How Autism Grew my Faith

A new book from Stephanie C. Holmes. Available from Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats.
3 Topics now available on DVD
Stephanie has collected her teachings on Aspie/NT marriage into a 5 part DVD series. Also available is "Moving Beyond Surviving to Thriving: ASD issues that impact marriage & Family" and "Spectrum Teens and the Issues they face".

There are clips of the marriage sessions on youtube:

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Asperger and Marriage: Therapy that Works

            The area of Asperger’s (soon to be called Autism Spectrum Disorder) that is woefully behind in research and resources is on the subject of Aspie Marriages.   Asperger’s  and marriage?  Wait a minute.  I thought I was taught Aspies prefer solitude and do not usually seek out lifelong relationships.  Maybe you have heard the myth that Aspies are somehow doomed to lives of “less than” when it comes to friendships or marital relationships.  Since Asperger’s was first acknowledged in the DSM-IV in 1994, there has been an explosion of research and articles about raising someone on the spectrum, Aspies and school issues, and everything you need to know about social skills with Aspie kids.  Guess what? Those early Aspies diagnosed in the 1990’s are not children any more.  Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome did (and do) marry.  What about people who had Aspie qualities before the 1990’s, before the term Asperger’s came on the therapy scene?

What are some blind spots of persons with Asperger’s that might challenge the marriage relationship? As you read the following you may think these things challenge ‘normal’ marriages.  This would be true, but these specific areas in marriage tend to be exacerbated by a person who is on the spectrum:  emotional intimacy, social skills, empathy skills, mind blindness, finances (money spent on special interests), and even verbal or physical aggression if a routine is blocked or something does not go as they thought it would.

Many people report that their first impression of an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome comes across with these commonly held misperceptions about Aspies. They are often called: selfish, cold, rude, stubborn, egotistical, uncaring, callous, and unsocial.  The frustrating thing for those of us who love someone on the spectrum is we know these attributes are not true. Many times the Aspie is not even aware they are coming across to others that way. But, if a spouse interprets a behavior with one of these notions a marriage relationship could be greatly challenged.

As I reflect on recent contact from those who have had adult children and/or spouses with Asperger’s Syndrome, I am sad to report many were frustrated and hurt by the therapists  simply because the therapist did not fully understand how Asperger’s impacts relationships. Many of the normal techniques and theories applied to marriage and family counseling are not as effective when applied to persons on the spectrum and often leave the clients confused and hurt.

Because of a late diagnosis in life and trying to understand more about who they are, more and more adults with Asperger’s are seeking counseling and usually the impetus for that search is related to marital or vocational stress as a result of some of the Aspie’s blind spots. Persons married to an Aspie are seeking help to better understand their Aspie spouse and strategies to live in peace while still having their own emotional needs met. This can be a tall order when the spouse is neurologically challenged in the area of empathy and intimacy. To further complicate the matter, it is not uncommon for the Aspie spouse to get the diagnosis later in life because of a child in diagnosis process of autism spectrum disorder.  Sadly, divorce is becoming commonplace in Aspie marriages.

What modality tends to be the most successful for Aspie marriage counseling?

Aspies tend to stay cognitive. Issues of emotions concerning how others feel and interpreting events are a major issue for them because of mind blindness. (Mind blindness is sometimes called the opposite of empathy. It is the inability to understand how another may be feeling or processing emotions.)  Aspies tend to be straight-forward people and they will not stay in therapy if they do not see how they will achieve results. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with a little dose of explanation of Family Systems seems to be the most effective approach.   Dr. Tony Attwood explained recently at a conference held in Atlanta, “These individuals rarely know how THEY feel most of the time, much less how others feel.  They also tend to think others think like them.  Asking them a question about how someone else might feel about that is a completely foreign concept to them.”  Approaches that are emotionally based are frustrating and painful for Aspies; however, good, solid logic and explanation of consequences of various behaviors and how they affect the spouse and the family can reach their 1+1=2 mentality.  Sharing stories or actual events are also usually effective.  Remember, in children’s therapies, social stories are often used to teach children and adolescents new social skills. Sharing with Aspies stories of marital success and failures with practical guidelines on how to achieve success and avoid failure provide a road map to learn new strategies.  Most Aspies are loyal and do seek to please the one they love, but many times are stuck on how to demonstrate their love or how their actions or words affect the other person.

What does not work? Role reversal strategies and re-enacting various scenes at home are not effective with Aspies. If you ask them “to think like their spouse” or “what would your spouse feel or think if you did that” or “how would you feel if that was said to you?” these questions make no sense to them.  A good rule of thumb is if the strategy is to evoke an emotion in the Aspie spouse or to make them try to “think outside of themselves.”  An adult I recently worked with explained it like this, “You know those cones of water that dump out at water parks? The cone is upside down and eventually is filled with water. One last drop enters the cone and the cone suddenly spills over and dumps the water on the head of the one underneath and then flips immediately back over to begin being filled again. That is how my emotions work.  I am completely unaware that the emotion is filling up on inside. I am unaware when I am at a flipping over level. To my spouse she thinks that last little thing that set me off or turned me over was the trigger to the emotional meltdown, but the truth is I had no idea I was that stressed or upset until the last drop happened and it caused me to spill all the emotion out on her.”  Work or other stressors could have been building for a month and one little thing said by a spouse triggered the verbal meltdown. The Aspie is then confused on how big the emotions seem to get so quickly and unaware that his reaction was hurtful to the spouse. He might respond something like this, “She should have known that was not directed at her. She shouldn’t get her feelings hurt so easy.”  This is not typically a response the offended spouse wants to hear. Therefore, helping the Aspie learn how to monitor body and emotionally states is a huge skill that will help relieve this stress in their marriage.  Helping them understand how their body tends to overact to fight, flight, and freeze responses is a useful tool to the Aspie. The Aspie is not usually aware of signals his or her body is giving them to indicate that they are experiencing a heightened emotion. Use of facial emotions and having the spouse show them what their face looks like at various times will help them understand what the spouse is experiencing.  Aspies do not tend to see the signs of anxiety such as, racing heart, or sweaty palms, or being easily agitated as their autonomic nervous system is being aroused.  It is a good idea to educate them about anxiety and teach techniques that can reduce anxiety. The spouse of the Aspie also needs to learn the body language of when the “cone is filling up” so they know how to navigate some of their timing and responses.  It becomes important to recognize facial and body cues that suggest the Aspie spouse is close to emotional meltdown and help the Aspie spouse understand what they are experiencing.

With no disrespect intended to Aspies, the way I explain some relational issues of Aspies to the non-Aspie or neuro-typical (NT) spouse comes from the help of two Star Trek characters.  The first is Spock from the original Star Trek series.  Spock was half Vulcan and half human.  Spock’s character was half of each race, but never he was never really accepted or understood by either.  The Vulcan race sought to live a life of reason and logic without interference of emotion because emotions are not logical or rational. This is how the Aspie tends to process life. They are constantly trying to make sense out of life, processing what they are experiencing through their five senses, without much thought to emotion, theirs or others. This is not because they do not have emotion, but they are simply not aware it is there until it is too late as in the “filled cone” analogy. Aspies pride themselves on logic and rationality and doing things efficiently. When this is challenged or if they feel they are being accused they may be verbally  curt or short with someone. If a spouse tries to use tears or strong emotion to sway the Aspie person, this can be taken offensively or evoke confusing emotion in the Aspie which may then be “spilled out” unexpectedly.  But Spock is only half of the picture.

Another Star Trek character who can add to the analogy is Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek:  The Next Generation. Data was an android who for many years did not contain an “emotion chip” and he was curious to know all he could about human emotion. His naivety often got him in trouble in his interactions especially with female characters.  For example if a female were to ask Data how they looked or his thoughts about their appearance, he might cock his head to the side, give a glance, then commence to explain what he saw in a straight forward way. As the viewer, you would recognize the female’s face was registering anger or embarrassment or frustration, yet these were not registering to Data as he would continue his analysis. If the female slapped him or cried or stormed off, he was left standing there dazed and then ask another character “Why she did she behave that way.  I simply gave her the data she requested as to her appearance and her response seems to be unwarranted by my honest response.”  If you watched Star Trek, you knew Data’s character was not malicious or cruel or mean-spirited. He could not process what the other person wanted and he did not have the communication skills of how to “bless someone’s heart” as we say in the south or gloss over the 100% honest answer and say something to make the other person feel better. He gave the answer to the question he was asked. This explanation usually helps the NT spouse.

If you are expecting platitudes or your Aspie spouse to somehow know you are seeking a compliment, the Aspie spouse needs to be cued.  Aspies are not cruel or unkind with their words on purpose. They are sometimes like Commander Data, clueless as to what the response should be.  So I like to say, Combine the logical processing of Spock and the sometimes clueless social skills of Data, and you can better understand why an Aspie responds the way they do. Aspies fear saying or doing the wrong the thing in social context, especially to the ones they care about. So, if the NT spouse is upset and seeking comforting, asking a question to seek a compliment, or crying because something has upset them, the Aspie registers that the spouse is hurting but does not always know how to respond.  In Spock’s way of not wanting to respond wrongly, they may choose not to respond at all, which appears cold and uncaring but is merely self protection on their part not to do or say the wrong thing. They may remain silent or offer logical, calculated advice. The response may be a social faux paus just as Data gave, and they will give the literal response in a genuine effort to help or answer, but usually they get a response they do not understand. As you can see this is
frustrating for both spouses.

Some marriage resources for Aspie marriages advise that you look at the AS and NT partners being from two different cultures. Each partner needs to better understand the other’s “culture” and ways of communication. After a better understanding of how each person processes and responds, the couple can be guided into techniques and tools that will aid them in better communication patterns. Hence, why CBT and Family Systems work tends to be the best strategy for couple.  The Aspie wants to please their spouse, and if you are able to logically connect with the Aspie client that will try to help them navigate the NT world, they are usually responsive. These skills will not come naturally but Aspies can be taught various social cues and interpersonal skills.  Dr.  Tony Attwood explains it this way to his male Aspie adults, “Emotionally you are like a cactus. You do not require a lot of watering by emotion and platitude. A drop of emotion or compliment goes a long way with you just like water to a cactus. However, your NT partner is a delicate rose. She needs more water, that is more attention and compliments than you do. Sometimes you get confused because you are a cactus you think others are designed that way too. But NT’s are more emotionally fragile and need some emotional “watering” even if you think it is unnecessary or excessive, different plants like roses need different types of care. If you were a gardener you would learn what plant needs what to survive. If you want your spouse to bloom, she will need more from you in this area even though it does not make logical sense.”

There is so much more to cover about how Aspies “do marriage”, but I want to emphasize that Aspies can have lasting, fulfilling marriages, and although some marital strategies may be different than the norm, part of helping the Aspie marriage is understanding how Asperger’s impacts the marriage and which strategies can bring help to the marriage.

Attwood, Tony (2012). Atlanta Autism Conference


Grigg, Carol. (2008) “Asperger’s Syndrome in Relationships: Is there Hope?” ASPIA




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