Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

One of the things that characterize people with autism is their ability to focus on details that most people miss. Their brain is just wired in such a way that they can perceive very small details that neurotypical individuals tend to ignore. This can be a huge advantage in many professions and people on the autism spectrum excel in fields such as: medicine, computer programming, quality assurance, science, art and music. Their accuracy and perfectionism can path their way to successful professional careers and impressive academic achievements.

However, this unique talent can be a big disadvantage when it comes to intimate relationships. As people with autism often suffer from sensual sensibilities, they can become very irritated by certain sounds, lights, smells etc. They can also find it intolerable when things are not arranged in a very special order. Sometimes they have such high standards that it is not surprising that no one else, including their intimate partner, can meet.

When people with autism are obsessive about the little details, it can drive their intimate partner crazy and consequently lead to the deterioration of the relationship. A recurrent complaint in my clinic, that could easily be funny in other circumstances, concerns the dishwasher. Some people with autism have their special way of arranging the dishes in the dishwasher, which is of course very logical to them. They are also certain that they have succeeded in figuring out the only way dishes can come out perfectly clean. Consequently, they don’t understand why their partners cannot just do it their way, although they keep explaining the logic behind their order, and why their wives continue to put the dishes randomly, without paying attention to their clear instructions.

Gifted people, who are experiencing great professional success and are being continually appreciated for their excellent performances in their workplace, sometimes develop a sense of superiority and accuse their spouses for every minor thing that bothers them. They are not aware of the fact that continuous criticism is like a deadly poison. This tendency to comment on things that are less than perfect creates a negative atmosphere that infiltrates and takes over the relationship.

In many cases, people with autism can’t see the forest for the trees and find it difficult to make the distinction between important issues that deserve serious consideration and less notable things that should be treated with much less attention, if any. When a partner with autism ignores or minimizes a spouse’s enormous contribution to family life and focuses instead on failures to meet standards in less significant matters, it causes severe harm to the relationship and results in feelings of anger, frustration and lack of appreciation on behalf of the typically developing partner.

The mutual understanding of both intimate partners, that exaggerated criticism stems from the tendency of people on the autism spectrum to notice the smallest details, and that these details really bother them, can open the door to create positive changes in the relationship.

Dr. Pnina Arad

Consulting and Coaching


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *