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Understanding Your Asperger's Boyfriend: 12 Tips for Neurotypical Girlfriends

"I have a boyfriend with Asperger's and I don't understand him, so it's driving me crazy? I know it doesn't have to be this way. What advice do you have that can help us have a very rewarding relationship? Thanks in advance!"

I get variations of this question quite frequently. So, here are my "best of" tips (based on some of the most common traits of Asperger's) that may help you relate well to your "Aspie" boyfriend:

1. When your boyfriend looks away during a conversation, see it for what it is: reducing visual stimulus to be able to better process what is being heard, or to more clearly determine what he wants to say. Shifty eyes do not necessarily mean he's not listening.

2. Your boyfriend may listen to each word that you speak, and interpret your meaning based on his understanding of the definition of the words you use. You, as a neurotypical, are no doubt able to generalize a little better when someone says something like, "Put a pile of mashed potatoes on my plate -- I'm starving." Say this to your boyfriend, and you might get a blank look. When the message is in words, it pays to be as specific as possible. Doing so can save time in the long run, preventing repeat requests or lengthy explanations, when a more precise word or phrase is all that is really needed for your boyfriend to get your meaning.

3. The more comfortable your boyfriend is, the more likely he is to be relaxed in conversation and easier to communicate with, understand, and be understanding. Trust him when he demonstrates a wish to do something relaxing in the face of an important issue. Reduction of stress can be crucial in important situations, and should not be considered a "lack of understanding" about the urgency of the situation.

4. Stress increases behaviors you may find frustrating. Decrease the stressors, however small, and you will decrease behaviors that you find confusing or frustrating.

5. Put aside what you "think" you know. Communicating with your Asperger's boyfriend while holding on to what you think you know about how people on the autism spectrum relate to others can create unnecessary stress. Your boyfriend is an individual -- a person who thinks about things in a different way than you do.

6. Keep your eyes and ears open for signs that your boyfriend is trying to understand you. Communicating is not a one-way street, and the responsibility of connecting with information should not rest solely on your shoulders. Although it may seem like it sometimes, you may not be aware of what your boyfriend is doing to try to understand. You process information differently, so the things you would do to try to understand him may not be the same things he would do.

7. People with Asperger's don't respond well to criticism, threats, or manipulation the way "typical" people do. Even if you don't think you are being critical, if your interaction is perceived this way (even falsely), you are likely to get a defensive response.

8. Don't be afraid to ask questions. When your boyfriend's comment sounds confusing, it's perfectly fine to say, "What do you mean, exactly?" Aspies know that neurotypicals have a hard time understanding what they say. You are likely to raise more red flags if you DON'T ask questions about his meaning than if you DO.

9. Consider your verbal versus non-verbal communication. Most likely, your boyfriend either (a) relies more heavily on your words and less on body-language, or (b) he may rely more on body-language, which may result in a higher frequency of misinterpretation. Find out which method he uses predominantly. How? Listen. If you find that he is frequently misunderstanding you without stopping to consider that he is completely off base, he may be misinterpreting your body-language and otherwise non-verbal messages (e.g., expressions, tone of voice, conversational pauses, etc.). On the other hand, if he repeatedly asks questions about what you are saying, he is relying more heavily on your word usage.

10. Be aware of your boyfriend's personal space. He may have a space defined differently, spatially. If you see that he seems agitated or diverts gaze when you are within a certain distance, you will know that you are within his personal space.

11. Accept that you don't experience life the same way as your Asperger's boyfriend. So, his obstacles, interests, complaints, and frustrations are likely to seem illogical to you. There are many issues that contribute to the way he views the world -- communication issues, stigma, sensory, stereotypical interests, unique responses to social issues and stressors ...many more things than you may be able to imagine. If you look at it as if he is dodging paintballs all day long - every day (paintballs that are invisible to you), it may make a little more sense that he moves the way he does, talks the way he does, and makes the decisions he does.

12. When your boyfriend says or does something that seems hurtful, you can trust that it may not have been intended the way you thought, even if it seems very clear to you. When you say or do something that he takes offense at, you can trust that he is misunderstanding you honestly and not trying to be critical. If your family members or friends seem to be having a ''group opinion'' in the negative about your boyfriend, you can have the insight to be able to say, ''It may appear to be that way, but I think it's a big misunderstanding.''

This just scratches the surface, but these ideas should at least get you headed in the right direction with your relationship. Best of luck!

Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

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