The Asperger’s Association of New England (formerly known as the Asperger’s Association of New England) (AANE) has been offering the Partner/Spouse and Couples Support Groups for ten years. The couples we see typically consist of a man with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or Asperger Syndrome partnered with a non-autism-spectrum partner (NS). In my work as a couple’s counselor in private practice and in the groups at AANE, I saw recurring challenges in neurodiverse couples and developed the following strategies to address them:
- Pursuing a Diagnosis
While an ASD diagnosis is not required for a couple to begin applying the strategies outlined here, it can be an important step in understanding and acknowledging that ASD traits might be causing marital problems. A diagnosis can significantly lessen or remove the blame, frustration, shame, depression, pain and isolation felt by one or both partners.
A diagnosis of ASD can be obtained from a clinician experienced in identifying adult ASD. It is especially helpful if the clinician’s diagnosis includes an interview with the spouse.
- Accepting the ASD Diagnosis
While re-evaluating the relationship in light of the new diagnosis and learning to understand and accept ASD, it is helpful to seek information, see a clinician experienced with adult ASD, and/or join support groups focused on ASD relationships. Individuals with ASD can have some highly desirable traits. They can be loyal, honest, intelligent, hardworking, generous, and funny. Understanding the positive and challenging traits of both partners can paint a more balanced picture of the marriage.
- Staying Motivated
It is helpful if both partners are motivated to address the issues in their marriage and commit to its long-term success. In some cases, however, the NS partner may be depressed, angry, lonely, and very disconnected from her ASD partner, that salvaging the marriage is not an option. In such a situation, the couple can work with a couple’s counselor or mediator towards an amicable divorce.
- Understanding How ASD Impacts the Individual
Understanding that ASD is a biologically-based, neurological difference vs. a psychological problem is key. Psychoeducation is an important part of sorting out the challenges in ASD marriages. Learning about ASD through books, movies, counseling, and workshops can help the both partners. They can also discover and implement ASD-specific strategies to their relationship. Due to its complex nature, learning about ASD can be a lifelong process.
- Managing Depression, Anxiety, OCD, and ADHD
People with AS are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD). It is vital to diagnose and treat these mental health issues with medications and therapy, as untreated mental health issues can have serious negative consequences for both partners.
NS spouses can often experience their own mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, Affective Deprivation Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as a result of being in a relationship with an undiagnosed ASD partner. In these cases, the NS partner should also receive treatment.
- Self-Exploration and Self-Awareness
In many ASD marriages, the NS partner may be a super nurturer, manager, organizer, may have ASD traits themselves and their own relational issues. Self-exploration and self-awareness are important parts of understanding why she chose her partner with ASD, taking responsibility and making changes in her own behavior. Self-awareness for the NS spouse can also help to rebuild her self-esteem and reintroduce activities into her life that make her happy.
- Creating a Relationship Schedule
An online and/or paper calendar is an important tool for any marriage or relationship. Due to the executive functioning and social-emotional reciprocity problems that adults with ASD have, keeping a calendar is even more crucial in an ASD marriage. A relationship schedule can include times for conversation, sex, shared leisure activities, exercise, and meditation/prayer in order to create closeness and connection.
- Meeting Each Other’s Sexual Needs
Adults with ASD tend to either want a lot of sexual activity or too little. Scheduling sex to accommodate the needs of both the spouses can help regulate a couple’s sex-life. Some individuals with ASD can be very robotic and unemotional in bed or they struggle with enjoying sex due to their sensory sensitivities. It is helpful for the NS partner to communicate their sexual-emotional needs verbally, in a clear and detailed manner. It is important for the partner with ASD to understand that their partner’s sexual needs are different than their own, and that they need to work at maintaining a daily emotional connection—both inside and outside the bedroom.
- Bridging Parallel Play
An ASD partner can go days, weeks, or even months engrossed in their own special interest, without spending time with their NS partner, leaving their partner feeling abandoned and lonely. In an ASD marriage, I call this “parallel play.” Many NS spouses tell us that the common hobbies and activities that brought them together whilst dating abruptly stop after marriage. This is in part due to the ASD partner’s challenges in initiation, reciprocity, planning and organizing. Scheduling play time together—long walks, boat rides, hikes, and travel—can help bridge the parallel play gap.
- Coping with Sensory Overload and Stress
A core ASD feature is sensory sensitivity. A person’s senses may be either hypersensitive (overly sensitive) or hyposensitive (with low or diminished sensitivity). For some people with ASD, a caress of the skin can feel like burning fire or a hard prick by a needle can have no effect. Developing strategies to avoid meltdowns triggered by sensory overload is important. Individuals with ASD can also be more susceptible to stress than their non-autistic counterparts. Planning time to decompress, exercise and relax during stressful periods is crucial.
- Developing Theory of Mind (TOM)
Individuals with ASD tend to have weak TOM, meaning they have trouble understanding and predicting a person’s thought-feeling state. They can often not to realize that another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions are separate from their own. Weak TOM leads to individuals with ASD to unintentionally say and do things in a relationship that can come across as insensitive and hurtful. Over time, the NS spouse has difficulty bouncing back from the hurt feelings, pain, and suffering caused by their partner’s insensitivity resulting in depression. The ASD partner can develop their TOM by bringing their awareness to this trait and how it causes hurt feelings.
- Improving Communication
Since ASD is characterized as a social-communication disability, the importance of communication cannot be stressed enough. Individuals with ASD have difficulties in being able to pick up and interpret facial cues, vocal intonations, and body language, and hence miss out on a significant amount of information. In some cases, the partner with ASD has great difficulty initiating conversations and keeping them flowing, or they can monopolize conversations which can leave the NS spouse feeling unloved by her ASD partner’s lack of attention and expression. Clear, direct verbal or written expression along with creating conversation structures around communication can be useful.
- Co-Parenting Strategies
Individuals with ASD can be very good parents when it comes to concrete tasks such as helping the children with their homework, teaching them new skills, playing with them, and taking them on outdoor adventures. When it comes to meeting their children’s emotional needs, they might need some coaching and cues from their NS partner. When needed, working with a parenting coach could also prove valuable.
- Managing Expectations and Suspending Judgment
Adjusting expectations based on one’s partner’s ability, capacity and neurology is important for both the NS and the ASD partner. Working hard to improve the marriage with the various tools listed here can bring about real change and make the marriage more comfortable and rewarding for both partners. It is important to note that change and growth can be a slow and sometimes stressful for any couple or individual wanting to work on their marriage. Both partners have to make the daily effort to do things differently than they did before.
Couple’s Counseling for ASD Marriage
Many couples report that working with a couple’s counselor who is not experienced in adult ASD can often harm rather than help the ASD marriage. A skilled ASD couples’ counselor can facilitate communication and help the couple problem-solve around the various ASD traits. Both spouses can gain valuable information about ASD and change their own behavior to create value from their relationship.
“If you’ve met one person with Asperger Syndrome, you’ve met one person with Asperger Syndrome.”
While the issues and challenges that some couples in an ASD marriage face can seem similar, it is important to remember that every individual with ASD is different, and each marriage unique. Each couple has to problem-solve their marital challenges unique to their situation and needs. As in any happy marriage, self-awareness, compassion, respect, and trust are key practices.
The excerpts above are from the full article, which may be found at www.evmendes.com. Eva Mendes, LMHC, NCC is a couple’s counselor in private practice specializing in Asperger Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorders. She may be reached at 617-669-3040, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.evmendes.com.