Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A., Certified Autism Specialist
One area of Asperger’s (soon to be included in Autism Spectrum Disorder) that is woefully behind in research and resources is the subject of Aspie Marriages. Asperger’s and marriage? Wait a minute. Perhaps you’ve been taught that Aspies prefer solitude and do not usually seek out lifelong relationships. Maybe you have heard the myth that Aspies are somehow doomed to lives of “less than” when it comes to friendships or marital relationships.
Since Asperger’s was first acknowledged in the DSM-IV in 1994, there has been an explosion of research and articles about raising someone on the spectrum, Aspies and school issues, and everything you need to know about social skills with Aspie kids. Guess what? Those early Aspies diagnosed in the 1990’s are not children any more. Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome did (and do) marry. What about people who had Aspie qualities before the 1990’s, before the term Asperger’s came on the therapy scene?
What are some blind spots of persons with Asperger’s that might challenge the marriage relationship?
Emotional intimacy. Social skills. Empathy skills. Mind blindness. Finances. Money spent on special interests. You may think of these as “normal” marriage challenges, however, these areas tend to be exacerbated by a person who is on the spectrum. Verbal or physical aggression can occur if a daily routine is blocked or something does not go as planned.
Many people report that their first impression of an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome comes across with these commonly held misperceptions about Aspies. They are often called selfish, cold, rude, stubborn, egotistical, uncaring, callous, and unsocial. The frustrating thing for those of us who love someone on the spectrum is that we know these attributes are not true. Many times the Aspie is not even aware they are coming across to others that way. But, if a spouse interprets a behavior with one of these notions, a marriage relationship could be greatly challenged.
How often do therapists misunderstand or misdiagnose Asperger’s in adults?
As I reflect on recent contact from those who have had adult children and/or spouses with Asperger’s Syndrome, I am sad to report many individuals were frustrated and hurt by therapists, simply because the therapist did not fully understand how Asperger’s impacts relationships. Many of the normal techniques and theories applied to marriage and family counseling are not as effective when applied to persons on the spectrum and often leave the clients confused and hurt.
Because of a late diagnosis in life and trying to understand more about who they are, more and more adults with Asperger’s are seeking counseling. Usually, the impetus for that search is related to marital or vocational stress as a result of some of the Aspie’s blind spots. Persons married to an Aspie are seeking help to better understand their Aspie spouse and strategies to live in peace while still having their own emotional needs met. This can be a tall order when the spouse is neurologically challenged in the areas of empathy and intimacy. To further complicate the matter, it is not uncommon for the Aspie spouse to get the diagnosis later in life because of a child in the diagnosis process of autism spectrum disorder. Sadly, divorce is becoming commonplace in Aspie marriages because many couples don’t know how to cope.
What approach tends to be the most successful for Aspie marriage counseling?
Individuals with Asperger’s tend to stay cognitive. Issues of emotions concerning how others feel and interpreting events are a major issue for them because of mind blindness. (Mind blindness is sometimes called the opposite of empathy. It is the inability to understand how another may be feeling or processing emotions.) Aspies tend to be straight-forward people and they will not stay in therapy if they do not see how they will achieve results.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with a little dose of explanation of Family Systems seems to be the most effective approach. Dr. Tony Attwood explained recently at a conference held in Atlanta, “These individuals rarely know how THEY feel most of the time, much less how others feel. They also tend to think others think like them. Asking them a question about how someone else might feel about that is a completely foreign concept to them.” Approaches that are emotionally based are frustrating and painful for Aspies; however, good, solid logic and explanation of consequences of various behaviors and how they affect the spouse and the family can connect with their 1+1=2 mentality.
Sharing stories or actual events are also usually effective. Remember, in children’s therapies, social stories are often used to teach children and adolescents new social skills. Sharing with Aspies stories of marital success and failures with practical guidelines on how to achieve success and avoid failure provide a road map to learn new strategies. Most Aspies are loyal and do seek to please the one they love. However, many times they are stuck on how to demonstrate their love or how their actions or words affect the other person.
What is helpful in conceptualizing an Aspie’s marriage challenges?
Some resources for Aspie marriages advise that you look at the Aspie and neuro-typical (NT) partners as being from two different cultures. Each partner needs to better understand the other’s “culture” and ways of communication. After a better understanding of how each person processes and responds, the couple can be guided into techniques and tools that will aid them in better communication patterns. Hence, this is why CBT and Family Systems work tends to be the best strategy for couple. The Aspie wants to please their spouse, and if you are able to logically connect with the Aspie client and help them navigate the NT world, they are usually responsive. These skills will not come naturally, but Aspies can be taught various social cues and interpersonal skills.
There is so much more to cover about how Aspies “do marriage”, but I want to emphasize that Aspies can have lasting, fulfilling marriages, and although some marital strategies may be different than the norm, part of helping the Aspie marriage is understanding how Asperger’s impacts the marriage and which strategies can bring help to the marriage.
Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A., is an ordained minister and Licensed Christian Counselor with the Board of Examiners for Georgia Christian Counselors and Therapists and was formerly an LPC in North Carolina. She is a Board Certified Christian Counselor through the AACC’s Board of Christian Professional and Pastoral Counselors and a Certified Autism Specialist. Stephanie’s career path changed when her oldest daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2004. She began to change her focus to the world of IEPs and 504 educational plans and understand how to help special needs students in the classroom. In addition, she also helps families deal with their frustrations and challenges having a special needs child. Stephanie practices counseling at her home church, Calvary Atlanta, and advocates for special needs families.
Attwood, Tony (2012). Atlanta Autism Conference.