Book Nook: ASD and Long-Term Relationships
This book by Ashley Stanford (pen name) has been transformative for me in how I understand and interact with my neurotypical husband. The book is written to be read by the neurotypical partner in a relationship with someone who has ASD, but reading it myself, I had so many revelations into how my partner might see me, how he might think differently than I do, and how I can learn or adjust to new ways of interacting or thinking that will ease unnecessary conflict (and how he can do the same).
Step by step, Ashley breaks down each sentence in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) that constitutes the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis, and how each piece of the diagnosis may manifest in a long-term relationship. She includes real-life examples from her own life and from the lives of other NT/ASD couples she interviewed for the purposes of the book, and for each breakdown, she includes specific strategies that have worked for her and others in mitigating the disadvantages or maximizing the advantages of each clinical issue.
I gleaned many useful insights and tools from this book, including the revelation that neurotypical people use casual communication in order to build emotional connection. In this blog post, I want to highlight a couple of the other most impactful insights:
Something that will inevitably surface in any long-term romantic relationship between any two human beings is strong emotions. Positive or negative, internal or external, strong emotions can wreak havoc on an ASD-wired brain.
One of the insights from Ashley's book about strong emotions struck me in particular: The idea of "repairing strategies" in a conversation that seems to be getting too emotional. Repairing strategies are ways to calm the conversation down without negating the other person's feelings.
One way to do this is to match, superficially, the emotional level of the other person. Not completely - like don't start shouting if the other person is shouting, that just escalates - but if the other person in the conversation starts to get close to shouting, start to raise your own voice while still staying calm, and become a little more animated, in order to show that you are feeling the same way as the other person. This helps to validate the other person's feelings, and can naturally start to calm them down.
Another strategy is to literally admit that you are confused or that you don't know what to say or do, but at the same time to explicitly state that you share the other person's concern. So for example, "I hear you and I agree that this is serious. But honestly, I don't know what to do about it."
Ashley writes that someone with ASD might not know how to, or realize the need to, engage in a repairing strategy to get the conversation out of dangerous waters. This was (and still is) certainly true for me. She describes in her book exactly what I would do in situations where a conversation with a loved one was getting a little heated, which is to start to over-analyze the words they were saying in order to try to understand why they were getting emotional, and start to dissect the entire situation. Analysis and dissection, as many neurotypical people already know and as I have begun to learn, is often the least helpful thing to do during in-the-moment emotional conversations - because the words being said are not necessarily the right words (emotions have a tendency to make people say things they don't necessarily mean, another new concept for me), and the time to dissect them is not in the moment. In the moment, the best thing to do is stop thinking about the content of the conversation, and start addressing the emotion - something that a neurotypical brain may do naturally, but an ASD brain may need a lot of practice and manual (internal) redirecting in order to action.
Now, when a conversation with my husband starts to feel more emotional than it should, I set off a trigger in my brain that allows me to realize that a repairing strategy, rather than analysis, might be the best course. I consciously stop myself from repeating his words in my head and dissecting what he means or what he might intend to mean or what might be in between the words, and instead I try to verbally agree that what we're talking about is important, to match and mirror some of his emotional state to show that I think it's as important as he thinks it is, and then to be honest about not knowing where to go from there. I'm not very good at it yet, but as I practice more, I'll share how it goes. :)
Ashley writes a lot about finding the right balance of support and autonomy in an NT/ASD relationship, which is ever so important, because the neurotypical half of the relationship cannot become the 24/7 support/therapist/clinician for the ASD half (nor vice versa). Each person must exist autonomously as their own person, and be supportive of each other's strengths and weaknesses.
Some of the most potent strategies I found in Ashley's book for striking this balance were:
Establishing a number system for easily identifying and communicating how each person is feeling in a particular moment about accomplishing a task that needs to get done, in order to help decide who will do what.
For someone with ASD, a predictable and detail-oriented task like washing the dishes might be a cinch, but trying to plan and cook a meal might be overwhelming. For someone with ASD who has sensory issues and has had a lot of sensory input all day, the idea of then going to the grocery store might be physically painful (loud noises, lots of people, bright fluorescent lights, etc.). At the same time, someone with a neurotypical brain can have an equally taxing day and be feeling equally daunted by routine tasks - and neither partner should feel like they are always the one who has to do everything. So Ashley suggests establishing a number system, where say 10 is "that task would kill me right now" and 1 is "I would love to do that right now," and when things need to get done, each partner can voice where on the scale that task would be for them at the moment. If my husband has had a particularly exhausting day compared to mine, and we need groceries, he might say "5" and I might say "3," and so it's my turn to go get groceries.
Clearly identifying ways that an NT/ASD relationship can healthfully look very different than an NT/NT relationship.
One of the biggest areas of difference in a mutually validating NT/ASD relationship is the idea of "co-dependency," which is often cited as something to be avoided in NT/NT relationships. But in an NT/ASD relationship, something that looks like the neurotypical definition of co-dependency might in fact not be co-dependency at all, but a mutually agreed-upon dynamic that helps both partners accomplish what they want to achieve.
Ashley's example of this is an NT/ASD couple at a party at a friend's house, where the NT partner turns to her ASD husband and says, "If you want to be polite, you can walk up to Janet, thank her for inviting us, and tell her you like the decorations." In an NT/NT relationship, this seems bizarre - for one partner to be explicitly telling the other one what to do. But in this relationship, the husband with ASD is (as I would be, if it were me), extremely grateful for the help from his partner in scripting out a successful social interaction in order to accomplish something he wants - being polite and showing gratitude. Without the proactive script, he might have spent the evening in the corner holding a drink, not sure how to engage, feeling more and more like a failure while his wife resented his inability to socialize more and more. But recognizing where he might struggle with unstructured social interaction, and helping him structure it to foster engagement, helps both partners get what they want.
Getting help when you need it.
Of all the insights in this book, which in its entirety is about ways for an NT/ASD couple to discover more about making their relationship successful on their own, Ashley's encouragement that getting outside help when you need it is perfectly acceptable and in fact can often be preferable to the alternative was especially helpful. Everyone in their lives, ASD or no, will need help sometimes from someone else. Plenty of couples, regardless of neurodiversity, seek counseling and outside support to help them be successful together.
It is essential never to let an ASD/NT relationship dynamic (or any relationship dynamic) turn into something that perpetually feels one-sided or clinical. Finding a balance - albeit one that shifts and unbalances and rebalances over time - is critical. And sometimes the best way to maintain that balance, is to get help from someone else.