Mental Health Moment: Neuro-Diverse Relationships

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Neuro-diverse couples are more common that we realize. There are many high-functioning adults who are undiagnosed with what we used to call Asperger syndrome (now included as Autism Spectrum Disorder-ASD) or possibly neuro-atypical (NA) individuals. Having worked with children with ASD and children that are neuro-atypical (NA), I am now seeing more relationships with neurological diversity; an ASD/NA partner with a neuro-typical (NT) partner.

Pursue a diagnosis

A diagnosis can be important to acknowledge ND traits that might be causing relationship problems. Understanding how ASD/NA traits affect the relationship can remove the blame, frustration, shame, pain, and confusion felt by both partners.

Once a diagnosis is confirmed, working with an ASD/NA-specific couples’ therapist can be very helpful. Individuals with ASD/NA can be loyal, honest, highly intelligent, hardworking, generous, and funny. Accepting their strengths and weaknesses as part of their natural brain wiring can help with acceptance in relationships.

Understand how ASD/NA impacts the individual

Individuals with ASD/NA are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD. Undiagnosed or untreated, these can have serious negative consequences for both partners. NT partners can sometimes experience their own mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, Affective Deprivation Disorder, and PTSD, as a result of being in a relationship with an undiagnosed ASD/NA partner. Implementing ASD/NA-specific strategies to address certain issues in the relationship can help alleviate these symptoms for both partners.

Self-awareness for the NT partner and for ASD/NA individual

The NT partner can often be a rescuer or considered controlling. Their own traits and family of origin issues can help them understand why they chose their partner with ASD/NA. Learning the part they play in the conflicts with their partner and what to do about it is important.

The individual with ASD/NA tends to have a weak theory of mind (TOM) meaning they may have trouble understanding, predicting, and responding to a person’s thought-feeling state. They may unintentionally say and do things that can come across as insensitive and hurtful to their partner. They can develop a better TOM by becoming more aware of how they are likely to offend their partner. They may also learn to better express positive thoughts, affirm, and compliment their partner.

Create a relationship schedule

Due to the executive functioning and social-emotional reciprocity adults with ASD/NA are challenged with, keeping a calendar is crucial. A relationship schedule can help the couple plan for conversations, sex, and quality time in order to stay connected.

The partner with ASD/NA may either want a lot of sexual activity, little, or none at all. Scheduling the sexual needs of both partners can help couples regulate their sex-life. The individual with ASD/NA might be mechanical and unemotional in bed, or struggle with sex due to sensory sensitivities. They may need to learn ways to maintain a daily emotional connection both in and out the bedroom.

An individual with ASD/NA may go days, weeks, or months engrossed in work and their interests. This “parallel play” can leave their partner feeling lonely and abandoned. Common activities that might have brought the couple together when dating can abruptly stop after commitment. This is in part due to their challenges in initiation, reciprocity, planning, and organizing. Scheduling playing together such as long walks, biking, hikes, and travel can help bridge the parallel play gap.

Cope with sensory overload

Individuals with ASD/NA often experience distress due to sensory sensitivities. The individual’s senses may be either hypersensitive or hyposensitive: a caress can feel like burning fire, or a needle prick can have no effect. Managing sensory triggers such as sound or touch can help prevent blow-ups due to sensory overload. Individuals with ASD/NA can often feel more stressed out by being in social situations than their NT counterparts. Planning time to be alone and recover from social situations is essential.

Improve communication and manage expectations

Communication is often a major challenge for the individual with ASD/NA. They may have difficulties reading facial cues, vocal intonations, and body language. They can often monopolize and have difficulty initiating conversations or keeping them flowing. Their NT partner might feel frustrated by the lack of communication and reciprocity. Scheduling daily conversation time, and direct and step by step communication strategies can be useful.

Adjusting expectations based on ability and neurology is important for both partners. Working hard to improve the relationship with the strategies listed here can bring about real change.

Specialized couples therapy

Sometimes the NT partner may be so depressed, angry, and disconnected from their mate, that they do not have the desire to salvage the relationship. It can be difficult to get the relationship back on track. Focusing on the positive in the relationship and the traction made by implementing new skills and strategies can help both parties to stay motivated.

Working with a neuro-diverse couples’ therapist can help the couple to make rapid gains, stay motivated, and feel encouraged about their relationship. A well-trained therapist can teach both partners about neurodiversity. The therapist can help the couple create and implement strategies to better their relationship. The issues and challenges that some neuro-diverse couples face can seem similar, but every individual with neurodiversity is unique and so is every relationship. Customized therapy is a must.