What If My Husband and Child Both Have High-Functioning Autism?

happy family using tablet pcIt 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.

© Copyright 2014 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.

  • Leave a Comment
  • cara

    January 29th, 2014 at 9:22 AM

    That would be a tough situation to find yourself in. I didn’t realize that if the husband has this then there is a greater likelihood for the child to have to too?

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    January 29th, 2014 at 11:13 AM

    Hello, Cara,
    Yes, it is a very difficult situation. With good counseling support, a woman can learn to create space for herself in her own life. Our goals together, besides those mentioned above, include identifying core needs that the woman is unable to compromise on if she wants to remain true to herself. This is, perhaps, the most painful and difficult part of the work, because it includes the risk of facing that a couple must separate in order for both individuals to thrive.

  • cara

    January 29th, 2014 at 12:44 PM

    I guess I am just a little confused as to how these sorts of relationships even make it to the altar? I mean, there would be so many concessions and compromises that would have to be made that I am not sure that I would want to have to sacrifice that much to make a relationship work! I am all about the give and take but if you are the one without Asperger’s then it must sometimes feel as if you are the one who is always on the giving end of things.

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    January 29th, 2014 at 6:17 PM

    Yes, Cara – you make another good point. There are many models for a person with Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism to follow in many social and work-related environments before marriage. Difficulties tend to emerge once the real business of conducting an intimate relationship with a partner begins, and that is often after the wedding. It can be challenging and painful for both partners.

  • Len

    January 30th, 2014 at 4:47 AM

    You automatically go to your default way of functioning and processing things, which in these cases will be totally different. You may process things in a way that is more “typical” while the spouse and child will see it from a different angle. I imagine that you may also feel that they are ganging up on you leaving you to believe that there is something wrong with you.

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    January 30th, 2014 at 12:37 PM

    Thanks for your note, Len. It is true that we go to our default way of functioning and processing, especially under duress. That’s one of the complications in this triad. It is a challenge to bear in mind that the differences bewteen the processing methods of a person with Asperger Syndrome/HFA and a neurotypical person often come into play during those times when the differences are the greatest: when emotions flare or when emotional intimacy is required.

  • Gregg

    January 30th, 2014 at 3:10 PM

    Often we think about the hardships that are placed on the families and loved ones who have someone in their lives with Asperger’s or autism.

    But let’s also stop for a minute and think about the hardships of those with it, always feeling a bit alienated or misunderstood. I guess what I am trying to say is that sometimes we do need to take a step back and put ourselves in their shoes and try to learn a little more about what they too are going through instead of only thinking about how hard it is for us. Thanks

  • Kristine B.E.

    September 18th, 2016 at 2:16 AM

    Yes, Gregg, this is all I do. I don’t even really have a choice if I want to stay together. The difficulty comes when it is nearly never reciprocated. It is definitely never instinctually reciprocated. Also, my husband doesn’t seem to mind being isolated and misunderstood. He seems to prefer it, unless it is me who is mind understanding him, which only happens when I bring him an issue I need understood. Otherwise, he is perfectly content. I am also the one that translates his sons needs to him. They care about me, they just don’t know how to care for me, and if I feel upset by that, I spend my time helping them feel better and understood about me being upset. Believe me, I remember how misunderstood they feel, so much so that there is no time or space left for how I feel.

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    January 31st, 2014 at 11:59 AM

    Hello, Gregg,

    Thank you for your comment. You are right – it is stressful and exhausting for individuals who carry the diagnosis of Asperger Syndrone/High-Functioning Autism because they are trying to fit into the neurotypical world without the subtext that the rest of us take for granted. That is why I try to support the wives of such men in ways that allow them to begin to imagine what the world looks like from their husbands’ perspective. It is a challenge on both sides of the partnership.

  • Rachel

    February 12th, 2014 at 9:54 AM

    You have basically described my life. My husband of thirteen years, is high functioning and our middle child is too. We have two other children who are typical and our life together is a beautiful, complex challenge.

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    February 12th, 2014 at 11:31 AM

    Rachel, it sounds as if you have managed to find balance in your shared lives. That will serve you well!

  • Christina

    March 14th, 2014 at 9:54 AM

    I’ve been with my fiance for almost a year and a half. and he is the one with HFA I didn’t understand how difficult. it would be to deal with it. and sometimes I would think maybe I’m the problem. but after intense research and such one found many interesting things about it I never knew. like the difficulty people with HFA go through with non verbal things. but after reading a lot of information on it. I am now understanding what my man is going through. and we are going strong to this day. he even comes to me when he is stressed out with things and needs a more simple way of understanding things. Some people may not want to put in the effort. but believe me. finding someone you love, you love them for everything. and this defines him as a person. and I woipdnt have it any other way.

  • Tiffaney

    October 4th, 2014 at 6:48 PM

    I have been married to my husband with autism for 10 years. We have two children together. Our son, age 9, has autism too. Life is not easy having your husband on disability and fighting for your child. But I love them both so much. They are never boring. I truly don’t think either of them could show me love more that they already.
    Here is my problem. As much as they both love me and my daughter they have a problem with each other. I can see both of them trying in their own way to constantly find a way to connect with each other. They don’t understand each other at all. They try but can’t wrap their head around how the other thinks r feels. I am so worried about their relationship. You would think this would be perfect, but it is a constant fear and forever struggle.

  • Mari

    January 9th, 2016 at 11:17 PM

    Oh yes Tiffaney! This exactly!

    My 8yo has ASD, and I believe his father also may. They struggle to be together so much. As the father is not my partner, he also constantly blames me for the difficulties in their relationship. This is incredibly distressing – I want for nothing more than that they have a good relationship, but the father’s anger with me, and his assumption of intellectual superiority mean that he finds it hard to listen to even the smallest piece of advice from anyone else in trying to establish a good relationship (such as, your son doesn’t like playing cars, but does like pokemon). But then when our son won’t play cars with him, he is offended, our son is angry that he hasn’t listened to the fact he doesn’t want to play cars, and I am somewhere in the middle, in trouble with the father, supporting a son who doesn’t want to see him to go back and try again, without much hope it will be different next time.

  • Kris

    December 1st, 2016 at 2:07 PM

    Is it possible that my husband is high functioning autistic and has never been diagnosed? Or perhaps he is just antisocial. But his actions/behaviors seem to fit the very definition of high functioning autistic.

  • Neurotype

    March 13th, 2017 at 2:08 PM

    Yes very likely your spouse has no diagnosis & depending on age may never have it. My spouse is 61 and will never have a clear diagnosis. This spectrum is large. From my reading, many features of AS is not the carbon of my husband but many others are. Married 44 years, it has only been in the last two that AS exists in the many failed attempts at marital happiness. At this time he is in full mode and will never be addressed medically due to his own shame of anyone thinking he has any ailment at all. He is high functioning but has a low IQ that seems to be getting even lower. His comprehension window is narrowing significantly by the year. He cannot read and understand what he has read. He can read words but cannot explain it back to you. He belittles me for being concerned and controls our finances and every other aspect of our living. I have no life with him literally. He has a horrible problem with me existing I believe and fear of that mixed with his lack of intelligence causes me to feel sick a lot. I know we haven’t enough money for separate households. If you are married less than 20 years and start seeing signs of finance control, suspicious jealousy that is hidden, lack of empathy, silent treatment, lack of communication, lying and deliberately keeping info from you, use it as a sign of whats to come. It gets worse with age. My husband was able to function better when his sons were coming up. He never went above and beyond as a parent and spent most time at work but he treated me with more kindness. The last ten years has been a nightmare, the 10 before that was confusing and troubling. I would walk out the door tonight and sleep in my car if I knew I could be ok with an apt/car and some income. But there is no help for senior women who need to heal emotionally. At this point it would be best if one of us died, He is not capable of being happy with me. It was a marriage that never should have happened. But I was pushed away by my mother at 15, and had no choice. I tried to make it work and thought I had done that only to see what an emotionally and financially oppressed woman he has made me. Sorry this is so long, I have so much to say and no one to say it to.

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