The Challenge of Relationships In Adulthood and Asperger’s

© Ms. A.J. Mahari September 2004

Relationships present many different challenges to adult with Asperger’s Syndrome and the Neuro-Typicals (NT’s) who are in relationships with them.

Why? Well, in my experience, the biggest challenge is how to manage trying to focus on and attend to two things at once. Given that I have a narrow focus of interest that I have always pursued in a rather solitary way it feels interrupted when I have to go back and forth between that focus and the focus and attention and shared time that a relationship (or friendship) requires.

This is similar to someone who lacks strong interpersonal boundaries. There is a tendency, with Asperger’s to have a very limited and fairly egocentric focus. The pitfalls I’ve encountered that are challenging me currently have all to do with putting my “narrow focus” on my partner, thus, not attending to what it is I like to do and feel compelled to do.

If one does not achieve a balance between the way that one relates to the world due to having an form of autism and learn to flow somewhat with the reality of an NT partner a relationship gets bogged down in layers and layers of conflict.

I wish I had a magical formula or answer here, but, the truth is I am just working my way through this as I go. It is stressful and at times very frustrating. It is further complicated by the rather limited understanding that most NT have about autism or Asperger’s.

Relationships take a lot of work notwithstanding one partner having Asperger’s. The sophisticated relational skills required, along with certain more developed social skills make relationships challenging for adults with Asperger’s, particularly if diagnosed with it in adulthood.

For some children, today, diagnosed at younger ages there is much more intervention and much more teaching of compensatory behaviour.

For those of us diagnosed as adults, however, we have entrenched patterns of relating that are difficult to challenge and that have come to represent safety and security. Those diagnosed with Asperger's in adulthood, due to a lack of resources are left on their own to fend for themselves and must initiate their own compensatory strategies.

Having Asperger’s Syndrome and being in a relationship with a non- autistic partner requires a real dedication to dealing with very stressful dynamics and a willingness to learn what one can from their NT partner.

Having Asperger’s, or any form of Autism, is not wrong. It is not like we have to change all of who we are, all of how we relate or all of what it is that we value. However, that said, concessions do have to be made as they are possible. Sometimes, where change is not possible or well understood in a social/relational context for the adult with Asperger’s the onus falls upon the NT partner. This can leave the non-autistic person very frustrated, feeling at times that they are more of a parent to their significant other than an equal adult partner.

The non-autistic partner needs to educate themselves about Asperger’s and learn to recognize and flow with some of what may be lacking in their partner. Learning to do your own things, independently, at times, can make all the difference in the world.

This allows the Asperger partner to feel a greater sense of comfort in his/her routines which meets many needs in and of themselves and also allows the NT partner to pursue the kind of socialization that most with Asperger’s don’t share an understanding of or desire for.

According to Tom Berney, who is a consultant in developmental psychiatry with the Northgate & Prudhoe NHS Trust (Prudhoe Hospital, Prudhoe, Northumberland, in his article, Asperger syndrome from childhood into adulthood “…the syndrome distorts relationships with family and peers, who can be infuriated by the person’s self-centred insensitivity, obsessiveness and rigid inflexibility. All this can add secondary disability and result in a degree of dependency that is out of proportion to the person’s intellectual ability.”

This can leave the NT partner feeling as if the person with Asperger’s is not taking enough adult responsibility for relating and for being involved in decision-making – whether those decisions are major life decisions or just what to have for dinner or watch on television or do on a given day.

Berney also states that, “Asperger syndrome in adults presents with particular, and often subtle, difficulties, especially in communication, social relationships and interests.”

Where communication is concerned often the NT partner will experience the Aspie’s communication as one-sided impassive circumstantial lecturing in a mechanical voice, lacking emotion which can lead them to think that the Aspie doesn’t care. This is not the case. Often, when I am perceived this way, I care very deeply but I have no other way to express myself in this relational context.

In the aspect of the social dynamic of an adult intimate relationship, reciprocity can be difficult to understand and comprehend. Therefore, I tend to think that things are more one-sided leaning my partner’s way. This is often not a very accurate impression on my part.

Often there are great efforts made at reciprocity and mutuality by my partner who then describes me as not meeting her there. When asked questions to try to facilitate conversation with me she is met with a series of “I don’t know”, or vague language such as “stuff”, or “not much” where non-autistic people would respond to the invitation to share and would share more in a more forthcoming straightforward way.

Non-autistics, I’ve come to learn, really like to share a whole lot about their interests. Their interests are shared in ways that I really don’t understand or quite know how to do exactly. For me, as an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome, I am used to pursuing what I’ve come to learn are rather narrowly-focused activities and interests in solitude.

Trying to learn more about sharing other interests with my partner and not by myself is still quite a challenge that I am still working to grow into. She is learning to understand and even appreciate my differences as I try to express things about what I am interested in. Instead of always being sources for contention and conflict we are beginning to appreciate our differences in endearing ways that allow us to join together and to respect each other whether or not we always understand.

If you are a NT or non-autistic person in a relationship with someone with Asperger’s, you need to know that no two Aspies are alike. We are all different.

The degree to which we can cross the bridge to understanding your world varies greatly.

With patience and understanding, however, bridges can be built. Two people, one with Asperger’s and one without, for example, as is the case in my relationship, can learn what it is each other values, and how each other relates, what stresses each other and what calms or comforts each other.

When these gaps are bridged, there are often more and more times when the Aspie/NT juxtaposition doesn’t seem so huge or important. Love really does build bridges and teach patience and understanding on both sides of the Autistic fence.

The Aspie/NT relationship has its challenges for sure. All relationships do have challenges of one kind or another. If you are in a relationship with an Aspie and are non-autistic, or if you are an Aspie in a relationship with a NT, give yourselves time to come to understand your differences in ways that do not involve conflict and thinking that one way or the other is the “right” way.

There is not “right” way. What Aspies do is “right” for them and what NT’s do is “right” for them. It comes down to being willing to let love lead you. Love and positive regard in the difficult times makes it possible for many of these mixed relationships to find their way to flourishing.

© Ms. A.J. Mahari September 2004

Next Article: Asperger’s Syndrome, Disability or Different Ability?

as of February 10, 2005