Married to A Partner On the Autism Spectrum?
A 14-Step roadmap for couples where one partner might be on the autism spectrum.
Posted Nov 04, 2015
Asperger’s Syndrome (Autism Spectrum Disorder) is more common that we realize and there are increasing numbers of high-functioning adults who are self-identifying or being diagnosed. As an Asperger/Autism Specialist and couples counselor, I work with individuals with neurological differences such as Autism Spectrum Difference (ASD) and Asperger Syndrome partnered with a non-spectrum partner (NS).
After seeing recurring challenges that these neurodiverse couples face, I developed the following roadmap and strategies that they’ve found useful:
1. Pursuing a Diagnosis:
Many couples and individuals come to me seeking a diagnosis. A diagnosis can be important to acknowledge ASD traits that might be causing marital problems. Understanding how ASD traits affect the relationship can remove the blame, frustration, shame, pain and confusion felt by one or both partners.
A diagnosis can be obtained from an Asperger/Autism Specialist skilled in identifying adult ASD. The specialist must also have a thorough understanding of the neurodiverse relationship dynamic and it is important that the diagnosis includes an interview with NS partner.
2. Accepting the ASD Diagnosis:
Accepting the diagnosis is the second step in the roap map to repairing the neurodiverse relationship. Working with an ASD-specific couples counselor can be very helpful. So can attending Support Groups in order to meet other people who are in similar relationships.
Individuals with ASD can be loyal, honest, intelligent, hardworking, generous, and funny. Accepting their strengths and weakness as part of their natural brain wiring can help with acceptance.
3. Understanding How ASD Impacts the Individual:
Understanding that ASD is a biologically-based, neurological difference vs. a psychological mental disorder is key. Learning about ASD is important to sort through what challenges are ASD based and what are just regular marriage issues.
Books, movies, articles, and seminars can help the both partners better understand ASD. Due to its complex nature, learning about ASD is lifelong.
4. Managing Depression, Anxiety, OCD, and ADHD
People with ASD are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is vital to diagnose and treat these mental health issues with medications and therapy as needed. Untreated they can have serious negative consequences for both partners.
NS partners can sometimes experience their own mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, Affective Deprivation Disorder, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as a result of being in a relationship with an undiagnosed ASD partner.
Implementing ASD-specific strategies to address certain issues in the marriage can help alleviate these symptoms for both partners.
5. Self-Awareness for the NS Partner
The NS partner can often be a rescuer or manager. Her own traits and family of origin issues can also help her understand why she chose her partner with ASD.
Learning the part she plays in the conflicts with her partner and what to do about it is important.
6. Creating a Relationship Schedule
A calendar is an important tool for any marriage. Due to the executive functioning and social-emotional reciprocity adults with ASD struggle with, keeping a calendar is even more crucial in a neurodiverse marriage.
Additionally, a relationship schedule can help the couple plan for conversation, sex, and quality time in order to stay connected.
7. Meeting Each Other’s Sexual Needs
The partner with with ASD tends to either want a lot of sexual activity, too little or none at all. Scheduling sex to accommodate the needs of both the spouses can help some couples regulate their sex-life. The partner with ASD may also be mechanical and unemotional in bed, or struggle with sex due to sensory sensitivities.
The partner with ASD may need to learn ways to maintain a daily emotional connection—both inside and outside the bedroom.
8. Bridging Parallel Play
A partner with ASD may go days, weeks, or even months engrossed in work and thier own special interests. This “parallel play” can leave their partner feeling lonely and abandoned. Common activities that might have brought the couple together whilst dating can abruptly stop after marriage. This is in part due to their challenges in initiation, reciprocity, planning and organizing.
Scheduling playing together—long walks, boat rides, hikes, and travel—can help bridge the parallel play gap.
9. Coping with Sensory Overload and Stress
Individuals with ASD often experience distress due to their sensory sensitivities. A person’s senses may be either hypersensitive or hyposensitive (diminished sensitivity): a caress can feel like burning fire, or a needle prick can have no effect. Managing sensory triggers such as sound or touch can can help prevent meltdowns to due sensory overload.
10. Developing Theory of Mind (TOM)
The partner with ASD tends to have a weak TOM—they may have trouble understanding, predicting and responding to a person’s thought-feeling state. They may unintentionally say and do things that can come across as insensitive and hurtful to their partner.
The partner with ASD can develop a better TOM by becoming more aware of how they are likely to offend their partner. They may also learn to better express positive thoughts, affirm and compliment their partner.
11. Improving Communication
Communication is often a major challenge for the partner with ASD. The partner with ASD might have difficulties in picking up facial cues, vocal intonations, and body language. They can often monopolize, or have difficulty initiating conversations, and keeping them flowing. Their NS partner might feel frustrated by the lack of communication and reciprocity.
Scheduling daily conversation time, and direct and step by step communication strategies can be useful.
12. Managing Expectations and Assuming the Positive
Adjusting expectations based on ability and neurology is important for both partners.Working hard to improve the marriage with the strategies listed here can bring about real change.
Resetting entrenched patterns of interaction can often be challenging. Personal growth can often be arduous and slow; however, both partners must try their best to assume the positive of each other.
13. Staying Motivated
Sometimes the NS partner may be so depressed, angry, and disconnected from their partner, that they might not desire to salvage the marriage. In such cases, it can be difficult to get the relationship back on track.
Focusing on the positive in the relationship and the gains made by implementing new skills and strategies can help the both partners continue to stay motivated.
14. ASD-Specific Couples Counseling
Working with an ASD-Specific Couples Counselor can help the couple to make rapid gains and stay motivated and encouraged about their marriage. Many couples report that working with a counselor unfamiliar with ASD harmed their relationship, so it’s important that the counselor be a specialist in this area.
An ASD-Specific Couples Counselor can teach both partners about ASD, and interpret their sometimes radically different points of view. The counselor can help the couple brainstorm and implement strategies to better their relationship.
The issues and challenges that some neurodiverse couples face can seem similar, but every individual with ASD is unique and so is every marriage. Couples have to solve their marital challenges in a manner that is best suited to their situation and needs.
Copyright © 2013–2015 Eva A. Mendes, Arlington, Massachusetts. All rights reserved.