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Why Neurotypicals Can’t Get Their Spouse to “Cooperate”: Preferred and Nonpreferred Activities in ASD

For most people on the autism spectrum, life tends to be divided into two categories – preferred and nonpreferred activities. Preferred activities are those things they engage in frequently and with great intensity. They seek them out without any external motivation.

Any activity that is not a “special interest” can be considered nonpreferred. They are less desirable - and many are avoided. The lower they are on the list of desirability, the more people on the spectrum will resist or avoid doing them.

Preferred and nonpreferred activities are often problem areas in the marriage. For example, your ASD spouse will always want to engage in preferred activities even when you, the NT, have something more important for him to do (e.g., a particular chore, watching the kids, etc.). He does not want to end a preferred activity, and your attempt to have him end it may result in resistance - and an argument.

Trying to get your ASD spouse to do nonpreferred activities (e.g., interacting socially) can be difficult, and if several nonpreferred activities are combined together, the problem can become a nightmare (e.g., a nonpreferred family vacation).

People with ASD rarely have activities they just “like.” They tend to either love - or hate - an activity. The middle ground is usually missing. They already have a (small) list of preferred interests, and will rarely see the need for anything new (e.g., engaging in a new hobby that the two of you can do together).

It’s important to note that “special interests” are highly important and meaningful to people on the spectrum. Sometimes these interests are lifelong. In other cases, one is phased out to make room for another. These individuals can display remarkable focus and dedication when interacting with their interests. These traits often lead them to become highly successful in the workforce - if they can find a job relating to their field of interest, which many do.

People with ASD and the Misunderstanding of How the Social-World Works

"Why is it that my husband [with ASD] never considers my point of view? He's always right - and I'm always irrational and overly-emotional [according to him]."

The individual with ASD has a neuro-cognitive disorder that affects many areas of functioning. This includes difficulty with the basic understanding of rules of society, especially if they are not obvious. Life has many of these “hidden” rules. Some are written, some are spoken, and some are learned through observation and intuition.

A person on the autism spectrum has difficulty understanding social cues, implied directions, and how to "read between the lines.” Instead, he learns facts. He does not "take in" all of what is happening around him that involves the rest of the world, only what directly impacts him.

Your ASD husband has probably had many conversations that have generally been about knowledge and facts, BUT NOT about feelings and interactions. As a result, he does not really know how the social-world works and what one is supposed to do in various “socially tricky” situations.

This can apply to even the smallest situations that you, his NT wife, may take for granted. Not knowing the unspoken rules of situations causes anxiety, which leads to many of the behavioral problems you witness as your husband tries to impose his own sense of order on a world he doesn't fully understand.

The ASD individual creates his own set of rules for everyday functioning to keep things from changing - and thereby minimize his anxiety. Sometimes, he just makes up the rules when it is convenient. Other times, he attempts to make them up by looking for patterns, rules, or the logic of a situation to make it less chaotic for him and more predictable and understandable.

If there are no rules for an event or situation, the ASD individual will create them from his own experiences based on what he has read, seen, or heard. He will often have a great deal of information to use in reaching his conclusions and forming his opinions. As a result, some of his conclusions are correct - and some are wrong.

Your husband will rarely consider your point of view if he does not consider you to be knowledgeable of the topic in question. If you can’t [or don’t] provide “facts” and evidence that back-up your opinion, your opinion will mean nothing to him. Therefore, he will argue with you about your opinions if different from his own. He thinks that his opinion is more logical, so he chooses his (this represents rigid thinking).

The person on the spectrum finds it difficult to be flexible and consider alternate views, especially if he has already reached a conclusion. New ideas can be difficult to accept ("I'd rather do it the way I've always done it"). Being forced to think differently can cause a lot of anxiety.

So, you must never over-estimate your husband’s understanding of a situation because of his high intellectual ability or his other strengths. He’s someone who has not fully figured out how the social-world works – and he could use a road map and the set of instructions (one example at a time) from YOU, his compassionate coach and wife.

More resources:


==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

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

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