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Autism Spectrum Disorder in Marriage

Jack and Ashley enjoyed their roles in the Renaissance club at Texas Tech where they were students.  Jack memorized large portions of history for the historical drama and Ashley created costumes for the Fair festivities.  Their mutual love for the annual Renaissance Fair gave them plenty to talk about as their friendship grew.  Following the big Fair weekend, Jack and Ashley began dating.  Ashley appreciated Jack’s expansive knowledge and Jack was drawn to Ashley’s outgoing personality. 
Jack and Ashley married the following summer.  
Time passed and Ashley soon realized that Jack spent a great deal of his free time reading.  He rejected Ashley’s invitations to spend time with other couples.  Ashley wasn’t prepared for the loneliness and lack of intimacy she experienced with Jack. If she pushed him to talk or socialize, he would withdraw further or have an emotional meltdown.  In desperation, Ashley began to talk with other wives and a Christian counselor who suggested that Jack could have Autism Spectrum Disorder (formerly known as Aspergers Syndrome).   Ashley dove into research on Autism Spectrum Disorder and marriage and discovered Jack had many Autism tendencies.  Ashley began to feel a mixture of disappointment and compassion.  

Autism Spectrum Disorder in Marriage

If you find yourself in Ashley’s shoes, there’s hope.  Pick up your journal and jot down your reactions to the following facts and ideas:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurobiological condition on the autism spectrum. It is genetic and results from neurological factors that delay or prevent the developmental capabilities of many functional brain systems. 
  • Individuals with ASD experience focused, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.  For example, they may know everything there is to know about train schedules, airplanes, or baseball batting averages. 
  • ASD partners view the world with sensory intensity.  Noises, textures, lights or certain social trends may severely distract or mentally paralyze them.  
  • ASD partners often feel socially or emotionally disconnected from others.  They feel they are never an insider.  They miss social cues others naturally notice which leads them to embarrassment or outbursts of anger.  It takes enormous energy and focus for them to navigate social settings.  
  • ASD partners tend to see everything concretely.  They see things in black and white and may have clear moral beliefs and a strong sense of social justice.  
  • The ASD partner may be oblivious to the frustrated NT partner in the marriage.  The ASD is unaware that communication and romance could greatly improve through changes in behavior and routines

Problems in Marriages

Problems arise in all marriages, but marriages between ASD and neurotypical (NT) partners are particularly challenging.  A neurotypical person is one who relates or shows typical neurological behavior and development.  The following are essential elements for sustaining the NTs personal well-being:  
  • Support for NTs by other NTs. Support can come from people who are familiar with Autism.
  • Assistance in dealing with ASD spouses and children. Assistance can come from professionals or by counseling solely for the NT, assistance in the form of resources for the family and spouses regarding the legal, health, counseling needs of the entire family unit. 
  • Listening done by the religiousmedical, psychological, judicial and political communities. Listening to and believing the NT spouses’ experiences despite the AS individual appearing perfectly well-adjusted.
  • Validatioof what other NT spouses and partners have experienced, by sharing similar experiences, problems, and impacts. 
  • Educatioabout ASD and the impact on NTs. Education of NTs, and of health professionals, caregivers, counselors, judiciary and political community. (Help for NT spouses whose partner has high functioning autism at  http://www.faaas.org/assets/final-salve.pdf)

Strategies for Thriving in Marriage

What are some strategies for thriving, not just surviving, as an NT married to an ASD?  I suggest the following:
  • Develop intentional friendships within your community, church, club and/or neighborhood.   
  • Allow yourself to be comforted by your relationships.
  • Refuse to feel guilty for enjoying these social interactions.
  • Schedule regular coffee and lunch dates with positive, enjoyable companions.
  • Give yourself permission to invest in yourself, devoting time and energy to enhance personal resilience.  
  • Return to your favorite hobbies.
  • Prioritize enjoyable exercise.
  • Organize special family engagements.
  • Take a monthly one-day prayer retreat and every 6 months, take a 3-day vacation.
  • Adjust your expectations for your marriage.    
  • Create an ongoing list of things, big and small, that you’re thankful for regarding your spouse.
  • Don’t compare your husband/wife with other spouses.
  • Expect your spouse to decline over-stimulating outings that are excessively uncomfortable to them.
  • Trust and use the natural gifts that you both have to cover the chores and roles in your home.
  • Speak up and use your voice!
  • Communicate your social, emotional, spiritual, and financial perception for the success of your marriage.  Your ASD partner needs your insight although they might not want to admit it.
  • Acknowledge that you have wisdom and talents in areas just like your spouse does.
  • Speak with clarity, confidence, and assertiveness.  Their intellectual ability does not diminish your own.
Frederick Buechner said, “By believing against all odds and loving against all odds, that is how we are to let Jesus show in the world and to transform the world.”  An NT and ASD couple need to commit to believing in bright future even if it seems unlikely.  When we turn to God for grace and seek the tools of wisdom He has given, amazing things happen.  Hope can be the launching point for a strong, intimate marriage.  As Ann Voskamp shares in her book, The Broken Way,  “I try to remember that grace swallowed with courage is elemental for living.”

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