 cancer. Robert replied that a famous actress died of that exact type of cancer, and that it's known to be a particularly aggressive category of cancer. We told him to stop saying this. He retorted that he's stating facts and that everything he said is true and factual. The more that we asked him to stop, the louder he shouted the information. He insisted that he knew more than us and that it's vital for him to share this information. (He did not actually know more than us.)

Robert enjoys repeating platitudes. Most are just about his own health and habits like "An apple a day keeps the doctor away". But he also says oversimplified tropes such as "Africa is poor" (and more harmful stereotypes about Black people), and he is completely disinterested if we try to give him context about colonialism and centuries of Western imperialists robbing precious gems from African mines. He literally walks away. Another example is that he'll give advice to the men amongst our relatives to marry a younger woman, because "men like younger women, and your wife should be a decade younger than you". He's not open to hearing contradictory stances from either men or women on these topics.

He also gives unsolicited advice and is insistent that he knows best and that the other person needs to give up their own ideas and follow his advice. One of our relatives gained weight, and he's been telling her every time he sees her that she needs to lose weight. He doesn't have any actionable insights, just platitudes like "Eat less and move more". He has also told many younger relatives that they need to switch careers to specific higher-paying careers, never asking about their actual interests or their feelings on the matter. Even after they tell him that they're not interested, he'll keep pressuring them to switch careers.

At the same time, Robert goes to great lengths for his relatives and family friends. He'll get up at dawn to ride the bus for hours to go see a relative in the hospital or to attend a family gathering. He spends hours picking out gifts for relatives' birthdays and special occasions. 

I'd like to ask MeFi members who understand individuals with neurodiversity. Is it possible that he finds the world too overwhelming and complex, and he's relying on a few simple rules (but these rules are sexist and racist because our world is sexist and racist)? Could the mansplaining be an outgrowth of his urgent desire to share information, or is it just toxic masculinity?

If I've used any neurodiversity-related words incorrectly, I welcome any corrections. Thank you.
posted by vienna to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I mean, someone can be both neuro divergent and a sexist asshole. They're not mutually exclusive, and one does not subsume the other.
posted by june_dodecahedron at 3:12 AM on June 22 [61 favorites]


Also, people can lose their social filters, and also their judgement as to what to say or not say, even more as they age. So when younger they were "bad" on whatever scale you are considering, but over time they get even worse. This can happen quite gradually, or rather suddenly.

Hate to say it, but I've seen it happen more than once.

This doesn't make anything like, say, racism or sexism, "OK" and non-offensive. But sometimes it can help to understand what is going on.
posted by flug at 3:43 AM on June 22 [5 favorites]


Best answer: As Robert has gotten into his 80s, he is easily fooled by online misinformation

It sounds like some amount of change has happened by this sentence. I am in no way going to diagnose anything, but these types of behaviors, along with this being a change - perhaps an exacerbation - suggest a loss of inhibitory function associated with some forms of dementia, eg frontal lobe types.

It would be beneficial to have a formal in person assessment, particularly if he's still driving (although it sounds like no), but also since persons in this stage are vulnerable to financial abuse.
posted by cobaltnine at 3:48 AM on June 22 [7 favorites]


When dealing with people who bluster and overtalk in conversations, i find it helpful to remember that aggression is often rooted in fear.

As folks above have pointed out, many 80-year-olds are experiencing some level of progressive decline in their social and cognitive functions - maybe mild, but present. Most critically, aging reduces our flexibility and our capacity to learn and adapt to new things. So for someone who, historically, has been comforted by living in a tidy world of controlled information about his specific interests, it could well feel threatening or scary to your uncle if someone suddenly breaks out a fact that contradicts what he formerly understood. Perhaps in some earlier decade he'd have had confidence that he could listen, learn, and fully update his frameworks based on the new information, but now that may be cognitively beyond his reach. So all that's left is a little stab of anxiety about the new info, and responding aggressively to drive back the scary thing, a very human and relatable response.

At 80, he may also be dealing with some constant low-level physical pain or dysfunction that adds to the difficulty of regulating emotions or navigating complex conversational dynamics.

I do not think you can successfully fight the patriarchy by educating your uncle in proper tact and social deference to experts at this stage of his life. When dealing with people in similar difficult states, I try to think of how terribly frightening and sad it will be to feel myself losing critical abilities with no prospect of ever getting them back again, slowly getting trapped in a world where i have subtly less and less power to understand or determine my fate, as will certainly happen to all of us if we don't die young. That is a hard, hard burden, and I'm not sure I'll be able to bear it with perfect equanimity, either. Being extra-patient now feels like paying it forward.
posted by Bardolph at 5:05 AM on June 22 [19 favorites]


[Apologies for assuming "uncle," which was a blip on my end. OP did not actually specify their degree of relationship to Robert.]
posted by Bardolph at 5:10 AM on June 22


Best answer: I feel compelled (as an autistic person) to step in and correct some terminology here. "Neurodiversity" refers to the variance of neurotype within the entire human species. One person cannot "have neurodiversity" or even "be neurodiverse", because they are just a single person with a single neurotype. A person can be "neurodivergent" (divergent from the majority neurotype).
posted by heatherlogan at 5:32 AM on June 22 [27 favorites]


Your answer here is probably "all of the above" plus normal or abnormal cognitive decline of aging, which itself can strip a lot of filters/ability to recognize cues off people.

In any case, I think you're trying to find conscious decisions he's making to act like this, maybe to reassure yourself he's a good person who's just overwhelmed, but start from first principles: he's - I'm gonna take a wild guess here - a white dude, he's never HAD to modify his crappy ideas, including the one that every single thought that flits through his head is solid gold and can authoritatively be shared at others.

If this is a marked change from his personality in his 50s-60s and before, you can blame age, disease, or injury. I hear you that all of this has the ring of neurodivergence and maybe there's a dimension there, but being neurodivergent doesn't automatically make you That Guy. Many neurodivergent people actually suffer from too much empathy and a strong set of fairness with an intense response to unfairness, so no being a giant meathead at people when you should shut up is not part of the diagnostic criteria.

At least if you're using "neurodivergent" to suggest he's somewhere on the autism spectrum or has ADHD, it's possible but it's also possible he hit his head at some point, has an autoimmune disease that's done brain damage (filters, and verbal restraint, are frontal lobe stuff), or is the result of various flavors of trauma and whiteness and man culture.

Also, you don't need to know a theoretical diagnosis to know what's wrong with him. You can just point at each thing and say "welp, that's Robert, that's how he acts, so let's not get him started on X or redirect him when he's doing Y or since we're discarding filters here let's just tell him to shut up about the thing he's on about right now/give him a bright line order not to talk to xyz relatives." It is possible that Robert has some kind of redeeming qualities, and if so it can help a lot to try to direct him to one of those things he's good at.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:22 AM on June 22 [5 favorites]


Robert goes to great lengths for his relatives and family friends. He'll get up at dawn to ride the bus for hours to go see a relative in the hospital or to attend a family gathering. He spends hours picking out gifts for relatives' birthdays and special occasions.
That’s great! Sounds like he is a caring person. i can understand why you would like to encourage these caring attributes

Is it possible that he finds the world too overwhelming and complex, and he's relying on a few simple rules
sure (content note, deconstruction:)
(but these rules
on rules, there’s a worthwhile recent comment on the blue
rules are sexist and racist because our world is sexist and racist)?
our world? what constitutes our world? deconstruct sexism and racism. our world, the one i feel i am a part of, is antithetical to all forms of discrimination.

Could the mansplaining be an outgrowth of his urgent desire to share information, or is it just toxic masculinity?
heatherlogan’s nuanced description of neurodivergence is spot on, from my perspective. so, then, as formulated, the logical conclusion becomes: just toxic masculinity. can “just toxic” be decoupled?

Andrea Waling advises exploring 'toxic masculinity' further:
“Not only does it set up a particular kind of masculinity as the only expression of gender that men and boys can engage, but also, deflects attention from forms of female and non-binary masculinity. (Waling, 2019a: 4) Indeed, this medicalised form of masculinity, which posits negative masculine traits as a 'disease' which can be 'cured' by engaging with more 'healthy' behaviours, also infers that masculinity is the cause of specific social relations rather than being the product of them (Waling, 2019a). As Waling describes, this suggests that masculinity pre-exists as an innate quality of men, rather than being created and maintained through repeated performances (see Butler, 2004)”
~ Beyond Toxic Masculinity: Reading and Writing Men in Post-Apartheid Namibia (2023), citing Problematising ‘Toxic’ and ‘Healthy’ Masculinity for Addressing Gender Inequalities (2019) Australian Feminist Studies 34(6):1-14.

he is completely disinterested if we try to give him context about colonialism and centuries of Western imperialists robbing precious gems from African mines. He literally walks away.
so, it sounds like you have a tactic to deploy should you wish to disengage with Robert :-)

figure out how I want to respond to Robert
do you want to engage with him? it sounds like the information he is receiving is faulty. whatever blinders have been put on how he sees the world are, i will gladly agree with you here, toxic. help him see the blinders: can you ask what news sources he’s reading? what life experiences he’s had? for example, perhaps he’s never encountered people about whom he makes generalizations

why is that?
posted by HearHere at 9:07 AM on June 22


Best answer: he's - I'm gonna take a wild guess here - a white dude
OP specified Robert is not white.

The more that we asked him to stop, the louder he shouted the information. He insisted that he knew more than us

This is the part that worries me. Not the terrible opinions, but the unwillingness/inability to stop, and the loss of control implied by shouting. And the lack of awareness involved in repeatedly shouting about death to a cancer patient.

(I hope the family are taking steps to keep Robert away from the relative with cancer as much as possible, and I hope she'll be okay.)

Often with men of Robert's generation, there is an anxiety about loss of status. Underlying this will be unspoken worries about his next stage of life, and what will happen to him.

He will be worried about not being listened to, and his advice not being followed (loss of status). If he admits his opinion might not be 100% right, he is yielding control to a younger person-- doubly shameful if they're a woman.

This is toxic masculinity, but for (many) men of his generation it was the norm. I don't know the state of Robert's mind and neither does anyone else here. You and his other relatives are in a position to note any recent changes in his behaviour, which might point to cognitive decline but also might be linked to any number of temporary causes: meds he's on; supplements he's taking; UTI or kidney disease, to name a few.

Meanwhile: if he's saying hurtful things and you want him to stop, "yes, we know" might be more effective than "you are wrong". (Even though he is wrong.) "That isn't true" or "you are wrong" gives him something to fight against. "Yes, we know" might take the wind out of his sails. Even if it's just shorthand for "yes, we know you think that."

And if he really believes AI will solve everything, he might download any old sh*t onto his computer, so please get someone to run a malware check on it.
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:38 PM on June 22 [8 favorites]


I have similarly onerous, challenging people in my life.

I've learned that while it can be helpful to dig around and understand why people do the things they do (neurodivergence, age, patriarchy, mental illness, partridge in a pear tree...) at some point all of this digging gets in the way of making my choices.

You can understand someone, and feel sympathetic towards them, but also not put up with endless crap.

You can accept who someone is without accepting every behavior.

So I would ask yourself if it's helpful to continue to speculate and analyze Robert, or if your energies are better focused on figuring out how you're going to relate to him.
posted by champers at 2:20 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]


Changing someone like this seems likely to be a losing battle. Trying to distract or otherwise redirect him when he gets like that might be the best approach.

I gather that redirection might be difficult, given that it sounds like he can have a one-track mind at times. But perhaps you could steer the conversation to a different subject about which you know he also has strong, but non-offensive, opinions.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:28 PM on June 23


Hey, I’m late to this thread but maybe let me give you my perspective as a non-Western person who lives in a non-Western country.

All these behaviors you mention that Robert does - mansplaining, spreading misinformation, making sexist/racist comments openly, talking in platitudes, giving unsolicited advice, all these are pretty common among older people in my Asian culture, regardless of neurodivergence. I can think of many older relatives and even my parents who display such behaviors. Maybe they’re not as extreme as to the point of yelling or shouting about them like Robert, but yes culturally such behaviors are tolerated due to their seniority.

No amount of lecturing, no matter how well-intentioned, is going to get them to change their mindsets which have been ingrained over a lifetime. They believe that “the wisdom of their years” gives them the right to broadcast these opinions, everyone else be damned.

My mother I suspect is neurodivergent, and has a history of mental health issues - she has fallen for anti-vax conspiracy type things and all sorts of misinformation. But so have some neurotypical relatives, so it’s not just related to neurodivergence.

Regardless of the causal factors (neurodivergence, cultural, individual personality quirks) driving his behavior, my suggestion would be to simply not engage with these comments from him which would further drive him to defend his point of view - simply nodding, going “ok, sure” and grey-rocking or diverting the subject to more neutral topics would be best.
posted by pandanpanda at 7:06 PM on July 1 [2 favorites]


« Older Cheap, low-quality photo printing   |   Is the Vasari Corridor now open? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments