It is not uncommon for a man with high-functioning autism/Asperger’s to have a child who also has it, because there are genetic components to this brain structure variance that manifests as what we call HFA. These differences are in the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.
High-functioning autism is not a mental illness. It is not a personality disorder. It is not ADHD, ADD, or oppositional defiance disorder. It is a physiologic difference in the brain with a spectrum of possible manifestations. A father passes on his genetic material to his son. Some of this material can contain the code for HFA.
In my practice, I often see neurotypical women in such a triad. Usually, the pathway for the wife is difficult, as she feels as if she is the outsider as she struggles to be understood and to feel that she is valued in her family.
It is a difficult challenge for a neurotypical woman to put herself in the mindset of the HFA husband or son. She can understand the differences intellectually, but when it comes to feelings, she inadvertently defaults to her neurotypical frame of reference. She tells me she can’t help it. She tells me it is exhausting and, most often, fruitless.
I tell her that I understand her position. We talk about feeling alone and alienated. But I also try to bring her to a place of being able to see what it might be like for her if she were in her husband’s or son’s position as individuals with HFA trying to make their way in a neurotypical world.
They are often exhausted, confused, and frustrated. They feel intense anxiety and fears about missing social cues, misunderstanding subtexts in conversations, and taking everything literally, missing the nonverbal aspects of communication.
When I see women married to HFA husbands whose children also carry the diagnosis, we work together on several things: the grief that attends the loss of her dreams and hopes, the reconstruction of her sense of self and the reinvigoration of her personal goals, and ways in which she can retain her newly-regained confidence. We also work on methods she can use so that she can communicate with her husband and son in such a way that they understand cognitively what she is explaining about her emotions.
It is not easy. But with support, the wife in such a situation can learn techniques and strategies for getting her point across that may not seem comfortable to her at first. Once she begins to see that they work, however, they can become second nature to her.
They will never be her first nature, however. Good support along her journey of discovery is of extreme importance for her well-being and for reinforcement that she is doing the best she can. She will also need help decoding things she does not understand and things she has tried which have not worked, or which have backfired. A good therapist who understands the unique position of the woman in this family is an ally in this journey.
The family dynamics are challenging, but they can be managed with care and with the intent to hold the family together.
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