Keys to a Successful Autistic/Neurotypical Marriage
Keys to a Successful Autistic/Neurotypical Marriage
Categories: RECENT RESEARCH
Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A. with Ron Sandison, M.Div.
An interview by Stephanie C. Holmes, MA Certified Autism Specialist with Ron Sandison, M. Div
Because of confidentiality, I cannot share stories and struggles related to me by clients, but I am a recent acquaintance of Ron Sandison. Ron is an author and person with ASD in a successful marriage who volunteered to share his thoughts on AS-NT (Autistic/Neurotypical) marriages. I asked Ron to share some of his insights and research.
Ron Sandison (RS): Marriage is rare among individuals with autism. Only about 20-30% marry, with only a 20% success rate between autistic/neurotypical marriages. Dr. Leo Kanner, an Austrian psychiatrist and the first to describe infantile autism, stated, “Of all the autistic individuals I researched only one married—Robert F.” This is a bleak picture of the sacrament of marriage.
However, I am finding in my private practice/consulting that AS- NT is not as rare as we think. But providers or clinicians who truly understand the complexities of this marriage are rare and difficult to locate, which is why I have clients currently that I coach in 23 states and 4 countries. This is why I asked Ron to share a word of hope. Much of what is available concerning AS- NT marriage paints a very bleak picture of marital happiness.
Interview with Ron Sandison
Stephanie Holmes (SH): Ron, what insights do you think would be helpful to clients with AS/NT marriages? What have you and your wife learned?
RS: My wife Kristen can testimony that being married to husband with autism can drive you crazy at times. Unlike most married couples, Kristen and I have separate bank accounts and also a family account. Autism causes me to need to have control over my own finances. When planning a family event my wife has to check with me so it does not conflict with my memory work.
SH: When did you tell Kristen about the AS? Did she know before you were married?
RS: While dating, I informed Kristen about my unusual habits like having a $6,000 dollar Calico Critters collection in boxes at my parents’ house, but on our second date I told Kristen, “I follow rigid patterns like Rain Man and each day at 3:45 pm I do Bible memory work for 2 to 3 hours. This memory routine enables me to be able to quote over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament. The woman who marries me will have to accept my routines.”
I waited two years into our marriage to let her know my autism diagnosis. Many spouses with Asperger’s/autism don’t have this luxury since he or she is diagnosed later in life after the diagnosis of his or her child. This later diagnosis can cause a lack of understanding of autism and its impact on family relationships.
As Ron stated, many adults who are on the spectrum come to find out much later in life after a child is suspected of being on the spectrum. How the husband deals with the diagnosis, sharing it, owning it, believing it and understanding its impact on marriage plays a large role in AS-NT success. Although I do not always insist on a formal diagnosis, a strong clinical impression or understanding as the to various issues and complexities of AS wiring is important for counselors and coaches to understand when working with neurodiverse couples.
SH: Ron, how have you and Kristen adapted and found marital fulfillment with the AS- NT diversity in marriage?
RS: During my six years with my wife Kristen I have learned four essential skills to a successful autistic/neurotypical marriage. Through these lessons I have enjoyed a blessed and humorous marriage.
Skill #1: Celebrate Neurological Diversity. Autism makes me think differently, and for a successful marriage my wife needs to have a clear understanding of my unique neurological wiring. For example, on my cell phone, Kristen is listed not as my wife but “Kristen from Bloomfield” (the city she lived in when we first met). Many individuals with Asperger’s refer to themselves or others in the third person.
I also lack the neurological ability to understand certain social customs. On December 7th, 2012, when I married my wife, my brother Steve, who was my best man, said, “Ron, where’s the wedding ring?”
“Kristen’s sister Heather has the wedding ring,” I replied.
“Heather has the engagement ring! Where’s the wedding band?” I failed to comprehend the social custom that a wedding band was required with the engagement ring.
Skill #2: Marriage is a Covenant, Not a Contract. Most males exert strenuous strength and resources winning over their fiancée, hunting for their prized prey. After a few years into the marriage they view marriage as a contract which cannot be broken. They become complacent and take the relationship for granted like a dusty football trophy placed on the mantel. As concrete thinkers, males with Asperger’s naïvely believe that a godly Christian wife would never divorce him since the Bible condemns divorce and God hates it.
Approaching marriage as a covenant means you continue to pursue your wife showering her with your love and take a sincere interest in her interests. Don’t allow the world to revolve around you and your special interests but celebrate the activities she enjoys. As the apostle Paul instructed Timothy, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). Remember, love is an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person.
Skill #3: Seek Clarification with Decoding Social Clues. Don’t just assume- ask! Asperger’s causes me to misinterpret my wife’s social clues and lack the ability to decode her body language. This lack of decoding can cause your spouse to become frustrated or flustered.
You can learn to decode your spouse’s social cues by asking informative and direct questions like, “What are you thinking?” “Can you please explain what you mean by that statement?” or “How does that make you feel?”
When my wife Kristen and I first moved into our apartment as newlyweds, we had everything except a couch. My procrastination in purchasing one upset Kristen so much that she nudged me away when I tried to cuddle with her. I said to her, “What are you thinking?” I could tell she was angry by her standoffish actions. Kristen said, “We need to get a couch before our Super Bowl party next week!” My question enabled Kristen to share her feelings which I sometimes have difficulty decoding.
Skill #4: Most Wives Desire Physical & Emotional Affection. Connections are made with the heart, not the tongue. Most males with Asperger’s shy away from physical touch and hugs. A common characteristic of autism is sensitivity to physical touch. This can cause your wife’s emotional tank to be empty. Learn your spouse’s love language.
Do not just hide in your man cave or isolate. It is too easy when having people over and such to want to get a book and read elsewhere but it is important to be intentional about being involved.
SH: Ron, you mentioned love languages. Are you referring to the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman? Receiving gifts, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and words of affirmation?
RS: Yes, if her love language is touch make a conscious effort to cuddle. Snuggle with her in bed; place your arm on her shoulder while watching TV. The good thing with establishing habits is that they quickly become routines and we on the spectrum love routines. Cuddling can become second nature—don’t worry, you won’t lose your man-card.
Being married to a neurotypical wife has its benefits, including helping me learn social and communication skills. As the Bible states, “The two will become one flesh.” Church Father Tertullian encourages couples, “Marriage is no burden when the two become equally one in all things, losing all, sharing all.”
There are not many marriage books that do not tend to translate well into the AS- NT counseling world, but I have found that Love and Respect, The Five Love Languages and parts of Gottman training in addition to understanding the neurodiversity aspects of AS- NT marriage can be great resources for Christian AS-NT couples seeking professional help.
Ron Sandison, M.Div., works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of American. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes. Ron has published articles in Autism Speaks, Autism Society of America, Autism File Magazine, Autism Parenting Magazine, Not Alone, the Mighty, the Detroit News, the Oakland Press, and many more. He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie. You can contact Ron at his website http://www.spectruminclusion.com. Ron has written a wonderful book for Christian families with children on the spectrum called A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice: Biblical Wisdom
Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A., is an ordained minister, a Licensed Christian Counselor, and a Certified Autism Specialist. Stephanie’s career path changed when her eldest daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2004. She then began to focus on helping families deal with the frustrations and challenges of having a special needs child and works with Aspie- NT couples across the country through Skype consultation. She speaks nationally about AS/ASD and families, Spectrum Teens, and Aspie- NT marriage. Her newly published book Confessions of a Christian Counselor: How Infertility and Autism Grew My Faith explores her personal journey and gives practical advice to families. With leading ASD researcher, Dr. Tony Attwood, Stephanie has published articles in Autism /Asperger’s Digest on issues Spectrum Teens face.