"Not everything that steps out of line, and is thus abnormal, must necessarily be inferior."
These are the words of Hans Asperger, a Viennese doctor, who did his work with autism and published his research in the 1940s. It was not until the 1990s that the term Asperger Syndrome was first used by a clinician named Lorna Wing to describe a constellation of symptoms and characteristics that come together in certain individuals, and fall at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Since that time, the term has been used commonly in the popular press, and Asperger Syndrome has even been represented by the entertainment industry (notably, Rain Man).
But what is it?
Autism is a result of neurological differences in the structure of the brain that distinguish it from what we call the neurotypical brain. It is not mental illness or a personality disorder. There are many as-yet nondefinitive theories for what causes autism. There is a genetic component, and environmental (including prenatal) factors seem to influence its expression as well. It is not a result of bad parenting. There is diverse ongoing research in the area of autism with new insights appearing regularly.
A clinical diagnosis is based on evidence of noncongruence to what is culturally accepted as normal behavior across several domains: social and emotional abilities; communication skills; cognitive skills; specific interests; and movement skills (dexterity). I work a great deal with AS clients on the topic of Theory of Mind, for example. I wrote an article on this subject entitled Asperger Syndrome: What is Theory of Mind? which will give you more information. Click on the title to reach the complete article.
Remember that some of our most successful CEOs, entrepreneurs, politicians, entertainers, and artists are thought to have autism. It is stressful for such individuals as they seek ways of fitting into society, and it is most pronounced in their interpersonal relationships. But it is by no means a diagnosis that dooms an individual to failure in other domains of his or her life.
Tony Attwood, renowned Australian expert on the subject, adds the following characteristics as considerations in his book Asperger's Syndrome, since they also accompany autism in many individuals:
Unusual fear or distress due to:
- ordinary sounds, for example electrical appliances
- light touch on skin or scalp
- wearing particular items of clothing
- unexpected noises
- seeing certain objects
- noisy, crowded places, for example supermarkets
The thing to remember about all of this is that no two individuals at the Asperger Syndrome end of the autism scale will exhibit all of these symptoms, and they will all be expressed differently and to varying degrees among individuals.
As the saying goes, "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism."
THE AUTISM SPECTRUM CHECKLIST for partners
I developed the following list of questions that you can ask yourself to get at least a starting point on whether you might be experiencing AS in your partner. Often, it is the neurotypical partner who first suspects AS might explain some of the challenges a couple faces.
1) Is there an awkwardness in social situations that you used to think of as shyness, but which over time has come to feel different or even weird to you?
2) Are your conversations fact-based and impersonal, regardless of the topic of conversation? In other words, is your partner's manner of talking about your love life the same as his manner of talking about paying the gardener?
3) Have you been living without sexual intimacy for so long that you can't remember the last time you made love? When you think about it, would you even use the term make love to describe your sexual relationship? Or has sex become a regimented and daily undertaking, with little emphasis on your enjoyment, as if it were strictly for your partner's benefit alone?
4) Do you feel that your partner has your back? In other words, does he/she represent a safe emotional haven for you when all the world around you may feel as if it is spinning out of control? Do you trust your partner to comfort you?
5) Does your partner relate well to your friends and family?
6) Does your partner demonstrate sincere interest in you and your life? Does he/she ask you questions about things that are important to you?
7) Does your partner sense when you are feeling down and offer you consolation without being asked?
8) Does your partner understand why your birthday or your anniversary, Christmas or another holiday might be important to you, even though such holidays may not be important to him/her?
9) Do you feel your lives are intimately combined, or are they parallel lives that feel sometimes to you as if they also exist on parallel planes?
10) Are your dreams and desires important in your relationship? Or have they become so marginalized that they feel as if they are your own little secrets?
11) Do you feel as if your relationship is normal? Do you find yourself wondering what normal means?
12) Does your partner demonstrate a limited range of facial expressions, gestures, and postures?
13) Do you feel as if your partner sometimes has no idea what you are talking about, no matter how hard you try to make your feelings clear?
14) Do you ever cry from frustration because you feel as if things can never change and you will never be understood?
15) Do you keep these things to yourself, because you can't even imagine how you would explain them to your friends or family members?
16) Do you continue to blame yourself for things that go haywire because you think there might have been something you could have done differently or said differently?
17) Is there an empty spot in your heart where you hoped your partner's love would be forever enthroned?
18) Do you ever cry yourself to sleep out of unidentified frustration?
19) Do you cover up for your partner, or run interference between your partner and the children or between your partner and other individuals in your life?
20) Do you just have a nagging feeling that something is very wrong at the heart of your relationship, but you cannot figure out what it is?
You can tell by the feeling in the pit of your stomach whether it is likely that your partner has AS. That feeling in your gut tells you that your emotional needs are not being met, even if your partner does not have AS. Either way, seeking counseling could be a valuable use of your time.
I offer this information as a starting point, not as a means of self-diagnosis. The combination of characteristics will vary from one individual to the next, in frequency, intensity, as well as manifestation. Not all individuals exhibit all characteristics.
Typically, adults with AS feel a sense of relief once they receive a diagnosis. It confirms for them what they have sensed their entire lives. And once they understand what is going on, they can learn to live in what is called the neurotypical work with greater confidence and satisfaction. However, some individual are highly adverse even to the suggestion that they may be autistic and are not willing to explore the possibility.
There is also a statistically signficant correlation between intellectual giftedness and AS, so though it is not commonplace, it would not be at all unusual for a person to experience both.
If you wonder whether you or your partner may fall into the autism spectrum, I would be pleased to meet with you and work with you to identify the issues of concern, and to devise a plan of action desiged to ease some of the distress that often accompanies this. It is possible to learn to live and thrive in the so-called neurotypical world with guidance regarding social and emotional aspects of interpersonal relationships.
With the May 2013 publication of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association), Asperger Syndrome has been included in the autism spectrum and is now part of Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, this changes nothing but the name.
If you are interested in working with me for reasons related to AS, but you do not live in the state of Washington, please consider working with me for education and coaching. I am able to work with couples and individuals around the world with sessions conducted via the secure online chat platform on my website, or by telephone. Don't let the fact that you live far from Seattle keep you from getting the help you need. I can work with every time zone, and I can also support English-language sessions with supplemental use of your native language, if it happens to be Italian, German, or French.