Tag Archives: communication

The Empathy Conundrum

Let’s get the hard part out there first: I lack empathy.

By lack, I don’t mean a complete absence of empathy; I have an empathy deficiency.  If most adults are “doing empathy” at the calculus level, I’m still in Algebra II and solving for X in ways that would make your head spin.

Before I discovered the online autism community, I assumed that my impaired empathy was typical for someone with Asperger’s. Much of the published literature includes impaired empathy as a common AS trait. “Lack of social or emotional reciprocity” is one of the diagnostic criteria. My own experience didn’t disprove that.

Then I discovered the online ASD community and suddenly felt like I needed to hide my struggles with empathy. Everywhere I looked people were refuting the notion that autistics lack empathy.

Again and again I’ve encountered discussions about empathy online and quietly slunk away, feeling like there was something wrong with me–like I was a “defective” autistic.

I Googled empathy–probably one too many times. I read the long list of definitions at Wikipedia . I read Simon Baron-Cohen’s writing on the subject and felt the same anger others have expressed at his biases. I read looooong threads on Wrong Planet and Facebook. I revisited the diagnostic criteria. I combed through the #actuallyautistic tag on Tumblr.

The more I read, the more confused I became. I started to wonder if I was talking about the same thing others were talking about when I use the word empathy.

So let’s talk about that. What is empathy, exactly? What are we talking about when we talk about empathy?

Sympathy vs. Empathy

Empathy, in the most basic sense, is the ability to understand and share an emotional state with another person.

As an adult with a good amount of life experience, I can often understand the emotional state of another person. I know that if someone’s dog has died, they’ll feel sad. Most people probably come to this conclusion in a more instinctive way than I do, but I get there all the same.

Depending on the situation, I may share an emotional state with another person to some degree. I know how I felt when my dog died. Logically I know that the other person feels very sad. If I knew the person’s dog, I’ll feel a sense of loss myself, and that will contribute to my sharing their emotional state. However, I rarely experience a strong emotional reaction to another person’s circumstances.

That’s not to say that I don’t experience concern toward other people. Simple concern for others, though, isn’t so much empathy as sympathy. Sympathy is a concern for the wellbeing of another person. It can exist in the absence of the empathic act of sharing an emotional state with that person. It often arises from empathy, but it doesn’t have to.

When my daughter says she’s had a bad day at work, even though I find it hard to share her emotional state, I sympathize with her frustration or sadness. I don’t know what it feels like to get a phone call from a suddenly homeless student. I can’t truly share what my daughter is feeling as she tells me about the experience. But I do worry about her ability to cope with the situation. I understand how important her work with is to her. I hear the distress in her voice and want to do what I can to offer comfort.

In this type of situation, I have a great deal of sympathy, regardless of how strongly rooted in empathy my concern is. My sympathy doesn’t always come across like a neurotypical person’s sympathy would–okay, it rarely does–but it exists just the same.

The Challenges of Perspective Taking

The examples I used above are fairly explicit in terms of the emotional content of the situation. Both a dead dog or a student who’s been kicked out of her home have obvious contextual clues to the emotions that are present. Even my rudimentary empathic radar is going to pick them up.

Where I struggle most is in subtle situations. I often say things that other people consider insensitive and then I completely miss their wounded reaction to my comment. Why? Because I didn’t know that my comment was insensitive in the first place and I have trouble reading nonverbal communication.

Think about it. If you didn’t know someone’s dog had died, would you find it easy to understand and share their emotional state? Probably not. You’d pick up that something was wrong, but you wouldn’t be able to truly comprehend how they felt until they explained the source of their distress.

For me, all the little things that people communicate nonverbally or hint at or imply are like a whole bunch of secretly dead dogs. Until some says, “your comment hurt my feelings because ________” all I have is a vague feeling that something is off. Maybe not even that.

This is why I “failed” the Sally-Anne test. Twice. I failed it when I first discovered it early in my reading about Asperger’s and then I failed it again a few weeks ago, because it was presented in a slightly different format. Yep, twice.

You can argue that the Sally-Anne test has little to do with empathy. It’s true, the Sally-Anne test doesn’t predict the emotional dimension of empathy. Taking the test doesn’t require you to share an emotional state with Sally. It does, however, require you to set aside your own knowledge of the situation and take Sally’s perspective.

This is where a more precise definition of empathy comes in handy. Empathy actually has two components: cognitive (perspective taking) and affective (emotional response to another’s emotional state). The Sally-Anne test is a test of cognitive empathy, which is impaired in people with Asperger’s. However, when it comes to affective empathy, according to a 2007 study* aspies are on par with neurotypicals.

So. Affective empathy? We have it. Cognitive empathy? Not so much.

This is why I can fail a simple test twice, even when I already know the “answer.” I automatically default to my own perspective. I can take another person’s perspective, but it often requires a conscious decision on my part to do so. This seems to be something that’s silently implied in the general, vague, oft-used notion of empathy: that one can spontaneously and instinctively understand and share an emotional state with another.

When I say I have an empathy deficiency, I mean that I struggle with taking the view of another person spontaneously and instinctively. I lack cognitive empathy.

Too Much Empathy?

Over and over again I see references to autistic people having too much empathy. While I think the people using this phrase mean well, I’m not sure it’s accurate. Is an autistic person who feels overwhelmed by an emotional situation truly sharing and understanding the emotional state of another person too much or are they overwhelmed by an inability to regulate their own reaction to a highly-charged situation?

Generally, when I feel emotionally overwhelmed by another person’s emotions, it’s related to my alexithymia (emotional dysfunction). In short, I have trouble regulating my own emotions and I have trouble discriminating between emotions that are “aimed at” me and emotions that are “aimed at” someone else. If I encounter two people having a shouting argument, my emotional reaction is the same as if I were the target of their shouting, as if they were both angry at me.

I don’t think this is empathy. I’m not sharing their emotional state (anger) so much as feeling like the target of it. If I were sharing the emotional state of the people in the shouting match, wouldn’t I feel like shouting at someone, too? Instead, I feel frightened and intimidated. I feel an intense need to escape from a situation to which I’m nothing more than a bystander.

In fact, in this kind of situation, the only person I’m thinking about is myself and how uncomfortable I am. There I go again, taking my own perspective. My distress at the situation might outwardly appear to be empathic but my internal reaction is a great big “MAKE IT STOP, NOW.”

This type of reaction is mentioned in the 2007 study I referenced earlier. The researchers found that the aspies scored significantly higher on a scale of personal distress than the neurotypical group, indicating “a greater tendency to have self-oriented feelings of anxiety and discomfort in response to tense interpersonal settings.” Note the use of self-oriented feelings in that sentence. Empathy by definition describes a state shared with others; an overabundance of self-directed anxiety or discomfort is not the same as “too much empathy.”

The Right Way to be Autistic

Circling back to what got me started on this post: the subtle implication in the discussion about empathy that there is a right way to be autistic and that right way includes having empathy or too much empathy. And perhaps as a corollary to that: autistics who have too much empathy are doing their part to subvert the stereotype of the unfeeling autistic.

That was probably an unpopular paragraph. If you found it offensive or upsetting, take a moment to stop and think about why.

Is there any difference between the subtle pressure to (appear to) have empathy and the subtle (or not so subtle) pressure to not stim in public or to make eye contact? Is advancing the belief that all autistics have empathy another way of making us seem more normal? Is there a difference between pressure to not look different outwardly and the same sort of pressure to not feel different inwardly?

Empathy is often philosophically framed as a fundamental element of the human condition. Without it, are we somehow less than human? What if we have impaired empathy–is our humanity impaired?

Choose Your Words

Perhaps we need to be more thoughtful about how we use the word empathy.

Empathy is not interchangeable with sympathy.

Empathy is not interchangeable with emotion.

Empathy is not interchangeable with emotional overload.

Empathy is not some hoop to be jumped through to prove to the world that we may be autistic, but it’s not that bad because “oh look, we have empathy just like you!” (Even if we do, in whatever form. There should be no burden of proof.)

Empathy has many definitions, but they all have at their core understanding the emotional state of another person.

When I say I lack empathy, what I mean is I have a deficit in understanding the emotional states of others. Hell, I have a deficit in understanding my own emotional state at times.

"I lack empathy" simply means that "I have a deficit in understanding the emotional states of others."
“I lack empathy” simply means that “I have a deficit in understanding the emotional states of others.”

This doesn’t mean I’m unsympathetic.

It doesn’t mean I don’t care for others.

It doesn’t mean I can’t show concern.

It doesn’t mean I have no emotions.

It doesn’t mean I don’t get overwhelmed by other people’s emotional states.

It doesn’t mean I’m any less human than you are.

What does it mean then?

That I may need more information than a typical person to understand a social situation. That my reactions to your emotions may be unconventional. That I have to work harder to grasp what comes naturally to most people.

Simple as that. Nothing more, nothing less.

——-

*Thank you to Pi for pointing me toward this study. It turned out to be the missing link in wrapping this post up.

For a mom’s point of view on this, check out Does My Child Lack Empathy? by Jeanie at Reinventing Mommy

Lessons from an Aspergers-NT Marriage (Part 4)

This is the last post in series about the lessons my husband (NT) and I (aspie) have learned during the 25 years we’ve been married.

Learn how to recognize your partner’s expressions of love

Aspies and NTs speak completely different languages when it comes to expressions of love. You can either learn to translate your partner’s “love language” or you can spend the rest of your marriage wondering if this person you’re sleeping next to every night really, actually loves you.

How does this translation work? Like this:

The Scientist: “You don’t have to make my lunch every morning. I can pick something up in the cafeteria.”

Me: “I don’t mind. It only takes a few minutes and I know you’d rather have something healthy to eat. This way you don’t have to waste time waiting in line.”

The Scientist: “So you mean you make my lunch because you care about me, right?”

Exactly.

Learning how to translate the ways your partner thinks about love and intimacy can be challenging in an aspie-NT relationship.                                                                 Image via creative commons license from the Flickr photostream of DailyPic.

Accept that there are things you’ll never understand about your partner

No matter how long you live together or how much you love each other, there will be moments when you feel like your partner is the most incomprehensible person on Earth. The aspie and NT brains have key differences. The sooner you accept this, the less frustrated you’ll be when your partner does something that leaves you scratching your head.

There have been many times when The Scientist has given up on a conversation with the words, “I just don’t understand you.” It’s not that he isn’t trying. He’ll ask me lots of questions to try to zero  in on an explanation for something I’ve done or said. He’ll wait semi-patiently while I sit mutely and stare off into the distance, unable to put words to what I’m feeling. He’ll repeat things back to me to see if he’s hearing me correctly. But no matter how many different ways I explain it, it still doesn’t make sense to him because we’re both starting from fundamentally different places.

This goes both ways. The day The Scientist told me that he feels something–a physical sensation of warmth was how he described it–when he says, “I love you” I was stunned. I tell him that I love him every day but I’ve never associated a physical feeling with those words.

I can logically understand what this physical feeling might be like, but I’ll probably never know exactly what he feels. By the same token, I can tell him that when I sit in a crowded restaurant, my brain is tracking the conversations at all of the tables within earshot, but I don’t think he can ever replicate that experience in his own head.

We can make educated guesses at what’s going on inside the head of our partner, but there will always be some experiences that we can’t truly understand.

Have realistic expectations but don’t stop trying to grow and improve your relationship.

When faced with the day-to-day challenges of an aspie-NT marriage, it would be easy for both partners to simply give up in frustration. I can think of plenty of times when walking away would have been easier and less painful than trying to work things out.

Balancing realistic expectations–by both partners–with a concerted effort to improve can be a relationship-saver. Realistic expectations go both ways. The NT partner shouldn’t expect the aspie partner to morph into a typical person overnight. (The Scientist says he wouldn’t want this even it were possible.)

By the same token, the aspie partner shouldn’t expect the NT partner to simply put up with an endless barrage of unchecked aspie behavior. Knowing what can be changed and what can be tolerated is essential.

The second part of this equation is one that might draw some heat from aspies. I’m a firm believer in trying to improve my ability to function in an NT world. Before anyone jumps down my throat about the potential evils of assimilating, let me explain.

The day I explained to my husband about my Asperger’s, one of the first things he said was, “I love you exactly the way you are.” I treasure that and I know it’s not something he said just to make me feel better. He means it. But I also know that I’m hard to live with. I find myself hard to live with at times. So when I say I want to improve my level of functioning, it’s because I want to struggle less on a daily basis and because I want the people around me–the people I love–to struggle less. It has nothing to do with conforming to the expectations of an NT world and everything to do with making life less stressful and more enjoyable for myself and my family.

Lessons from an Aspergers-NT Marriage (Part 3)

This is the 3rd in a 4 part series about the lessons my husband (NT) and I (aspie) have learned during the 25 years we’ve been married.

Recognize that aspies need plenty of alone time

Being alone is how people with Asperger’s regroup. When I retreat to my home office and close the door, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the company of my family. It has nothing to do with how much I love my husband. It doesn’t mean that I’m disinterested, selfish, cold or insensitive. It means I’ve hit my limit for social interaction and need to recharge.

Somehow, The Scientist figured this out years before we knew anything about Asperger’s and has learned to recognize when I’m nearing my limit, sometimes before I do. If we have guests staying with us for a few days, he makes a point to build time alone for me into the schedule. If he sees that I’m starting to tire or withdraw during a long social event, he’ll suggest that we do something away from the crowd for a short time to help me refocus. He’s also come to accept that when I say I need to leave a social situation, I’ve truly stuck it out as long as I can, and staying longer is going to cost me more than it’s worth.

I probably sound like a social tyrant. Maybe I am. I’m certainly not an average wife who thrives on entertaining and socializing. But I’ve learned that being realistic about my limits–and pushing at them where I can–is less destructive to our relationship than overreaching and ending up in tears.

Aspies need plenty of time alone. It doesn’t mean that we’re disinterested, selfish, cold or insensitive. (Creative Commons 2.0 (by-nc-sa))

 Compromise

Good advice for any marriage, but especially important when one partner has Asperger’s Syndrome. You may find that some of the compromises you make are unconventional. For example, The Scientist and I have realized that we need to compromise about which social occasions I attend. He gets invited to a lot of work-related dinners, cocktail hours, award ceremonies, etc. We’ve concluded–after much arguing, discussing and agonizing–that it’s unrealistic to expect that I’ll attend every event (his preference) or none of them (my preference).

Our compromise is that I’ll attend the important events and he’ll go to the less important events alone.  This means that I’m going to be uncomfortable some of the time (talking to strangers–oh no!) and he’s going to be uncomfortable at times (making excuses for my absence). Like most compromises, no one is completely happy with this arrangement, but it’s the least bad option.

Compromising can be a hard skill for aspies to master. I’ve found that it helps to take a cost-benefit approach. What is doing this for my partner going to cost me? What would not doing it cost him? What are the potential benefits–for him, for me, for our relationship?

For social occasions, the biggest costs are usually the anxiety in the days leading up to the event and the physical exhaustion I’ll feel afterwards. The benefits tend to be a happy husband and some enjoyable moments of social interaction. By listing the costs and benefits as concretely as possible, it’s easier for me to find places where I can compromise rather than reflexively rejecting every social invitation as being too much work.

Identify triggers and try to work around them

Triggers may seem odd or even incomprehensible to the NT partner. Case in point: I don’t like having the bathroom fan on while I shower. The drone of the fan and the feel of moving air on my wet skin are unpleasant sensations. Complicating matters, the shower light and bathroom fan are on the same switch so to avoid the fan I have to shower in semi-darkness. The Scientist thinks this is silly. He rolls his eyes when I flip the switch off. He says I’ll get used to it. He points out that the fan is on the other side of the bathroom. He understands a lot of my quirks but not this one.

All aspies have triggers–experiences that elicit a stress response. Some people have many and others just a few. Triggers can be environmental/sensory (sounds, smells), social (crowds, public speaking), or situational (new places, unexpected changes). Some triggers, like the bathroom fan, are mild. They cause discomfort or low level anxiety, but we can live with them if we have to. Others are more severe, leading to angry outbursts, crying jags or mute withdrawal.

If the aspie partner has clearly identified and communicated her triggers, the NT partner needs to do his best to respect them and make accommodations if necessary. Sometimes an accommodation is as simple as not explaining yet again why something would be fine if only the aspie would give it a try. Other accommodations can be more stressful on a relationship. If the aspie partner can only get a good night’s sleep by sleeping alone or she finds grocery stores intolerable, both partners need to be open and honest about what kind of accommodations are feasible.

Communicate

You’ll find this advice at the top of most “secrets to a happy marriage” lists. The thing about being married to an aspie is that we have serious communication deficits. The NT partner may think he is communicating but most of what he’s saying doesn’t seem to be getting through. NTs communicate in subtle ways that aspies find difficult to interpret.

Here’s a typical example: One day I was making lunch and the following exchange took place:

Me: “I found this great new recipe for chorizo and grits. Do you want to try some?”
The Scientist: “That’s okay. I’m not very hungry.”

I was a little hurt that he didn’t want to try the new recipe I was obviously so excited about but I went ahead and made enough for myself. Thinking he might like to taste it, I offered him a bite.

The Scientist: “Wow, that’s great. Is that all you made?”
Me: “Yeah. You said you didn’t want any.”
The Scientist: “But I hoped you’d make me some anyhow.”
Me: “I asked you if you wanted some and you said you weren’t hungry.”
The Scientist:  “I didn’t want to make extra work and I wasn’t sure if you had enough for both of us.”

I was stunned. It would have been no extra work to double the portion and I had plenty of ingredients. Why hadn’t he just said “yes” when I asked if he wanted some? Apparently I was supposed to know that his “no” meant “yes.” Apparently this is what “good wives” do. We both felt bad afterwards–he felt like I was being selfish by cooking only for myself and I felt like I’d been tested and failed.

Keep in mind that we’ve been married for twenty-five years and know each very well. Yet, this still happens now and then.

Aspies need explicit communication. Forget about dropping hints. Forget about body language and inferences. We need to be told exactly what our NT partner wants, needs, or expects. And we may need to be told more than once, in slightly different ways, until we get it.

In part 4:  love and acceptance, aspie style

Lessons from an Aspergers-NT Marriage (Part 2)

This is the 2nd part of a 4 part series about the lessons my husband (NT) and I (aspie) have learned during the 25 years we’ve been married.

——

Accept that aspies have good days and bad days.

I try hard to keep some of my more annoying aspie traits under control, but there are times when symptoms that I thought I had a handle on suddenly resurface or worsen. This tends to happen when I’m stressed or anxious.

A few weeks ago, an unplanned four-hour wait at the DMV triggered a bout of perseverative thinking. Even though I was aware of it, it was difficult to stop going over and over the situation in my head and, worse, out loud. It wasn’t like I wanted to keep recalculating our potential wait time based on the rate of customers being served times the number of people ahead of us factoring in the bizarre DMV numbering system that involved six different letter prefixes plus the periodic return to the queue of skipped numbers. It wasn’t that I was enjoying obsessing over each clerk who disappeared on break, thereby lengthening our wait time, or repeatedly pointing out how arbitrary the list of required identity documents was. I just couldn’t stop myself from doing it, even though I was aware of what was happening and aware of how my perseveration was making a stressful situation worse for both of us.

Anxiety or sensory overload can aggravate a wide variety of Asperger’s symptoms. When I’m stressed I find that I’m more clumsy, less open to being touched, more rigid in my thinking, less willing to deviate from routine, more vulnerable to perseverate thinking, more prone to tunnel vision, and more likely to struggle with auditory processing. Symptoms that don’t normally interfere with my functioning can become a big obstacle. I know it’s frustrating for my husband to find himself in a stressful situation and then have to deal with an outbreak of my aspie traits on top of everything else. These are the moments that really test our marriage and I’m still working on finding ways to make them less awful for both of us.

Try to balance the aspie partner’s touch sensitivities with the NT partner’s need for physical affection

Touching, one of the most important and fundamental aspects of an intimate relationship, can be uncomfortable for people with Asperger’s. Although I’ve made a lot of progress in this area, there are still times when I shrink away from being touched.

Certain types of touching in particular–light touches and those that come at unexpected times–are more likely to be uncomfortable. When I’m intensely engaged in an activity, being touched often registers as an unwanted distraction rather than spontaneous affection. I’m also more likely to pull away from touch when I’m stressed or anxious.

Then there are the times when my brain is so busy trying to figure out where a certain type of touch is headed that it’s hard to simply relax and enjoy the moment. Because aspies don’t get many of the nonverbal cues involved in intimate relationships, we rely heavily on the intellectual side of our brains to process how an intimate moment is going to proceed. Yeah, that’s about as romantic as it sounds.

All of this can be very hard on an NT partner who naturally craves physical affection. Although it’s hard to change how I feel about being touched at the “wrong” time, I try to compensate by initiating physical contact that I’m comfortable with at a time that’s good for me.

Author Liane Holliday Willey once took a lot of heat for including holding her husband’s hand five times a day on her “to-do” list. Putting handholding on a to-do list may sound cold and mechanical but that doesn’t mean that the action itself has to be mechanical. Since I’ve begun consciously looking for opportunities to initiate small touches during the day, I find that being physically affectionate has become more of a natural instinct for me and that feels good.

Accept that the NT partner may need to compensate for the aspie partner’s social skills deficits at times.

No matter how hard I work at improving my social skills, I still regularly miss nonverbal cues, resulting in everything from confused looks and awkward pauses to downright hostility from other people.

Here’s a recent example from when The Scientist and I met with a saleswoman about a new apartment:

Saleswoman to The Scientist  (who she’d met previously): “It’s good to see you again.”
The Scientist : “It’s good to see you, too.”
Saleswoman to me: “I’m Linda. It’s nice to meet you. Have a seat.”
Me (shaking her offered hand then sitting down): “Thanks, it’s nice to meet you too.”
{awkward pause}
The Scientist : “Oh, Linda, I don’t think you met my wife.”

I had no idea what was causing the awkward pause until The Scientist jumped in and offered my name to the saleswoman. What threw me was this: The Scientist had already met Linda and didn’t introduce himself. I must have been subconsciously modeling his behavior so I didn’t introduce myself either.

This sounds like a minor hiccup in the conversation but it happens frequently and it unsettles people. As an aspie–and an adult–it can be hard to accept that you need this type of help from your partner. Again, get over it. We all have skills that come naturally and social skills aren’t on the list of natural talents for aspies.

This is an area where practice can help. If the NT partner is willing, you can try roleplaying or talking through how unfamiliar events might play out. However, both partners need to understand that while aspies can work at improving social skills, it’s unlikely that they’ll achieve the sort of social proficiency that comes naturally to NTs.

Having to frequently repair social errors is hard on the NT partner and will probably continue to be an issue throughout your partnership. Acceptance can go a long way in situations where change is slow and inconsistent.

—–

In part 3: Compromise, communication aspie-style and understanding triggers

Writing is Communication Too

If you get a group of writers together, on the internet or in a workshop, someone will eventually ask the ultimate navel-gazing question: why do we write?

My stock answer–the one that’s easiest to explain and makes me look least weird–is that I write because I enjoy it. There’s nothing like the rush of chasing an idea, my fingers flying across the keyboard, barely able to keep pace with my thoughts. There’s no other activity I can get so completely lost in.

That answer saves me from having to reveal this: I write to set the words in my head free.

My brain latches onto interesting ideas in a way that makes it hard to stop thinking about them. Once something grabs my attention, my mind will turn it around and around, shaping and growing it like a vase on a potter’s wheel. Writing the idea down stops the rapid spinning of the wheel and leaves me with the equivalent of a finished vase I can share with other people instead of a hard lump of clay sitting in my brain.

Shaping an idea in my head feels like this:

Ultimately, I write because I need to. I communicate better through written words than spoken words. When I write, I can take as much time as I like to shape my thoughts into a coherent whole. I can get feedback from others to check for clarity. I can let an idea breathe and grow over days or weeks.

The process is something like this: Write. Revise. Reconsider. Delete. Edit. Clarify. Rethink. Shape. Walk away. Come back. Write more. Think more. Print it. Read it. Share it. Revise, revise, revise. Done. Mmm, maybe just change that word. Or this one. Okay, really done. Yeah? Yeah.

Doing this in a spoken conversation is impossible. There’s no delete button for spoken words. Revising, in the form of explanations and clarifications, is rarely successful. Once you say something, it’s out there in a way that is, ironically, indelible.

Communication Deficit or Communication Difference

So do I have a communication deficit? (one of the core diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s)

That may depend on how we define communication. You could argue that writing is a one-way process. I carefully shape my idea and put it out there, feeling quite content with how it looks and feels, and then I go on my merry way, chasing another bright shiny idea.

It’s all very neat and tidy. It’s also very autistic. What could be more characteristic of an aspie than a one-way information dump followed by a determined retreat back inside my head to ponder the mysteries of the universe, or at least the mystery of why someone keeps leaving sandwiches on the sidewalk of one particular street where I walk my dog?

But, short of a mind meld, writing is my best shot at sharing what I want to say. I could talk all day and not get across half of what I can communicate in writing. Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve shared things with my family–in writing–that we’ve never talked about. Big important things and little niggling things, all of them left unspoken, sometimes for many years.

The result has been anything but one-way. Sharing my thoughts in writing creates an opening for others to start conversations, to ask questions, to offer insights and to share their own thoughts. This is communication–deep, fulfilling, nontraditional communication–in a way that I’ve rarely experienced.

It feels so good to share something with my husband and see a light of understanding in his eyes. It’s done wonders for our relationship to revisit past hurts and misunderstandings in a fresh light. There’s a new level of understanding opening up and I think it’s because I’m finally able to communicate, really communicate, how I experience and process the world around me.

I’ve also discovered that writing is a way to communicate with myself. The process of exploring Asperger’s is helping me integrate disparate parts of myself into a whole. It’s creating a map of my inner landscape in a way that is profoundly healing and empowering.

Perhaps this is what I meant when I said I write because I need to. Writing connects me to those around me, and it connects me to myself.

Once a Writer, Always a Writer

This is one the first things I ever wrote, when I was seven. I remember hearing my mother telling parts of this election day story to someone and deciding that I wanted to make it into a book. I still have it, in all its stained, stapled glory, and thought it would be fun to share.

If you look closely enough at these pages, you’ll see my aspie traits shining through. Note the atrocious handwriting.
Aspie trait #2: oddly advanced vocabulary and syntax for a 7-year-old (quite puzzled, indeed)
I have a feeling a lot of this writing is actually echolalia (the repetition of another person’s words, which is common to kids with ASD) and I was mimicking my mother’s telling of the story to another adult.
More aspie traits: a pedantic approach to social situations and a rigid adherence to the rules (going out the “in” door! *gasp*). I was also a pretty funny little kid, no?

Lessons from an Aspergers-NT Marriage (Part 1)

Being married to someone with Asperger’s Syndrome is challenging.

Okay, that’s an understatement. Some people might go so far as to say it’s impossible. A quick internet search on ‘Asperger’s marriage’ will turn up plenty of horror stories.

Being married to an aspie is hard work. There are times when the neurotypical partner may feel more like a caregiver than a spouse, especially if the aspie partner’s symptoms are severe.

But if you’re in an Aspergers-neurotypical marriage, you didn’t get there by accident. You’ve made a deliberate choice to share your life in what is essentially a cross-cultural partnership. Like any cross-cultural exchange, an aspie-NT marriage can be a rewarding experience or a nightmare.

There isn’t a lot of self-help literature available for those of us in aspie-NT marriages, especially for aspie women married to NT men (the reverse combination is far more common). Beyond the usual factors that determine the success of a marriage, there are a few unique areas that can make or break an aspie-NT marriage:

  • How severe the aspie partner’s symptoms are
  • How socially skilled the NT partner is
  • How willing both partners are to work on the areas they can improve and accept the ones they can’t

As a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome who’s been married to a neurotypical partner for 25 years, I feel like I’ve lucked out in all three areas. I’m at the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum and my husband, The Scientist (as he’ll henceforth be known here), has solid social skills. Most importantly, we’ve become very good at both adaptation and acceptance.

It hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes it’s been damn near impossible. More than once we’ve considered whether we might be better off apart than together. But we’ve also found some surprising benefits to our aspie-NT partnership. Hopefully some of what we’ve learned will be helpful to other couples that have taken on the challenge of making an Aspergers-NT marriage work.

(By WordRidden via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License.)

In no particular order, here are 12 lessons that we’ve learned (often the hard way):

Divide up household and family responsibilities according to each partner’s strengths.

I have a good sense of my strengths and weaknesses. I’m good with organizing and scheduling. I suck at ironing. I have the patience to help with homework and sit through two-hour soccer practices. I should never be allowed to handle power tools. I enjoy the research involved in managing the household finances. The thought of calling up a neighbor to confirm that we’ll be attending a party causes me to procrastinate for days and need a nap afterward.

If you’re lucky, you have a partner with some different strengths and weaknesses than your own. Dividing up the household responsibilities accordingly makes life easier on both partners and addresses one of the biggest potential pitfalls in an aspie-NT relationship: the tendency for the NT partner to feel like a caregiver rather than a spouse or a lover. If the aspie partner has some clearly designated responsibilities at which she excels, delegating her weak areas to her partner can feel less like a failing.

Successful partnerships are built on a rational division of labor and a marriage is no different.

Apologize when you do something that your partner finds hurtful.

This is true for both partners, but especially for the aspie partner. There are times when it’s hard for aspies to see why something is hurtful. Get over it. It doesn’t matter if what you said or did was unintentional. It doesn’t matter if you meant well. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s silly or meaningless. Just apologize.

I know this can be difficult. My first instinct is often to say, “but that’s not what I meant” or “what’s the big deal?” This is a bad idea. If your partner is hurt by your words or actions, then it is a big deal. Ideally, your NT partner will be able to calmly identify what you did and how that made him feel: “I feel hurt when you point out in front of other people that I wasn’t paying attention to the conversation.”  And then you can just as calmly consider his point of view and apologize: “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that would bother you. I’ll try not to do it in the future.”

Obviously, having this conversation calmly and lovingly can be a hard place to get to. For a long time, my husband thought I had a mean streak. After learning more about Asperger’s, he began to understand that my AS wiring is responsible for a lot of the dumb stuff that comes out of my mouth. Now he tries to calmly point out when I’m being insensitive.

We’ve both realized that even when he tells me that something bothers him, I may still do that something again in the future. I’ll try not to, but there’s no guarantee because Asperger’s makes it hard to generalize from one situation to the next. There’s a good chance I’ll say something similar without realizing it’s hurtful, because in my mind it’s not the exact same thing. It takes a leap of faith for the NT partner to give the aspie the benefit of the doubt when this happens, but this kind of trust may be one of the things that saves your marriage in the end.

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In part 2: bad days, social skill deficits and touch sensitivity