by Saraswati Chand
Through Laughter and Tears
Imagine being in a relationship with someone who follows a strict routine and resists any change. Now imagine that same person describing what certain songs look like, creating vivid images to share with you as you listen to your favorite music.
Imagine being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t answer a yes or no question with a yes or no, but instead responds with an unsolvable riddle. Now imagine that same person lying on top of you when you are scared, like a weighted blanket calming your fears.
This is what life can be like for neurodiverse couples.
Neurodiversity (And More) Explained
Neurodivergent people have neurocognitive processes that differ from the more common, neurotypical processes. Neurodivergence includes autism, ADHD, Tourette’s, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia. There may be comorbidities (co-occurence) of these conditions, as well.
In a neurodiverse couple, one partner may be neurotypical and the other neurodivergent or both partners may be neurodivergent with different conditions (i.e., one may be autistic and the other dyslexic). This article features David, who is neurotypical, and Sarita, who is autistic.
The diagnostic criteria for autism can include (but is not limited to) literal, black-and-white thinking; difficulty understanding non-verbal communication; strict adherence to routine; self-stimulation, often in the form of repetitive movements or sounds; an intense focus on special interest(s); and sensory processing sensitivities.
The autism spectrum is not linear; rather, it is more akin to a color wheel, one that displays several traits and variations as opposed to supporting the incorrect and harmful labels of “mild” to “severe”.
Many autistic people who are diagnosed late in life or remain undiagnosed learn to “mask” their traits. These are often women and people who are genderqueer due to the long-held stereotype that only boys and men can be autistic. Masking can have long-term consequences, including anxiety and depression. Tania A. Marshall’s list describes in detail the qualities an autistic adult may exhibit.
DAVID AND SARITA
David, a 43-year-old pharmacist, and Sarita, a 41-year-old scientific illustrator, have been married for thirteen years. Sarita was diagnosed as autistic two years ago, when she was 39 years old. They live with their 11-year-old, long-haired orange cat named Oscar.
We meet at their house, where Sarita feels safest. She has auditory processing sensitivities, which can make it difficult for her to distinguish between different sounds. She describes it as white noise, so going to a coffee shop or the park could cause sensory overload and discomfort. As for David, he, too, prefers to meet at home. After going to work Monday through Friday, he is ready to relax and be in a comfortable place. And, Oscar, certainly, is happy to have both his parents at home, rubbing his belly and behind his ears.
Question: How did you meet?
Sarita: My brother and David’s old college roommate were dating and when they moved in together, they threw a housewarming party. [Laughs and puts hand on David’s leg.] David and I found each other by the stereo.
David: [Holds Sarita’s hand.] We both love music. We have similar tastes. And we’re both musicians. Sarita is a classical pianist and I play guitar in a rock band. We spent the whole night at the party talking about our favorite bands and shows we’ve been to. That’s how we connected.
Question: What made you stay connected?
David: We share similar values. Family is important to us. We’re both introverted-
Sarita: We’re about the same age, so we have some shared experiences, generationally speaking.
[They look at each other and smile.]
Sarita: I don’t know. There are so many things — it feels like I’ve known him my whole life. And we both have a really strong work ethic. I mean, David works fifty to sixty hours a week and he has such integrity; he’s always doing his best.
David: I have never seen anyone work as hard as Sarita. She works every single day of the week. It’s inspiring and a little intimidating.
[Sarita laughs and they kiss.]
Sarita: Well, to be fair, I am really blessed that science and drawing are my special interests. I work on my special interests every single day — when I feel good, when I feel bad … they are my happy place. And, you know, David and Oscar know they are the loves of my life [kisses them both] but my special interests are what make me get out of bed every morning. I mean, I work from home. David has no idea what I do all day. And Oscar would love it if I stayed in bed all day! So, I am so lucky to have found a career where I get to be at home and get paid to work on my special interests!
David: It can be hard, though, because Sarita will get so focused on her work that she’ll forget to eat meals and drink water. I try to remind her and she’ll say, “I just need to finish this one section”, but that one section could take her another two hours. It’s not healthy.
Sarita: Yeah, I have to set alarms to remind me to eat and drink and even use the bathroom. I struggle with interoception — meaning, I struggle to recognize my body’s signals. So not only do I get caught up in my special interests but I also don’t realize when I am hungry or thirsty or even have to pee. Sometimes, I’ll work through my alarms — I really struggle with switching tasks, including just taking a two-minute break, when I’m not done with whatever I am working on. [Leans against David.] I don’t know what I’d do without him. And he’s so good at — we actually make fun of this phrase but it’s the only one that fits — [uses air quotes] work-life balance. He puts as much passion and energy into his home life as he does at work. He doesn’t bring work home with him. When he’s here, he’s here one hundred percent.
David: I don’t like to bring my work home with me. I need that clean line. I have tried to work from home a few times — conference calls, PowerPoints. It’s easier for me to keep them separate. Otherwise, what’s the stopping point?
Sarita: [Nods] And even with house projects, he knows how to take breaks, the importance of recharging.
David: [Puts arm around Sarita.] I definitely know how to take breaks! [They both laugh.]
Sarita: Videogames. But, you do seem to get most of your projects done, even if not all.
David: I do as much as I reasonably can and make sure I have time for relaxation, too.
Sarita: See what I mean? Balance. And you’re so generous with Oscar and of his needs. Massages. Treats. Attention.
David: I exist to serve his every need.
Sarita: It’s true! You trade one boss in for another!
Question: David, what are some of the challenges you have experienced as the spouse of an autistic partner?
David: Her rigidity. Everything has to be done in a specific way, from where dishes are put in the sink to how to load the washing to traveling. I’m not a particularly impulsive person, but I wouldn’t mind just going out to dinner sometime spontaneously.
Sarita: It’s not just that I have a specific way of doing things; it’s that there is one specific way to do them. I know that David can load the washer his own way, but knowing that doesn’t make it less stressful to watch him do things out of order. Before my autism diagnosis, I would pretend that it was okay because I knew it was weird and seemed controlling, even though that is never my intent. And eventually I would have meltdown from all that built-up tension. So, our solution is that if David is doing his own thing, like cooking breakfast or doing laundry, then I stay out of that space because it’s going to be negative for both us. I accept my rigidity. I love my rigidity. I love my routine. But, he is his own person.
David: If the task has to do with one of her household chores, such as doing dishes, then I put them in the sink the way she prefers.
Sarita: David is such a laid-person that I don’t have to do things his way. I mean, I’ll water the plants during the week if he’s not able to but he is the gardener in this family. But he doesn’t care how I water them as long I do. I know it must be really hard to live with someone who is so incredibly adherent to a specific routine. Sometimes I feel like a monster. But he never treats me like a monster. He just lies down on me like a weighted blanket and makes me feel safe.
David: Well, you are not a monster. [Turns and hugs Sarita.] The thing is, it’s not that hard. I’m trainable. [Laughs]. And the fact is, even if we don’t just go out to eat, I always know I am going to have a really delicious meal because Sarita, on top of everything else she does, cooks for me every night. And she does the shopping, too, so I never have to worry about whether the snack cabinet is stocked. I never have to make a last minute run to the store. So, I eat really well, better, even then if we went to some restaurant.
Sarita:[Kisses David] Cooking is my special interest, too.
Question: Sarita, what are some of the challenges you have experienced as the spouse of a neurotypical partner?
Sarita: Communication. Now that I’ve been diagnosed, at least we understand why. But it’s still so hard. I mean, David is pretty much as direct as a neurotypical person can be, but he still uses these nonverbal cues that I either don’t see or don’t understand. And I am super forthright, which can be seen as rude or dismissive. I don’t like fluffy talk and I also don’t know how to do it. Before the diagnosis, we would fight. I mean, [turns to David], remember the Pasta Fight?
Sarita: I had said, “I’m eating leftovers for dinner but do you want me to make some pasta for you?” And he said, “Just make it for yourself.” So I repeated myself. And he said repeated himself. After the third time I asked him, David finally said, “Why are you asking me the same question I’ve already answered twice?” When had he answered it? A yes or no question and I never got the yes or no. I started crying because this is how my whole life has gone. Someone throwing up their hands and shouting, “Are you serious right now? You don’t know why I’m mad?” And I’m sitting there saying, “I am serious. I have no idea what just happened. We were just talking and now you hate me.”
David: [Holding her hand] I have never hated you, darling. It felt like she wanted me to give her a different answer than the one I was giving her, which is why she kept asking me the same thing.
Sarita: Do people do that? Ask the same question hoping for a different answer? That makes no sense!
David: They do. [Puts his arm over Sarita’s shoulder.] But you don’t. And I know that now.
Sarita: It turns out, he was telling me ‘no’. But I don’t read subtext at all. I guess he was saying I should make myself what I need and not worry about him. He told me he thought it would be rude to just say ‘no’. Or even ‘no, thank you.’ Eek. I must be really rude.
David: Yeah. I mean, here she is offering to make me a separate meal. I think it’s rude to just say, “Nope. Don’t want it.”
Sarita: Trust me, that’s the best way to go. [Puts hand on his leg.] And now we know. So the deal is, if I ask a yes or no question and he doesn’t give me an answer I understand, I’m supposed to ask him to tell me specifically yes or no. Even if he thinks it’s rude. We still have communication problems but we understand each other now and can resolve them quickly. And even laugh about them. Like how we laugh about the Pasta Fight, right?
David: [Grimaces and rolls eyes] Sure.
Sarita: [Smacks his arm] You know, I can recognize those nonverbal cues.
[They both laugh]
Question: You have already given examples of compromises in the challenges section. You really have learned how to work through the conflicts. David, what’s another example of a compromise you make?
David: I don’t know. It’s not that difficult, you know? Every relationship requires compromise. So it’s hard for me to separate. I guess … closed captioning. We watch TV together on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Sarita needs closed-captioning.
Sarita: Yeah, I have auditory processing sensitivities, so any background sound turns dialogue into white noise. Without closed-captioning, I feel like I don’t understand half of what is going on.
David: It was weird at first, but now I don’t even notice it unless the dialogue doesn’t match.
Question: And what’s another example of a compromise you make, Sarita?
Sarita: Well, continuing with the theme of our TV Nights, I would say I compromise on what we watch. I really only watch the same four or five shows over and over again. I love sameness. I listen to the same songs. I read the same books. But, David doesn’t like to watch the same thing more than once. So, the compromise is, I get closed-captioning and we watch a new show. I don’t even care what it is. And I continue watching my favorites on my own.
Question: David, what is something you love about Sarita specific to her autism?
David: She is very passionate. I know people think autistic people don’t have empathy but it’s the opposite. She literally feels what other people and animals feel. I don’t know if that’s one of the reasons she’s uncomfortable with social situations. I imagine it’s hard to feel all those emotions from all those different people. Even when we watch TV, I have to pause so she can process the feelings. The characters are real to her. That’s what makes her such a talented artist. And that’s what makes her the kindest person I have ever met.
Sarita: [Crying, hugs David] Thank you.
Question: Sarita, what is something you love about David specific to his being neurotypical?
Sarita: It’s kind of the same but the opposite of what David said about me. I think he’s the kindest person I’ve ever met. I feel what others feel but David understands why they feel the way they do. He has that cognitive empathy. And it makes him so compassionate. I am very black-and-white about things, including my relationships with other people. I hate hypocrisy. But David, he doesn’t see hypocrisy. He sees someone struggling to succeed, to make the best out of a bad situation, to be nice. Whatever it is, he understands it. He expresses his hurt or his disappointment but he can move past it. I feel like I have learned a lot from him about acceptance and forgiveness. David is goodness.
David and Sarita’s love began with music so it only makes sense that our interview ends with it. David picks up a guitar and, one foot against the coffeetable, begins playing John Mayer’s “No Such Thing”.
Sarita leans toward me and whispers, “Sounds like warm, humid raindrops falling on a lake, doesn’t it?” And suddenly I can see it, too. Big southern trees dripping with Spanish moss surrounding a green lake.
They sing together, David’s voice lush and honeyed over the curves of the melody. Sarita’s voice is softer, an innuendo of harmonizing. She closes her eyes, screwing her face tight and opening and closing her fists during the chorus, as if holding on to each word. By the end, her voice is soaring with David’s, two birds flying over that gorgeous lake, following a path they’ve created for themselves.