Neurodiversity in a partnership signifies that partners’ brains are wired differently from one another. When a couple learns that someone has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it can fundamentally shift the way they view their relationship. While there are inherent challenges that can arise when neurodevelopmental differences exist, many couples report feeling relieved to know there is a reason they are having misconnections. Uncovering neurodiversity in a relationship can help couples begin to understand their neurological differences, recognize how and when ASD is coming up in their relationship, and develop concrete tools to improve their connection.
In neurodiverse couples counseling, many couples report years of difficult interactions without having a context for why they are having miscommunications and unfulfilled needs. For many couples, this can lead to incorrect assumptions about their partners’ intentions, care, and even commitment to the relationship. However, once a couple recognizes a partner is on the spectrum, it can transform these assumptions and act as a road map to repair the relationship. From a neurodevelopmental lens, everyone’s brains are wired differently during their early development, which informs how people think about themselves, others, and the world (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). It also shifts how people approach things and engage with others. Recognizing and embracing that fundamental differences exist when two people look at the world differently is the first step in shifting a relationship dynamic. Using the language of “neurodiverse partners” communicates that both partners brains are different from one another, and each are responsible for working to improve their relationship.
Once a couple understands and begins to embrace this critical piece of information about neurodiversity, they can work on identifying how ASD is coming up in their unique partnership. Many couples seek out neurodiverse couples therapists, support groups, books, or other resources to begin to recognize how neurodiversity is arising for them (AANE Resources for Adults, 2023). Dr. Stephen Shore, who is an autistic professor, writer, and advocate, is famously quoted for saying “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” which highlights that while there are core diagnostic features for all individuals diagnosed with ASD, they manifest in a variety of ways for each person on the autism spectrum. Thus, there are also a myriad of ways that neurodiversity can come up in a partnership and each couple must consider how it is emerging in their relationship. For example, there may be regular miscommunications during conversations, differences in emotional or intimate needs, challenges in one’s ability to begin and execute tasks, and in many other areas of a close relationship. When a couple can identify that something is coming up because of differences in neurological wiring, they are grounding these interactions in neurodiversity instead of becoming upset, frustrated, or angry with their partner. Shifting the way one or both partners are thinking about their relationship allows them to break out of negative patterns and cycles.
By acknowledging how neurodiversity is relevant for them, partners can begin to ground in good intentions, which means their actions are well-meaning towards one another. When someone views their partner as having good intentions, it allows them to have more trust and feelings of connection in the relationship. It gives a couple the opportunity to hold two things true: that their partner has good intentions in the relationship and that due to differences in neurological wiring, those well-meaning behaviors are not always going to have the desired positive outcomes. Sometimes the best of intentions have a negative impact, but when someone believes their partner is coming from a positive place, they are better able to recover from a difficult interaction. An example of good intentions that were misperceived can be seen in the following example:
A man on the spectrum wanted to make a nice dinner for his family to show them how much he loved them. Cooking was one of his passions and he spent all day creating a delicious, multi-course meal. His husband had to watch their children that day without his support. When either their children or his husband would come into the kitchen to talk or try to help him cook, he rejected their efforts. He would not engage in conversation because he wanted the meal to be perfect and did not want to get distracted from the recipes. When it was dinnertime, he was so happy with the outcome of the meal, but his family was frustrated, and the dinner did not go smoothly.
The autistic man was well-intentioned in creating a beautiful dinner for his family but did not recognize the unintended negative impact of the way he was engaging with them throughout the day. His husband was well-intended in trying to help cook but his good intentions had a negative impact as they were viewed as a distraction. Once the couple grounded in good intentions, they were able to recognize how neurodiversity came up and make a plan for how they could engage in similar situations differently in the future.
Concrete Tools and Strategies
The next step after receiving psychoeducation about neurodiversity and learning the ways it applies to a specific relationship is to integrate tools to minimize challenges in the relationship. One strategy is for a couple to work on both changing perspectives and behaviors. This requires each partner to either shift the way they are thinking about a situation or how they are engaging in it. In using the example above, the neurotypical husband would benefit from shifting his perspective to see his partner’s good intentions and recognize that he was trying to do something nice for their family to show his love and affection. The partner on the spectrum could work on shifting his behaviors. He could coordinate with his husband to find a good day/time to cook a lavish meal so that it does not have an inadvertent negative impact on the family by putting the burden of childcare solely on his husband.
Another important strategy that can be utilized with neurodiverse couples is related to communication. Since both partners’ brains are wired differently, communication should be clear and concrete. In neurodiverse couples work, therapists often describe couples as “speaking different languages,” which is due to the differences in neurodevelopmental wiring (Myhill & Jekel, 2015). Many articles are published about difficulties with social communication for individuals on the autism spectrum. These challenges include verbal and nonverbal communication and can all contribute to social difficulties (Denworth, 2018). When a couple is in a relationship, challenges in communication can happen regularly in day-to-day communication. When partners each learn to speak their significant others’ language, they can be more effective in connecting with one another.
In addition to paradigm and behavioral shifting and working on communication, there are many other tools that can be integrated into a neurodiverse relationship to support positive changes. Once a couple has identified how neurodiversity is coming up for them specifically, they can target those particular areas of the relationship. This tailored approach allows a couple to focus on the most important areas for them and begin to work toward significant changes in their partnership.
Uncovering neurodiversity in a relationship can help couples begin to work towards understanding and improving their dynamic. It allows a couple to recognize neurodevelopmental differences that are inherent in their relationship and begin to integrate strategies to improve their interactions. The recognition of a diagnosis can fundamentally shift the way a couples views each partner and the interactions between them, and help set the relationship on a more positive and productive track forward.
Leslie Sickels, LCSW, works with neurodiverse couples and individuals on the autism spectrum in New York. For more information about Leslie’s therapeutic work and neurodiverse couples therapy visit LeslieSickelsLCSW.com.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Denworth, L. (2018). Social Communication in Autism, Explained. Spectrum News. Retrieved from https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/social-communication-autism-explained/
Myhill, G., & Jekel, D. (2015). Neurology Matters: Recognizing, understanding, and treating neurodiverse couples in therapy. FOCUS, NASW Massachusetts Chapter.
The Asperger/Autism Network (AANE). (2023). Resources for Adults. Retrieved from https://www.aane.org/resources/adults/