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Making Sense of “Odd” Asperger’s Behavior

Adults with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) often display advanced abilities in language, reading, mathematics, spatial skills, and music (just to name a few) – sometimes into the "gifted" range. But, this is often offset by significant problems in other areas – especially in the social realm. This combination of strengths and weaknesses can lead to problems with spouses, and even employees. “Aspies” appear perfectly “normal” (for the lack of a better term); however, on closer inspection, several problematic issues related to the traits associated with disorder reveal themselves. 

Here are a few of the misunderstandings associated with AS and HFA:

Misunderstanding #1—

The AS or HFA employee may be regarded by employers as a "poor performer." The employee’s low tolerance for what he perceives to be boring and mundane tasks can easily become frustrating for him, resulting in his refusal to complete certain tasks (or do them slowly). Consequently, employers may well consider the Aspie to be lazy, arrogant and/or insubordinate. This “misunderstanding” often results in a “power-struggle” between the Aspie and his boss, and in combination with the Aspie’s anxieties, can result in problematic behaviors (e.g., angry outbursts, withdrawal, absenteeism, walking out on the job, etc.).

Misunderstanding #2—

Two traits often found in adults on the spectrum are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the person’s ability to empathize with others. As a result, he may be perceived by partners/spouses and fellow employees as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

Misunderstanding #3—

An issue related to alexithymia involves the inability to identify and control strong emotions (e.g., sadness, anger, etc.). This leaves the individual prone to sudden emotional outbursts (e.g., meltdowns), or bouts of withdrawal (e.g., shutdowns). The inability to express feelings using words may also predispose the Aspie to use physical acts (e.g., destruction of property) to articulate his mood and release “emotional energy.” All of these traits may give others the impression that the Aspie is emotionally unstable, rude, self-centered, or simply unwilling to work on relationship problems in a respectful and rational manner.

Misunderstanding #4—

People on the autism spectrum often report a feeling of being “unwillingly detached” from the environment (e.g., at home, work, school, etc.). They often have difficulty making friends due to poor social skills. The complexity and inconsistency of the social world can pose an extreme challenge for these individuals. Accordingly, feeling incapable of winning and keeping friends, they prefer to engage in solitary activities. As a result, partners/spouses and fellow employees often view the Aspie as “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic.”

Misunderstanding #5—

Aspies may be overly literal and may have difficulty interpreting and responding to sarcasm, banter, or metaphorical speech. Difficulties with social interaction may also be manifest in a lack of small talk and humor. These problems can be severe or mild depending on the person. Due to their idiosyncratic behavior, precise language, unusual interests, and impaired ability to perceive and respond in socially expected ways to nonverbal cues – particularly in interpersonal conflict – Aspies are often the target of bullying in the workplace and branded as "odd.”

Making sense of “odd” behavior:

The obsessive-compulsive approach to life results in the narrow range of interests and insistence on set routines typical of adults on the spectrum. However, it usually starts as a cognitive (i.e., thinking) issue before it becomes a behavioral one. Cognitive issues, such as the inability to take someone else's perspective (i.e., mindblindness) and the lack of cognitive flexibility (e.g., black-and-white thinking) can cause many of the behaviors we see in these individuals. We know there is a cognitive element by looking at the Aspie’s behaviors. There is always some distress, anxiety, or obsession manifested in every “inappropriate” behavior.

The Aspie’s cognitive difficulties may lead to inaccurate interpretations and understanding of the world. How someone interprets a situation determines how he will respond to it. Many times the interpretation of an event is either not an accurate one, or not one that leads to positive or prosocial actions. If the event can be reinterpreted for the Aspie, it can lead to a more productive outcome. In doing this, partners/spouses and employees must first try to understand how the Aspie interprets a situation. All of his behaviors are filtered through his perception of the way the world works.

Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

Tips for Discouraged Neurotypical Spouses: Are You Really Married or Simply Cohabitating?

In a true marriage, there exists an "us" or a "we" factor. In other words, your spouse (a) is your spiritual partner or soulmate, (b) is mostly on the same page with you on the issues of values, beliefs, parenting, etc., (c) is in tune with how you feel (e.g., knows when something is bothering you and inquiries about it), (d) shares some of the same friends that you do, (e) is a helpmate (e.g., helps around the house and/or helps pay bills, provides reassurance and comfort in your times of need, etc.). This is in no way an exhaustive list; many other factors are equally as important.

Unfortunately, in working with couples where one spouse is affected by an autism spectrum disorder (i.e., Asperger's of high-functioning autism), I have learned that some NT (i.e, non-autistic) spouses who are considering a divorce feel that they have never had a marriage that was anything more than two people living together and meeting their individual needs. Many of these couples have shared a home and raised kids, but they participated in those activities from an independent rather than united position (e.g., they are in close proximity to one another since they live in the same house, but are emotionally distant).

One NT partner stated that she had a difficult time admitting that her marriage of 18 years was in fact in name only, even though they had raised a child and lived under the label of wife and husband. Their son, who went off to college at age 19, seemed to be the only factor that held the relationship together. When their son “flew the coop,” a huge void became evident. This resulted in the two of them threatening to divorce every few weeks, and they seemed to have a daily ritual of arguing. This pattern remained despite the fact that they had attended numerous “couple’s therapy” sessions. Eventually, the wife was able to admit to herself that she was neither married nor single. She stated, “I felt like I was nowhere.” This was the point at which she started the real divorce process.

If you are contemplating separation or divorce, you would do well to ask yourself the following questions:
  • Am I ready for divorce, or am I just threatening to do it?
  • Am I willing to take control of my life in a responsible fashion?
  • Can I handle the unpleasant consequences of divorce?
  • Do I still have feelings for my spouse?
  • Am I simply being emotionally reactive, or is this a genuine decision based on some serious soul-searching?
  • What is my true motivation for wanting a divorce?

After answering the questions above, if you still believe that you are in a marriage that has no genuine "us" factor, then this may be a good time to either commit to learning how to do that, or admit that you never really had a marriage – and move on. Life is simply too short to just “go through the motions” of having a mutually loving, caring relationship.  

Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

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