Most individuals diagnosed with autism are male, and it is 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 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 autism 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, the diagnosis of autism 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 was 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 time before the diagnostic language changed.
Children today who demonstrate signs and symptoms of autism 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 autistic adults 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 autistic men 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 neurodiverse relationship will slowly 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, intense loneliness, the sense of feeling unable to communicate emotionally, including a deep fear of not being known or seen. But the causes of this pain do not lie within either partner. They come from the nature of the relationship itself and the differences between the two partners.
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 autistic person to fend for him/herself.
It also leaves the neurotypical partner to do the same, as the autistic partner is not available for the kind of emotional support that was expected.
If you are in neurodiverse relationship and you are experiencing distress as a result, there are things you can do to create better balance within the relationship. There are ways you can grow together in support of one another. 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.
If you are divorced, separated, or estranged from someone who has autism, you may not have realized during your relationship and at the time of the separation that autism played a 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.
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 autism, though gender is not important here. This poem may not apply to everyone. If it is meaningful to you, consider it your starting point. And remember, somewhere out there is a poem written by an autistic man that no doubt mirrors the confusion and sadness he feels when looking at his neurodiverse relationship from the other side.
It is possible to create new understanding between neurodiverse parthers, though, which is the reason I am here to support you and offer education and strategies that can help you do so.
From the beginning an awareness that something is wrong
A relationship that’s fundamentally flawed and limited
Intimacy eludes every effort
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
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