This topic is not easy to talk about for neurotypical (NT) spouses of an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome/ autism (ASD). Their intimate life with their loved one in marriage is private. If the relationship also contains heartbreaking secrets and deprivation, then it is harder to mention it to anyone else.
The reality of an NT-AS relationship is that there will be many idiosyncrasies. This also applies to the part of the relationship that includes sex and romance: very often there is no sexual relationship at all; or the NT-partner feels as if she is the Mom of the partner, who behaves like an immature child in an adult’s body; or the female with Asperger’s in the relationship can become asexual, as soon as a child is born; or the middle-aged male-partner with Asperger’s (ASD) and a good academic career can’t understand why it is wrong to expose his private parts in public areas, if he feels like it. These are some of the confusing scenarios which arise regularly in NT/ASD marriages.
Many NT-AS marriages seem to quickly become celibate. In her research on sex in NT-AS relationships Maxine Aston found that fifty per cent of the couples reported, that there was no sexual activity within their relationship.
”In fact, there was no affection or tactile expression whatsoever. That is quite high when one takes into account that some of the respondents had not been together for more than two years”, Aston says, explaining: “ it is often the male client with AS who has withdrawn totally from the physical side of the relationship.” (1.)
But there are also problems in relationships with two neurotypical partners, right? Certainly so. But that is not what this article is about. This article is about the particular challenges that exist when one partner has an autism disorder (ASD / High functioning autism, Hfa) and the other partner is normally (NT) developed, i.e. the NT partner does not have a developmental disorder. This article focuses on the situation for the normally (NT) functioning spouse.
To identify the “idiosyncrasies” at first we must take a look at what characterizes a successful relationship. It is self-evident that all people are different. All people cannot be put into one general category. But some characteristics are said to be typical of every successful relationship:
- Communication and emotional reciprocity are often fundamental to whether a relationship works or not. They are the key ingredients to maintain a relationship in a workable and functional state. (2.)
- In a successful relationship there is the expectation of regular expressions of love and affection. (3.)
- Typical children and adults enjoy frequent expressions of affection, know how to express affection to communicate reciprocial feelings of adoration and when to repair someone’s feelings by expressions of affection. (3.)
- Communication, mind-reading, social interaction and empathy are major ingredients required for the formation and maintenance of a relationship. (1.)
- Both partners enjoy giving and receiving physical embraces.
- Both partners enjoy giving and receiving verbal and non-verbal expressions of tenderness.
- Both partners enjoy and appreciate having shared interests.
- Both partners have a normally, mature developed Theory of Mind. It is the ability to put yourself in the other’s place and take the other’s perspective; the ability to sense the other’s feelings, thoughts and motives and to know that the other person can have very different feelings, thoughts, motivations and needs than oneself. Theory of Mind also includes insight into your own motivations, feelings and thoughts. (1, 2, 3, 4, 6)
- Both partners have the ability and willingness to resolve conflicts, listen to the other’s point of view, negotiate and comply with compromises and agreements. Motivation and ability for reconciliation is an important part.
- Mutual loyalty, including an ability to intuitively know and respect the boundaries of privacy between two spouses in a relationship, and what can be said and done in the presence of outsiders.
- Both partners practice the adult responsibility to maintain and nourish the relationship; joint responsibility for the practical chores in the household.
Deficits in relationships and marriages with an AS-partner
Good and less good moments appear in all relationships. Every marriage has its problems. But NT-AS relationships suffer further as a result of neurologically and biologically caused deficits on all the points mentioned above, in addition to other marriage stressors. These deficits are caused by the Asperger’s (ASD) partner’s failure to reach certain cognitive, emotional, physical milestones. Therefore, Asperger’s Syndrome is called a Relationship Disorder. Asperger’s Syndrome seriously affects the sexual intimacy and life in the relationship and often causes great emotional pain for the neurotypical (NT) partner.
The functional disorders that are a result of the autism, characterize precisely the core areas which are most important for a person’s healthy and safe sexual development, especially the development of an intimate physical, emotional and social contact with other people.
Lennart Pedersen in Autisme og Sexualitet (6.)
The neurotypical spouse is adversely affected as a result of these deficits:
- Empathy disorder
- Emotional immaturity and deficiencies in Theory of Mind
- Deficiencies in the ability to express and receive emotions and affection
- Lack of understanding of the connection between an intimate, mutual atmosphere of tenderness and cohesion and the sexual intercourse
- Deficiencies in the ability and desire for mutual communication, shared interests and shared social experiences
- Sensory disorders that may cause the AS-partner’s reluctance to physical touch, smell, taste, etc.
- Deficits in the ability to understand non-verbal communication, which represent 75-90 percent of all communication – and probably even more when it comes to the intimate and sexual “language” including flirtation and the fore-play
- Extreme preoccupation with own needs and obsessions and limited ability to see the needs of others.
Lack of intimacy
The sexual side of a person is an aspect of ‘who’ they are, Maxine Aston states and continues:
Romance is often the very thing that can be lacking from the sexual side of the relationship and this can, in time, have a detrimental effect upon the quality, ore willingness of either partner to participate in making love. Often it is not realised by the AS partner that sexual acts may need to be precipitated by emotional closeness and that a lack of this can result in their partner’s reluctance to make love. Consequently, love making becomes non-existent. (1.)
“One of the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome can be emotional and social immaturity”, Psychologist and Asperger expert Tony Attwood reports. He describes how adults with Asperger’s Syndrome can have sexual behavior similar to a teenager’s level and states that “Having a relationship with a person with Asperger’s syndrome can affect the partner’s mental health.” (3.)
Many NT wives report that their AS-partner’s immaturity makes it impossible for them to have a sexual relationship. A 38-year-old neuro typical wife writes:
“He reads about sex in books intended for the education of young children. He is like a child who needs me as a Mom. So sex is simply an impossibility, I would feel like a sleaze.”
On the ability to be one half of a marriage Attwood writes:
From early childhood, people with Asperger’s syndrome are less likely to recognize and understand thoughts, beliefs, desires and intentions of other people in order to make sense of their behaviour. They are developmentally delayed in Theory of Mind abilities (Baron-Cohen 1995). This will adversely affect the development of the important relationship skills of empathy, trust, and the ability to repair someone’s emotions and share thoughts and responsibilities (Attwood 2004). (3.)
We also recognize problems with empathy, limited conflict resolution skills, an inclination to criticize and rarely compliment, and a tendency to show little interest in their friend’s experiences and emotions. (3.)
The technical part of the sexual relationships is mentioned in an article published by AANE.org, a network for people affected by Asperger’s Syndrome and autism:
Some individuals with AS can be very robotic or technically perfect in bed without paying attention to their partner’s need for an emotional connection and foreplay before intercourse. Some individuals with AS also don’t enjoy sex due to their sensory issues and/or low sex drive. (7.)
Similarly, Attwood writes:
The sexual script of the person with Asperger’s syndrome can be described by their partner as rigid, repetitive and unimaginative with a relative lack of sexual desire. (3.)
A neuro-typical husband describes the life with his AS-wife:
She is completely uninterested in intimacy and physical sex. I can only describe her with the word asexual. Her passivity makes me feel like a criminal, if I try to reach her and touch her. She did not reveal that trait before our son was born. It took me several years to find out there is something called Asperger’s Syndrome. It turned out that she knew about her diagnosis before we got married, but she concealed it for me. Because of my son I am afraid to get divorced. I am afraid the authorities will not figure out her masking and role-playing, and even if they do, they don’t care.
Sensory issues is an area that can be very problematic for an AS individual and may constitute a serious problem in the intimate and sexual relationship. The partner with AS can be hypersensitive to physical contact, body odor, taste and other sensory stimuli. Many neuro typical spouses recount their unhappiness when their partner does not want to kiss or be caressed, and they then suffer the AS-partner’s rejection of physical and emotional intimacy. (1, 3, 4, 5)
Information from aspires-relationships.com describes the problem:
Tactile defensiveness or other sensory issues of the AS partner may be so extreme that shared adult sleeping arrangements are not possible. Except for procreation, sex may be a non-starter for the AS spouse. On the other hand, sexual demands may be so high as to drive the other partner to distraction, leaving him or her little time for rest or respite. (8.)
A man with Asperger’s syndrome states on his blog:
Likewise, most people with Asperger’s have some aversion to being touched. I’m not that bad, but others are much worse. I know there are spouse who can’t stand to touch their spouse, to hug or hold them. When they have sex, it’s genitals only touching, because anything else is just too much. (9.)
“You must have known”
A standard remark to NT-spouses and NT-partners is: You must have known it before you got married / moved in together!
But it doesn’t work that way. Tony Attwood explains in his book “Asperger Syndrome” that an adult with AS / Hfa typically exhibits overwhelming skills in wooing in the infatuation period. The loved one, who has no insight into the complexity of Asperger’s Syndrome and Hfa, has no chance of realizing that the apparent social skills in romance and relationship forming are not an intuitively naturally behavior for the aspie, but are a learned response from copying and memorizing other people’s behavior.
The person with Asperger’s Syndrome may have developed a superficial expertize in romance and dating from careful observation, and by mimicking actors and using the script from television programmes and films. (4.)
Some partners have explained that they never saw the real person before they were married, and after their wedding day, the person abandoned the persona that was previously so attractive. (4.)
Several neurotypical wives report unanimously that their AS partner stopped showing interest in sexual activity quite soon after the wedding. NT husbands are reporting similar short time frames, although sometimes their AS-wife first switched the “persona” when a child was born.
A neurotypical wife reports the shock she got when the family was about to move to another house after twenty years at the same place.
All those years, my husband, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, was unwilling to have intimacy and sexual intercourse. But when I packed our things for moving out, I found tucked away in the attic a mountain of porn magazines and some of it was a punishable offense. I was so scared.
Tony Attwood describes how some individuals with AS end up on the wrong side of the law, for example, in connection with an extreme sexual obsession or stalking and violation of another person’s boundaries.
We recognize that problems with sexual conduct and experiences can result in accusation of a person with Asperger’s syndrome for sexual misconduct. The charges are often inappropriate sexual behavior rather than sexually abusive or violent behavior. (4, from the Danish translation)
A secret, special interest for pornography, stalking and intimidation towards other people are mentioned among behaviours which can lead to indictment of an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome. Attwood calls for sex education, also for adults with Asperger’s Syndrome to be given treatment programs designed for sexual offenders with appropriate modifications. (4.)
NT-spouses and partners overlooked
It is important to keep in mind that the majority of adults with Asperger / Hfa have never been formally diagnosed. It can take several years before the NT spouse finds out ‘the name of the dysfunction’. Immediately, the NT spouse feels relieved: So it’s not my fault! It is his/her autism disorder!
Then the NT spouse begins to order literature about Asperger’s autism from libraries and the Internet, hoping to find some way to a better marriage. Articles and books on Asperger’s syndrome and ASD are available in large quantities. But when it comes to the heart, two realities become clear. Firstly, most of the professional literature is only about children and adolescents with AS /ASD. Secondly, focus is mainly on the person who has the autistic developmental disorder. The neurotypical spouses and partners are virtually non-existent in the universe of the professionals.
Here are some neurotypical spouses’ reactions to this:
It is strange that the professional literature only cares about how the aspie can get a good sex life. Where is the NT partner? Are the writers also on the Autism Spectrum?
Do they think problems caused by autism spectrum disorder disappear on the eighteenth birthday?
When I search on the topic Asperger and Sex, it is mostly about how to teach young people not to masturbate in public areas. But I live with a middle-aged husband who is said to be highly intelligent and who hasn’t learned it and doesn’t recognize any problem. I suffer the consequences.
I read a mountain of relationship books on NT-AS relationships. I’ve had enough of endless ‘to-do-lists’ telling me what I am expected to do – or not do – in the bed and outside the bed, so my autistic AS-partner can feel good all the time. It’s sick. These lists are nothing but a job description for a sex-worker.
ASD, including Asperger’s is a lifelong incurable condition that no therapist or popular best-seller can conjure away. The neurotypical partner in an NT-AS relationship has to live with it, mark one’s boundaries – or give up. Every single NT husband and NT wife in a relationship with someone with AS/ASD has essential, personal reasons for the choices made. Love can be one of those reasons.
Read also: The Burden on NT Spouses and Children, OTRS
Read also: 15 tips for NT Spouses
Read also: NT-AS Relationship Table
(1) Asperger Syndrome in the Bedroom, Maxine Aston (2012)
(2) Asperger Syndrome in the Counselling Room, Maxine Aston
(3) Relationship Problems of Adults with Asperger’s Syndrome, a foreword by Tony Attwood. http://www.mindsandhearts.net/images/newsletter/April2012/The_Relationship_Problems_of_Adults_with_Aspergers_Syndrome.pdf
(4) The complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, by Tony Attwood
(5) Mark Hutten: Hutten: Asperger Adults and Fulfilling Relationships, http://www.myaspergerschild.com/2011/02/aspergers-adults-and-fulfilling.html
(6) Autisme og Sexualitet; (Danish) by Lennart Pedersen; contribution to the book “Sex kærlighed og autisme,” Sex og Sundhed, 2010
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