Tag Archives: sensory overload

What I learned While Running, Swimming and Biking 293 Miles in 8 Weeks

When I decided to sign up for a triathlon back in June, my baseline goal was simply to finish. The distances all looked doable and I figured that as long as I didn’t get hurt, finishing the race was just a matter of pacing myself well.

What I hadn’t counted on was 2-3 foot waves during the swim. On triathlon day, there was a storm blowing in, which created swim conditions that were worse than my imagined worst case scenario. Worse than anything I had practiced in. Worse even than I thought the race organizers would allow us to swim in.

As a “first timer” I was in the last group of swimmers to start. That meant I got to stand on the beach and watch as dozens of swimmers–all experienced triathloners–signaled the lifeguards to be pulled out of the water and paddled into the shallows on one of the rescue surfboards.

Suddenly just finishing didn’t look like such a sure thing. As they say, “man plans and God laughs.”

I'm the scared looking one in the blue shirt.
I’m the scared looking one in the blue shirt.

Continue reading What I learned While Running, Swimming and Biking 293 Miles in 8 Weeks

Backstopping: Supporting the Autistic Person in Your Life

The Scientist and I moved cross-country a few years ago. We made the drive In four days and by the middle of the fourth day I was on the verge of shutdown. It was way past lunch time, we were out of snacks and we were driving through Middle of Nowhere, West Virginia.

When we finally came upon a place to eat it was a McDonald’s. Just the thought of eating fast food made me feel nauseous. I said I would walk the dog around while The Scientist went inside to order. When he asked what I wanted, I said “Nothing.” By the time he came out with a big bag of food, I was sitting on the curb by the car with my head on my knees, wishing I could teleport myself the final four hundred miles to our new home.

The Scientist sat down to me and said,”I got you something.”

Even though I was so hungry that I was light-headed, I couldn’t imagine being able to eat a burger or fries.

“I don’t want anything,” I said.

Undeterred, he reached in the bag and took out a container of oatmeal. When he opened it, I saw it was topped with fresh blueberries. He’d found the one thing on McDonald’s menu that wouldn’t totally repel me. I was so happy, I nearly cried.

What’s the point of this rather boring and uneventful story? It was the first memorable instance of something I’ve come to think of as backstopping.  Continue reading Backstopping: Supporting the Autistic Person in Your Life

The Difference Between a Sensory Sensitivity and Disliking Something

This is part 2 in a series about sensory sensitivities and atypical sensory processing. Read the other parts:    Part 1  |  Part 3  | Part 4


I don’t like pistachios.

I have a sensory sensitivity to bright lights in a dark room.

What’s the difference between the two? I can eat pistachios if I have to. I won’t enjoy it, but if I happened to be served something that had some pistachios on or in it, I could eat it without having a negative biological reaction.

On the other hand, I can’t watch TV or look at a computer monitor in a dark room. The brightness of the screen is painful and my instinctive reaction is to look away or close my eyes. If The Scientist and I are watching TV at night, I need a small amount of ambient light to reduce the contrast between the television screen and the darkened room. Without it, I’ll squint at the screen and quickly develop a headache.

I know this because, like the t-shirt incident, I’ve tried to acclimate myself to watching TV in the dark.

I can see how someone who doesn’t know that I have sensory sensitivities might assume that I dislike watching TV in the dark in the same way that I dislike pistachios. If you’ve never experienced sensory sensitivities, it can be hard to believe that they’re real and that they have a biological component to them. But my body’s reaction to those two scenarios is very different.  Continue reading The Difference Between a Sensory Sensitivity and Disliking Something

Sensory Sensitivities and Atypical Sensory Processing

This is the first in a series of posts about autistic sensory processing and sensory sensitivities.  Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


I once had a t-shirt that I really wanted to like. It was a souvenir from a trip to Hawaii. The color, the material, the fit, the design–all perfect. It would have been my favorite new shirt, except for one thing.

It had a tiny thread in the collar that scratched my neck. A thread so small that I couldn’t see it. I’d cut out the offending tag and all of the visible stitching holding the tag in place, but that one little thread refused to go.

So I decided that I was going to get used to it. I was going to pretend that evil remnant of plastic thread didn’t exist. If it was too small to see, surely I could ignore it.

I tried. I really did.

I put the shirt into my summer t-shirt rotation and wore it at least once a week. The material got softer with each washing, which only made me want to love it more. It was one of the most comfortable shirts I owned. It would have been that most elusive of things–the perfect shirt–except for that microscopic thread.

I developed seriously mixed feelings about the shirt. I was determined not to let the thread win. It became A Thing. Some days I would wear it all day, doggedly ignoring how the thread jabbed at the back of my neck when I moved this way or that way. Other days I’d only make it to early afternoon before tossing the shirt in the laundry and changing–with a sigh of relief–into a more comfortable shirt. One with the tag cut cleanly out.

This went on for years. I wore the shirt in spite of how it made my neck itch and burn, in spite of the way it made me unconsciously pull at my collar all day long. I wore it right up until the day I admitted to myself that I was never going to get used to that thread. Putting my Hawaii shirt in the donation bag felt like a defeat. A thread–so small it was invisible–had gotten the better of me.  Continue reading Sensory Sensitivities and Atypical Sensory Processing

Survey: Sensory Sensitivities and Work/School Strategies

The response to the relationship survey last week was fantastic! People continued adding answers all week, so you might want to pop back there and read the latest responses if you haven’t.

This week we have 8 questions about sensory sensitivities and 6 about work/school. You can answer here in the comments or anonymously at Survey Monkey. I’ll bring the Survey Monkey answers over and paste them as comments.

A reminder: this is open to all those who identify as on the spectrum (professionally diagnosed, self-diagnosed  and suspected aspies/autistics/people with autism). Answer as many or as few questions as you choose. Tell us about yourself. Have fun!

I’m so excited by how many answers each person got to their question last week. Y’all are awesome. On to the questions . . .

Survey Monkey has a 10 question limit per survey so I had to make 2: sensory sensitivities and work/school strategies.

Sensory Sensitivities

  1. Does anyone else in the adult autistic blog-munity have issues with temperature sensitivity? If you have issues with heat, how do you cope with summer weather? With the effects of exercise? more details here

  1. For those who have hyper-sensitivity to light and sound: How do you cope when you find yourself starting to get overwhelmed, but can’t leave immediately? How do you recognize when you’re starting to hit that point of sensory overload? How do you deal with the aftereffects of the overload – and what aftereffects do you notice? How long can it take to deal with the aftereffects? more details here

  1. What texture sensitivities do you have? What specific textures are bad? How does your body react to them? more details here

  1. Bras. Do you also find them very stressful to wear? If so, have you come up with a solution to that?

  1. Shoes. Do you have difficulty finding comfortable shoes? What is your preferred choice of footwear?

  1. Does anyone else find showers almost physically painful?

  1. About sensory issues, how did you react to a overload and did you know at first why you reacted this way? Or was it simply a reaction without really know why you were annoyed/angry/overreacting?

  1. How many of us here find earplugs and Mp3 player to be important when going out? Does the stress level go up when you can’t have it on when being stuck in crowed or noisy places?


  1. What kind of job would be right for your own ‘brand’ of autism?

  1. If you work, how do you cope with your errors in understanding they way that most humans think and behave, not just non-verbal language, but office politics and similar inexplicable behaviours?

  1. I get very anxious about interviews – what strategies do you have to cope with these?

  1. How do you deal with being bullied at work? (or anywhere else)

  1. How do you get a job if you can’t use the telephone?
  1. Have you ever asked for accommodations at work or school? How did it go?

The Importance of the Pasta on the Left

I was in the cereal aisle in Target, waiting for The Scientist to decide on his cereal purchase, when I overheard this exchange between a mother and her preteen son:

Mother: “James, come and let’s pick out some cereal.”

James (appears from around the corner): “But I haven’t finished looking at all the pasta. I looked at the pasta on the right but I didn’t look at the pasta on the left.”

Mother: “We need to pick out your cereal.”

James (sounding panicked, voice rapidly rising into hysteria): “But I need to look at all the pasta! I haven’t looked at the pasta on the left. I need–“

Mother: “Okay, you can finish looking at the pasta if you promise to come right back here when you’re done and pick out your cereal.”

James: “I promise.” (dashes off around the corner then returns a minute later)

Mother: “Are you done?”

James: (looking happy) “Uh-huh.”

If you’re autistic or you have an autistic child, I bet you know why this conversation made me smile.

James’s mother didn’t say, “You don’t need to look at all the pasta.”

She didn’t say, “That’s ridiculous.”

Or, “You can look at the pasta later (or next time).”

Or, “Stop whining or we’re leaving.”

Or, “Grow up and act your age.” (James was around 10 or 11, I think.)

Or, “Get over here and pick out a box of cereal or I’m taking away your video games for the rest of the day.”

The pasta aisle is a thing of beauty, with it's boxes and bags all lined up by color and size.
The pasta aisle is a thing of beauty, with its boxes and bags all lined up by color and size.

Though she may not understand why James needs to look at all of the pasta when he visits Target, she recognized that preventing him from doing it would result in a meltdown in aisle 13.

And look at the results: The situation was rapidly de-escalated. James was happy. He came back and picked out his cereal as promised, without any prompting. His mother had to wait for him, but an extra minute standing in the cereal aisle beats the hell out of trying to calm a kid having a meltdown in the cereal aisle.

Meet Us Where We Are

There is a lot of talk about how autistic kids (and adults) need to learn flexibility. We’re too rigid, have too many nonfunctional routines. There are elaborate systems for teaching flexible thinking (which is important, I get that). But maybe non-autistic people need to be more flexible, too.

For kids like James, Target is stressful. The noise, the lights, the people, the smells–any or all of these can be overwhelming to autistic individuals. (And yes, based on what I saw I’m assuming–perhaps wrongly, but I doubt it–that he’s on the spectrum.)

If looking at the pasta makes a kid feel better, is that a big deal?

For some parents it might be. Let’s face it–a kid who needs to not only look at the pasta, but to be sure he’s looked at all of it? A little weird. But so what? We all have our coping mechanisms and James has found a way to cope with the stress of Target.

And his mother, bless her, she seemed to get this. She doesn’t look concerned about people judging her for letting her son “have his way.” She doesn’t belittle or shame him for what is, in his mind, a very real need. She doesn’t complain that he’s wasting their time or being uncooperative.

Her response left me wondering how long it took them to get to this point. Because not only did James interrupt his study of the pasta aisle to come when she called him, he returned the second time and picked out his cereal without being prompted. For a kid with such an intense need to study the pasta aisle, this is huge. Huge.

In this one small exchange, he’s learning how to negotiate, how to compromise, how to satisfy his needs while being conscious of his responsibilities, how to keep a promise, how to regulate anxiety and/or sensory overload using coping mechanisms.

Yes, autistics can be rigid. Yes, we have some odd routines or habits. Sometimes this has to be addressed. If James needed to spend an hour studying the pasta aisle, then yeah, big problem.

But a few minutes in the pasta aisle, accepting that the pasta on the left is important, even critical, to this particular kid–that doesn’t have to be a problem at all.

When you have an autistic family member or friend, you’re going to run into situations that you find hard to understand. There will be times when we’re not where you think we should be or where you wish we were.

When this happens, try practicing a little flexibility. Meet us where we are. You might be surprised at the results.

Anatomy of a Meltdown

Last weekend, I had a meltdown and the next morning I tried to capture some scattered impressions of it to share. I’ve purposely left this raw and unedited, the way it unspooled in my head, to give you a feel for how chaotic a meltdown can be. While meltdowns are different for everyone, this is how I experience them.


A meltdown can go one of two ways: explosion | implosion.


Everything flies outward. Words. Fists. Objects.


Have you ever seen a building implode? The charges go off somewhere deep inside and for a moment you swear nothing is going to happen and then seconds later–rubble and dust and a big gaping hole in the ground.


It feels like a rubber band pulled to the snapping point.


What I don’t want to hear:

It’s okay.
(It’s not.)
You need to pull yourself together.
(I will, when I’m ready.)
Everything will be fine.
(I know.)


I’m not looking at you because I don’t want to see you seeing me this way.


It feels like the end of the world. It feels like nothing will ever be right again.


What I need:

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Absence of judgment


The headbanging impulse is intermittent but strong. I stave it off as best I can because:
a) my brain is not an infinitely renewable resource
b) headbanging scares other people


Meltdowns are necessary. Cleansing. An emotional purge. A neurological reboot.


Please don’t ask me if I want to talk about it, because:
a) there’s nothing to talk about
b) I don’t have the resources necessary for talking



Evolution of meltdowns over a lifetime:

For my first 12 years, I internalize well. So well that I end up in doctor’s offices and emergency rooms with mysterious headaches, high fevers, stiff necks and stomach bugs. At various times I’m told that I don’t have meningitis, migraines, appendicitis. What I do have . . . that’s never conclusively decided. Things come and go, seemingly without rhyme or reason.

Puberty hits. Hormone surges make internalizing impossible. I slam doors, sob uncontrollably at the slightest provocation, storm out of the house, crank up my stereo. My anger becomes explosive. I pinball between implosions and explosions.

Early twenties, into my thirties, the explosions become rare but the implosions grow worse. I can’t get through an emotionally charged conversation with my husband–let alone a fight–without imploding. The headbanging impulse appears. Muteness takes center stage.

My forties–I can count the explosions on one hand. The implosions are down to a couple a year at most. As the meltdowns have lessened, the shutdowns have increased. This is lateral movement, not progress.


It feels like my whole body is thrumming, humming, singing, quivering. A rail just before the train arrives. A plucked string. A live wire throwing off electricity, charging the night air.


I’m 90% successful at staving off headbanging. The thing is: when that impulse arises, headbanging feels good. It’s . . . fulfilling?


Will comforting me help?
Do I want the meltdown to be over?
Yes, but not prematurely.
Would I like a hug?
Am I in danger?
No. I’m conscious of the boundary between stimming and serious self-harm.
Do I want company?
If you’re okay with sitting silently beside me.
Can you do anything to make me feel better?
Probably not. But you can avoid doing the things that will make it worse.


Muteness: Complex speech feels impossible. There is an intense pressure in my head, suppressing the initiation of speech, suppressing the formation of language.


My meltdowns aren’t so much about triggers as thresholds. There is a tipping point. A mental red zone. Once I cross into that zone, there’s no going back.


It feels like dropping a watermelon on the pavement on a hot summer day. The bobble, the slip, the momentary suspension of time just before the hard rind ruptures and spills its fruit, sad and messy, suddenly unpalatable. And no one knows whether to clean it up or just walk around it.


A shutdown is a meltdown that never reached threshold level. Either my threshold is rising or I’m becoming less sensitive to the precursors as I age.


Meltdowns are embarrassing. A total loss of control. Humiliating. They make me feel like a child. They are raw, unfiltered exposure.


Panic. Helplessness. Fear.


Imagine running as far as you can, as fast as you can. When you stop, that feeling–the utter relief, the exhaustion, the desperate need for air, the way you gulp it in, your whole body focused on expanding and contracting your lungs–that’s what crying feels like during a meltdown.


Please don’t touch me. Don’t try to pick me up, move me, or get me to change position. Whatever position I’ve ended up in is one that’s making me feel safe. If it makes you uncomfortable to see me curled up in a ball on the floor, you should move–remove yourself from the situation.


There is emotion at the starting line, but a meltdown is a physical phenomenon: The racing heart. The shivering. The uncontrollable sobs. The urge to curl up and disappear. The headbanging. The need to hide. The craving for deep pressure. The feeling of paralysis in my tongue and throat. The cold sweat.


The physical cascade needs to run its course. Interrupt and it’ll just start all over again a few minutes later. Patience, patience.


What I need when I’m winding down:

  • deep pressure
  • quiet
  • understanding
  • to pretend it never happened


The recovery period is unstable.

Exhaustion comes first. Mixed with anger, at myself mostly, for losing control.

My filters don’t come back online right away. Unless you can handle an unfiltered aspie, proceed with caution.

Finally, there is euphoria. A wide open feeling of lightness, of soaring, of calm.


Tactile Defensiveness

Polly Flinders was the bane of my childhood. I hated her with a passion. Why? Because she made dresses like this that were all the rage for little girls in the seventies:

A classic Polly Flinders dress. I had one just like this, same color and all.
A classic Polly Flinders dress. I had one just like this, same color and all.

For a four-year-old with tactile defensiveness, that dress was an instrument of torture. I can still feel the exposed elastic biting into my upper arm, the scratchy lace prickling my skin, the rasp of the tag on the back of my neck, the smocking bunching up across my chest.

Thanks to Polly Flinders and her ilk, I was branded a tomboy early in life. Not because I didn’t like dresses, per se. The way clothing feels is ten times more important to me than how it looks and “boyish” clothes (jeans, plain cotton shirts) were more comfortable.

I still shop for clothing based on feel first and look second. Where a lot of women see exciting new outfits, I see this:

Thanks to my tactile sensitivities, I'm a defensive shopper when it comes to clothing.
Thanks to my tactile sensitivities, I’m a defensive shopper when it comes to clothing.

Clothes shopping is a matter of eliminating the things I know will be too uncomfortable then choosing what I like from the remaining options. If there are any.

When I do find something I like–and by like, I mean something that’s comfortable–I tend to buy it in multiples. I have a rainbow of v-neck t-shirts and long sleeve tees, all exactly the same brand, style, material and cut. Last weekend, I found a soft comfy sweater at Old Navy and bought it in three different colors.

When I like something, I’ll wear it until it literally falls apart. The few things I really love–my favorite pair of jeans, my softest t-shirt–I put on as soon as they come out of the wash. They rarely get hung up in the closet.

That isn’t to say that I live in tees and jeans. I have some dressier clothes that are comfortable. I try to dress both comfortably and appropriately for the situation. You’re just not going to find me greeting my husband at the door in pearls and heels like June Cleaver.  Continue reading Tactile Defensiveness

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))


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.


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