Stephanie C. Holmes, MA, BCCC, Certified Autism Specialist
Each week I get a call, text, or email from wives across the country panicked and saying these words, “Help! I think I am married to an Aspie!” I should begin with a disclaimer stating that while, clinically, the term Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer used in the United States of America in diagnostic terms in the DSM-5, the term still exists throughout the world and is still preferred in the autism community. Although I am a clinician, I am an advocate as well.
Those formerly diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, now Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), still prefer Asperger’s Syndrome or a term of endearment or pride: Aspie.
As stated by the Centers for Disease Control, 1 out of 88 children are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. ASD is almost 5 times more common among boys than girls, with 1 in 54 boys meeting criteria.
Remember, the term Asperger’s Syndrome wasn’t a formal diagnosis until the 1994 DSM-IV. We also have to remember that the terminology was not immediately adopted by the clinical and educational communities upon the DMS-IV’s release. The diagnosis may not have “existed” until 1994, but individuals with those symptoms certainly did.
Asperger’s and Divorce Rates
In a marriage formed prior to any diagnosis, where once partner meets the criteria for Apserger’s, and the other individual is Neuro-typical (NT), spouses tend to divorce at a 75 to 80% rate! Why? Because the adult Aspie has gone his or her whole life not understanding why he is “different.” Just because a person has aged does not mean the social-communication symptoms have faded or improved. Although I will not discuss the specific symptoms today, the main issues in the Aspie-NT marriage are as follows:
- Emotional intimacy barriers
- Social skill deficits
- Mind blindness (inability to see other person’s point of view)
- Finances (extreme frugalness or spending money on special interests)
- Verbal (and sometimes physical) aggression
- Appear to lack empathy
- Communication deficits
- Rigid routines
- Problems communication emotions (alexithymia)
- Misconstrue suggestions as criticisms
- Miss cues (eye gaze, body language, tone, etc.)
- Sexual intimacy (either not interested or over interested)
Is it Narcissism?
One of the first hurdles to overcome with a couple is the question of “Narcissism verses Aspie.” Because Aspies are prone to self-interests and self-motivations, the spouse is often inclined to think the behavior is merely narcissistic in motivation, and this is not the case.
Autism Epicenter insightfully describes the meaning of the word autism: “The root of the word autism is from the Greek ‘autos’ which means ‘self.’ Combine that with the Greek suffix ‘ismos’ which means ‘action’ or ‘state of being,’ and you get an original root meaning that roughly translates to a state of being absorbed by one’s self and interests.”
Let’s contrast that with what Mayo Clinic says about Narcissism, “Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings.”
Both lead to an over-inflated sense of self, but for very different reasons. Asperger’s (autism) is a neurological disorder based on a person’s “hard wiring,” while Narcissism is a personality disorder and can be treated. There are a few similarities, such as the focus on self, a fragile ego, and a desire for others to go along with their plans.
However, the reasons for those differences should be the areas of focus.
Considering the Differences
Narcissists believe they are better than others, that the rules of life do not apply to them, and they tend to exaggerate achievements to gain favor in the eyes of others.
In contrast, Aspies do not need approval of others, so they do not exaggerate their achievements or try to inflate their ego. They often may believe their intellect is superior to others and value their reasoning and logic, but will be the first to tell you they are not superior to others. In fact many tend to undervalue their achievements, not over inflate them.
Aspies live and die by the rules, so believing rules do not apply to them goes against their very nature. They may want to change an rule or argue the value of a rule, but rules and routines and schedules are the backbone of their existence.
Narcissists crave and demand praise and admiration from their peers or loved ones.
However, Aspies prefer not to be noticed. Aspies have a strong internal locus of control and tend to be their own worst critic. If they feel they did a good job, the satisfaction of knowing they did the superior work is often sufficient without applause or recognition.
Narcissists are overt about their need to manipulate a situation and do not hesitate to “step on someone” to reach the top. Narcissists can be vicious about getting their way.
Aspies may appear to “step on other’s feelings,” but this is not done on purpose; if it occurs it is because it did not dawn on them to consider another person’s feelings. That is very different than intentional manipulation or conniving. Aspies will tend to direct their situations to reduce their own interpersonal anxieties, but not willfully emotionally decimate others.
Walking couples through these differences is crucial to helping the Neuro-typical spouse better understand the motivations of the Aspie spouse. Appropriate psychoeducation can make a huge difference in a couple’s marriage—giving insight into the motivations of the Aspie spouse and how that affects social-communication difficulties.
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.