A week ago my husband and I decided to have children next year which is a massive step for us – and not without complications. Since it’ll be a non-neurotypical pregnancy all round – with one partner with Bipolar and PTSD on a cocktail of meds and the other with high functioning ASD – there’s been plenty of reason for our mutual therapist to question the sanity of having offspring. We’re a fairly determined, hard-working and stubborn pair with a lot of community support though, so we tend to have a fuck-you attitude to suggestions that we not have a family because our brains were born queered.
Of course, life has a sense of humour so it was inevitable that we’d have some AS roadblocks through the week. Honestly, it felt a little like the universe was taking our thrilled enthusiasm and poking at it, grinning, sneering “oh YEAH? We’ll see about that.”
So what happened and what have I learned?
One of the biggest issues for all ASD+non-ASD romances is communication. Because my husband is high functioning and has loads of shields that helps him move in the world of human relationships without tripping the radar of NTs (neuro-typical people), I sometimes forget he has ASD. Seriously. I forget. The moment in which I remember feels like the most horrible, stomach turning moment, when all becomes frozen and fractious and there feels like no way out.
In this case, it was during a moment of getting-it-on. I thought we were running one intimacy script and he thought we were running another, and playfulness ended in the most awkward irritation you could imagine. My bratty, cutesy taunting was taken not as bratty, cutesy taunting but on face value as real meanness. Things that another partner would understand as play and silly cheek, based on a bunch of non verbal cues and context, my husband takes literally. And the first I knew of this was when he suddenly withdrew, became extremely cold and irritated and asked with a degree of hurt in his voice “what are you doing?”
It felt like standing in the snow in a warm jacket, only to have it ripped away. My reaction was one of sudden emotional whiplash, and this small and seemingly unimportant interaction took on huge significance and became about ALL intimacy and the WHOLE relationship. I was hurt and he was hurt and everyone was having a bad time. The ensuing conversation was not the best, and we fell asleep feeling exhausted and pained – two people on different continents, staring across at each other in hostile rebuke and wretched mystery.
The morning brought more discord and my ramping PMS did not add coins to the situation at all. I was back in jesus-fuck-I-don’t-get-you land and he was feeling…well, I don’t want to speak for what he was feeling, but it appeared difficult. We walked to our morning bus holding hands, trying hard to reach over the water between our continents and mostly succeeding.
All that morning I felt so isolated. It is difficult knowing not one soul in my situation. I don’t know anyone with an ASD partner and that’s lonely at the best of times. When in crisis, it feels utterly bleak. I reach out to friends and feel met with either a rejection of my partner (which angers me – I don’t want to leave him, I want strategies to stay with him!) or a rejection of me for having feelings (because apparently anything less than a wholesale celebration of ASD and a suppression of the difficulties of loving these wonderful people is flawed). Both stances are fucked and unhelpful. And then, of course, there’s the friends too busy with their lives to give a shit because they have their own problems.
What I really need is just one damn friend who has an ASD partner, with whom I can have coffee, who will reflect back to me the mutuality of love and frustration that is this way of life. From whom I feel no judgment, and receive unequivocal support – not just of me, but of my marriage.
That night, we went to see a movie together because we love doing that. We splashed a little cash to do it, despite needing to save for our Europe trip in September, and it was seriously the best decision. Being able to bond again over something that we found emotionally neutral and fun, to see each other again as desirable and a comrade, to make out in the dark on Norton street…these were ways to meet in the middle, and not travel to poles apart.
We briefly discussed through the day by text, too, the idea of moving towards a more heightened active consent model. Inspired by an article I’d read about how very active consent is good for people with ASD who find negotiating these situations hard, I suggested we talk about it. It came out that the problem with the intimacy exchange where things had blown up was because my husband had just not known what the fuck was going on. In my mind, it was obvious, but it wasn’t to him.
To me it was incomprehensible that it wasn’t obvious but that’s where the divide between ASD thinking and non-ASD thinking comes in: what I can intuit is often a garbled non-language to my husband. He needs it stated, he needs the checkin, he needs the clear-cut discussion. He needs me to use a safeword or to signal that I’m playing before I play. Non-verbal cues that might just be enough with another partner are lost on him. He doesn’t do information that way. And while that’s completely excellent to know (now), I hadn’t known that before and adjusting to that new way of doing things requires practice and some thinking.
This morning we had another one of those overwhelming “different planet” discussions where I brought up where we were going towards active-consent practices and what we were reading/doing/thinking, really eager to do some work with him on it (I tend to get over-excited about relationship work and want to roll up my sleeves and get cracking right away).
Thrown, he became immediately stressed and hostile that I’d raised it in that moment, saying we had too much to do today. As the discussion wound on, with ebbs and flows of arrrgh, wtf, etc, it became apparent that the very same issue that had come up with the intimacy exchange 48 hours before had blocked us again. After some teariness and wariness of each other, he eventually stepped me through the fact that having no time to reflect and consider before entering into a difficult emotional discussion freaked him out immensely. In his mind, the plan of the day was eat pancakes, do dishes, hang laundry, do study…not discuss emotional things with no notice. The plan was disrupted and the plan was important, and disruptions to the plan were unacceptable or at the least really difficult.
Everything was ok once I understood this…not perfectly ok, or crytallised into easiness, but I could see how it had come to pass that this conversation (so easy and natural for me) was actually fairly horrifying for him.
I find it hard to admit just how much of the work we do is slowly skewing towards supporting the ASD perspective in our relationship, but in the end, that’s life. I am the more flexible one, thus I must bend. What else is there to do? I will feel angry and I will feel tired, but would I change out him for someone else? Fuck no. I love him for all his complexities, just as he loves me for mine. And there are many things about his ASD that make him a kickass partner, and much better for me than someone without ASD.
I can honestly say that despite the tears and the exhaustion, the week has rounded out with us both even stronger in our bond and our resolve to be our best selves for each other.
What’s my takeaway learning from this? It’s a little like a lot of what I’ve been reading on teh internets and more and more the penny drop moments that partners of an ASD cutie express really track for me too.
1. My partner needs notice before things that are potentially emotionally fraught. This includes intimacy – which is hard to read for a lot of us, but sometimes completely unfathomable for my partner. Active consent practices are something that can help – simplifying the feeling of ‘not knowing’ for him by integrating systematic checking in regardless of how time goes on, or however comfortable we feel. Rather than waiting for him to intuit, open up the floor for him to tell me and ask questions by starting a conversation every time we are close.
2. My partner needs notice before emotional discussions, to gather his thoughts and do reading, research or even just note what he’d like to say and feel prepared. I need to find out too what is happening in his head before emotional discussions. Does he have a script running that I’m disrupting? If the goal is a healthy, happy discussion, how can I help facilitate that and accommodate the fact that he has additional needs in these contexts?
3. Accept the ASD/non-ASD divide and the fact that there is inbuilt inflexibility in working on problems that mean things will tend to go towards accommodating the ASD perspective. Having to do a lot of work and make ‘concessions’ is part of the package. Rather than complain about the dark, light a candle, and if you just don’t want to deal with the dark, you know what you need to do. If leaving the relationship is really not your goal, then it is time to accept some things – and vent, sure, but ultimately work on your shit.
4. Find your people. This is my big project because I really feel like I don’t have anyone, yet, who I feel can support me well in this aspect of my relationship. And yeah, I feel pretty scared about that in the runup to having kids. So since I’m working on my shit, it really is time to make “finding a tribe” (so to speak) a bigger priority. Because fuck, coffee with another partner of an ASD person sounds like the biggest craving I have right now.
It’s all a continuous learning curve that leaves me very aware of just how deep my connection with my spouse runs. We stick out the hard times for each other consistently, and that’s what my grandparents and parents have taught me of love.
We are not mere mortals. We are something more when we are together, and that more is difficult to put into words. So instead of try, when I hit post on this post, I’m going to go give my husband a massive life-affirming hug.