Switch to Accessible Site

The Autistic + Neurotypical Relationship

Most individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum/Asperger Syndrome are male. Pervasive developmental disorders (the broad category into which AS falls) are estimated to occur at a rate of two to six per 1000 in the US population. Males are diagnosed at a rate of three to four times higher than that of females. However, research suggests that women warrant the AS diagnosis more often than statistics suggest, due to the fact that women in our society are socialized differently from men, and are, by virtue of that, better able to mask their symptoms.

Adult men today who have symptoms of AS grew up in a world in which they felt out of step. Though Hans Asperger, a Viennese doctor, identified the cluster of behaviors in the 1940s that is now identified with his name, the diagnosis of AS as currently understood is so new (1990s) that these men were well into adulthood before most clinicians understood it.

The DSM-5, the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, was published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013. In this new edition, Asperger Syndrome has been eliminated as a separate diagnosis, and instead is placed at the high-functioning end along the autism spectrum. This will only change the way clinicians talk to one another about it. It will not change the way you experience it in your partner, or the way a therapist works with you. And it will not mean that your partner is any different from the way he/she was before the diagnostic language changed.

Children today who demonstrate signs and symptoms of AS have the advantage that treatment is available early enough in their lives that they can learn adaptive behaviors that will help them in their interactions with others and reduce the stress they might otherwise experience by trying to fit into a world that makes little intuitive sense to them.

Present-day adults, however, did not have this advantage during their formative years. With rare exceptions, most adults with AS have had to figure things out for themselves. A common way of doing this is by watching movies and television shows to understand how people behave and to discern what they say to each other in various circumstances. And all of this is done privately and with a great amount of stress, since a feeling of being out-of-step is not something most boys or young men have wanted to admit or discuss with others.

In that sense, adult men with AS are keen actors and imitators. This takes great skill. It is also exhausting. But behaving as if one understands something and truly understanding it are two different things. Anyone in a relationship with a person with AS will slowly but surely come to see this distinction. More often than not, the neurotypical partner will look within for the source of any problems, because it appeared at the beginning of relationship that things were going so well.

What changed? The neurotypical partner often decides it must be something she/he is doing or not doing. This can cause great distress looking within for the causes of intense loneliness, the sense that she/he is unable to communicate with or reach the AS partner emotionally, a deep fear that s/he doesn't even know him/her at all. But the causes of this pain do not lie within. Isolation and confusion result

The scripts in contemorary culture are varied and many for dating, courting, and the early years of relationship: our movies offer templates for these phases of life. But once the other aspects of daily life require attention, where is the script for managing that part of life?

This leaves the AS person to fend for him/herself. 

It also leaves the partner to do the same, as the AS partner is not available for emotional support, nor is there an intuitive capability for understanding a partner's emotional life.

If you are in a relationship with someone with AS and you are experiencing distress as a result, there are things you can do to ease the relationship. There are ways you can grow together in support of one another. AS does not go away, but you can learn behaviors and methods of interaction that increase the odds that you will reach mutual understanding on various aspects of your life together.

My goal in working with you is to assist you in understanding the world of AS; to help you see that what feels like intentionally inflicted pain can come from an inability to feel empathy the way you do; to create a space for you to learn that overlooking significance of personal milestones such as birthdays, graduations, and holidays can come from an inability to appreciate their emotional meaning to others; to help you come to terms with the intense feelings of loneliness that can arise as the partner of a person with AS. Sometimes it is possible to live within the structure of the relationship as defined by the partner's symptoms. In other cases, however, it is not. If you are facing this decision, counseling can help you sort it out so that you make the best informed choice.

If you are divorced, separated, or estranged from someone who has AS you may not have realized during your relationship and at the time of the separation that AS played a definite role in your relationship. As a result, you may be experiencing feelings of guilt for abandoning your partner, sadness for all the years you spent trying to reach him/her, and grief at the loss of the dream you once had for a happy relationship. You also may have questions about your own self-worth, your goals, your future. You may have feelings of anger and shame. And after all is said and done, you may still love your partner, though you have both moved on. This can be confusing.

Talking to a skilled counselor about these matters is a therapeutic way of sorting them out and of distinguishing the role you played and the role your partner and AS played in your relationship. I am here for supportive counseling and coaching, which can be of great benefit as you emerge into a new world.

I have many years of personal experience related to AS, as well as theoretical and clinical experience with it, both working with individuals who are on the spectrum, and with those in relationships with them.

Below is a poem written by an anonymous woman in Australia in 2004. I offer it as a view into a relationship between a neurotypical woman and a man diagnosed with 
AS, though gender is not important here. This poem may not apply to everyone. But to those for whom it resonates, it may offer an opening of hope for coming to a place of understanding.



My Asperger Marriage






From the beginning an awareness that something is wrong


A relationship that’s fundamentally flawed and limited


Intimacy eludes every effort


Subconscious grief


Cold reality slowly settles in my heart


A loneliness that shouldn’t be


A relationship that consumes every facet of my being


Yet abandons my basic human need to belong


Controlled, yet abandoned


Dominated, yet neglected


Needed, yet no-one


Promised, yet nothing


Diagnosis acknowledges what I already know


It is everything I thought, yet more


Blackness engulfs my soul like a shadow with form


Crushing out every whisper of hope


Or anticipation of something better


At first a relief


A book of answers for decades of questions


Reassurance of my own sound state of mind


Acknowledgement of all the hard work and pain


Just keeping it all on track


No healing, no solution, no remedy


A new way to live


A new way to love


New rules for ordinary things


Strategies for daily functioning


Mechanical methods


Altered responses


For better or for worse, in sickness and in health


All of these, all at once


A different state of being


A different definition of marriage


Bound, but alone


Alongside, but solitary


The sense of loss is engulfing


Loss of hope


Loss of dreams


Grief for what will never be


No union of two free minds and souls


Bound in love, care and respect


It’s not like that and never will be


One free mind


One with sharp corners


One soul that lives and breathes with love and spontaneity


One that calculates and orders, hides, fears and rages


No effort on my part can change his state of mind


My love doesn’t warm him


My care doesn’t reach him


My personality doesn’t win him


My feelings and opinions don’t sway him


A different life.