If you are what is commonly referred to as a “neurotypical” spouse of a person who is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, you are probably accustomed to anxiety. I don’t mean to imply that you enjoy it, but I suspect you are accustomed to walking the line between your initial reaction to a conversation, for example, and the way you may come to sort it out afterward.
It usually falls to the neurotypical spouse to make these distinctions, because he or she is the person who has the capability of doing so. This derives from the differences between the brains of the partners.
You may know that Asperger’s (AS)/high-functioning autism (HFA) is a structural, neurological condition and not a mental illness. This is of great significance because there is always risk of shame around a psychiatric diagnosis. If it is clear to you and to your partner that this is not a mental illness, you will be able to manage it more readily. Secondly, you may realize that if you attribute intent to something your AS/HFA spouse said or did based on your assumptions about what you might have said or done in similar circumstances, you are winding down the wrong path.
This error of attribution, natural as it may feel at the time, is one of the sources of the anxiety you experience, but there is seldom intent to inflict pain in your life on the part of your AS/HFA spouse. There is a difference in the way your brains process information, and you are the one most capable of seeing and understanding these differences; you are neurotypical. But your spouse is not setting out to confound you, regardless of how frustrating conversational and situational conflicts may feel to you.
Educating yourself about AS/HFA is an excellent place to start. You can learn about the neurological differences. You can learn about the difficulties your spouse has faced his/her entire life in trying to figure out social protocols and nonverbal cues for meaning in interpersonal communication. You can begin to understand that there is nothing wrong with you, and that your expectations have been normal and natural; they simply haven’t been met because your spouse is unable to meet them. You can also learn means of expressing your thoughts that are less likely to cause confusion.
For example, if you bear in mind that nearly 70% of interpersonal communication is nonverbal, and that your AS/HFA spouse is very literal in his/her approach to communication, you can quickly see the limits. And even that is compromised by nonliteral forms of speech, such as metaphor, analogy, or figure of speech, all of which can be extremely difficult to discern and comprehend for a person on the autism spectrum.
Tony Attwood is an Australia-based clinical psychologist who has made the study of AS/HFA his life’s work. I recommend his works for anyone setting out on the path of understanding this diagnosis.
Now I’d like to return to the first point regarding your anxiety. It is important to acknowledge your anxiety and frustration so that you don’t fall into the trap of assigning blame where there is none, neither on your spouse’s part nor on your own. Understanding AS/HFA from a clinical standpoint is an excellent first step.
The second step I recommend is couples counseling with a psychotherapist who understands both the world of the individual with AS/HFA and the world of the spouse. Be mindful of this as you speak with potential counselors, because you don’t want to find yourself in a situation in which one side or the other is advocated and the remaining partner is expected to do all the adapting.
Finally, I would like to point out that in my clinical experience, nearly every individual I have met with AS/FHA experiences constant anxiety often coupled with depression, due to the complex demands of coping with a world that seems as inscrutable to them as the world of the person with AS/HFA may seem to be to you.
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.
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.