Is High-Functioning Autism an Excuse in Your Relationship?

Man being mad at his girlfriendIf you are involved in a relationship with a person who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, officially known as high-functioning autism (HFA), you’re likely familiar with this scenario: You have a discussion with your partner. It turns oddly off course. You’re left confused. And then—slam!—you’re hit with something hurtful that takes the wind out of your sails.

This is different from other conversations that go off the rails. In this case, you have to struggle with the realization that your partner did not mean to hurt you. There was no intent to abuse, but you are reeling just the same.

So what do you do with the pain?

Do you deny it because you understand it was not inflicted intentionally? Or do you ignore it, hoping it will go away?

These are two time-honored methods used by many of the individuals who come to my office for counseling regarding this aspect of their relationships. The problem is that they backfire; by using them, you generally end up feeling more hurt. Then the ground is fertile for resentment and contempt, and—as John Gottman has repeatedly pointed out—once these emotions enter a relationship, it is very difficult to retrieve mutual respect and rebuild.

Besides, you already know these methods don’t work.

How do I know that you know? Because you likely don’t feel any relief.

The better solution is to acknowledge that although there was no intention to hurt you, your partner’s words DID hurt you. You can’t fairly deny the result of hurtful behavior simply because it was not undertaken with a goal of causing harm. If a tree limb falls on you as you walk through the woods, are you not permitted to acknowledge that your injuries hurt? The tree didn’t mean to hurt you, either.

If you are seeing a counselor, be certain that he or she understands the unique dynamics of being in a relationship in which one partner is on the autism spectrum. From an educational perspective, there are enormous implications that might make the difference between being helpful to a neurotypical partner in an HFA-neurotypical partnership and being not so helpful.

What may look like self-centeredness or even narcissism in your story is more likely to be your legitimate expression of not feeling heard by your HFA partner. While it may not be the result of conscious disregard, your experience of being lonely and hurt in your relationship is valid.

While it may not be the result of conscious disregard, your experience of being lonely and hurt in your relationship is valid.

If your partner is in counseling, or if you are in couples counseling together, it is equally important that your therapist have a specialized understanding of this unique relationship. High-functioning autism is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. However, understanding the impact of the neurological differences and the arc of possibility upon which they can play out in an intimate relationship is essential for fair couples work, and certainly for providing substantive assistance to the person with the diagnosis.

If you suspect that your partner is on the spectrum but has no diagnosis, please bear in mind that a professional assessment is essential; there is no online quiz or self-help book that will help you to make that diagnosis on your own.

Still, you know your situation best. If your partner is hurting you emotionally and you can’t seem to get him or her to understand you when you talk about your pain, as a starting point, consider couples work with a counselor who understands HFA. The couples work will be helpful regardless of whether HFA is a factor, and as is frequently the case with couples with whom I work, an assessment becomes part of our work together. Everyone wins. The person either has or does not have the diagnosis. It is a triaging tool in that it allows a couple to move forward knowing what they are dealing with in their interpersonal communication.

Please don’t try to swallow your pain. At the very least, recognize that if you feel hurt, it is because you ARE in pain, regardless of intent or circumstances. Your pain is real—and it deserves your attention.

Be kind to yourself.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC, therapist in Seattle, Washington

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • bev

    September 7th, 2015 at 10:44 AM

    If you have to use anything as an “excuse” in the relationship then you have to already know that there is something wrong. You need to be able to own up to what it is that you could be doing wrong and not looking for a way that will always justify it.

  • Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    September 7th, 2015 at 12:51 PM

    Hello, bev,
    I agree with you. Willingness to accept personal responsibility for one’s own actions and open-mindedness toward one’s partner create the ground in which authentic communication becomes possible.

  • Claudia

    September 7th, 2015 at 5:14 PM

    Is it common to be with someone who is an adult and yet who has never received the proper diagnosis? And what are the chances of receiving the proper diagnosis at this stage in their lives?

  • Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    September 7th, 2015 at 10:05 PM

    Hello, Claudia – Yes, it is common for adults on the spectrum not to have a diagnosis because high-functioning autism (Asperger Syndrome) is a relatively new clinical diagnosis. It is never too late to seek a diagnostic evaluation for an adult who is interested. It can be liberating and help make sense of many things that previously were confusing about a person’s life.

  • Rebecca

    September 8th, 2015 at 8:46 AM

    @Claudia,This same question I been wondering.But with no money for dr.Calls/Emails to various autism help groups say
    call dr.even though i have sad no insurance.

  • Teka

    September 8th, 2015 at 9:32 AM

    One of the most helpful things that I have come to realize is that I don’t need to downplay my own emotions. If something hurts me than why shouldn’t I feel like I can own up to that and tell them? If they don’t know that this is something that hurt me then how would they even know to try not to do it again?

  • Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    September 8th, 2015 at 11:07 AM

    Hello, Teka – you make an excellent point: it is in recognizing and honoring our own feelings and that we know who we are; telling someone else that you feel hurt by their actions is the beginning of a conversation. When undertaken in the spirit of mutual exploration, and without assigning blame or feeling guilt, such a conversation helps both individuals grow.

  • Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    September 8th, 2015 at 11:11 AM

    Hello, Rebecca – I can understand your frustration at being referred to physicians when you do not have insurance. I wonder whether you realize that some psychotherapists also offer diagnostic evaluations for HFA, and that some arrange their fees on a sliding scale. If you look in the therapist directory here on GoodTherapy.org, search by location and clinical specialty to see whether there might be someone in your area who could be helpful to you. Best wishes!

  • Creed

    September 11th, 2015 at 7:22 AM

    When someone hurts your feelings, regardless of the reason why it has happened, there is still the intent that is there behind it and they have to be called out on it. You have to be able and willing to play well with others even when you don’t want to. That’s kind of how society works.

  • Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    September 11th, 2015 at 9:11 AM

    Hello, Creed,
    I understand what you mean about setting clear boundaries so that another person understands what is hurtful to you. However, when there is a diagnosis of high-functioning autism, or the traits/symptoms of it, this is exactly where the difficulty lies: the person can hurt you without intending to do so by virtue of the nature of this particular diagnosis. It is still fair, and important, to have a conversation about the fact that the effect of his/her behavior was hurtful to you, but it is not always true that there was an intent to hurt. This can become a very challenging and difficult experience for the neurotypical partner of someone on the spectrum. I often see the the equivalent of continuous post traumatic stress syndrome in my clients who are in this situation.

  • Christa

    September 11th, 2015 at 7:14 PM

    So, when are we gonna have one of these about how you all use being neurotypical as an excuse

  • Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    September 11th, 2015 at 7:58 PM

    Hello, Christa – you ask a fair question! It is a topic well worth pursuing. I do not believe anything is an excuse, but sometimes there are reasons that are worthy of exploration.

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