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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!
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.”
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.
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.
Anger has 3 components—
1. The Emotional State of Anger: The first component is the emotion itself, defined as an affective or arousal state, or a feeling experienced when a goal is blocked or needs are frustrated.
2. Expression of Anger: The second component of anger is its expression. Some people on the spectrum are known to express anger through “shutting down” - but do little to try to solve a problem or constructively confront the NT. Others actively resist by verbally defending their positions – and may retaliate against the NT.
3. An Understanding of Anger: The third component of the anger experience is understanding (i.e., interpreting and evaluating the emotion). Because the ability to self-regulate the expression of anger is linked to an understanding of the emotion – and because the ability to reflect on anger is somewhat limited in ASD – they may need guidance from their NT spouse in totally understanding and managing their feelings.
==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples
Tips for NTs—
1. Ask your ASD spouse if you can give him a "signal" (e.g., a hand motion) when he is starting to get “wound-up.” Give that signal as soon as he starts "stewing" about something.
2. How about YOUR own anger in response to your ASD spouse's anger? You can set an example of “anger control” for him. No coaching technique is as effective as "modeling" with your own example.
3. Some people on the autism spectrum get upset when they know they made a mistake. Instead of admitting their mistake, they act-out in anger to deflect the attention off them. If you realize that this may be the case, it's helpful to say to your ASD partner, "Everyone makes mistakes. Can we just focus on a possible solution for now?"
4. The thought "you’re disrespecting me" …or “you’re treating me like a child” is a big anger-arouser for many people on the autism spectrum. If that is the case, ask him or her, "Do you feel you are being treated unfairly?" When your spouse answers the question, listen and don't rush to negate his/her feelings.
People on the spectrum guided toward responsible anger-management are more likely to understand and manage angry feelings directly and non-aggressively - and to avoid the anxiety that often accompanies poor anger-control.
Some NT spouses will view "helping with anger-control" as micro-managing, and may even resent the notion - which is unfortunate! But if you are willing, you can take some of the bumps out of understanding and managing anger by working WITH your ASD spouse (e.g., providing signals, modeling anger-control, being-solution focused, validating, etc.) rather than AGAINST him (e.g., getting angry with him for being angry).
Resources for Neurodiverse Couples:
“Mark: You say that anxiety is a prominent feature of ASD. What is the biological reason for this?”
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Biology is just one contributor. People with ASD are particularly vulnerable to anxiety due to a breakdown in circuitry related to extinguishing fear responses, specific neurotransmitter system defects, and the inability to make good social judgments throughout the lifespan.
People with certain personality traits are more likely to have anxiety – with or without ASD. For example, those who are perfectionists, easily frustrated, shy, lack self-esteem, or need to control everything often develop anxiety during childhood and adolescence, which progresses into adulthood.
Anxiety, in general, is more prominent today than a generation ago, for people on - and off - the autism spectrum. The newly recognized increase in anxiety disorders may be the result of poor diet (due to the abundance of fast food/junk food), social media, poor sleep habits, lowered stigma, and under-reporting in the past.
Also, there are a multitude of other sources that can be triggering one’s anxiety (e.g., traumatic past experience, medical conditions, job or personal relationship problems, genetics, environmental factors such as pollution, etc.).
Furthermore, some people worry more than others because they are more emotionally sensitive. Emotionally sensitive people tend to label a moderately bad situation as “devastating,” or may take neutral comments made by others as acute criticism.
Other reasons for anxiety in people with ASD include:
- being rejected or teased by others, but not having the ability to mount an effective socially adaptive response
- recognizing that others “get it” when they do not
- few - or no - coping strategies for soothing themselves and containing difficult emotions
- lack of empathy, which severely limits skills for autonomous social problem-solving
- limitations in their ability to grasp social cues and a highly rigid style of thinking, which act in concert to create repeated social errors
- limitations in generalizing from one situation to another, which often contributes to repeating the same mistakes
More resources for couples affected by ASD:
People with ASD are prone to anger, which can be made worse by difficulty in communicating feelings of anxiety. Anger is often a common reaction experienced when coming to terms with problems in relationships (i.e., things that occur that raise the ASD individual’s stress level).
There can be an ‘on-off’ quality to this anger where the individual is calm minutes later after an angry outburst (e.g., meltdown), while those around are stunned and may feel hurt or shocked for hours, if not days, afterward.
The NT partner often struggles to understand these angry outbursts, with resentment and bitterness building up over time. Once the NT understands that her ASD partner has trouble controlling his anger - or understanding its effects on others - she can learn ways to respond that will help to manage these outbursts (i.e., to keep them from escalating).
In some cases, the person on the spectrum may not acknowledge that he has trouble with his anger - and will blame his NT partner for provoking him. Again, this can create enormous conflict within the relationship. It will take carefully phrased feedback and plenty of time for the ASD partner to gradually realize he has a problem with how he expresses his anger and frustration.
A good place to start is identifying a pattern in how the outbursts are related to specific frustrations. Such triggers may originate from the environment, specific individuals, or internal thoughts. Common causes of anger in people with ASD include: other people’s behavior (e.g., critical comments); intolerance of imperfections in others; having routines and order disrupted; anxiety; being swamped by multiple tasks or sensory stimulation.
Identifying the cause of anger can be a challenge. It is important to consider all possible influences relating to one’s physical state (e.g., pain, tiredness), mental state (e.g., existing frustration, confusion), the environment (e.g., too much stimulation, lack of structure, change of routine), and how well the ASD individual can regulate difficult emotions. Life-coaching and Neurodiverse Couples Counseling can help in this area.
More resources for couples affected by ASD:
Many people on the spectrum report intense feelings of anxiety that may reach a level where treatment is required. For some, it is the treatment of their anxiety disorder that leads to a diagnosis of ASD. People with ASD are particularly prone to anxiety as a consequence of the social demands made on them. Also, changes to daily routine can exacerbate the anxiety, as can sensory sensitivities.
One way these individuals cope with their anxiety is to retreat into their special interest. Their level of preoccupation with the special interest can be used as a measure of their degree of anxiety. The more anxious you are, the more intense your interest. Anxiety can also increase your rigidity in thought processes and insistence on set routines.
One of the best ways to treat anxiety in ASD is through the use of behavioral techniques. This may involve your NT spouse (and others) looking out for recognized symptoms (e.g., meltdowns, shutdowns, the need to isolate, etc.) as an indication that you are anxious. You will need to learn how to recognize these symptoms yourself (although you might need prompting from others).
Specific events may also trigger anxiety. When certain events (internal or external) are recognized as a sign of imminent anxiety, action can be taken (e.g., relaxation, distraction, physical activity, etc.). The choice of relaxation method depends very much on your unique needs.
Some techniques include: meditation; using positive thoughts; the use of photographs, postcards or pictures of a pleasant or familiar scene (these need to be small enough to be carried around and should be laminated in order to protect them); physical activities (e.g., going for a long walk perhaps with your dog, doing physical chores around the house, etc.); massage; deep breathing; and aromatherapy. It’s best to practice whatever method of relaxation is chosen at frequent and regular intervals in order for it to be of any practical use when your anxiety occurs.
Whatever method is chosen to reduce anxiety, it is crucial to identify the cause. This should be done by careful monitoring of the “antecedents” (i.e., the thing(s) that happens before the anxiety manifests itself) to an increase in anxiety. The key issues to address when considering this strategy are: What can be done to eliminate the problem (i.e., the antecedent)? What can be done to modify the anxiety-producing situation if it can’t be eliminated entirely? Will the antecedent strategy need to be permanent, or is it a temporary "fix" which allows me to increase skills needed to manage the anxiety in the future?
The importance of using antecedent strategies should not be underestimated. People on the autism spectrum often have to manage a great amount of personal stress. Striking a balance of short and long-term accommodations through manipulating antecedents to anxiety - and the subsequent relationship problems - is often crucial in setting the stage for later skill development.
More resources for couples affected by ASD:
Is Your Partner or Spouse on the Autism Spectrum? - Comprehensive List of Traits Associated with ASD
You think your partner or spouse may have autism? This comprehensive list will give you a better clue. Here you will find the majority of symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – level 1. The individual will not usually have ALL of these traits, however:
1. An awkward gait when walking or running
3. Averts eye contact, or keeps it fleeting or limited
4. Avoids eye contact altogether
5. Benefits from schedules, signs, cue cards
6. Can only focus on one way to solve a problem, though this solution may be ineffective
7. Can recognize smells before others
8. Can’t allow foods to touch each other on the plate
9. Can't extend the allotted time for an activity; activities must start and end at the times specified
10. Carries a specific object
11. Complains of a small amount of wetness (e.g., from the water fountain, a small spill)
12. Complains of clothing feeling like sandpaper
13. Compromises interactions by rigidity, inability to shift attention or “go with the flow,” being rule bound
14. Confronts another person without changing her face or voice
15. Continues to engage in an ineffective behavior rather than thinking of alternatives
16. Covers ears when certain sounds are made
17. Creates jokes that make no sense
18. Creates own words, using them with great pleasure in social situations
19. Difficulties with fine motor skills
20. Difficulties with gross motor skills
21. Difficulty accepting new clothing (including for change of seasons)
22. Difficulty applying sufficient pressure when writing, drawing
23. Difficulty coordinating different extremities, motor planning
24. Difficulty discriminating between fact and fantasy
25. Difficulty in auditory areas
27. Difficulty in olfactory areas
28. Difficulty in tactile areas
29. Difficulty in visual areas
30. Difficulty incorporating new information with previously acquired information (i.e., information processing, concept formation, analyzing/ synthesizing information), is unable to generalize learning from one situation to another, may behave quite differently in different settings and with different individuals
31. Difficulty initiating, maintaining, and ending conversations with others
32. Difficulty maintaining the conversation topic
33. Difficulty understanding the meaning conveyed by others when they vary their pitch, rhythm, or tone
34. Difficulty using particular materials (e.g., glue, paint, clay)
35. Difficulty when novel material is presented without visual support
36. Difficulty when throwing or catching a ball
37. Difficulty when touched by others, even lightly (especially shoulders and head)
38. Difficulty with any changes in the established routine
39. Difficulty with clothing seams or tags
40. Difficulty with direction following
41. Difficulty with handwriting
42. Difficulty with independently seeing sequential steps to complete finished product
43. Difficulty with motor imitation skills
44. Difficulty with organizational skills (e.g., What do I need to do, and how do I go about implementing it?)
45. Difficulty with Reciprocal Social Interactions
46. Difficulty with rhythm copying
47. Difficulty with sequencing (e.g., What is the order used to complete a particular task?)
48. Difficulty with task completion
49. Difficulty with task initiation
50. Difficulty with transitions
51. Displays a delay when answering questions
52. Displays a lack of desire to interact
53. Displays a lack of empathy for others and their emotions (e.g., takes another person’s belongings)
54. Displays a limited awareness of current fashion, slang, topics, activities, and accessories
55. Displays a limited awareness of the emotions of others and/or how to respond to them
56. Displays a strong need for perfection, wants to complete activities/assignments perfectly (e.g., his standards are very high and noncompliance may stem from avoidance of a task he feels he can't complete perfectly)
57. Displays a strong olfactory memory
58. Displays abnormal gestures/facial expressions/body posture when communicating
59. Displays an inability to focus when surrounded by multiple sounds (e.g., shopping mall, airport, party)
60. Displays anxiety when touched unexpectedly
61. Displays average or above average intellectual ability
62. Displays average or above average receptive and expressive language skills
63. Displays difficulty analyzing and synthesizing information presented
64. Displays difficulty as language moves from a literal to a more abstract level
65. Displays difficulty monitoring own behavior
66. Displays difficulty sustaining attention and is easily distracted
67. Displays difficulty understanding not only individual words, but conversations
68. Displays difficulty with inferential thinking and problem solving (e.g., completing a multi-step task that is novel)
69. Displays difficulty with problem solving
70. Displays difficulty with volume control (i.e., too loud or too soft)
71. Displays discomfort/anxiety when looking at certain pictures (e.g., the person feels as if the visual experience is closing in on him)
72. Displays extreme fear when unexpected noises occur
73. Displays high moral standard
74. Displays rigid behavior
75. Displays rigidity in thoughts and actions
76. Displays strong letter recognition skills
77. Displays strong number recognition skills
78. Displays strong oral reading skills, though expression and comprehension are limited
79. Displays strong spelling skills
80. Displays strong word recognition skills
81. Displays unusual chewing and swallowing behaviors
82. Distractable and has difficulty sustaining attention
83. Does not appear to comprehend the facial expressions of others
84. Does not appear to comprehend the gestures/body language of others
85. Does not ask for help with a problem
86. Does not ask for the meaning of an unknown word
87. Does not inquire about others when conversing
88. Does not make conversations reciprocal (i.e., has great difficulty with the back-and-forth aspect), attempts to control the language exchange, may leave a conversation before it is concluded
89. Does not observe personal space (is too close or too far)
90. Does not respond to temperature appropriately
91. Does not turn to face the person he is talking to
92. Does not use gestures/body language when communicating
93. Easily activated gag/vomit reflex
94. Emotional responses out of proportion to the situation, emotional responses that are more intense and tend to be negative (e.g., glass half-empty)
95. Engages in competing behaviors (e.g., vocalizations, noises, plays with an object, sits incorrectly, looks in wrong direction)
96. Engages in intense staring
97. Engages in obsessive questioning or talking in one area, lacks interest in the topics of others
98. Engages in repetitive/stereotypical behaviors
99. Engages in self-stimulatory behaviors (e.g., hand movements, facial grimaces)
100. Engages in self-stimulatory or odd behaviors (rocking, tics, finger posturing, eye blinking, noises — humming/clicking/talking to self)
101. Excellent rote memory
102. Fails to assist someone with an obvious need for help (not holding a door for someone carrying many items or assisting someone who falls or drops their belongings)
103. Fails to inquire regarding others
104. Failure to follow rules and routines results in behavioral difficulties
106. Feels need to complete projects in one sitting, has difficulty with projects completed over time
107. Few interests, but those present are unusual and treated as obsessions
108. Finds some smells so overpowering or unpleasant that he becomes nauseated
109. Focuses conversations on one narrow topic, with too many details given, or moves from one seemingly unrelated topic to the next
110. Focuses on special interests
111. Frustration if writing samples are not perfectly identical to the presented model
112. Has a large vocabulary consisting mainly of nouns and verbs
113. Has a set routine for how activities are to be done
114. Has a voice pattern that is often described as robotic
115. Has an extensive fund of factual information
116. Has an unusual pencil/pen grasp
117. Has developed narrow and specific interests; the interests tend to be atypical (note: this gives a feeling of competence and order; involvement with the area of special interest becomes all-consuming)
118. Has difficulty shifting from one channel to another; processing is slow and easily interrupted by any environmental stimulation (i.e., seen as difficulty with topic maintenance). This will appear as distractibility or inattentiveness
119. Has difficulty with feelings of empathy for others. Interactions with others remain on one level, with one message
120. Has rules for most activities, which must be followed (this can be extended to all involved)
121. Has specific strengths in cognitive areas
122. Has tics or facial grimaces
123. Has unusual fears
124. Ignores an individual’s appearance of sadness, anger, boredom, etc.
125. Impaired reading comprehension; word recognition is more advanced (e.g., difficulty understanding characters in stories, why they do or do not do something)
126. Impairment in prosody
127. Impairment in the pragmatic use of language
128. Impairment in the processing of language
129. Impairment in the semantic use of language
130. Inability to prevent or lessen extreme behavioral reactions, inability to use coping or calming techniques
131. Increase in perseverative/obsessive/rigid/ritualistic behaviors or preoccupation with area of special interest, engaging in nonsense talk
132. Inflexible thinking, not learning from past mistakes (note: this is why consequences often appear ineffective)
133. Insistence on Set Routines
134. Interprets known words on a literal level (i.e., concrete thinking)
135. Interrupts others
136. Is not aware of the consequences of his “hurtful” behavior
137. Is oversensitive to environmental stimulation (e.g., changes in light, sound, smell, location of objects)
138. Is unable to accept environmental changes (e.g., must always go to the same restaurant, same vacation spot)
139. Is unable to change the way he has been taught to complete a task
141. Is unable to make or understand jokes/teasing
142. Is unable to select activities that are of interest to others (unaware or unconcerned that others do not share the same interest or level of interest, unable to compromise)
143. Is unaware he can say something that will hurt someone's feelings or that an apology would make the person "feel better" (e.g., tells another person their story is boring)
144. Is unaware of unspoken or “hidden” rules — may “tell” on peers, breaking the “code of silence” that exists. He will then be unaware why others are angry with him
145. Is unaware that others have intentions or viewpoints different from his own; when engaging in off-topic conversation, does not realize the listener is having great difficulty following the conversation
146. Is unaware that others have thoughts, beliefs, and desires that influence their behavior
147. Is under-sensitive to environmental stimulation (e.g., changes in light, sound, smell, location of objects)
148. Knows how to make a greeting, but has no idea how to continue the conversation; the next comment may be one that is totally irrelevant
149. Lack of appreciation of social cues
150. Lack of cognitive flexibility
151. Lacks awareness if someone appears bored, upset, angry, scared, and so forth. Therefore, she does not comment in a socially appropriate manner or respond by modifying the interaction
152. Lacks awareness of the facial expressions and body language of others, so these conversational cues are missed. He is also unable to use gestures or facial expressions to convey meaning when conversing. You will see fleeting, averted, or a lack of eye contact. He will fail to gain another person's attention before conversing with her. He may stand too far away from or too close to the person he is conversing with. His body posture may appear unusual
153. Lacks conversational language for a social purpose, does not know what to say — this could be no conversation, monopolizing the conversation, lack of ability to initiate conversation, obsessive conversation in one area, conversation not on topic or conversation that is not of interest to others
154. Lacks facial expressions when communicating
156. Laughs at something that is sad, asks questions that are too personal
157. Limited or abnormal use of nonverbal communication
158. Looks to the left or right of the person she is talking to
159. Makes comments that may embarrass others
160. Makes limited food choices
161. Makes rude comments (tells someone they are fat, bald, old, have yellow teeth)
162. Meltdowns (e.g., crying, aggression, property destruction, screaming)
163. Must eat each individual food in its entirety before the next
164. Narrow clothing preferences
165. Narrow food preferences
166. Narrow Range of Interests
167. Needs to smell foods before eating them
168. Needs to smell materials before using them
169. Needs to touch foods before eating them
170. Non-compliant behaviors
171. Observes or stays on the periphery of a group rather than joining in
172. Once a discussion begins, it is as if there is no “stop” button; must complete a predetermined dialogue
173. Only sits in one specific chair or one specific location
174. Overreacts to pain
175. Patterns, routines, and rituals are evident and interfere with daily functioning
176. Plays games or completes activities in a repetitive manner or makes own rules for them
177. Poor balance
178. Poor impulse control
179. Prefers factual reading materials rather than fiction
180. Prefers structured over non-structured activities
181. Purposely withdraws to avoid noises
183. Responds with anger when he feels others are not following the rules, will discipline others or reprimand them for their actions
184. Rigidity issues tied in with limited food preferences (e.g., this is the food he always has, it is always this brand, and it is always prepared and presented in this way)
185. Rules are very important as the world is seen as black or white
186. Rushes through fine motor tasks
187. Shows a strong desire to control the environment
188. Sits apart from others, avoids situations where involvement with others is expected
189. Smiles when someone shares sad news
190. Socially and emotionally inappropriate behaviors
191. Stands too close or too far away from another person
192. Stands too close to objects or people
193. Stares intensely at people or objects
194. Takes perfectionism to an extreme
195. Talks on and on about a special interest while unaware that the other person is no longer paying attention, talks to someone who is obviously engaged in another activity, talks to someone who isn’t even there
196. Touches, hugs, or kisses others without realizing that it is inappropriate
197. Under-reacts to pain
198. Unsure how to ask for help, make requests, or make comments
199. Uses conversation to convey facts and information about special interests, rather than to convey thoughts, emotions, or feelings
200. Uses facial expressions that do not match the emotion being expressed
201. Uses gestures/body language, but in an unusual manner
202. Uses language scripts or verbal rituals in conversation, often described as “nonsense talk” by others (scripts may be made up or taken from movies/books/TV)
203. Uses the voice of a movie or cartoon character conversationally and is unaware that this is inappropriate
204. Uses visual information as a “backup” (e.g., I have something to look at when I forget), especially when new information is presented
205. Uses visual information as a prompt
206. Uses visual information to help focus attention (e.g., I know what to look at)
207. Uses visual information to make concepts more concrete
208. Uses visual information to provide external organization and structure, replacing the person’s lack of internal structure (e.g., I know how it is done, I know the sequence)
209. Uses words in a peculiar manner
210. Views the world in black and white (e.g., admits to breaking a rule even when there is no chance of getting caught)
211. Visual learning strength
212. When processing language (which requires multiple channels working together), has difficulty regulating just one channel, difficulty discriminating between relevant and irrelevant information
213. When questioned regarding what could be learned from another person's facial expression, says, “Nothing.” Faces do not provide him with information. Unable to read these “messages,” he is unable to respond to them
214. Will only tolerate foods of a particular texture or color
Resources for couples affected by ASD:
“When I’m frustrated with my spouse [with ASD], I usually make a concerted effort to not show it. That is, I try to stay calm. But even when I make a neutral comment - something non-threatening - he still says I’m being critical… so that’s when he just leaves the room and does his version of a shutdown. What am I doing wrong here!? Again, I think I’m being (actually pretending) to be calm when I try to discuss our issues with him. We can’t discuss anything anymore!”
A MAJOR source of sensory-overload for a person with ASD is voice – especially tone of voice! The individual often analyzes voice-tone first, and then decodes the words used by the speaker later. Any voice inflection by the speaker that remotely conveys a negative attitude (e.g., sarcasm, irritation, criticism, etc.) may be detected - and taken personally.
A negative tone can be offensive to an ASD spouse, particularly if he is not sure why the speaker is using a particular inflection (e.g., “Is she upset with me?” “Did I do something wrong?” “Why does she sound mad?”). A loop effect can occur in his thinking process (i.e., mulls over the comment made by the speaker long after the conversation has ended). Anxiety and agitation can increase as he attempts to analyze the motives of the speaker.
What we’re really referring to here is your spouse’s obsessive way of thinking. One of the most troublesome traits of the disorder may be the tendency toward repetitive thoughts (i.e., ruminations).
While the ability toward extreme focus can be a strong point for a person on the autism spectrum, it’s a problem when he can’t shift away from thinking about things that are not of his choosing. Often, the individual gets caught up in worries, dwells on past slights from his NT spouse, ponders his own mistakes, and has problems letting go of past hurts.
Resources for couples affected by ASD:
A key difference to remember is that tantrums usually have a purpose. The person who is "acting out" in the moment is looking for a certain reaction from you (e.g., to push YOUR anger button in order to piss you off). On the other hand, a meltdown is a reaction to something that short circuits the reasoning part of the brain (e.g., sensory overload, anxiety overload, unexpected and troubling change in the person's routine or structure, feeling overwhelmed by one's emotions, etc.), and has nothing to do with your response to it.
ASD is often referred to as the "invisible disorder" because of the internal struggles these individuals have without outwardly demonstrating any real noticeable symptoms (when they are calm anyway). People with this disorder struggle with a stressful problem, but “internalize” their feelings until their emotions boil over, leading to a complete meltdown. These outbursts are not a typical tantrum.
Some meltdowns are worse than others, but all leave both spouses exhausted. Unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over a day – or more. When it ends, both partners are emotionally drained. But, don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day, and sometimes into the next, the meltdown can return full force.
Meltdowns are overwhelming emotions and quite common in people on the spectrum. They can be caused by a very minor incident to something more traumatic. They last until the individual with ASD is either completely exhausted, or he gains control of his emotions (which is not easy for him to do). Most autistics have “emotional-regulation” difficulties!
Your spouse with ASD may experience both minor and major meltdowns over incidents that are part of daily life. He may have a major meltdown over something that you view as a very small incident, or he may have absolutely NO REACTION to something that you view as a very troubling incident.
When your husband is calm and relaxed, talk to him about his meltdowns. Then, tell him that sometimes he “reacts” to (i.e., is startled by) certain problems in a way that is disproportionate to the actual severity of the problem. Have him talk to you about a sign you can give him to let him know when he is starting to get revved-up. Overwhelming emotions are part of the traits associated with the disorder, but if you work with your spouse, he will eventually learn to control them somewhat (try to catch them in the “escalation phase” rather than after that bomb has already ignited).
People with ASD usually like to be left alone to cope with negative emotions. If your husband says something like, “I just want to be left alone,” respect his wishes for at least a while. You can always go back in 30 minutes and ask if you can help. Do not be hurt if he refuses.
Resources for couples affected by ASD:
“My partner [with ASD] will periodically ‘meltdown’. And I would like to know what to look for ahead of time to possibly prevent these from happening, because once he starts ‘losing it’, it’s hard to put that Genie back in the bottle.”
A true meltdown is an intense emotional and behavioral response to “over-stimulation” (a form of distress for the individual). Meltdowns are triggered by a fight-or-flight response, which releases adrenaline into the blood stream, creating heightened anxiety and causing the person with autism spectrum disorder to switch to an instinctual survival mode.
Common Features of Meltdowns—
- transitions may trigger a meltdown
- novel situations or sudden change can elicit a meltdown
- meltdowns are time-limited
- meltdowns are due to overwhelming stimulation
- meltdowns are caused by sensory or mental overload, sometime in conjunction with each other
- meltdowns are a reaction to severe stress, although the stress may not be readily apparent to an observer
- cognitive dysfunction, perceptual distortion, and narrowing of sensory experience are associated with meltdowns
- people in the middle of a meltdown will likely become hypo-sensitive or hyper-sensitive to pain
- after the meltdown, there may be intense feelings of shame, remorse or humiliation, and a fear that relationships have been harmed beyond repair
Causes of Meltdown—
- the individual does not receive understandable answers to questions
- he or she is taken by surprise
- is given too many choices
- is given open-ended or vaguely defined tasks
- has a sensory overload
- does not understand the reason for sudden change
Warning Signs of Meltdowns—
- stuttering or showing pressured speech
- repeating words or phrases over and over
- perseverating on one topic
- pacing back in forth or in circles
- increasing self-stimulatory behaviors (e.g., wringing of hands)
- extreme resistance to disengaging from a ritual or routine
- experiencing difficulty answering questions (cognitive breakdown)
- becoming mute
- becoming very quiet and shutting down
- becoming defensive, argumentative, blaming, critical, etc.
- yelling, cussing
It's important for NT partners to realize that the level of stress in the ASD individual is directly correlated with the amount of data that needs to be processed – and the amount of data that needs to be processed is directly correlated to how much sensory data is picked up and the complexity of the person's personal planning. A logical and consistent structure often helps these individuals.
Resources for couples affected by ASD:
Below are some of the most prevalent features of ASD observed in relationships and other social situations. These traits are just that – TRAITS. They are not “personality flaws” or behavior designed to be purposefully offensive.
The following are traits that can cause confusion for the NT partner. The individual with ASD:
- may have only one approach to a problem
- may have signs of Tourette syndrome (motor, vocal or behavioral)
- can be confused by the emotions of others and have difficulty expressing their own feelings
- can be very sensitive to particular sounds and forms of touch, yet lack sensitivity to low levels of pain
- may have difficulty conceptualizing and appreciating the thoughts and feelings of others
- may have difficulty establishing and coping with the changing patterns and expectations in daily life
- may not seem to be aware of the unwritten rules of social conduct, and will inadvertently say or do things that may offend or annoy other people
- may find that eye contact breaks their concentration
- often fails to comprehend that the eyes convey information on a person’s mental state or feelings
- may exhibit inappropriate laughter
- lacks ‘central drive for coherence’ (i.e., an inability to see the relevance of different types of knowledge to a particular problem)
- lacks subtlety in retaliating when threatened; may not have sufficient empathy and self-control to moderate the degree of expressed anger
- may be less able to learn from mistakes
- is less aware of the concept of personal space
- may be lost for words due to a high level of anxiety
- may become aware of their isolation and, in time, are genuinely motivated to socialize with others, but their social skills are immature and rigid - and others often reject them
- may talk to themselves or “vocalize their thoughts”
- may talk too much or too little, lack cohesion to the conversation, and have an idiosyncratic use of words and patterns of speech
- is often aware of the poor quality of their handwriting and may be reluctant to engage in activities that involve extensive writing
- often has the inability to ‘give messages with their eyes’
- is often very stoic, enduring pain with little evidence in their body language and speech that they may actually be experience agony
- once their mind is on a particular track, they appear unable to change (even if the track is clearly wrong or going nowhere)
- uses predominantly a visual style of thinking (and learning)
- prefers factual, nonfiction reading
- prefers to be left alone to continue their activity uninterrupted
- routine is imposed to make life predictable and to impose order, because novelty, chaos or uncertainty are intolerable
- may seem to evoke the maternal or predatory instinct in others
- social contact is tolerated as long as the other people talk about facts and figures – and not emotions
- has a strong desire not to appear ‘stupid’
- has a strong preference to interact with people who are far more interesting, knowledgeable, and more tolerant and accommodating of their lack of social awareness
- has a tendency to interrupt; has difficulty identifying the cues for when to start talking
- exhibits the tendency to make irrelevant comments
- may appear “lost in their own little world” – staring off into space
- may avoid “team playing” at work or in the marriage because they know they lack competence, or are deliberately excluded because they are a liability
- may be detached from - or having difficulty sensing - the feelings of others
ASD is primarily characterized by impaired social interaction and limited social-emotional reciprocity. This impairment may go well beyond poor social skills and being socially awkward, depending on the individual’s current anxiety-level. Partners of the autism spectrum tend to have a disconnection in their responses to others if a high-level of emotional intelligence is needed for the interactions. However, as stated previously, this tendency has no malicious intent.
Resources for couples affected by ASD:
Neither one of you had the thought of this intimacy and appreciation business, but that's what was going on. She got her intimacy in the early days when you first got together. You got your appreciation.
What happens most often in the early going of the relationship: The NT spouse IS his special interest, but after the newness of the relationship wears off, he often reverts back to his original special interest. And she notices that he is slowly detaching [but this occurs at an unconscious level for both parties, initially].
He's not purposely trying to do this, but he's disengaging from the intimacy that was established in the beginning; he separates somewhat, and she notices that - and she starts becoming the “pursuer.” But, the more she pursues, the more he distances himself, because her effort to get him to reconnect [even though her intentions are pure] downloads in his mind as criticism [e.g., I’m not good enough. I’m not measuring up. I’m not meeting her expectations.].
==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples
The more that she pushes to get him back into the relationship, the more that causes anxiety for him, and he continues to distance and distance - and she continues to pursue and pursue. Finally, she gets tired of pursuing - and may become resentful for “wasting” so many years.
So, she's no longer getting her intimacy needs met, and you certainly are not getting your appreciation needs met. But the marriage difficulties affect her more profoundly, because one of her main passions is social and emotional things. So, when you disconnected, she lost one of her main interests. You didn't lose much though! You still have your main interest, whether that's a hobby, your work, or whatever.
When this disengagement occurred, she lost more than you did, and so that's why she is the one that's more distraught - and therefore the one that's more resentful …the one that's angrier and more verbal about the “disconnect” than you. You were more connected with her back in the day, but that has disappeared.
She might say something like, “When we first started dating, things were pretty good. He was sweet and nice and affectionate, but he changed. He changed, and it's not like it used to be anymore.” In a nutshell, she needs you to give her more of a sense that she's getting some of her intimacy needs met - and in return, you will get more of your appreciation needs met. There are many ways to get intimacy needs met, and one of the main ways is through effective communication.
When she has broached some difficult topics, what typically happens? Your anxiety comes up, of course, because now she's talking about a heavy topic, and you may tend to either meltdown or shutdown, or just stand there and act as if you’re listening and agree with her [e.g., “Yeah, sure, okay, I’ll do it. Whatever you say.”] – just to hurry up and get the conversation over with.
The ASD man’s typical reaction [when his NT wife is trying to talk about some heavy topics about relationship problems] is to either do some version of a shutdown or some version of a meltdown. This is what we want to get rid of guys! We want to stop the propensity to react with meltdowns and shutdowns [i.e., a response that has been either aggressive or passive]. We want to avoid those two ends of the extreme, and what would be in the middle is “assertiveness.”
Passivity could be: “I’m afraid that I’m going to say or do something wrong. So, I try to say and do as little as possible - anything to keep the peace” [an example of when he just avoids the conversations entirely]. Aggressiveness could be: “She has made me very anxious when she talks about these relationship problems, and my anxiety sometimes expresses itself as anger and rage.” So, we're trying to avoid those two extremes and come into the middle, which is assertiveness.
==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples
She wants you to be more empathic, but empathy is going to be incompatible with passivity or aggressiveness. You can't be empathic and passive. At the same time, you can't be empathic and aggressive. So, we must learn assertiveness before we can practice empathy, and what we're ultimately trying to achieve here is the business of getting some of her intimacies needs met.
One version of assertiveness would be to face the music when she wants to talk about heavy topics - and to sit there and practice dealing with uncomfortable emotions in the moment. For example: As she is talking, I'm going to look in her direction. I’m going to nod while she's talking. I’m not defending myself, and I’m not leaving. I’m staying right there and facing the issue in question.
Her message may not necessarily be the way that I see things, but I’m not here to defend my perspective or to offer my opinion. I’m here to listen to her opinion. So, the goal here guys is listen to understand rather than listen to “mount a defense” - and that sounds like a tall order, and some of you guys will be thinking, “I don't know how the hell I’m going to tolerate that.”
I know it's going to feel very uncomfortable at first, and your anxiety is going to come up, especially if she's complaining - yet again - about what you're doing wrong …or what you're not doing right …or things that you're saying that are upsetting …or things that you're not saying that you're supposed to be saying, etc.
I’m sure you've been in the “dog house” so much that you've taken up residence in there, because it's safer to be in in the doghouse than to face the music and have her talking to you about difficult problems. So, let me remind us of what we're doing here. My goal is to help you reduce your relationship stress, and one of the ways that I can approach that goal is to help you guys avoid taking either the passive reaction or the aggressive reaction to her difficult conversations.
How do we do that? We get to assertiveness rather than being passive or aggressive. What does that look like? We stay right there when she's talking, rather than talking over her or getting angry with her - or leaving. You say, “I’m here to understand your point of view, rather than listen to defend myself.”
So in this scenario, there's no defense …you're not going to feed your pride or ego. If you make the mistake of trying to squeeze-in your defense or try to prove her wrong – you've just SCREWED yourself out of a golden opportunity to give her some display of empathy.
In this instance, it's active listening, which will directly give her the impression that she's finally getting some understanding from you. That’s the whole goal here. When she's wanting to talk to me, I’m not going to leave …I’m not going to get mad. Instead, I’m going to listen, and I’m going to paraphrase what I heard, and I’m going to validate that she just spoke “her truth” to me. That is a form of assertiveness!
Resources for ASD-NT Couples
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