Why Many Autistic People Have Trouble Apologizing

 Young woman with long, brown, curly hair looking away from the camera, her hand to her shoulder with text that reads, "Why autistic people have trouble apologizing."

“I’m sorry.”

Those are two words that are NOT easy for some autistic people to say, but it’s not for the reasons you may believe.

Let me use myself as an example:

When I was a child, I was “in trouble” so many times for doing something, saying something, not saying something, having a certain look on my face, etc. that I became cynical and distrustful at a very early age.

– Jaime A. Heidel

I thought the neurotypical people around me were just inventing things to upset me, gaslight me, and control me. I also thought they were completely off their rocker. I mean, bonkers!

I honestly and truly believed that the entire world was unhinged and I was the only sane one around.

It took me until my early-to-mid twenties to even have a concept that I was actually causing (albeit, unintentionally) people to react to me the way they did.

This is where the words, “I’m sorry” come in. I was told to apologize for my behavior constantly as a child, teen, and young adult, and I flatly and vehemently refused to do so until I understood exactly WHY I was apologizing.

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The best way to improve communication with your autistic loved one is to understand how your autistic loved one’s mind works! Intentions, motivations, and personal expressions (facial expressions or lack thereof, body language, etc.), are often quite different in autistic people than they are in neurotypical people.

Experience a better understanding of your autistic loved one by reading books about life from an autistic perspective as well as stories that feature autistic characters. You’ll have so many “Ah ha!” moments and start seeing your autistic loved one in a different light (and you’ll have a better understanding of their behaviors, which you may have been misinterpreting up until now).

Books I recommend for a better understanding of your autistic loved one:

I would defend my view of things for HOURS at a clip, refusing to do anything else until I had:

1) Absolutely proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had not intended to cause any offense and had NO idea what they were talking about.

2) Learned why something I said or did was wrong.

To me, apologizing was an admission of guilt; purposeful and willful and even gleeful wrongdoing, in fact. It was me telling them, “You caught me. I’m a horrible person.”

That’s why I rarely apologized. Also, I didn’t understand what I did wrong, so, in my mind, if I apologized, it would just be empty words because I didn’t know what I was apologizing for to begin with!

How could I tell someone I was sorry if I was most likely going to turn around and do the exact same thing again 2 minutes later? Then, I would only be in MORE trouble, and people would think I was a hypocrite, too!

That would just make me look evil, as though I slapped someone, apologized, and slapped them again with a maniacal grin on my face.

I also couldn’t apologize because it was a falsehood, like saying words in a language I didn’t understand and just pretending that I did.

I mean, the words made sense, but WHY was I saying it? I didn’t (in my mind) do anything wrong!

I learned only about 4 or 5 years ago that one can apologize for causing offense even it wasn’t intended because apologizing isn’t an admission of guilt, it’s a way to acknowledge someone’s feelings.

After all, if I bumped into someone and knocked them down, I would have never, at any age, even HESITATED to apologize to them!

That was an easy cause-and-effect concept to put together in my mind, but when it came to me not understanding what offense I caused or even believing it was real (remember, I thought people were just making this stuff up because I couldn’t connect my behavior to their reactions), I could not apologize.

People accused me of being “afraid to be wrong” or, when I tried to understand why I was supposed to apologize by asking questions, they told me I was “making it all about me” and they shouldn’t have to console ME for upsetting THEM (because I would be in tears at this point).

I am not in any way a malicious person. I don’t even think to hurt people on purpose. It doesn’t enter my mind. In self-defense, yes? Just for the heck of it? No, and I can’t imagine it.

So, to be accused of being a horrible person and having wicked motivations my entire life when I’m the exact opposite and always have been was more confusing and painful than I could ever put into words.

I didn’t apologize not because I didn’t care or I thought I was right or that other people didn’t matter, I didn’t understand why I was supposed to apologize. I didn’t even know anything had happened!

I do understand now, but it’s still not easy to say, “I’m sorry” if I don’t know why, but since I know the feeling of remorse for hurting someone’s feelings is real, I can say those words and not feel like I’m lying anymore, which helps.

I will still ask for explanations, but I at least know enough to let the person calm down first.

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11 Responses

  1. Wai-Ho says:

    In fact, it’s not necessarily because they don’t know the importance of apologizing. To autistic people, if they don’t start to say sorry from childhood, it will be stressful to start in adulthood.

  2. Mark says:

    Thank you SO much for writing this. I recognise some of my loved one’s experiences and some of the things she’s tried to express, but you explain it all very well. It’s been hard for me to deal with. It’s an issue we really want our other family members to understand.

  3. Jade says:

    Appreciate this a lot came here about my 14 year old who also argues n swears blind he has done nothing wrong n never understands his wrong doings no matter how I explain. Thank you

  4. Giselle Wisdom says:

    My dad is autistic. He never apologizes, but then claims to others that he did. It’s better to have limited to no contact. He’s always right. I’m always wrong. He can insult me as much as he wants, because in his mind “it’s true.”

    • jaimeaheidel says:

      That doesn’t sound entirely like an autistic trait to me. Hmmm… Not apologizing due to not understanding why something is considered wrong is on point, but telling others he did? Insulting you? That sounds like something else is going on. He may have an underlying mental health condition.

    • Paul Garber says:

      Hi Giselle, it is definitely not easy relating with anyone who behaves this way, regardless of how his brain is wired or ironclad certainty about noble intentions. And yet he lacks this ability, because he lives with a disability that you have had enough of. Don’t waste your time trying to change his mind only to reproduce the same conflict.

  5. Jill says:

    Thank you for your insight. I have an autistic 5 year old. She refuse to apologize for a lot of behaviors that are inappropriate. If I tell her to. She gets upset say I hurt her feelings and need to say sorry for getting her upset. It is very hard to explain things. But your prospective was good to readm

  1. July 28, 2019

    […] is a direct companion piece to my apology post. I think this is a statement (or accusation, depending on how you look at it) that many […]

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