We’ve all encountered the brilliant artist who creates incredible, creative pieces of art, but does not pick up on your cues that you are ready to leave the conversation and move on. Or the person who can tell you absolutely everything you ever wanted to know about summer weather patterns, but totally missed the joke you just told and is now looking at you like you did something offensive. We walk away from these encounters wondering what exactly is going on since the person is obviously high functioning, but seems “socially awkward.”
Perhaps these people have Asperger’s Syndrome.
Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome, often referred to as “Aspies,” get diagnosed as children. However, many do not, especially if there is another issue going on, such as depression or anxiety, which is often the result of their Asperger’s traits causing social awkwardness and/or issues interacting with the environment they live in.
Some common issues that Aspies encounter that can affect their relationships with partners:
- Sensory processing problems/overstimulation: Everyday noises, smells, tastes, and touches can be overwhelming to someone with Asperger’s. This includes everything from something as small as having a fan running in the room all the way to the uber-sensory experience of having sex.
- Fight-or-flight urges: When startled, stressed, or otherwise unsure of how to handle a situation, Aspies can “overreact” and abruptly leave the situation or suddenly “attack” and blurt out something inappropriate or “over the top,” making the situation awkward, even when with loved ones.
- Emotional demands: People with Asperger’s often have trouble with emotions, either not understanding the cues about what the other person is feeling, or feeling overwhelmed by the emotion they themselves are experiencing. They often have trouble expressing feelings of love and affection, even though they are experiencing them. Being in a relationship means the Aspie is constantly having to work to assess what their partner is feeling, as well as trying to process their own reactions.
- Cognitive challenges of daily life: Adult tasks of daily living, such as paying bills, taking out the trash, remembering to pick the kids up, playing with the kids, etc. can test the limits of the person with Asperger’s. They very much want to contribute equally to the relationship–it’s just that their brains do not process information the same way that a non-Asperger’s brain (sometimes called “neurotypical” or “NT”) does.
- Taking information literally: People with Asperger’s absolutely can and do have senses of humor. However, it can take longer for them to get the joke, and they may not get it at all, taking offense to what was said or thinking that you meant what you said literally. Aspies are very concrete and appreciate specific, clear instructions.
Tips for partners of people with Asperger’s Syndrome
- The person with Asperger’s needs to communicate about limits of sensory experiences, and the non-AS partner should do their best to accommodate. It’s tempting to think of the Aspie as “picky” because they don’t like how some clothing feels, or they hate holding hands, or they refuse to eat _____ because it “feels weird” in their mouth. Compromise is part of every relationship: work together to figure out what works.
- Downtime is essential. Tied into the sensory challenges previously mentioned, people with Asperger’s need quiet, still, alone time on a regular basis in order to bring their systems back into equilibrium. If they don’t get this opportunity, you are risking an unintended meltdown, where your Aspie partner loses their ability to appropriately manage the situation. Asperger’s expert Tony Attwood recommends one hour of downtime for every hour of socializing. Being flexible and understanding that this is not rejection or your partner wanting to avoid spending time with you, can help prevent resentment.
- Have clear communication about sex. As previously mentioned, the sensory sensitivities that come with Asperger’s can be very challenged when it comes to having sex. Some Aspies love the experience; others want nothing to do with it. Attitudes about sex tend to be an either/or thing, with few falling within what might be described as “normal” ranges of sexual desire and enjoyment. If your partner is one who can’t get enough sex, discuss what you can do as a couple to meet their needs. If your partner falls on the end of the spectrum where never having sex again would be just fine, be clear about what your needs are and discuss ways to compromise.
- Be strategic about emotional conversations. Remember to work within the limits of your partner’s processing capabilities. If they have been overstimulated, now is not the time to discuss something that is emotional. Having said that, this doesn’t mean you can never have that conversation, because the Aspie partner still needs to uphold their end of the relationship bargain, even if it is difficult and stretches their capabilities.
- Recognize and work with your partner’s socializing skills and limits. Part of any relationship is going out with others and interacting. This will be more challenging for your Aspie partner, but can be done. Have clear communication about your partner’s limits (see #2), and assist your partner with interpreting cues from others. Discuss with your partner whether they would like others to know about the Asperger’s, which can help ease tension in sticky social situations.
The Other Half of Asperger’s Syndrome: A Yahoo! group for partners of people with Asperger’s
Temple Grandin on TED Talks