Communication is essential to every relationship. It provides the necessary ingredients for transforming relationships into intimate partnerships. Communication is, however, a central problem for adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). They have a tendency to talk “at”, rather than, “to” others. Typically they have limited interest in what others think and feel. Their motivation to be sociable is narrow, as they fear the complexities of relationships will reveal their interpersonal mistakes and lead to rejection. Generally, they shy away from the give-and-take of a close, ongoing relationship.
Yet, many adults with ASD are interested in being with other people. Many form romantic attachments engage in getting to know the person they like and eventually settle into long-term affiliations.
What happens then? What kind of communication occurs between adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their non-ASD partners, often referred to as neurotypicals (NT)? Where does this communication lead? And what obstacles occur when one person seeks emotionally engaging, mutually connected interactions, and the other doesn’t?
A recent study of intimate relationships between adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their NT partners sheds light on the communication difficulties that transpire in these relationships.
Prompts are used in every relationship to encourage a desired response from the person one is communicating with. They are used even more frequently by NT partners who lack the feeling of being understood, validated and cared for, as a means of promoting closeness with their ASD partners.
The study found that many couples develop a cycle wherein the NT partner tries various ways of encouraging effective communication to which the ASD partner responds by avoiding that sort of conversation. The NT person tries again to facilitate better communication and connectedness only to be met with a negative reaction to such encouragement. The NT partner tries harder and the ASD partner reacts more negatively. The result is a cycle of prompting and resistance, a frustrating, debilitating dynamic for both parties.
The majority of the NT people in the study felt that their partners’ unresponsiveness and lack of connection was the most difficult thing for them to deal with. It led, among other things, to considerable loneliness and isolation. As one NT respondent noted,
I mean, it’s a weird feeling to sit and be absolutely distraught and crying and have him change the subject and say, “I saw the most amazing engine the other day.” You are in the middle of this terrible crisis and breaking your heart, and he is telling you about nuts and bolts. I mean, that defies all reasoning. So you don’t talk to people about that.
ASD adults often realize how difficult it is for them to communicate to their partners but this realization doesn’t translate to an understanding of what their communication difficulties really are and the impact they have on their partner. As one Autism Spectrum Disorder subject in the study said,
…because of the way I am, I didn’t understand what she needs. I have had situations where I would be sitting on a chair, she would be on the floor bawling her eyes out and say, “why can’t you understand?” And I would say, “understand what?”
ASD partners typically don’t comprehend what their partner wants from them and their reaction is to withdraw. Another subject admitted:
…she will often try and get me to respond in the way that she wants me to respond, so she will keep at me…when that sort of thing happens, I start shutting down. So there’s going to be no visible response from me, no emotional response…
The struggle to communicate and the need not to is an enduring feature of relationships between adults with ASD and their neurotypical partners. In my next blog, I will describe more of the dynamics that typically occur in these relationships, including the strategies adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder use to obstruct emotional closeness and the methods their neurotypical partners rely upon to counteract these efforts.