If Your Spouse Is Autistic, You Might Be Autistic, Too - BRIGID Magazine

Thursday, September 12, 2019

If Your Spouse Is Autistic, You Might Be Autistic, Too

In the first large study of its kind, researchers found
that autistic individuals are more likely to be in relationships
with other autistic people. | Image: Allef Vinicius
If your spouse is autistic, chances are you are also on the spectrum or have another neurodiverse difference, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, social phobia, or generalized anxiety disorder.

According to a large Swedish study, which looked at over 707,000 individuals, those on the autism spectrum are 10-11 times more likely to choose romantic partners who are also autistic.

These findings were not found in control populations. Some control populations included individuals with Crohn's disease, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis, and these individuals did not choose partners with the same or similar conditions. 

You may not have been aware of the possibility of being autistic yourself, especially if your spouse was diagnosed at an early age, has more obvious or "stereotypical" autistic features that you do not see in yourself, or if you have developed the tendency to "mask" or "camouflage" your own autistic traits — something that many autistic people do unconsciously as a way to fit in and be socially accepted. 

Autistic women in particular go undiagnosed more often and for longer periods of time than autistic men, since findings about the female autism phenotype have yet to reach all medical and mental health professionals. Women and girls with more male-typical autism characteristics tend to be diagnosed sooner. Sadly, only a minority of medical and mental health professionals are well-informed enough about the female autism phenotype to be able to detect less typical autism presentations in women and girls. This can lead to a life of confusion, a string of misdiagnoses (often borderline personality disorder, anxiety, and/or depression), and one frustratingly ineffective psychological or pharmacological intervention after another. 

According to the International Society for Autism Research, this may be changing: 

"There is a burgeoning interest amongst researchers, clinicians, and members of the autism community in the 'female autism phenotype', i.e., a female-typical pattern of core and associated autistic characteristics. This is driven by the realization that autistic females are often excluded from clinical care and research, because they do not fit the stereotypical conceptualization of autism, which is largely based on male cases." 

Autistic females are often highly empathetic, analytical, deeply scientific and/or artistic, may routinely escape into nature or fantasy, tend to have a strong connection with animals, may have been told that they are HSP (a highly sensitive person), and often have sensory sensitivities that affect daily life, as well as many other distinct characteristics and co-occurring health concerns.  

Autistic individuals are 10-11 times more likely
to choose romantic partners who are also autistic.
Image: Spectrum
In clinical or therapy settings, when a couple experiences relationship difficulties and one is autistic, the focus often turns to supporting (or in some cases, trying to change) the autistic individual and to highlighting the unique difficulties that are thought to arise when one spouse is autistic and the other is not. Arguably, far more information and support is available for these apparent "neuro-mixed" couples than for couples where both are autistic, as evidenced by the magnitude of material available online and in bookstores directed at this particular type of union. 

However, this "help" may be doing more harm than good, and may be a sign of widespread confusion. Many sites, blogs, social media pages, and forums are dedicated to assisting and supporting those with spouses on the autism spectrum. On several of these, the non-autistic spouses commonly lament their lot in life, "stuck" with an autistic or "Aspie" spouse. In some cases, as with the site called The Truth About Aspergers, dangerous generalizations about abusive autistic people are made and inaccurate information about lack of empathy in autism is spread. (In fact, autistic people are incredibly empathetic, but they tend to express empathy in very different ways or have trouble showing empathetic responses in real time.)  

While the emotions and experiences expressed by the apparent non-autistic spouses on several of these sites are legitimate (since autistic spouses are capable of being hurtful and abusive, just like any other human), some of their misery could be more correctly attributed to the likelihood that they themselves are autistic! If not autistic, they may have other neurodiverse differences for which they are not receiving appropriate support. 

These difficulties can play out in the relationship in ways that can be particularly catastrophic. An undiagnosed autistic woman unknowingly experiencing the effects of her own autistic traits, for example, may incorrectly assume that her autistic spouse is the source of most (or all) of her misery. Instead of seeking and receiving help for her own neurodiversity and how it interacts with that of her spouse, the relationship may end and she may go on to simply repeat the pattern with another individual. Tony Attwood, foremost autism expert and author of the book, "The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome," estimates that around half of all autistic people remain undiagnosed.     

For these reasons, it is important for clinicians and psychologists working with "neuro-mixed" couples to turn their focus on the "neurotypical" spouse, who may not be neurotypical after all and may be in need of an autism assessment. Once the "neuro-types" are identified, only then can the couple's relationship issues be adequately understood and addressed. 

by Kristen Hovet

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