Two posts ago, I wrote about dealing with a non-neural-typical spouse. If you haven’t read it, I highly suggest going back and doing so to frame this post. It also has a lot of content I’m going to leverage in this one. In fact, I’m going to go back and read it now to make sure I know what I already wrote. It’s OK, this post will still be here after we’ve read the other, well, it will be for you, I haven’t written it yet, so I have a largely empty page. After you’re done, we can get back to talking about Asperger’s Syndrome and marriage specifically.
So, as I said, I have Asperger’s Syndrome, but I should point out, I am, with all due humility, extremely high functioning. Almost no one in my life knows, including my parents. So, if you know someone with Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism, they likely will not match me. I have a much higher ability to self-observe about how my mind functions and am not quite as trapped inside my mind as others. That said, I will do my best to communicate the typical Asperger’s traits, so be aware, not everything I write will be about me. Sorry, this may get confusing and may make you believe things about me which are not true. I will attempt to mitigate that as best as I can. In many cases and ways, these behaviors are going to seem like ultra-stereotypical male, which, I think, may be part of the reason people like reading this blog. By being an ultra-stereotypical male in some ways and attempting to mitigate weaknesses in order to survive in a neural-typical world, I may have insights that help wives understand their husbands and husbands learn to coexist better. That’s my theory anyways.
So, this underdevelopment of the pre-frontal cortex can cause some obvious behaviors, and some not-so-obvious ones. I was going to follow the same pattern as my post on ADHD, but I’m finding the subject matter doesn’t lend itself that way. So we’ll see if I can get the same effect of showing weaknesses and strengths and tips for mitigating and leveraging them respectively while using a different form.
Difficulty regulating sensory input
We’ll start here, because it’s easiest to discuss. Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome have a problem regulating sensory input. What does that mean? Well, it means our sense tend to be hyper-sensitive. Noises can seem louder or more intrusive, light can be brighter or more painful, textures can feel just…wrong. For myself, I have trouble paying attention to someone when there is too much noise. I don’t mean it’s too much and I can’t hear them, I can hear just fine, the volume isn’t the issue, it’s the amount of signal coming in. If it’s too much, I have trouble separating what the one person is saying from the background noise around me. I’m also very sensitive to light, my eyes are always half way closed. On the other hand, I have excellent vision, both at night and during the day. People are always surprised at how far away I can be and still read text. My wife used to turn the light on for me when coming to bed, but we’ve realized that it actually is better just to keep it off. I generally have more than enough even with the blinds and curtains shut to navigate, whereas the sudden light makes me close my eyes, and then I have trouble seeing. And there are some textures I just don’t want to touch. I can’t categorize them, but I know them when I see it, and some I can’t stand to put in my mouth. My wife makes this dish with rice and jello that her and the kids love…I’ve never tried it, and never intend to. I just know that mix of textures is … wrong. It makes me cringe internally. Now, I’ve read that this can be a huge problem in regards to sex. Some can’t stand to kiss because they can’t stand the texture of their spouses’s lips, skin, nipples, or genitals, and it’s not that there is anything wrong with them. I like Jello and I like rice, but I can’t put them together, I have no problem with anyone else eating it, but I just can’t. Likewise, these people say it’s not that they find their spouse’s various parts intellectually repulsive…they just can’t stand to touch them, or they have trouble with slimy things. I’m not sure how you would mitigate this other than understanding that it’s not you, it’s their brain.
Likewise, most people with Asperger’s have some aversion to being touched. I’m not that bad, but others are much worse. I know there are spouse who can’t stand to touch their spouse, to hug or hold them. When they have sex, it’s genitals only touching, because anything else is just too much.
I’m quite uncomfortable hugging people other than my spouse. My kids are usually OK, but sometimes not even them I’m afraid. It’s too much, it feels too intimate. I was incredibly uncomfortable at our church when we started attending, because everyone hugged. Made me want to run. I’ve gotten better, I can hug people now without being too awkward. Shaking hands is another thing I had to get used to. These social conventions really do confuse me. I can accept that you shake hands when you first meet someone, but why every time you see them?! Sadly, the only answer I get is “it’s what you do”. I find often I meet someone and turn to something else, only to realize they have their hand out to shake mine, and I completely missed the social cue, making them look like the strange person trying to shake someone’s back. Not a good way to start a business relationship.
Difficulty making intuitive mental jumps
The pre-frontal cortex is also at least partially responsible for making intuitive leaps in judgement. Neural-typical people do this all the time and never realize it. Any time you can’t explain step by step how you know something, you do this. Anytime you can attribute anything to “common sense”, you do this. And we (those with Aperger’s Syndrome) don’t do this well. We don’t understand a lot of these abstract social conventions that everyone intuitively accepts and agrees to. Jokes can be difficult, especially if they based on social convention. Sarcasm can be as well, because most people just “know” it was sarcasm. This also can cause problems with making inferences and predictions. I have often been asked something like “what would you do in that situation”, and often my answer is “I would never be in that situation”, which just frustrates people. But I don’t understand, how am I to know how I would react if there is zero chance of me being in that situation? But, my wife on the other hand would probably tell you she’s not sure what she would do, but then go on to how she would feel and interact with it, and after talking for a while, would come up with 3 or 4 things she might do depending on all the possible scenarios. All based on intuitive leaps. Now, ask me what to do in a system that is based on logic and rules if specific event A happens at specific time B, and I’m all over it. No intuitive leap needed, just follow the logic. So, don’t ask your spouse to make intuitive leaps. Never assume they have common sense, whatever that is. I haven’t found it yet. After 10 years of marriage, I think my wife has found out I never will.
Because of this, many people with Asperger’s don’t like being in social situations. It’s too dangerous, way too much social conventions that no one has ever written down for us, no rules to guide us, no logic to lean on. You’re just expected to “know” how to react, respond and convey yourself. The “higher functioning” the individual, the better they can fake it. I’m pretty good at it, I think people just believe I’m a bit eccentric. I know I don’t 100% fit in, but I have other qualities people like that offset it, so I manage. But, my wife is awesome, she tries to limit these social obligations as much as she can. I understand there are some that cannot be avoided (even if I don’t understand WHY they can’t be avoided), and so I go, and try to be nice and engaging and socialize for her benefit, but it is exhausting. So, limit social functions both in frequency and duration if you can.
The world is black and white
I don’t mean literally, I mean morally and for decisions. I think this might stem from the lack of intuitive leaps. We don’t often understand a middle ground, or compromise. I hate the phrase “everything in moderation” for various reasons, but one of them is because it assumes there is always a middle ground that is preferable, and in my mind, that’s just false. For some, this translates into a belief or behavior that any and all difference in opinion equals an enemy and a fight. Because someone must be right, and thus someone must be wrong, and thus one is defending truth, and one is defending a lie, and what else could they be but enemies? I don’t think it’s often articulated as such, but that’s the subconscious pattern, I believe.
This can be a problem, because those with Asperger’s often have a stronger allegiance to the truth than to relationships. Many, including myself, will cut all ties rather than follow something that is false. People with Asperger’s who have a faith tend to be very strongly convicted. I have never known what a crisis of faith was. I believe God is there, and that is all there is to it. I find the Bible to be logically consistent with itself and with life, and that’s it.
Those with Asperger’s also tend to be more truthful, it goes against their nature to lie or hide the truth. This can be a problem when someone asks you a question and socially, you should not answer it. So, it can cause conflict, but many people really appreciate the fact that they can trust what you say.
But, this can be a strength as well. My wife says I have the gift of discernment. Now, I don’t like the idea of claiming gifts, and I never would if it wasn’t a good example of this point. One of my strengths (I’m told) is being able to see a situation, be it technological, or social, or theological, or whatever, break everything down to black & white pieces, sift through the useless data and pick out the key point, the piece of truth that everything hinges on. These people who say this have some evidence on their side. Those that I work with bring me over to find the single small problem in thousands of lines of programming code, and I can usually do it in seconds after they’ve spent hours on it, granted I have more experience, but not enough to account for the major time descrepancy. Due to this blog, I have gotten several emails with relationship problems, usually after a few emails back and forth, which are generally just me clarifying or asking for more information, I can hit the nail on the head about the issue, or so I’m told. In church, people come to me with theological problems, because they say I have the ability to find the verses about the subject at hand and build the concept that answers the question they have. I’m not sure I could do this without this particular brain configuration.
Asperger’s people tend to be very good problem solvers where logic is needed. They often become scientists, programmers, network administrators, IT consultants. They like solving problems, because everything is like a big puzzle waiting for them to leverage their mind against.
I think the most concise example of this perception is a statement that my mother has said on occasion to me, “You always think you are right!” To me, this is a ridiculous statement. Of course I do! If I thought I was wrong, then I would change my thought to what is right. My wife tells me that my mother means I’m arrogant, which is another common trait. Not arrogance, but the perception of arrogance. We tend to follow the truth, and so, we believe we are right, and so anyone who disagrees must be wrong. We don’t think we’re better than others, but we also don’t understand all the social rules of conduct regarding societies views of humility. We tend to be plain spoken. My boss asked me last week “Has anyone ever told you you’re really smart?” As it stands, people have, so in my mind, there are two choices (black & white): Say “no” and lie, or say “yes” and tell the truth. My wife is much more socially adept, and so probably would have come up with an answer that avoided the question entirely while endearing her to the questioner, but she’s a social ninja compared to me. As I was saying, this can often be misinterpreted.
Our speech can also sometimes be viewed as pedantic. In fact, just using that word can be view as pedantic.
Pedantic characterizes a narrow, often ostentatious concern for book learning rules. Synonyms of pedantic include bookish, academic or scholastic. Pedantic speech characterizes a general insulting form of speech.Pedantic speakers often talk down to or lecture others, while emphasizing their own knowledge. Some speakers may find pride in the use of pedantic language. In pedantic speech, the individual places a large emphasis on self-knowledge by debasing the perceived intelligence of other speakers.Pedantic speech normally focuses on the academically correct nature of subjects. Lengthy or self-important lectures at times characterize pedantic speech. Pedantic speech or writing characterize a particular narrow focus on trivial facts and learning. Pedantic speakers often chastise those perceived as existing at a level beneath theirs concerning obscure knowledge of the subject.Pedantic speech may also mark a large exertion of care when speaking or writing. Pedantic individuals often note and correct others in even slight misuse of common words. Pedantic speakers may hold a large attention to detail as a highly valued personal quality.Pedantry speech may also indicate certain developmental disorders. Such developmental disorders include Autism, a disorder of high level attention to insignificant detail. Sufferers of Autism fail to function socially, instead focusing on patterns or details in their own separate imagining.Pedantic speech also finds frequency among sufferers of Asperger Syndrome. Asperger Syndrome marks a similar but less severe disorder to Autism disorder in the inability to function socially. However, individuals suffering from Asperger Syndrome may find social intergration easier.The effects of Asperger Syndrome include individuals choosing to make use of certain marked speech patterns. Specific Asperger speech patterns include avoidance of slang words and other abbreviated forms of speech. Some may consider Asperger Syndrome sufferers to use pedantic, unnecessarily formal patterns of speech.
Taken from Reference.com
If you don’t want to read that, it basically says we use big and/or archaic words that people don’t understand. This is often misinterpreted. People assume you are doing it to show off, or to put them down, or to appear more intelligent. The fact is, my brain reaches for the words I use automatically just like you do, it just finds different ones. I rarely think about whether or not my audience will understand, because frankly, I long ago lost the ability to guess what reading level people are at, so I use the words I use. My eldest daughter will often say to me “Daddy! I don’t know that word!”, and so I will have to stop and pause and think “What word did I say that she doesn’t know?”, and then I have to think of a synonym, for which there usually isn’t one that conveys the same meaning, so then I have to come up with a sentence to explain the word. This all requires a lot of thought, but, my 7 year old’s vocabulary is impressive. My wife has to stop me far less often, but it does happen. Thankfully, she’s very intelligent and her vocabulary continues to grow so that we can converse easily, because I have trouble speaking less concisely. So, dear reader, if I occasionally, or often, use a word that you don’t know, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to do it, I can’t help it, these are the words that pop into my head as I type.
As well, those with Asperger’s tend to have poor conflict resolution skills. Now, this is something I have worked hard on with my wife, so I’ve managed to mitigate this one, but you or your spouse may not be there yet. Take the time and invest in learning how to discuss conflicts without assigning blame or getting upset if possible.
Above average intelligence
Most people with Asperger’s Syndrome have above average intelligence. Sorry, but it’s true. I’m not trying to brag, it’s in every textbook. The current theory, which I believe, is that we lack the ability to make the intuitive jumps most people do, so we develop logic, systems and functions to approximate and translate neural-typical behaviors.
Many with Asperger’s tend to be extremely good at math, logic, science, computers, anything that has a primary base of logic. We like these thing because they make sense. Math answers are right or wrong. Physics has formulas you can follow to tell you how things behave, computers are entire worlds where nothing happens without a direct command. And computer games…wow. Computer games are like a world where everything thinks like we do, it’s like a vacation every time you play: To know how the programmed entities are going to act and respond, because it’s based on logic. Real people are so illogical, so run by emotions, they are confusing and can be frightening to some.
Most people with Asperger’s have difficulty regulating emotions. If most people progress from neutral to murderous in a stead progression of intensity from 1 to 10, it is said that Asperger’s people go 1, 2, 9, 10. There is nothing in the middle. When I was in grade school, a kid called me by a nickname I didn’t like. It wasn’t insulting or anything, it’s a socially acceptable version of my name, I asked him to stop once, then again. Then he went home covered in blood, I had picked him up and thrown him to the gravel ground, and he got quiet a few lacerations from the ground.
Most Asperger’s kids experience bullying through most of their childhood. One of the most prevalent symptoms of having Asperger’s Syndrome in a neural-typical world is depression. I think if there was a place where there were only people with Asperger’s, the depression level would come down dramatically. It seems a large cause of it is trying to fit into the world, being misunderstood and misunderstanding others.
For me, and I don’t know about others, my emotions are a very distant thing, which may have been a survival mechanism. I can completely detract from them it seems, even observe them as if from a distance. As if I could take my “heart” out and examine it. But, I often lack the vocabulary (which is ironic given my vocabulary) to describe what I’m feeling. Luckily, I have a wife who is very good at describing emotions as she feels them so strongly. She’s very patient with me when I try to figure them out. I’d imagine it’s hard when all I give her is “I feel…something…I’m not sad…but I’m not as happy as I usually am…”, and I don’t know what caused it, why it’s happening, or how to fix it. But I love those conversations, because in learning to how express my own emotions, I get to see inside her brain at the same time, and that is precious to me.
We also tend to not show emotion very well. My pastor, who is a close friend and knows I have Asperger’s, the other day was just “on fire” (his words), he was excited, pretty much bouncing and then he said “but you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” He fell into the same trap as others do, to assume that because I don’t show emotions, or that I have trouble expressing them, that I don’t experience joy, or elation, or excitement. It doesn’t register on my face, and I don’t “bounce”, unless I’m REALLY excited about something, but I do get excited and happy and joyous. It just doesn’t overflow into an external behavior as much as neuro-typicals. Sadly, this means that when I’m excited about something, it’s generally not infectious to those around me, so I don’t get to talk about it as much as I’d like to, because I may as well be talking about the weather to them for all the excitement they notice, and so they change the subject far too quickly for my liking.
Another issue I find is that if I’m bored, I tend to detach from my emotions. I become much more robotic in my speech and movements. It’s like my brain gives up, “Well, I’m bored, so I’m checking out.”, and doesn’t bother trying to feel emotions at all. When this happens, my wife often mistakes it for me being upset about something. Which I’m not. I’m not upset, I’m not happy, I’m nothing. It’s just void of emotion. I’m bored, that’s all. It’s not fun at all. I would rather be in pain than bored.
Sexual Behaviors specific to Asperger’s Syndrome and marriage
The research is divided on this one. Older research seems to think that those with Asperger’s often tend to be either averse to sex, or low-drive enough as to make them almost asexual. New research is saying this is not the case though, that their drives are normal, but other behaviors impede acting on it. It’s hard initiating sex when you can’t stand to be touched, you don’t like to kiss, and all the cues that tell you your spouse is interested are completely unintelligible to you. I’m not sure which is true, because I don’t suffer from this lack of drive, or my drive is high enough that I push through the difficulties, or I’ve learned to navigate the difficulties enough to still manage to have sex, or I have a wife that is extremely caring and help, or probably all of the above.
So, if the new research is correct, somethings to help is be aware of their sensory issues, don’t give subtle “open to the idea of sex” signals, but blunt: not like a spoon, like a hammer. “Let’s go have sex” is probably about as subtle as you want to get.
As well, those with Asperger’s tend to mistake things as authoritative guides, more-so than the general public. If they watch porn, they will think the behavior they see in porn is normal and expected. Or, they may think romantic relationships in soap operas is normal and expected, or romantic novels. We see this a bit in neural-typicals as well, but in those with Asperger’s, this can be highly exaggerated.
I’m going to end with this one, because it’s probably the most confusing to people. People with Asperger’s tend to have one or two special interests. These are an obsession beyond anything most people have experienced. Think of your first infatuation, and that will be close, when you wanted to know everything about this person, you wanted to spend every waking moment with them. You talked about them to everyone who would listen, annoying everyone that lives in proximity to you. You knew their eye color, their blood type, their favorite shirt, when the last time they wore that shirt was, because you’ve been watching them and asking questions about them, or talking with them non-stop for a few weeks.
Now, imagine, instead of a person, it’s a topic.
I have two life-long special interests: Sex and theology. I’ve been studying sex for as long as I know. One of the best nights of my life was when I found out there was a talk show about sex on between midnight and 1 am on the radio. I think I was in grade school at the time. I listened almost every day for years. Sadly, by high school, this obsession morphed into a porn addiction as well, though, even then, I was far more interested in learning new techniques than in the eroticism of it.
I’ve been talking about theology for about just as long. I have learned that there are some people I simply cannot talk about theology with. Because even if we’re arguing about it, I’m having a great time, I get to talk about my special interest! They, on the other hand, are getting very angry, because theology is a touchy subject, and I’m more concerned with the truth than people’s feelings. Sex is even touchier, so I generally reserve my discussion on that topic to this blog and the community of christian marriage bloggers, places where sex is an accepted topic, and people know that when you show up, sex is on the table.
Both of these though, while I love to talk about them and learn everything I can, my life doesn’t get too impeded by them. But, in addition to these two special interests, I also get intermediate special interests from time to time. These are the ones my wife dreads, because I obsess about them. For weeks, it’s what I talk about non-stop. I dream about it, I buy books about it, I watch movies about it, lectures, whatever, and they are uncontrollable. I don’t think I have one at the moment, which is good. It also means we worry about what the next one is, because they come suddenly and uncontrollably. I spent weeks learning about ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome. I still love to talk about them (as you can tell by this 5000 word post), my interest in my special interests never fade, merely the intensity.
But, these special interests aren’t all bad. They help to calm me, relax me, and provide a lot of pleasure to me. It helps me learn about the world around me an pull a part of it into a coherent pattern that I can understand. It helps me understand people ultimately, and gives me another topic with which to discuss when I’m in awkward social situations, because I don’t know how to do small talk, but I have a few dozen intermediate special interests I could discuss.
Wrapping up Asperger’s Syndrome and marriage
I just want to go over a couple additional possible points of conflict that are specific to Asperger’s Syndrome and marriage:
- Regular expressions of love may not happen. From the mind of someone with Asperger’s, it sort of goes like “I told them I loved them 2 years ago, it hasn’t changed, why should I say it again?” It took me a long time to learn to express love regularly. 50% of spouses of people with Asperger’s say they don’t know if their partner loves them. The one with Asperger’s may think they are showing love every day, maybe even just by being there, but to a neural-typical, they may get the opposite feeling due it not being stated.
- Most people with Asperger’s need to be alone to recharge emotionally. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you, or like you, or that they’re mad at you. It just means they need to be alone for a bit. They may not realize that the same is not true for their partner. My wife sometimes asks me “why didn’t you come downstairs after putting the kids to bed (my office is upstairs with the bedrooms)?” Truth is, most of the time it didn’t occur to me. I was happy alone, and it doesn’t enter my brain that she might not be. I’ve gotten better at this, but I’m far from perfect.
Strategies for Asperger’s Syndrome and marriage
- If a partner has Asperger’s (either officially diagnosed or self-diagnosed), both must accept the diagnosis before moving forward. Being aware of it and it’s implications is huge. This will help more than anything else.
- Both partners need to be willing to learn and change their behaviors. You cannot change the Asperger’s person into a neural-typical. They can learn behaviors to help interact and have a relationship, but the neural-typical spouse has to be willing to meet half way and communicate partially on their level as well. You both need to be willing to research and implement the changes to help the marriage.
I highly suggest the book The Complete Guide To Asperger’s Syndrome. Reading it was like someone had written about my childhood and all the difficulties I had growing up as well as information to help me as an adult. Well worth the price (currently $10 for Kindle).
Edited to add: Looks like some things have changed. They’re declassifying Asperger’s Syndrome as a diagnosis and preferring to call it Level 1 autism or High Functioning Autism. For more information, you can check out this article.
This post, while extremely long, is not exhaustive. I know I’m missing things, so please, if you have Asperger’s Syndrome, or are married to someone who does, let us know in the comments what I missed, strategies for dealing with it, or great things about being married to a person with Asperger’s Syndrome that I didn’t mention.