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"Tone of Voice" Matters: Tips for Neurotypical Spouses

“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!”

What I find most often is that the NT’s tone of voice changes even though she is “trying” to remain calm when approaching her ASD spouse. But unless you are a VERY GOOD actor, your true attitude will “leak out” in your tone (i.e., inflection that seems a bit “off” to the listener).

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: 

==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

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




How to Tell the Difference Between a Meltdown and an Adult Tantrum: Tips for NT Spouses

“I know that people with autism spectrum disorder have their meltdowns, but I’m having a hard time distinguishing the difference between my ASD husband’s meltdowns versus the adult version of a tantrum. These two look the same to me, but I don’t want to confront him if he is legitimately having a ‘meltdown’ because I know that he’s not able to control some of that.”


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: 

==> 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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