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The NT’s Dilemma When She Finally Discovers Her Husband May Have Autism

Discovering a spouse’s “special needs” is often a puzzling and agonizing process for neurotypical (NT) wives. It’s no surprise that your husband [with suspected ASD] often mystifies you. 
 
As with all people on the autism spectrum, your husband has many skills – and deficits. Also, you may have great difficulty understanding how much of his behavior is the nature of the disorder, versus how much is just plain old insensitivity or lack of trying.

Due to the fact that being married to a “special needs” spouse can be so confusing at times, it’s easy for NTs to fall into the trap of feeling inadequate and discouraged (e.g., “My husband has so many unresolved problems, therefore, I must be a bad wife”). Most spouses in “typical” marriages do not realize how difficult it is to be the spouse of a person on the spectrum… until they become one of those spouses. 

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Since the symptoms of an autistic individual who is “high-functioning” can be so subtle, multiple, and difficult to pinpoint - it’s hard for an NT spouse to know whether things are normal or not. For example:

  • Are my expectations for my ASD spouse unreasonable?
  • What is the difference between a person who doesn’t understand emotions, and one who is narcissistic?
  • What are the indications of a person being off course in his ability to listen and follow directions?
  • What is the difference between a healthy, very active individual versus a hyperactive one with ASD?
  • What is the difference between the person who is a little clumsy and one who is having significant motor skills problems?


It will take some time for the NT to recognize and articulate concerns about such issues.

 


Even after a diagnosis, the NT spouse will face a multitude of feelings before she can grasp effectively with the glaring truth that her husband has a “developmental disorder.” The NT may even mourn over this new reality:

  • bargaining (e.g., thinking that seeing a typical marriage and family therapist will make the situation better)
  • blaming others for the difficult situation
  • dealing with the fear, anger and guilt of having a spouse who experiences many problems
  • denying there is a problem, as well as rationalizing why it’s not a problem
  • grieving for “what might have been”
  • perhaps eventually coming to acceptance regarding the spouse’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as trying to figure out an effective plan of action


 ==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

One of the biggest challenges NT spouses may face is the big gap between what their ASD husband can do – and what he can’t do. Oftentimes, the ASD spouse is very smart, can reason well, knows a great deal about his favorite subject, yet can’t follow through with the NT’s simple requests.

You may be telling your autistic spouse to “try harder.” But in many cases, he is trying his heart out. These individuals often have to work 10 times harder than their typical peers, but are still labelled as uncaring, selfish, insensitive and narcissistic.

Another piece of the puzzle for the NT spouse lies in how difficult it can be to differentiate between a spouse who “can’t” do something versus one who “won’t” do something. For example:

•    “How far should I ‘push’ my husband?”
•    “How much should I reduce my expectations?”
•    “How much ‘spousal control’ should I exert?”

In this uncertainty, the NT may even ask herself “what is wrong with me?” –  instead of asking “what trials and tribulations is my husband having to face?” Shifting this focus can be beneficial for both spouses.

==> One-on-One Counseling for Struggling Individuals & Couples Affected by Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

The partner with autism spectrum disorder may seem to be having behavior problems when, in fact, he is simply struggling to accomplish a social task. He may experience a meltdown or a shutdown when the social task is too demanding. When the ASD spouse says he hates something, it’s very difficult for the NT to know if he is being rude and disrespectful – or simply finds the task to difficult or impossible to engage in.

While a formal diagnosis can help, the task of sorting-out these problems on a day-to-day basis is quite a challenge. On a planning level, uncertainty can occur because friends and other family members may disagree not only on the diagnosis – but on the optimal coping strategies that “should be used” by the NT spouse.

This can be aggravating and stress-provoking for the NT who has to pull all the information together and decide what to do – right or wrong. In addition, she has to anticipate problems and sense when her husband is frustrated, tired, or about to explode. The NT has to trust her gut as to how long her spouse can last at a family get-together, be pleasant with visitors, or sit in a busy/noisy restaurant.

Neurotypical partners are continually trying to figure out what’s working, what’s not working, what causes her ASD partner’s aggravation, and what calms him down. The NT must:

  • come up with plans for dealing with his meltdowns and shutdowns
  • problem-solve to recognize her ASD spouse’s strengths, interests, and areas of difficulty
  • reflect on activities of each day
  • think carefully
  • …and analyze everything!


All of this takes time and energy that is exhausting!

 


 

8 Things Every NT Woman Should Know About Her Autistic Spouse’s Brain

An autistic man's brain varies tremendously over his life span, quickly contradicting the image of the emotionally-distant, self-absorbed “nerd” that circulates in mainstream consciousness. From his task-oriented personality to his “excessive” need for time alone, here's what women need to know about their partner's mind:

1. “Men with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) are non-committal,” the refrain usually goes. But this may be one of the largest misconceptions about these men. The “fear of commitment” is most likely to occur before men hit 30. After that, most ASD men focus mostly on providing for their families (of course, some have a harder time with commitment than others – a problem that could be genetic).

2. “Autistic fathers don’t really bond with their children.”  This is another myth. While many of these fathers may occasionally (and unintentionally) give the impression that they are not very interested in “bonding” or spending quality time with their kids (which is due to mind-blindness issues), most will tell you – categorically – that they love their kids more than anything or anyone else. They just have difficulty conveying that love in a meaningful way.

3. “Men on the spectrum embrace chain of command.” True! An unstable hierarchy can cause these men considerable anxiety. An established chain of command (such as that practiced by the military and many work places) gives them a sense of control in an otherwise chaotic world.
 

4. “Men with ASD have no empathy and are more focused on solutions than feelings.” Yes and no! While many studies suggest that females are more empathetic than males, this is not entirely true. The empathy system of the autistic male brain DOES respond when someone is stressed or expressing a problem – but the task-oriented, "fix-it" region quickly takes over.  As a result, these men tend to be more concerned with fixing a problem than showing solidarity in feeling.


5. “These men are hard-wired to check-out other women.” Maybe. While often linked to aggression and hostility, testosterone is also the hormone of the libido. And ALL men (not just those on the autism spectrum) have six times the amount surging through their veins as women. Testosterone impairs the impulse-control region of the brain. While it has yet to be studied, this may explain why men ogle women as if on "auto-pilot." However, most ASD men forget about the woman once she is out of their visual field.

6. “The ASD man is immature for his age.” Of course! He has a “developmental disorder” after all. This simply means he is emotionally and socially lagging behind his peers. But even “late-bloomers” develop a significant element of experience and wisdom over time.

7. “Men with ASD don’t show their emotions.” False. While women are usually considered the more emotional gender, infant boys are more emotionally reactive and expressive than infant girls. Adult men have slightly stronger emotional reactions, too – BUT ONLY BEFORE THEY ARE AWARE OF THEIR FEELINGS. Once the emotion reaches consciousness, most men adopt a poker face. When young, males likely learn to hide emotions that culture considers "unmanly."

8. “These men are vulnerable to loneliness and anxiety.” Unfortunately, this is spot on. While loneliness, depression and anxiety can take a toll on everyone's health and brain, Men on the spectrum seem particularly vulnerable. These males tend to “reach out” less than neurotypical males, which exacerbates the emotional problems and the toll it takes on their brains' social circuits. Living with women is particularly helpful for autistic men. Men in stable relationships tend to be healthier, live longer, and have hormone levels that decrease anxiety. Having “time alone” to de-stress is also especially beneficial for men on the spectrum.

How to Identify Your "Meltdown Triggers": Tips for People on the Autism Spectrum

"Is it possible to learn my 'triggers' that may cause meltdowns, and is there a way to intervene before the meltdowns happen?"

People with ASD tend to “act out” their uncomfortable emotions. This is how they communicate their discomfort. The message of a meltdown is: “I’m frustrated and upset, and I don’t know what lead up to it - or what to do about it.”

If you are prone to the periodic meltdown, know that it is very possible to find a way to understand your frustrations – and change the inappropriate expression of them!

 
 

 
Here are some important tips that will help you recognize your “meltdown triggers” so you can prevent the meltdown from happening in the first place:

1. Transitional experiences: When you move from a “desired” activity to one that is NOT desired – especially when the transition is unexpected (e.g., from playing a computer game to running an unexpected errand for your spouse), it’s a prime opportunity for a meltdown. Many transitional experiences can erupt into meltdowns, because you probably don’t like change. You find the transition difficult. It may not be that you don’t want to run an errand for your spouse, rather it could be that you are protesting at having to “switch gears”!

So, when possible, give yourself time to adjust when change occurs. Of course, this is easier said than done when we live in a rush. But you do need more time than “neurotypicals” (e.g., in the morning, you may need to stay in his pajamas for a little while before getting dressed). Also, ask your spouse to “prepare” you for transitions as often as possible. For example, she could say, “I may need you to run an errand for me later today around 3 PM.”
 
==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

2. Tiredness, hunger and sickness: When you are tired, hungry or sick, you are running on lower emotional resources to cope with normal expectations. This means that if tired or hungry or sick, where you would normally be happy to meet your spouse’s requests, you will likely be short-tempered. Thus, do what you can to deal with the primary issue – get some sleep, eat a meal, see the doctor etc. Try not to get hooked into power struggles when you are low on emotional resources.

3. Implement self-observation: When you are calm, ask your spouse to let you know what she observes regarding the connection between your triggers and your meltdowns. For example, she might say, “I’ve noticed that when you think something is unfair, you get upset and start yelling”). By using your spouse to help you to “connect the dots,” you are learning to identify your triggers. This technique should be part of a problem-solving discussion (that includes you and your spouse) for coming up with a plan for what you will do differently the next time you are in this dilemma.

4. Signaling: Signaling is a common behavior modification strategy for people on the autism spectrum. Choose one specific trigger to work on, and then come up with a phrase or hand signal that your spouse can use as an alert to you that the trigger is present. This allows your spouse to make you aware of the trigger subtly in social situations. Once she has alerted you, you will have the chance to self-correct.

5. Reliance on routine: People with ASD tend to rely heavily on routines to keep them comfortable and content. In fact, most are dependent on routines, because too much activity and change can overwhelm them. A change in routine is a major meltdown trigger that can easily set you off.

Thus, try sticking to daily routines as precisely as possible. If you do have to change the routine, make sure you are well-rested and content. If you notice you are starting to exhibit signs of a meltdown, try to find a quiet place to calm down.
 
==> One-on-One Counseling for Struggling Individuals & Couples Affected by Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

6. Over-stimulation: Although many people on the spectrum enjoy going out to eat, going to malls, attending parties, etc. – it can get quite overwhelming for them to the point they start reacting to these unfamiliar surroundings and faces. Many will exhibit frustration simply because “the unfamiliar” gets to them, especially if there are a lot of foreign noises and smells. Thus, if the environment seems too “sensory-unfriendly,” you may simply want to “bail out” and return home for a time out.

7. Internal frustration: Some people with autism tend to be perfectionistic and obsessive. The inability to do something right after several attempts, or the lack of conversational skills to get your point across can get the “meltdown engine” revving.


Observations from your spouse is the best tool for identifying “low frustration-tolerance” in yourself. Ask your spouse to pay attention and be aware of the warning signs. She can keep her eyes and ears open, and can help you to look for patterns and connections.

8.  Identifying physical symptoms: Often there are physical symptoms that go along with impending meltdowns. Your nervous system kicks into high gear when a trigger is present - and can cause several identifiable sensations (e.g., rapid heartbeat, flushed cheeks, rapid breathing, cold hands, muscle tension, etc.).

What do you feel in your body when the trigger you are experiencing is present? When you are aware of the warning signs your body gives you, it can serve as a natural cue to put the new plan you came up with during your problem-solving discussions into action.

9. Dealing with anger: Since “meltdown triggers” and “angry feelings” are directly related, having discussions with your spouse about anger (during those times when you are calm) can help you establish a foundation to build on when identifying your triggers. Ask yourself some important questions about emotions (e.g., what makes me angry, happy, sad, etc.).

The purpose of this is to learn how to identify various feelings, to learn what it means to feel angry, happy, sad, disappointed, etc. - but not to give you an excuse for “acting-out” behavior.  This also helps you to communicate your feelings to your spouse clearly so that she is in the best position to help you cope in high-anxiety situations.



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