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Frequently Asked Questions on Asperger Syndrome

1. What is Asperger Syndrome?

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is the term applied to the high functioning end of what is known as the spectrum of pervasive developmental disorders or the Autism spectrum. Asperger syndrome is a relatively new category, since it was officially recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) for the first time in 1994. Since AS itself shows a range or spectrum of symptom severity, many individuals who might meet criteria for that diagnosis are viewed as "unusual" or "just different," or are misdiagnosed with conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder.

The new DSM-4 criteria for a diagnosis of AS include the presence of:

  • The impaired use of nonverbal behaviors to regulate social interaction, failure to develop age-appropriate peer relationships, lack of spontaneous interest in sharing experiences with others, and lack of social or emotional reciprocity.
  • Restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities involving: preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted pattern of interest, inflexible adherence to specific nonfunctional routines or rituals, stereotyped or repetitive motor mannerisms, or preoccupation with parts of objects.

2. How common is Asperger Syndrome?
AS is much more common than previously realized and many adults are undiagnosed. Studies suggest that AS is considerably more common than "classic" Autism. Whereas Autism has traditionally been thought to occur in about 4 out of every 10,000 children, estimates of Asperger Syndrome have ranged as high as 20-25 per 10,000. A study carried out in Sweden , concluded that nearly 0.7% of the children studied had symptoms suggestive of AS to some degree. Time Magazine notes in its May 6, 2002 issue cover story, “ASD is five times as common as Down syndrome and three times as common as juvenile diabetes."

3. All of us have symptoms like these at times. Are we all Aspergers?
Many describe living with an Aspie as draining. It is not always the big things that lead to distress, but the constant drip, drip, drip of small seemingly thoughtless behaviors that destroys the relationship. The lack of eye contact, the obsessive/compulsive behaviors, the adherence to rigid routines, the self absorption, the social anxiety, all lead to family members feeling like they just cannot connect with their Asperger family members. It isn’t so much the unusual behaviors that make the connecting difficult, but the inconsistency. Never knowing what is coming next, makes a loving connection very difficult.

4. What distinguishes Asperger thinking from normal thinking?
Asperger Syndrome (AS) is demonstrated by deficits in communication, social skills and reciprocity of feelings. The Aspie knows what they think and feel but are often unaware of what their loved ones think or feel. With limited empathy for others, connecting with a loved one, at this moment in time, is extremely difficult. So those with Asperger Syndrome go through life focused on their needs and wants often missing what is going on with others. This does not mean that they don’t feel or love but they don’t seem to notice what is going on with others and do not convey that they care.

5. What is mind blindness?
Most of our communication and interpersonal relating is nonverbal in nature. The person with Asperger Syndrome has trouble reading these nonverbal cues and therefore ignores the bulk of communication. This mind blindness leaves the spouse wondering if she or he is understood or cared for or trusted by her or his Aspie partner. Again the partner with Asperger Syndrome may be well aware of certain facts about their loved one, but they do not incorporate this knowledge into the specific moment to be aware of the mind of the other person.

6. Can those with Asperger Syndrome love?
All people can feel love. It’s a matter of quality in a relationship with an AS adult. The AS adult may not have learned that his or her spouse can’t feel the love if he or she doesn’t demonstrate it. The AS adult may do what he or she thinks is best for the both of them but seldom talks to their spouse about his or her feelings or opinions. And if the non-spectrum spouse tries to share her or his love for their spouse, the AS adult may find their spouse’s need to “connect,” smothering. Often these relationships are without sexual intimacy.

7. Why can't AS adults connect?
Reciprocity is an integral part of communicating, connecting and loving. If you cannot comprehend the interior life of another, then connection is very difficult. Especially since the interior life of an NT consists of how he or she views him or herself in relationship to another. An individual with Asperger Syndrome has a much more difficult time knowing him or herself in relationship to another. Thus the Aspie partner does not realize that a loving relationship requires more than just facts. It requires connecting to the interior life of their loved one and sharing their interior life too. This is what is meant by a reciprocal relationship. An Aspie/Neuro-typical (NT) couple are often described as like two insulated wires wrapped around each other, . . . touching but not connecting.

8. Why do Aspies and Neuro-typicals get married?
Aspies and NTs choose partners much the same way as do all human beings. We are attracted physically and intellectually and emotionally. We may enjoy the similarities for the comfort and the differences for the spice! We also unconsciously seek mates who have qualities we lack. An AS person may be attracted to a strong, intelligent, compassionate NT who can handle the social world for them. The NT may be attracted to the unconventional nature and child-like charm of the AS adult. They may sense that the Aspie will allow the NT his or her independence. It is only later that they learn their AS partner is quite conservative in relating. Instead of supporting independence the NT spouse realizes that his or her AS mate is just not aware of (and even disinterested) the NT’s interests. The Aspie’s attention is narrowly focused on her or his own interests, because of the mind blindness mentioned above.

9. Are there women with Asperger Syndrome?
While the bulk of those diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome are male, there are girls and women with AS. And their lives are probably even more complex than their male counterparts. To some extent, males with Asperger’s are more accepted because their behavior is viewed as extreme male thinking. But women with Asperger Syndrome are viewed as cold, uncaring, and selfish because the cultural expectation is for women to be more aware of the needs of the relationship, something which is extremely difficult for most Aspies. Many AS women never marry or they marry AS men.

10. What kind of parents are people with Asperger Syndrome?
We are just learning about the mental health of NTs raised by Aspie parents or who have lived with a sibling on the Autism Spectrum. As adults some of these NTs are coming forward to talk about their childhoods. So far these people are reporting that they have coped with severe depression and self esteem problems because they lived with a parent who could not nurture them or get to know who they really are in the way that is so important to an NT. It is very debilitating to experience emotional rejection daily as a child, even if your physical needs are provided for. This does not mean the AS parent does not love their child. But the communication and relationship deficits confuse the child and can lead to the child feeling unloved. Remember it is the child’s experience that defines the parenting, not whether the AS parent loves their child.

11. Why can it be so emotionally debilitating for NTs to live with Aspie partners, parents, children and siblings?
Remember that NTs rely on connecting and reciprocity to define themselves within the relationship. So when the person you love does not respond to your bids for affection or attempts to share your inner world, you come to doubt your perception of reality. Slowly your self-esteem is eroded and you come to believe your AS family member is inconsistent and abusive. You walk on eggshells wondering what abuse the AS parent or spouse will dish out next. If your mate, child or parent has not yet been diagnosed, you do not know that they have a developmental disability. Using the normal NT relationship skills you keep trying to reach them or solve the problem and often blame yourself when you fail. So you resort to coping rather than resolution and often this creates severe depression or extreme resentment.

12. What do you mean by walking on eggshells in an Asperger marriage?
For example, men with undiagnosed AS often feel as if their spouse is being ungrateful or “Bitchy” when she complains he is uncaring or never listens to her. He knows what he thinks and how he feels, so should she. He has no motive to understand her interior world so her complaints are bothersome to him. He can come to be quite defensive when she asks for clarification or a little sympathy because he knows that he has good intentions so he resents the pressure. The defensiveness turns into verbal abuse (and sometimes physical abuse) as the husband attempts to control the communication to suit his view of the world. Domestic violence is a serious problem in homes where one partner has Asperger Syndrome.

13. Is there a cure for Asperger Syndrome or for the marriage?
Asperger Syndrome is a developmental disorder and as such is not considered curable. The typical methods of marital psychotherapy used to teach communication and interpersonal skills will usually be unsuccessful within an AS/NT relationship. The AS client can master some simple communication skills to get them by in the world, but these behaviors will fall short in the intimacy of a long term relationship. In the marriage the NT spouse will need to adapt to the mind blindness and other relationship limitations of their AS loved one. The NT must learn to translate the language to make her or his needs and wants as explicit as possible because the AS adult cannot read their partner’s non-verbal communication. She may also have to look to others for the type of personal and spiritual connection that is so difficult with an AS Spouse who cannont comprehend her interior life. On the other hand, there are marvelous new discoveries and tools coming forth every week that show remarkable promise in treating Autism Spectrum Disorders, such as Asperger Syndrome.

14. How can you have a marriage without connecting personally or spiritually?
Again it is a matter of quality. If you have many interests in common, such as music or sports, you may enjoy the companionship of your AS spouse. However, the strain of raising children who may have inherited AS from their parent, often puts an end to the marriage. The NT spouse cannot handle the loneliness and abuse, and care for dependent children as well. Often the NT is the one to finally call an end to the marriage. On the other hand, some NT spouses report that the marriage can be quite gratifying if their AS spouse acknowledges his or her limitations and works with the NT to create a kind of loving connection.

15. What can you expect if you divorce an AS man?
Unfortunately he will probably not understand why the woman wants a divorce and he is likely to be quite angry about it. Not knowing how to handle his distress he may turn the energy into revenge. It is believed that many high conflict divorces are the result of the negativity and obsessing of the AS partner regarding the wrongdoing he perceives of his NT spouse. It is likely to be a long, painful and expensive divorce where all suffer, including the children. Some Aspies however, just leave quietly and never remarry because they cannot quite figure out how to rebuild a life separately from their former spouse. Some NT former wives report that their former husband even still refers to her as his “wife” years after the divorce.

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