How do I handle marriage to a spouse with Asperger Syndrome?

Lisa Jo Rudy

Question: How Do I Handle Marriage to a Spouse with Asperger Syndrome?

My husband was recently diagnosed as having Asperger syndrome, a high functioning type of autism. He graduated from an Ivy League school, but his self-absorption, social awkwardness and rigid behaviours have affected our marriage with devastating emotional impact. Is there hope for improvement?

Answer: From Dr, Bob Naseef:

If there is one word that describes the reaction of a family member to the diagnosis of autism in someone you love, that word is loneliness. That's what I hear in your question. Rest assured that you are not alone in having this response. There is help for your husband as well as yourself. Now that autism is more widely recognized, adults as well as children, who may have not been identified as autistic in the past, are being diagnosed. This is particularly true for high functioning autism (HFA) and Asperger Sydrome (AS).

There is even a web site devoted to the issues faced by spouses and partners at Asperger Syndrome Partners and Individuals Resources, Encouragement & Support. There are numerous helpful articles archived there. There is also an e-mail subscription list for individuals with AS, and those who have a parent, spouse, or child with AS. Family and relational experiences, resources, survival tips, encouragement, and hope are offered there.

It is through this kind of sharing that many people help each other lighten the burdens of living and find coping strategies and solutions for many issues in relationships. Certainly it is not easy to bridge the communication gap that exists in the everyday life which you describe. Being simultaneously relieved and trapped is a treacherous dilemma. Usually with more information comes hope, so I would suggest you begin to learn more about Asperger syndrome. There are numerous books and websites. One good medical site to start at would be the PENN Social Learning Disorders Program. There you will see your husband's condition described as a social learning disorder which is a helpful way to look at his differences and the challenges that face both of you.

It is also important to look at the history of your relationship. You must have had good times together and shared positive feelings about each other. Try to recapture whatever glimmers of that you can of what brought you together. You may benefit from consultation with a mental health professional who is experienced in helping people in your kind of situation. Even if your husband won't go with you, you may gain some insight into the relationship that will help you regain some hope, and possibly change the chemistry of what is happening right now in your relationship.

From Dr. Cindy Ariel:

It is often both a major relief and a major disappointment to be diagnosed or married to someone who is diagnosed on the autism spectrum as an adult. Your hopes may be dashed and it may feel worse right now but the truth is your husband is still the same man you have loved and married. There is no way out of the autism diagnosis but now that you and he know more about him and his sensitivities and behaviors it is finally possible to find ways to compensate and learn and change and grow.

People can change. In our profession, we help people to change and would not do what we do if we did not believe with certainty that it is possible Since your husband functions at a high cognitive level he will be able to use that to learn social behavior that is less awkward and rude. In order to work on this it will be important for him to accept his diagnosis. That is the next hardest step; after that you and he can work on overcoming the hurdles and progress can be seen. He can change.

Accepting the diagnosis may be the biggest barrier to change. If your husband is willing to see a counselor, or even to get a second opinion so that the data begins to grow it could help him to see what is difficult for him to accept right now. Reading books by other high level adults with autism such as Stephen Shore, Temple Grandin, and Donna Williams may also be very helpful for him to begin to gather the cognitive evidence he may need to understand and accept his diagnosis.

Once the diagnosis is made and then accepted, people with autism are able to move forward; not quickly and easily perhaps but slowly and steadily. It takes patience and perseverance. You will both have to change some of your current understanding and expectations. In every marriage couples must make some sacrifices and compromises that they did not expect and this often brings couples to a deeper more mature place in their love, marriage and commitment to one another.

Robert Naseef, Ph.D., and Cindy Ariel, Ph.D., are the co-editors of "Voices from the Spectrum: Parents, Grandparents, Siblings, People with Autism, and Professionals Share Their Wisdom" (2006). On the web at Alternative Choices.

Courtesy of a NYTimes Company

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