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Effective Communication For Couples In An Autism Spectrum Disorder Relationship

Communication "roundabout" can be avoid in an Asperger's relationship
Couples in an Autism Spectrum Disorder relationship can avoid typical communication barriers

Recently, I wrote about a pattern of communication that happens often between couples in which one person has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the other does not. The non-ASD, or Neurotypical (NT), partner typically communicates his or her desire to be understood, validated and cared for by the ASD partner through various instructions, explanations, and requests. These are referred to as prompts, much like the instructions used by classroom teachers to encourage and guide the learning process.

The Autism Spectrum Disorder partner, on the other hand, is in the role of a learner. The difficulties he or she has with social understanding and social interactions, the core features of Autism, make it hard to communicate with and respond effectively to, the NT partner’s need for intimacy. They are skills that are lacking and in need of development. Click here to learn more about the process of therapy for neurodiverse couples.

The result of prompting, on the one hand, and skill building, on the other, has been termed a “communication roundabout.” One person pulls for an emotionally connected intimate relationship by requesting certain behaviors and responses from the other person who is often confused, frustrated, anxious and/or angry with these requests. The negative reactions of the ASD partner then lead to more prompting by the NT person, which generates even greater resistance by the ASD partner, creating a downward spiral in which many couples find themselves alienated, discouraged, and exhausted.

Breaking The Roundabout Cycle

Is there an off-ramp for this revolving circuit of requests for emotional connectedness and failure to provide it? It depends. If both partners want to exit the cycle, that is, find constructive alternatives to their stagnated communication patterns there are alternatives. Here are techniques that can lessen the occurrence of communication roundabouts.

1.   Recognize The Problem

The conventional view of Autism Spectrum Disorder is one of a static, biologically set collection of difficulties that are relatively unaffected by one’s social condition. If you have it, you have it. Whatever is going on around you in your social world doesn’t shape or change your ASD condition.

In fact, the patterns of behavior of someone with ASD are the result of a complex interaction among various needs, expectations, desires, and experiences, all occurring within the person’s social worlds.

Autism is NOT a fixed, constant condition that remains the same throughout one’s life. It is subject to the same forces of change that occur in anyone’s life. Recognizing this provides the encouragement and optimism that is crucial in quitting communication roundabouts.

2.   Watch Out For Prompt Dependency

As in the classroom, prompting gets results. If you explain what you need and how to get it, it often happens. The problem is, prompting becomes habitual. Both partners come to rely on one person explaining, instructing and reminding, and the other responding. Roles become rigid. One person assumes responsibility for initiating change and the other for changing.

Prompting can become a gateway to interactions that best resemble a parent/child relationship rather than a partnership between two capable adults with differing but necessary assets. This tends to bog couples down and hinder their learning to communicate more effectively. Pay attention to prompt dependency and look for ways to avoid it whenever possible.

3.   Intervene Early

Prompting can become a pattern in a relationship, and couples may become dependent upon it to address their communication challenges. Research indicates that prompting should be addressed as soon as it is recognized. Catching it early makes it easier to correct.

Don’t give up hope if you’ve just now noticed how prompting is an ingrained feature of your relationship. The adage, “better late than never” definitely applies to this situation. The key to changing ineffective relationship patterns, including communication, is to catch it when you can.

4.   Communicate in Writing

I am a big believer in writing as an effective form of communicating needs and expectations within an ASD relationship. Writing often eases miscommunication and provides the couple with the same information to refer back to in studying their communication patterns.

In writing out one’s expectations and instructions for effective interactions, as well as reactions to these, doing so regularly and consistently is important. Be sure to provide written feedback to each other in order to correct an ineffective course of action. Reassess each person’s needs, expectations and reactions regularly, and make sure there is a frequent feedback loop between what is requested and the responses to it.

With regular monitoring of how things are going and corresponding adjustments to how both partners are responding, couples in an ASD relationship can develop the intimate and fulfilling relationship that both are seeking.

Learn more about what I do and why in neurodiverse couples therapy.


Dr. Kenneth Roberson

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Click below to ask a question or schedule an appointment.

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