How Do People on the Autism Spectrum Navigate Long-Term Relationships?

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Answer by Marcus Geduld, former dateless nerd, now 20 years into a relationship:

In a relationship, both members must collaborate on coping.

It’s true that I can’t multitask. So, for instance, if I’m writing a Quora post, I can’t listen to my wife at the same time. I’m either 100 percent absorbed in writing or 100 percent absorbed in listening. Half-listening is something I’ve never experienced and can’t even imagine.

Worse, I can’t easily switch back and forth between the two tasks. If my wife interrupts me, I will completely lose my train of thought, which is frustrating, though I hope I don’t act like this.

The bigger problem is that when she interrupts me, I can’t immediately attend to what she’s saying. That’s true even if I’d rather listen to her than write. My brain takes a noticeable amount of time to switch from one task to another:

Scene: I’m typing an answer on Quora.

Wife: When do you want to eat dinner?


Wife: Marcus, when do you want to eat dinner?

Me: Hmm?

Wife: I said, When do you want to eat dinner?

At this point, I stare at her blankly. What’s going on in my head is that I’m trying to remember how to process spoken words. Dinner? What’s dinner? Din … ner …

Me: Oh! Dinner! Yeah! Um … maybe in an hour.

One of the most popular theories about Asperger’s and autism is that many of their symptoms, even the ones involving social deficits, stem from a hypersensitivity to stimuli. A dripping faucet may affect a person with Asperger’s the way a jackhammer affects a “neurotypical” person.

Since we can’t tune out “minor things,” we learn, at an early age, to shut off parts of our brains that impede focus. What this means is that if I didn’t tune out my wife at times, it would be impossible for me to get anything done. I’d have to turn myself into a full-time sentry, continually monitoring her, even when she wasn’t saying anything, just on the off-chance that she might.

The way people with Asperger’s and their partners can cope with this starts with understanding on both ends.

My wife needs to understand that it’s impossible for me to quickly switch gears. I’m not being willful or uncaring; I simply can’t do it. If she’s able to completely realize this about me, she’ll understand that I can no more instantly attend to her than a 5-foot-6-inch person can morph himself into a 6-foot-2-inch person.

I need to understand how irritating it is to be ignored. It feels rotten to sit in a room with someone while getting the impression that you could keel over from a heart attack and he wouldn’t even notice. And it feels worse if, even after you ask for his attention, he doesn’t seem to hear you or stares at you blankly.

Even if this understanding doesn’t solve the root problem, you can use it to prevent making things worse. It’s hurtful for me to say, “Do you really have to interrupt me all the time?” But I’m less likely to say this if I spend a moment putting myself in my wife’s shoes. It’s hurtful if my wife says, “You never listen!” But if she understands how hard it is for me to multitask, she’ll be less likely to say it.

The truth is that it sucks to be pulled away from what you’re doing, and it sucks to be ignored. All couples have to cope with this. It’s just more extreme when one partner is on the spectrum.

Couples can also strategize. My wife has learned to edge into interruptions rather than pounce with them. She’ll say my name and then wait for me to surface, rather than saying an entire phrase.

I have learned a three-part strategy, which helps me at work in addition to in my relationships. The first is to say, “Just a second … ” which I can do without thinking about what was just said to me. It’s become a rote reaction. Next, I wind down my current task as quickly as I can—for example, finishing the word I was in the middle of typing or jotting down a note for me to remember later. Finally, I leave a bread crumb for myself: This is generally a leading, unfinished sentence. If I was in the middle of writing”When I was 6, I had a pet mouse named George,” I’ll purposefully leave it as, “When I was six, I had a pet mouse named … ” It will be much easier for me to resume if I leave this hook for myself, and knowing that, I have less anxiety about taking a break.

With practice, I’ve gotten to a point where I can do all this in a few seconds.

One more thing: I proactively take an interest in my wife when I’m not involved in an engrossing task. I ask her about her day, cuddle with her, etc., all without her having to ask for it. What she wants is the same thing most of us want from relationships: to feel important to our partners. If I show her she’s important to me, she’ll feel less inclined to seek out my attention when it’s hard for me to give it to her.

Which is to say, after you finish writing a chapter, baking a cake, building a robot … go hug your spouse.

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