Passive v aggressive: who is getting stepped on?

Assertiveness at its core is about respect. Self-respect and respect for others. It is a necessary social skill that needs to be taught and reinforced to those on the spectrum.

Think of assertiveness on a continuum between passive behavior and aggressive behavior. A passive interpersonal style is respectful to others but leaves no room for oneself, while an aggressive style endorses self-respect at the expense of others.



You step on me                                     Both are protected                   I step on you


Passive behavior is self-denying and driven by fear, while aggressive behavior puts self-importance above others while lacking caution. Assertiveness manages to respect others while respecting oneself.

Many on the spectrum adopt an aggressive style when their special interest and coupled with a tendency to monologue goes unchecked. By default, their brains are naturally tuned to perseverate on narrow perspectives and interests. However, many adolescents and young adults on the spectrum can develop a passive/disengaged interpersonal style when it comes to relationships. They often feel ill-equipped to join in or feel overwhelmed at the prospect of engaging others. The bottom line is that most on the spectrum struggle to find the healthy middle ground between these two extremes.

Here are 6 ways to find and maintain balance in assertiveness and social interactions:

1. Consider where you fall on the assertiveness continuum. Are you more prone to be too passive or too aggressive?

2. Assertiveness starts with good body language such as appropriate eye contact.

3. Good eye contact is like social punctuation: Capitalizing the beginning of the sentence with visual attention, looking back to add emphasis, like the use of a comma and looking again to end sentence as in a period.

4. Consider other aspects of assertive body language such as tone or voice, volume of speech, posture, physical distance and facial expression. Ask yourself if you need to increase or decrease your engagement within each. Remember to respect others while also respecting oneself.

5. Shared engagement in social interaction is the goal. Ask yourself who is leading the conversation most?

6. Assertiveness also involves assertive listening. Respecting others with our noticeable attention- using nods or verbal signals.

It is possible to both teach and learn proper assertiveness skills. Being assertive is a skill that can be used in many places: friendships, family relationships, school, work, and when engaged with others in hobbies/special interests. It will take some work to generalize these skills to all the important areas of life, but it sure is worth it!

Frank Gaskill, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and co-founder of and He works with individuals on the autism spectrum and consults on the development of autism programs and private practice development across the country. Dr. Gaskill is the co-author of Max Gamer: Aspie Superhero as well as How We Built Our Dream Practice: Innovative Ideas for Building Yours. Dr. Gaskill’s practice website is

Note: Dr. G is an email pal of mine, and will have a chapter in our next book. Thanks for helping my clients from the East Coast.  Go Dr. G!

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