High-Functioning Autism: Media vs. Reality

It can take many years of marriage to discover that one of the partners is on the Autism Spectrum. Sometimes it happens after one of the couple’s children undergoes diagnosis and sometimes after reading an article or watching a T.V program about autism. Still, the way high-functioning autism is depicted in the media can be very misleading and far from reality.

Even the new series “The Good Doctor” perpetuates the stereotype of an awkward savant. TV’s most popular surgeon, Dr. Shaun Murphy is a young autistic surgical resident with a photographic memory and savant like diagnostic ability. While it is obvious that he is a gifted professional with impressive skills and abilities, it is also obvious that he is weird, does not know how to lie, cannot understand jokes and cynicism and has no idea how to initiate a romantic relationship.

The Good Doctor” is a great TV show and Shaun is adorable. However, his character strengthens the ignorance and misinformation about high-functioning autism. As opposed to what most people know and think, people with high-functioning autism often look as typically developing people, can behave appropriately, work in organizations, get married and have children. Many of them know very well how to lie, tell and understand jokes and be cynical. Some of them can really be funny. They have intense feelings. They can fall in love and they can also form intimate relationships.

Just like typically developing people are different from each other, people with autism are also unique and do not conform into a stereotypical description. Some of them are geniuses, but many of them have average IQ. Some of them are very talented and have impressive achievements, while others are ordinary people. Some are very successful in their professions, while others can hardly make a living and find it difficult to maintain their jobs. Some are introverted and some are extroverts. And because of this diversity, it is very difficult to diagnose high- functioning autism, especially in the adult population that was not diagnosed during childhood, due to lack of existing criteria before the nineties.

So without your notice and without their knowledge, you can be treated by doctors, served by lawyers or taught by professors with  high-functioning autism that has not been diagnosed. Many engineers and employees in the high-tech industry are on the autism spectrum, as well as many artists, actors and musicians. And not only that you won’t suspect them to have autism, but you will probably be very satisfied with the quality of the work they perform, as they tend to be perfectionists, talented and very creative.

The only one that will undoubtedly be exposed to their autistic features and behavior is their intimate partner, because their neurological disability limits their capacity to show and express emotions, to provide emotional support and to engage in a mutual relationship. They usually love their spouse very much, but do not know how to show it and cannot understand their partner’s perspective due to theory of mind deficits.

The discrepancy between media and reality and the ignorance about high-functioning autism contribute to the lack of awareness and thus, couples can find themselves in frustrating or high-conflict marriages for many years, without even suspecting that a hidden neurological disability is responsible for the difficulties they face in their relationship.

Dr. Pnina Arad

Consulting and Coaching

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