TRIGGER WARNING: Autism Speaks, Autism Awareness, light it up blue, ableism, cure talk, ABA
- Read the original article on Healthline’s site.
- If you would like to skip the section-by-section critique and go directly to my article, please click here. No trigger warnings needed! 🙂
- The text from the original article is in blue italics.
- My critique is in [red].
How to Make Your Relationship Work When Your Partner Has Autism
[Let’s use the language preferred by the autistic community: “How to Make Your Relationship Work When Your Partner is Autistic.” After all, I don’t have autism any more than I have Indian-Americanism or Female-ism or Pansexualism.
Now let’s do an experiment and replace the word autistic: “How to Make Your Relationship Work When Your Partner is Indian-American.” “How to Make Your Relationship Work When Your Partner is Female.” “How to Make Your Relationship Work When Your Partner is Pansexual.” Hm. Pretty racist. Pretty sexist. Pretty homophobic. The original is pretty ableist, too.
For my article (see Part III), in the interest of time, I feature one couple as a case study. If I were on assignment, I would interview at least three couples and include a cross-section of people in terms of gender, sexual orientation, race, age, etc.]
Imagine being married to someone who insists on doing the laundry on a specific night every week and flies into a rage if any of their routines are disrupted.
Or having a spouse who can’t understand what you’re saying if you’re in a noisy, crowded room.
Those are some of the many challenges facing people with partners who have autism.
[These first three sentences introduce a one-sided and skewed view of neurodiverse relationships. Rather than acknowledging that both partners experience challenges (and great joys) due to their neurodiversity, it others the autistic partner. It offers no understanding of the autistic experience. For example, “Flies into a rage” warps and negates the anxiety autistic people can feel about change in routine. It is as maligning and misinformed as “throws a temper tantrum” to describe an autistic meltdown.]
Comedian Amy Schumer recently sparked a national conversation about the topic when she revealed during her latest stand-up routine that her husband of 13 months had received a diagnosis of the neurodevelopmental disorder, which typically makes social interactions challenging.
“I knew from the beginning that my husband’s brain was a little different than mine,” she said in her show, “Growing,” which is now streaming on Netflix.
Schumer elicited laughs when she mimicked the befuddled reaction of husband Chris Fischer to a tumble she took while on a walk, explaining that inappropriate facial expressions are an autistic trait.
And she extolled her spouse’s inability to lie, even if he offends others.
“He says whatever is on his mind. He keeps it so real, you know? He doesn’t care about social norms, what you expect him to say or do,” Schumer said. “All the characteristics that make it clear that he’s (autistic) are all of the reasons that I fell madly in love with him.”
[The original article features a photograph of Amy Schumer and “her husband”, Chris Fischer. It also sources material from Amy Schumer’s stand-up comedy act, a type of performance art that often uses satire and hyperbole to describe interpersonal relationships.
Other material is available, though: On March 21, 2019, CNN published an article that sourced material from an actual interview with Seth Meyer in which Schumer stated, “‘That’s why we both wanted to talk about it because it’s been totally positive. I think a lot of people resist getting diagnosed and even some of their children because of the stigma that comes along with it … I just wanted to encourage people to not be afraid of that stigma.'”
Since I couldn’t find any interviews of autistic-neurotypical celebrity couples and my focus is on both partners’ experiences, I skipped this section and went straight to definitions (see Part III).]
A wide spectrum
The diagnosis is now known as autism spectrum disorder, a term that acknowledges the wide range of symptoms and abilities among individuals.
The most severely affected are unable to speak and require around-the-clock care.
Others can be intellectually gifted even though they might be wedded to rigid daily routines or hypersensitive to sound, light, and other sensory stimuli.
Communication is a common challenge.
Many with autism fixate on activities and topics that interest them. They can talk at length about their favorite subject without giving others a chance to speak.
People with autism also might have trouble understanding what others are saying, whether the message is verbal (they may take figures of speech literally and fail to recognize sarcasm) or in the form of body language.
One of every 59 children has autism, according to 2018 estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition affects four times as many boys as girls.
Although genes and environmental factors, such as parents’ advanced age at time of conception and premature birth, are thought to increase the risk of autism, scientists haven’t yet pinpointed a cause.
[The above description stereotypes and pathologizes autistic people. Also, since when do nonverbal people require “around-the-clock care”? And why are nonverbal people considered “the most severely affected?” I would like to see some more citations here.]
Taking a toll
Although Schumer finds the humor in what autism has brought to her marriage, many others find that it exacts a toll.
Gail, a resident of the western United States who requested anonymity, thinks autism creates an emotional gulf that the neurotypical partners in a relationship keenly feel.
“Unless you can turn yourself into a robot and be OK with not having a connection with your spouse, there will always be a void,” she told Healthline. “All humans need that, especially from your spouse, and when you don’t get that it’s a lonely road.”
So different are the styles of communication in marriages where one person has autism that “it’s as if they’re speaking different languages,” said Grace Myhill, director of The Peter M. Friedman Neurodiverse Couples Institute, a Massachusetts program that trains therapists on working with people with autism.
The usual approaches to bridging communication gaps just don’t help, she told Healthline.
“You can’t just say ‘Be more empathic’ when your partner is upset. They often don’t know how to do that,” Myhill said.
People with autism often have difficulty understanding others’ points of view, creating rifts that they exacerbate by saying whatever’s on their mind instead of measuring the effect of their words.
“They don’t understand that you don’t say what you’re thinking,” Gail said.
Gail notes that her husband’s unfiltered comments have included matter-of-factly telling her she stinks when the deodorant has worn off at the end of a day.
And because he only sees the world through his eyes, he doesn’t understand what he did wrong, so he doesn’t apologize.
His rigid adherence to routine includes reserving Friday nights for doing laundry. He’ll stay up to the early morning hours to make sure clothes are folded perfectly. Unprovoked outbursts can occur when structures like this are interrupted.
“He says things that are unrepeatable to our children and to me. It’s earth-shattering,” Gail said. She now lives in a different state from her husband and is worn down to the point that she’s considering ending their 34-year marriage.
[Once again, Amy Schumer’s experience has been reduced to humorous and her husband’s is completely ignored. The title of this section and the second part of the first sentence is appallingly ableist (“… many others find that [autism] exacts a toll”). Autism is once again pathologized here.
Gail’s experience is not simply one-sided, it is also somewhat invalidated by the fact that she is separated from her husband and considering divorce. Not only does this potentially influence her ability to objectively reflect on her marriage, but it completely defies the alleged purpose of this article which is to show how to make the relationship work. Why does it affect her if her husband stays up late folding clothing? And why does Gail assume that “they”, meaning autistic people, don’t understand that “you don’t say what you think”? Maybe “they” do understand and prefer honesty. This is a relationship that isn’t working. Is that the ultimate message? And where is her husband’s experience?
In Grace Myhill’s professional biography, she describes how “support is very important for these couples; it provides normalization and validation for both the neurotypical partners and the partners with an [autism] profile.” She recognizes that neurodiverse couples can feel as though they are speaking different languages. But her second quote only validates the neurotypical partner. Where is the quote validating the autistic partner? The quote itself (as is) perpetuates a disproven stereotype that autistic people don’t know how to be empathetic. They may not show it in neurotypical ways, but they do feel it.
Making it work
The sensory overload people with autism often experience also can factor into couples’ conflicts.
A noisy party and the effort it takes to make conversation, for example, can make the individual with autism anxious and less attentive to their partner.
Karen Lean had specified in her online profile on a dating website that she didn’t like loud bars.
“The amount of energy I have to spend to process sensory information makes social information even harder to take in,” the Boston resident told Healthline.
Lean, who has received a diagnosis of autism, notes that she can’t pay attention to facial expressions, posture, and gestures when there are auditory distractions.
But Lean says hers is a “dream relationship” because her new husband willingly accommodates her needs.
If she has trouble making sense of what he’s saying because there’s background noise, he’ll repeat himself. If she still doesn’t understand, he’ll turn to face her so she can see his nonverbal cues.
“I don’t feel like autism is challenging us. I feel like we have adapted — and beautifully,” Lean said.
[Anxiety is not a character flaw. It can be debilitating and have long-term physiological effects. People who experience anxiety need support and compassion, not disdain and condemnation for not being able to be “attentive to their partner[s].” What kind of attention do these partners need at parties, I wonder?
The rest of this section finally introduces us to an autistic partner. But, it is once again one-dimensional. Karen Lean appreciates that her husband accommodates her needs, repeating himself when she struggles with auditory processing and facing her to help her see his nonverbal cues (something non-autistic partners would also appreciate, I suspect). Her husband appears to be very supportive, their relationship successful. Lean’s final quote sends such a lovely, positive message.
And it is wonderful that Lean shows gratitude, an important part of any relationship. But gratitude is a two-way street. Because the husband’s perspective is omitted, this section creates a hero worship scenario, as though autistic people should be grateful to have their needs met, to expect accommodations, to be loved. This is a huge missed opportunity for readers to see a neurotypical partner also feeling gratitude.
Where is the husband’s quote recognizing that Lean is also accommodating in the relationship? That he appreciates when she accompanies him to important social events, though it is exhausting and challenging for her to communicate due to sensory processing sensitivities? Gonden’s presentation suggests that to make a relationship with an autistic partner work, the neurotypical partner must make all the compromises.]
Some women who reached out to Healthline to share how autism has affected their marriage indicated that they experienced an epiphany once they learned about the disorder: Finally they had an explanation for their spouse’s perplexing behavior.
“Huge lightbulb moments following diagnosis. All of our issues from the past made sense and the puzzle fell into place,” said Diana Anderson of Spokane,Washington.
Before her 55-year-old husband got an autism diagnosis three years ago, Anderson couldn’t understand why he’d agree to do something she asked and then not follow through.
Now she realizes that what she thought was passive-aggressive behavior is actually forgetfulness, a characteristic of autism.
Nor could Anderson fathom her husband’s response when she told him her cousin had died. He announced he was going downstairs to watch television and invited her to join him.
“‘Are you kidding me?’” she recalled saying.
What’s more, Anderson says she coached her husband on what she wanted him to say to her in those cases, but “he still didn’t understand my needs or how to react appropriately.”
And yet their 31-year marriage not only has survived, it is thriving following some sessions with a psychologist who specializes in working with couples affected by autism.
The touch-sensitive man who used to flinch when Anderson would affectionately tuck a lock of hair behind his ear has now learned to give his wife a long hug when she returns after a day at the office.
Anderson credits the success in part to her husband accepting his diagnosis and agreeing to work on their relationship.
And now that she understands he doesn’t mean to hurt her feelings, she says she’s learning not to react defensively.
“We can joke about our different brains,” she told Healthline. “I know how his brain works and I know he comes from a different perspective than I do, and I accept that.”
[The way the first sentence is worded had me wondering: how did Healthline reach out to these women? Did they only ask for spouses of autistic partners? Did they only ask for wives of autistic partners?
This final section continues the pattern of pathologizing, condemning, and blaming the autistic partner. Once the wives learn their spouses are autistic everything makes sense. They can now get to work accommodating and training their spouses to meet their wives’ needs. This sounds dangerously like ABA therapy, which is another form of conversion therapy. For example, despite the coaching, Diana Anderson’s husband “still didn’t understand [her] needs or how to react appropriately.” It literally does not even acknowledge that autistic people also have valid and real needs.
While Anderson sounds very supportive of her husband and she describes him to be as willing to work on their relationship as she, Gonden once again misses the mark by not interviewing him as well. This is not only another example of the ableism of this piece, it is dangerous. When she describes the husband as “touch-sensitive” — at last redeemed because now instead of flinching he “has learned to give his wife a long hug” — Gonden is asserting that it is the responsibility of the autistic partner to ignore his needs in favor of the neurotypical one.
There are many reasons why autistic people may be averse to touch, for one thing. For some, it can literally cause pain. And for another thing, all people should have agencies over their bodies and should never be /coerced/forced/taught to touch or be touched. In the case of Diana Anderson and her husband, perhaps this was a compromise he wanted to make. But it is not clear because we are not privy to his experiences.
The article does end on a positive note, with Diana Anderson’s acknowledgement and acceptance that she and her husband have different perspectives. But it does not compensate for the negative overview of autistic people. It does not undo the damage Gonden causes by promoting stereotypes, by negating the autistic experience, by presenting autistic people as dehumanized caricatures rather than individual beings with dreams, desires, wants, and needs.]