Author Dr. Stephanie C. Holmes
Note: This blog has also been on the American Association of Christian Counselors blog site.
My approach to counseling/coaching has three main phases. Phase one is AS awareness and Education. It is important for me to explain that counseling will not fix or cure the AS person, that the AS person is neurologically wired differently and although Asperger’s/Autism can cause challenges to a relationship, the goal is not to “fix” or “change” the AS individual. The wiring that makes this individual exceptional in a career/field of study is only part of the reason relationships can be difficult to navigate. We have many inventions and advances in our arts, sciences, technologies etc. because of this neurodiversity/wiring. The marital issues/challenges are not solely the result of Asperger’s/Autism/Neurodiversity. It is important to dismiss/dispel myths about what AS is and is not. Clinicians need to understand more about how AS manifests in adults and have better understanding of assessment. In the words of Dr. Shore, "When you have met 1 person with autism, you have met 1 person with autism."
Phase two is to examine marital expectations from both the NT and Aspie side of the equation and Equip the couple with new skills. What does each person want or expect from the relationship? Where has each person felt hurt or been wounded by expectations/lack of connection/harsh words? The NT spouses have valid hurts and wounds experiencing what some call Cassandra Phenomenon or Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome (OTRS) (FAAAS, 1997). This phase also examines at the criteria/traits of Asperger’s and examines its impact on the marital relationship. Common issues: lack of reciprocity, lack of / not showing empathy, communication issues, lack of shared enjoyment, parenting together, and feeling a marital bond/teamwork. Since AS is by definition an emotional/relationship/communication issue these are going to affect a marital relationship. In this phase we look at expectations in the light of AS- NT challenges. AS/ND Spouses were asked about living with/marriage to an NT and how it affects them:
Constant conflict/arguments make me shut down or walk away
Being blamed for our marital issues/problems/conflicts is not accurate
Spouses has threatened to leave/separate/divorce/ causes feelings of inadequacy /rejection
Not everything is my fault 100% of the time
Sometimes I think she uses the AS label to dismiss/ignore/ reject my ideas/wishes/desires/thoughts
It is important to understand the AS person's experience as well. So the final phase of work is Effective Strategies. I want to know what each spouse wants/needs from the marriage and we examine together modifications each will need to make to reach the goal(s). Oftentimes AS-NT or ND marriages will require long-term care. A common complaint from an NT wife, “He starts off doing what we agreed upon but within weeks is back to his old pattern and nothing has really changed.” Or “In the office with you he agrees to do this and that but follow through at home is lacking and when I remind him of our agreements he says I am nagging.” There are many complex issues and goals the NT spouse may wish to implement but I find ordering the goals and working on one at a time although slow and tedious will yield the best results long-term.
To me there is no question that partners in an AS- NT or ND marriage require solid cognitive-behavioral marriage work and strategies but it is just as crucial to have a therapist or coach who understands AS and its impact on the relationship. It has been a long time coming, but there are a few great resources I refer to often by Maxine Ashford and Ashley Stanford specifically as well as others. I advise couples to be careful of blogs as many paint a bleak picture of ND and yield more discouragement than encouragement. Change can happen if both parties accept the ND marriage and adjust expectations accordingly. I am asked if having an official diagnosis matters. In 2013 the DSM-5 was published and the same manual that introduced us to the term Asperger’s Syndrome has deleted it from its manual and now we only have the label Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) which many adults are reluctant to have placed upon them. Does Asperger’s still exist? Yes. The DSM is an American manual. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) is widely used around the world and its most recent edition slated for publishing in 2016 still includes the term Asperger’s Syndrome. As I work with couples and see “traits” of Asperger’s unless it is important to the individual to have the official diagnosis I do not insist on an official diagnosis. If the spouse recognizes these qualities and is willing to work on the challenging areas we move forward in counseling/coaching sometimes with an official diagnosis received from a health care provider, but often we work on clinical impressions. If the person who fits the AS profile is unwilling to consider the AS or its impact, I may be more insistent on a full assessment or diagnosis.
I remind couples that there is not a destination point but to remember that if you are in the ND relationship for a long-term then there is Energizing/Endurance or maintenance and continuing to learn and grow together.
Note: I allow the client to choose which terminology they prefer of Aspie, Asperger's, Autism or Neurodiversity of AS profile. Check out the course on basics of Autism to know a little bit more about language and why language matters. The term Asperger's is still used in the ICD but it is debated if should it be used due to possible Nazi ties of Hans Aspergers of whom the syndrome was originally named.