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Promoting Social Reciprocity in Your "Disengaged" Asperger’s Spouse

“When I speak to my husband (with AS), he often offers no response at all. Whether I’m just making chit chat, or asking a question, I ALWAYS have to repeat myself because he’s not listening. Is this a common issue for others in an NT/AS relationship? Any tips on how to get him to pay more attention to what I’m saying (at least a little bit)?”

A significant issue for people with Asperger’s (AS) and high-functioning autism (HFA) is a lack of “social or emotional reciprocity” (e.g., inappropriate or limited responses to others, limited offers of comfort shown towards others).

While neurotypical people (i.e., non-AS) are attentive to others, people with AS often exhibit difficulty engaging in social interactions for a number of reasons (e.g., being highly focused on their current activity or thought, attention deficits, being overwhelmed by environmental-sensory stimuli, etc.) Many researchers consider “social-interaction deficits” to be the core deficit of AS.

Impairments in social interaction associated with AS often include:
  • lack of: spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment and interests; responding to the emotions of others; responding to social initiations made by others; interest in non-preferred activities; friendship-seeking behavior
  • difficulties understanding the facial expressions and body language of others
  • deficits in nonverbal behaviors (e.g., eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, gestures) to regulate social interaction

 As one NT wife stated: "We don't play 'conversational Ping Pong'. I do the 'ping' - then I have to run down to the other end of the table and do the 'pong' too. I'm basically in a conversation with myself."

In order to help people with AS to better connect and collaborate with others, social skills may need to be taught. Unlike “typically developing” individuals, these skills do not develop instinctively with AS.

There are many techniques to work around this “social-reciprocity-deficit,” and a good place to start may be  balanced turn-taking. Yes, this may seem like such a juvenile exercise in light of the fact that you (the NT spouse) and working with a grown-up. But again, social reciprocity does not come naturally to people with this developmental disorder caller Asperger syndrome.

Balanced turn-taking entails the individual with AS and - in this case - his NT spouse participating in a balanced, back and forth interaction to increase the length of attention and engagement. If your husband is willing to try this, you can literally role-play some give-and-take conversation skills.

You will want to use open-ended questions to avoid one-word responses. These questions can’t be answered with a simple 'yes' or 'no', and instead require your husband to elaborate on his points. Open-ended questions help you see things from his perspective as you get feedback in his own words instead of stock answers.

For example, you can ask your husband some of the questions below, then you answer the same question per your experience (or you start first, then he takes his turn). Some of the following are simply “fill in the blank” statements.

NOTE: Some AS husbands will feel like this is a childish exercise - and may even be offended by the idea. But if your husband recognizes that there is a real problem with his back-and-forth conversation style, it would be good to practice this on a daily basis for about 10 minutes:
  1. What was the most scared you have ever been?
  2. What was the happiest you have ever been? 
  3. Our kids would freak out if they knew what?
  4. What is the most prominent memory you have of your childhood? 
  5. My funniest memory of our dating days was __________ .
  6. My favorite photo of us is the one where __________ .
  7. If you could spend time just talking to any one person, who would it be?
  8. If you could spend 24 hours doing anything in the world with me, what would it be? 
  9. If I could have lived during a different time period, it would be __________ . 
  10. If you had nine lives, what dangerous things would you try?
  11. If I could have any super power, it would be __________ .
  12. If I could eat anything and it not affect my health, I would feast on __________ .
  13. I wish I had learned to __________ .
  14. I used to always wish I could __________ .
  15. I like it best when you refer to me as __________ .
  16. I laugh every time I think of you doing __________ .
  17. I feel you love me the most when you __________ .
  18. Did you know that it scares me so much to __________ .
  19. If you had all the money you needed, what’s the strangest thing would you purchase?
  20. Before we are together in heaven, I pray that here on earth we __________ .

 * Use your imagination to come up with additional questions and fill-in-the blank statements as those listed above. Make a game out of it!

If your AS husband is up for a little social-skills training, then by all means, try this! It will work for some, and not so much for others. Some NTs have reported that this exercise was a real game-changer in the relationship (because they were finally having a few moments of "quality" time). Others have said it worked moderately well, but was still interesting and better than nothing. And some have stated "there is no way in hell I'm even going to try this."


==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples 

==> Online Counseling for Struggling Individuals & Couples Affected by Asperger's

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