NEURODIVERSE COUPLES COUNSELING

Loving Couple

Neurodiverse Couples 

 

WHAT IS ASPERGER'S SYNDROME?


Asperger's Syndrome (AS) is a neurological condition that is considered high-functioning autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Individuals with this syndrome have difficulty with social aspects of intelligence. Although people with AS do feel affection towards others, relationships may not be a priority for them in the same way that they are for people who do not have AS.

On a day-to-day basis, people with AS generally seem to be more focused on a particular interest, project or task than on the people around them. Yet, I have found that many of my clients with Asperger's are genuine, honest, loyal, funny and certainly make real contributions to the world that we live in.

NEURODIVERSITY MAGNET


Often Asperger adults and neurotypicals are attracted to each other and couple up. The neurotypical may be attracted to the Aspie's stability, focus and intelligence. The Aspie may appreciate the neurotypical helping him or her navigate social situations. They may feel like they are complementary, a perfect fit - hence it may feel like a "magnet" pulled them together.

DIFFERENCES TURN INTO DYSFUNCTIONAL PATTERNS


Once the couple is married, they discover that they speak different languages and have a disparity in how they think and experience emotions. Without the tools to understand and constructively deal with neurodiversity, these differences are often interpreted negatively which, over time, become cemented into dysfunctional painful patterns which gradually destroy the relationship.

THERAPY FOR COUPLES WITH ASPERGER’S


Therapists who are not experienced with neurodiversity often tell clients married to Asperger adults that their partner cannot feel empathy and cannot truly love.

This is dangerous feedback because it is simply not true. Asperger's partners feel empathy and are capable of love.

Asperger's adults are often shocked to find that their partner’s faith in their love and loyalty could be compromised by a forgotten good-bye or missed eye-contact. Most typical AS clients feel empathy but often need a lot of help to understand his partner. Even when they do understand, they may have difficulty expressing empathy.

There are three ways to support neurodiverse couples::
 

  1. the couples work,

  2. emotional support work for the neurotypical spouse, and

  3. skills training for the Asperger's partner

For the couple work, your therapist will help you create as much emotional intimacy as possible. Often, emotional intimacy has been blocked during the years the couple was not aware of AS. This pre-diagnosis period is often marked by misunderstanding, resentment, anger outbursts and withdrawal.

SPECIFIC STEPS


First, our therapy team is aware that many of clients have been hurt by therapists that tried to make them "less autistic." We will try hard NOT to do that.

WHAT NOT TO DO:
 
There are so many different things to concern yourself with when you are trying to help your neurodiverse relationship, that it is very easy to focus on the wrong thing.

Here's a short list of things not to focus on:
 

 

  • Convincing the AS partner who doesn't see the need to change that he/she should. (People on the spectrum are stubborn, so good luck with that one!)
     

  • Trying to find the right carrot and stick to finally motivate your partner
     

  • Getting the diagnosis exactly right. Even with the right label, the problems are still there! See more on this below.
     

  • Punishment & manipulation (It just tends to put them deeper into "Defense Mode")

WHAT TO DO:

 

Instead, we work together to eliminate the counter-productive patterns (mostly based on misunderstanding) that have developed during their relationship, accept each other's differences, and begin extremely explicit behavioral steps to increase closeness.

 

These behavioral steps are based on the Asperger Couple Workbook and the 14 steps (developed by Eva Mendes) which are listed below:

  1. Pursuing a diagnosis (OPTIONAL) or Identifying the aspects of Asperger's that apply to you;
     

  2. Accepting the diagnosis OR accepting your unique characteristics;
     

  3. Staying motivated;
     

  4. Understanding how AS impacts the individual;
     

  5. Managing depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder;
     

  6. Self-exploration and self-awareness;
     

  7. Creating a Relationship Schedule;
     

  8. Meeting each other's sexual needs;
     

  9. Bridging parallel play;
     

  10. Coping with sensory overload and meltdowns;
     

  11. Expanding Theory of Mind;
     

  12. Improving communication (learning to interpret gestures, facial expression and tone of voice of others so that intentions and the meaning of communication is clearer);
     

  13. Co-parenting strategies;
     

  14. Managing expectations and suspending judgment (developing a realistic understanding of who one is, greater appreciation of one’s unique qualities and strengths).

CHANGE

 

Although these steps may seem daunting, there is good news. Despite the tendency of the AS partner to be rigid and focused on himself, most AS clients that we work with will put in tremendous efforts to change in the context of our therapy and the support from the NT spouse.

Asperger’s is NOT a fixed condition that locks someone into the same behaviors throughout life. It is subject to the same forces of change that occur in anyone’s life. Understanding this provides the ray of hope to break painful entrenched patterns of interaction. 

Please know that the change is usually gradual but, over time, both partners usually experience progress and your relationship can finally become more relaxed and rewarding.

Desmond Tutu has been quoted saying: “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” Everything in life that seems daunting, overwhelming, and even impossible can be accomplished gradually by taking on small manageable steps. 

 

In fact, many neurodiverse couples that our team counsels report that they are satisfied with the marriage and choose to remain in the relationship.

DIAGNOSIS

First, I do not like the diagnostic term "Austism Spectrum Disorder" and, instead, much prefer "Autism Spectrum DIFFERENCE". When considering all the strengths and weakness, my clients are no more "disordered" than many other people.

Secondly, most of our clients do NOT seek to receive a diagnosis, nor do we find much benefit in providing one. It is much more effective to treat whatever unique characteristics which present themselves and avoid the negative effects of labeling and having a fixed mindset.

On the other hand, it can be INCREDIBLY helpful to receive a diagnosis if it can help a couple reinterpret behaviors as a way of experiencing the world as opposed to a sign of bad intent.

In such cases, clients start by taking the following on-line assessments (not definitive tests):

When a formal diagnosis is requested and both partners agree that it will be helpful, we use a collaborative process and involve the neurotypical partner in the process as long as this can be handled in an emotionally safe way. This often helps build an understanding of what the diagnosis actually means.

The following steps are usually involved in the diagnostic process:

  • Discuss your developmental history

  • Discuss your development of peer relationships and friendships and the quality of attachment to family members

  • Make behavioral observations including your social and emotional presentation

  • Interviewing your partner regarding the nature of interactions and the quality of attachment

  • Observe your self-awareness, perspective-taking and level of insight into social and behavioral issues

  • Discuss your ability to understand another person’s feelings, intentions and beliefs

  • Ask for your self-report of certain symptoms

  • Possibly meet with other friends or family members who can provide additional perspective

  • Assess for related issues such as obsessive-compulsive tendencies, general anxiety and depression.

Please note that neurological testing is not required to get a “formal” diagnosis. 

MEDICATIONS

Where appropriate, we encourage couples to consider if medications can help. There are no medications for Asperger's but there are meds for anxiety, depression, OCD and ADHD which often are experienced in these situations. We always provide a referral to a qualified psychiatrist for all discussions on medications.

VIDEO THERAPY

Overall, we recommend in-person therapy for Neurodiverse couples. Nonetheless, because there are so few therapists who specialize in Neurodiversity, we also offer video counseling or coaching. This approach often works well and may be more comfortable for the AS partner.

Hugging Couple in Nature

“Showing kindness towards those who are different and embracing our imperfections as proof of our humanness is the remedy for fear.”  

 

 

Emma Zurcher-Long of Emma’s Hope Book