“I just don’t get him.”
A little while ago a client of mine walked into my office. She was completely distraught over the demise of her relationship with her boyfriend. “He was so perfect in so many ways,” she said “but anytime I wanted to talk to him about anything important or emotional, he completely shut down.
He’d stop talking in the middle of a serious conversation and just stare at the TV for the remainder of the evening or pretend he didn’t hear me.” “I’m done for the evening,” he would say – as if this was supposed to suddenly make my feelings or hurt go a
Aspergers in Men
At first glance, my client’s former flame may have just seemed like a typical male. Many men have issues communicating – and many resort to stonewalling or withdrawing when they sense acrimony. But, as my client began to delve deeper into the details of her romance, it was very clear that she had fallen in love with a man who was on the Autism Spectrum – and perhaps didn’t know it.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties socializing, narrow or obsessive interests, compulsive adherence to rituals and routines, and communication problems.
In 2013, more “high functioning” autism disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome were incorporated under the same Autism Spectrum umbrella – to aid a more comprehensive range of characteristics that autism can reflect.
For many who have a mild case of High Functioning Autism or Asperger’s – detecting or diagnosing their disorder may be difficult. Many individuals with ASD have high IQs and have learned socially appropriate (“normal”) behaviors over the years.
Many of these women have been purported to suffer from “Cassandra Syndrome,” a term coined by psychologist Tony Atwood to refer to women who suspect their partners have Asperger’s
Here are a few ways to know if your partner might have Autism Spectrum Disorder and how to avoid Cassandra Syndrome:
“I feel like he was always lecturing me.”
People on the spectrum have a tendency to go into long boring monologues on their special interests or opinions – and without an internal social meter to tell them they are not being well-received or are going on too long – they have a tendency to come across as one-sided and even sanctimonious in some cases. Many adults with ASD do not realize they are doing this and thus do not think it is a problem or
“I feel like I’m always making the exception.”
Most individuals on the Autism Spectrum have a difficulty anticipating the needs of others because of something called “mind-blindness,” an inability to place oneself in the shoes of others and anticipate their emotional state and thought processes. This results in many partners feeling alone and misunderstood in the relationship, like they are constantly having to pull answers and information out of their significant other unless they topic of conversation is on a “special interest.”
“He doesn’t want to get therapy.”
Many people on the spectrum suffer from “alexithymia,” which is an inability to place, identify the source, and distinguish one’s feelings. Because of this communicative “feeling deficit,” many with ASD prefer facts, numbers, and statistics instead of discussions structured around “emotion.” Many will reject therapy as they find it conceptually difficult to leave behind their world of logic, ration, and equations into unchartered emotional territory.
You might think he is successful, but he doesn’t think he is.
Many individuals on the spectrum have difficulties in their transition into young adulthood and professional environments, as many jobs involve playing corporate politics and navigating social interactions with grace and poise. People on the spectrum, on the other hand, don’t have much patience for small talk and may find corporate bonding events (like bowling night) torturous. As a result, it may have taken your significant other a while to learn the intricacies of the professional world. His career is probably a sore subject for him and he may feel he is not as successful as he should have been – given how difficult the climb to the top may have been because of his socialization difficulties.
“We never do anything spontaneous. He gets anxious when plans change.”
People on the spectrum love information. They love routines. They love being able to predict what happens next. Since there is no internal dialogue helping them read social cues for answers, they rely on facts and prompts from others to make sure they have control of the situation. My client once planned a surprise birthday party for her boyfriend – which he walked out of immediately upon arrival. If your partner suffers from autism, “surprises” might cause him more duress than excitement. Spontaneity is usually something partners must give up in order to maintain peace in their relationship.
“He was obsessed with airplanes.”
If your partner is on the Autism Spectrum, there is a good chance that he has a few interests that he is extremely passionate about – almost to the point of clinical obsession. My client recollects stories of her boyfriend staying up all night when he received a new book on his special interest or if he discovered something online about it that he hadn’t previously known. Sometimes, she felt that the interests were more important than their relationship as her partner would spend his free time researching the interest, instead of spending time with her.
“He never tells me he loves me.”
Many individuals on the spectrum do not approach romance in a “neurotypical” way. If he has told you at one point that he loves you – he may not feel the need to articulate this again unless his feeling
“Our sex life was far from normal.”
Many people on the spectrum have sensory issues – bright lights, loud noises, and even touch (especially light touch) can be hard to them to handle. As a result, having intercourse can present challenges. My client often said that after spending the evening out with her ex, she would want to go straight to the bedroom but her partner would often insist on completing his thirty minute bedtime routine which “killed the moment.” Similarly, her partner had issues with initiation and she often complained of having sex in the same way. Any discussion of “change” would make him feel inadequate and impact his ability to perform. As a result, she felt she had to keeps her needs, desires, and sexual dissatisfaction a secret.
“He was brutally honest.”
Many people on the spectrum have often been accused of “not having a filter.” Despite being hypersensitive to criticism themselves (mostly because ASDs are expending a lot of mental energy trying to act “normal”), their brain is primed to concentrate on details and inconsistencies. You may have spent all day doing your nails, but your ASD partner will only comment on the tiny chip on your pinky finger. Usually, these comments are not meant to hurt their partner – to the ASD brain, they’re simply just stating “facts,” even if they come across as insensitive to a neurotypical.
“He needed recovery time…from everything.”
My client used to quip that in order for her relationship to survive with her partner, she would need “separate bedrooms and separate bathrooms.” This way her partner could always feel like he had the freedom to leave, decompress, and recollect his energy without any interruptions. This may seem strange to a “neurotypical” as traditionally, married couples share bedrooms and sleep together – but many have learned to accept that in a relationship with someone with ASD – recovery time is necessary to keep their partner from becoming overstimulated and prevent a possible tantrum or meltdown.
It’s important to remember that Autism Spectrum Disorder is a spectrum – and no two cases of autism are identical, but there certainly are similarities. All relationships are frustrating and require hard work, but these challenges can be more pronounced in a courtship where one of more partners is simply not wired to inherently understand others and their feelings. The good news is the brain is plastic and over time (even if it takes a very, very, very long time) new behaviors can be formed and people can learn how to better serve their partners.
Aspergers in Men
Here are some tips on how to have a successful relationship with someone on the Autism Spectrum:
Get him diagnosed
Then if he shows enough symptoms, book an appointment for neurospychological testing. This in depth assessment will tell him conclusively if he is on spectrum or not.
If he is….
Show him the ‘numbers’
Current statistics for Asperger’s marriages say that divorce rates can run as high as 80%. Finding a trained and experienced psychologist, who has dealt with relationships involving individuals on the spectrum, can vastly assist and increase the chances of a relationship being successful. Becoming educated on Autism Spectrum Disorder and developing an in-depth understanding of how it affects relationships will better serve both partners in maintaining a happy bond.
Try to find hobbies to take up while he decompresses
While many behaviors can be learned and unlearned, some things about your ASD partner will remain consistent over time. Conflict and acrimony will always be a source of severe stress for him. Holiday gatherings are most likely a form of torture. Video games may help him relax – even if he seems too old to be playing them. Be sure to remember that his time to decompress is not a rejection or withdrawal from you, it’s simply a time to “reset” so he can return to his “best self.”
Find a support group for other people who have
partners on the spectrum
Many people have found that finding support groups in their area have tremendously helped them cope with some of the issues of ASD relationships. You can find these groups in your city on sites like www.meetup.com or solicit the help of others in forums such as www.wrongplanet.net.
Try to focus on the things he or she is good at rather than the things they’re simply not wired to be good at.
One of the benefits of being in a relationship with someone with ASD is that they are exceptional at certain things, though this varies from partner to partner. My client often recollects the way that she studied English literature in college and often dreamed of a man who could recite Shakespeare without faltering – and her mate had all 154 sonnets memorized. Remembering these special facets of your partner can help when you feel particularly frustrated in your relationship.
Give specific instructions
People on the spectrum have difficulty anticipating the needs of others. While this organic anticipation might seem romantic in movies and novels, someone with ASD will most likely fail at a task (such as picking a present) without being given specific instructions. Exercising straight-forwardness will most likely solve and relieve a lot of stress in your relationship.
Practice self-acceptance and forgiveness
Perhaps the most redeeming thing about falling in love with someone on the spectrum is being around someone who simply does not register or care for convention the way the rest of society does. They are not “disordered,” they are just different – and different is beautiful in its own way. Remembering to accept yourself and your flaws – and extending this to your partner can be a wonderful way to grow and heal on our journey through life and love.
George Sachs, PsyD is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and founder of the Sachs Center. He specializes in the testing and treatment of ADHD and Autism in children and adults. He uses a holistic approach for treatment, which includes therapy, diet, exercise, medication if needed and neurofeedback training. He also has an online program for adults with ADD. Dr. Sachs has appeared on NBC, CBS, and Vice TV. His books are sold on Amazon.