"My Husband Has Asperger's"
The Counselor's Turn
Susan was thinking about divorce when she first came to see me," said the counselor. "But her suspicion that Neil might have Asperger's syndrome gave her another perspective on their relationship. Neil consulted with a specialist and, to no one's surprise, that's what his diagnosis was.
"Because the syndrome wasn't widely recognized until fairly recently, experts think there are a lot of undiagnosed adults like Neil (many in troubled marriages) whose partners have no clue how to fix them. It's true there isn't a cure for this, and traditional counseling doesn't work for people who have such difficulty with social interactions. But once a couple knows that one of them has Asperger's, they can find ways to improve their relationship -- especially when they're as committed as Neil and Susan are.
"Even after the diagnosis, they still had a long road ahead. Susan was worn down by the enormous responsibilities she'd taken on. The lack of practical or emotional support from Neil had made her less willing to put up with his peculiarities. It's bewildering to live with someone who's brilliant in some areas but stumbles over basic skills. If you don't understand, it's easy to take it personally.
"I explained that people who have Asperger's syndrome experience difficulty comprehending emotions -- both other people's and their own. They take what's said to them very literally, often completely missing the subtle messages conveyed by facial expressions and body language. As a result they can seem uncaring and rude. But Neil hadn't meant to be hurtful or inappropriate. He was simply baffled by things Susan and other people did and said. And when Susan felt hurt and criticized him, he wound up retreating even more.
"I started by having Susan coach Neil on how to read facial expressions and recognize social cues. This helped him start developing those skills and let the couple become allies instead of adversaries. I also referred Neil to a psychiatrist, who prescribed a medication that can be effective in treating people with this syndrome.
"Over the next few months I worked with them to develop a partnership of teaching and learning that has brought them closer together. Once she knew that it takes Neil longer to process what he's feeling and express it, Susan didn't assume that he was being insensitive. Instead, she made a point of calmly telling him what she needed and waiting for his response. 'Don't expect him to sense that you're feeling sad and would like a hug,' I advised her. 'Just tell him straight out.' She uses notes to tell Neil what she'd like him to do because writing things down helps her be precise. She also participates in an online support group, which teaches her coping strategies and lets her know she's not alone.
"The more Neil learned about his illness, the less he felt as though the world was against him. Grateful for all Susan's help, he has worked hard to change his behavior. He now has a clearer understanding of what to do and why. Since he knows Susan needs emotional reassurance, for example, he makes an effort to be physically affectionate and say 'I love you' more often. They try to maintain routines so that Neil doesn't get flustered by last-minute changes. Before a social event, she reminds him to make eye contact and to ask questions, not dominate the conversation. And they've agreed that if he's uncomfortable he should excuse himself to step outside. 'I have a new appreciation for Neil now because I know how much courage it takes for him to deal with social situations,' Susan said recently. 'And working with him to overcome his challenges has made us feel closer to each other than we've felt in years.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2010.