How to deal with a partner with Asperger’s Syndrome

Many adults, some of whom are not even aware of having neurological diagnosis, exhibit behaviors that are perplexing to others. Partners of people with Asperger’s Syndrome are often very frustrated, confused and at a loss to affect change in their relationship with their mates.
Asperger Syndrome (AS), first described in 1940’s by a Viennese physician, Hans Asperger, is a neurological disorder within the category of autism. It took fifty years before it was described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1994. It has, therefore, been a short time since professionals and parents gained a greater understanding of this condition and that programs have been created to help children with AS. Many adults with AS and their partners have suffered greatly with little available help.

Understanding is the first key to alleviating the distress people with Asperger’s syndrome (AS) and their families have experience. Barbara L. Kirby, Co-Author of “The Oasis Guide To Asperger Syndrome”, described it as follows: “Individuals with AS can exhibit a variety of characteristics and the disorder can range from mild to severe. Persons with AS show marked deficiencies in social skills, have difficulties with transitions or changes and prefer sameness. They often have obsessive routines and may be preoccupied with a particular subject of interest. They have a great deal of difficulty reading nonverbal cues (body language) and very often the individual with AS has difficulty determining proper body space. Often overly sensitive to sounds, tastes, smells, and sights, the person with AS may prefer soft clothing, certain foods, and be bothered by sounds or lights no one else seems to hear or see. It’s important to remember that the person with AS perceives the world very differently. Therefore, many behaviors that seem odd or unusual are due to those neurological differences and not the result of intentional rudeness or bad behavior, and most certainly not the result of ‘improper parenting’”.

There are many individuals who do not have the full AS, but exhibit some traits of this syndrome. There are also people who may appear to have some Asperger traits but do not actually posses this neurological condition. The diagnosis of AS is best made by professionals.

Partners of people with AS often find their mate’s difficulty with reading social cues as a troublesome condition. It is hard for them to understand how their very bright mate can misperceive what is meant, is conversationally awkward or struggles with humor that ordinary people appreciate. Partners often assume that this is a deliberately offensive behavior and are embarrassed by it. Partners often find that “correcting” the mate is unfruitful. With time, they begin to decline social invitations and become secluded.

At home, the person with AS also seems quite different. He/she may have unique eating habits, is exceptional sensitive to various stimuli and exhibits inappropriate boundaries in being too close or distant from others.

As between other pairs, adjustment to co-habiting is a learned transition. However, with individuals with AS few changes occur as they seem to be inflexible and non-cooperative, despite their high intellect. This is very confusing and frustrating to the partner.

Unless the mate understands the nature of AS, it is easy to become angry, overwhelmed and even resentful of the partner who seems to be a good individual, yet not a traditional partner or lover. It is hard for a mate to process the disparity between very high functioning in creative and intellectual areas and below average processing of ordinary life tasks.

• Accept that your partner’s idiosyncrasies are neurological, not intentionally designed to frustrate you. Treat him/her with kindness, even when you are annoyed. Getting angry only overwhelms your mate and compounds the dissonance between you.
• Understand that these limitations are the complementary attributes to those you truly appreciate. For example, the ‘absent minded professor’ often characterizes a person of high intelligence and creativity, (such as Einstein and Newton). You may cherish him/her for those attributes.
• Learn as much as you can about Asperger Syndrome to better understand the traits associated with it. There are helpful books such as: The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome by Tony Attwood, online information, organizations, as well as professionals who specialize in autism.
• Remind yourself at times of exasperation that you may be challenged in your relationship tasks, but you are also blessed with a unique and special mate whom you love.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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