Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A., Certified Autism Specialist
Understanding an Aspie’s Emotions
Role reversal strategies and re-enacting various scenes at home are not effective with Aspies. Do not tell them “to think like their spouse.” Do not ask them “what would your spouse feel or think if you did that?” or “how would you feel if that was said to you?” These questions make no sense to them. A good rule of thumb when working with emotions is to encourage Apsie spouses to try to “think outside of themselves.”
An adult I recently worked with explained it like this, “You know those cones of water that dump out at water parks? The cone is upside down and eventually is filled with water. One last drop enters the cone and the cone suddenly spills over and dumps the water on the head of the one underneath and then flips immediately back over to begin being filled again. That is how my emotions work. I am completely unaware that the emotion is filling up on inside. I am unaware when I am at a flipping over level. My spouse thinks that the last little thing was the trigger to the emotional meltdown, but the truth is I had no idea I was so stressed or upset until the last ‘drop’ happened and it caused me to spill all the emotion out on her.”
Work or other stressors could have been building for a month and one little thing said by a spouse triggered the verbal meltdown. The Aspie is then confused on how big the emotions seem to get so quickly and unaware that his reaction was hurtful to the spouse. He might respond something like this, “She should have known that was not directed at her. She shouldn’t get her feelings hurt so easy.” This is not typically the response an offended spouse wants to hear.
Monitoring Body and Emotional States
Helping an adult with Asperger’s learn how to monitor their body and emotionally states is a huge skill that will help relieve this stress in their marriage. Helping them understand how their body tends to overact to the fight, flight, and freeze responses is a useful tool to the Aspie. These individuals are not usually aware of signals their body is giving them to indicate that they are experiencing a heightened emotion. Use of facial emotions and having the spouse show the Aspie individual what their face looks like at various times will help them understand what the spouse is experiencing.
Aspies do not tend to see the signs of anxiety such as, racing heart, or sweaty palms, or being easily agitated as their autonomic nervous system is being aroused. It is a good idea to educate them about anxiety and teach techniques that can reduce anxiety. The spouse of the Aspie also needs to learn the body language of when the “cone is filling up” so they know how to navigate some of their timing and responses. It becomes important to recognize facial and body cues that suggest the Aspie spouse is close to emotional meltdown. In therapy, that individual can come to understand and begin to put into words what they are experiencing.
Star Trek and Aspie Relationships
With no disrespect intended to Aspies, the way I explain some relational issues of Aspies to the non-Aspie or neuro-typical (NT) spouse involves using two Star Trek characters. The first is Spock from the original Star Trek series. Spock was half Vulcan and half human. Spock’s character was half of each race, but never he was never really accepted or understood by either. The Vulcan race sought to live a life of reason and logic without interference of emotion because emotions are not logical or rational.
This is how the Aspie tends to process life. They are constantly trying to make sense out of life, processing what they are experiencing through their five senses, without much thought to emotion—theirs or others. This is not because they do not have emotion, but they are simply not aware it is there until it is too late, as in the “filled cone” analogy.
Aspies pride themselves on logic, rationality, and doing things efficiently. When this is challenged or if they feel they are being accused, they may be verbally curt or short with someone. If a spouse tries to use tears or strong emotion to sway the Aspie person, this can be taken offensively or evoke confusing emotion in the Aspie, which may then be “spilled out” unexpectedly. But Spock is only half of the picture.
Another Star Trek character who can add to the analogy is Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data was an android who for many years did not contain an “emotion chip,” and he was curious to know all he could about human emotion. His naivety often got him in trouble in his interactions, especially with female characters. For example if a female were to ask Data how they looked or his thoughts about their appearance, he might cock his head to the side, give a glance, then commence to explain what he saw in a straight forward way.
As the viewer, you would recognize the female’s face was registering anger or embarrassment or frustration, yet these were not registering to Data as he would continue his analysis. If the female slapped him or cried or stormed off, he was left standing there dazed and then ask another character “why she did she behave that way. I simply gave her the data she requested as to her appearance and her response seems to be unwarranted by my honest response.”
If you watched Star Trek, you knew Data’s character was not malicious, cruel, or mean-spirited. He simply could not process what the other person wanted and he did not have the communication skills of how to “bless someone’s heart” as we say in the south or gloss over the 100% honest answer and say something to make the other person feel better. He gave the answer to the question he was asked. This explanation usually helps the NT spouse understand.
Learning to Communicate in New Ways
If you are expecting platitudes or your Aspie spouse to somehow “know” you are seeking a compliment, the Aspie spouse needs to be cued. Aspies are not cruel or unkind with their words on purpose. They are sometimes like Commander Data, clueless as to what the response should be. So, I like to say, combine the logical processing of Spock and the sometimes clueless social skills of Data, and you can better understand why an Aspie responds the way they do. Aspies fear saying or doing the wrong the thing in social context, especially to the people they care about.
If the neuro-typical spouse is upset and seeking comfort, asking a question to seek a compliment, or crying because something has upset them, the Aspie registers that their spouse is hurting, but does not always know how to respond. In Spock’s way of not wanting to respond wrongly, they may choose not to respond at all, which appears cold and uncaring, but is merely self-protection on their part to avoid doing or saying the wrong thing. They may remain silent or offer logical, calculated advice. The response may be a social faux paus just as Data gave, and they will give the literal response in a genuine effort to help or answer. Often, however, they get a response they do not understand. As you can see, this is frustrating for both spouses.
Dr. Tony Attwood explains it this way to his male Aspie adults, “Emotionally you are like a cactus. You do not require a lot of watering by emotion and platitude. A drop of emotion or compliment goes a long way with you just like water to a cactus. However, your NT partner is a delicate rose. She needs more water, that is, more attention and compliments than you do. Sometimes you get confused; because you are a cactus you think others are designed that way, too. But NT’s are more emotionally fragile and need some emotional ‘watering’ even if you think it is unnecessary or excessive; different plants like roses need different types of care. If you were a gardener, you would learn what plant needs what to survive. If you want your spouse to bloom, she will need more from you in this area even though it does not make logical sense.”
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.