Adults with Intelligent High-Functioning Autism: Step One is Acknowledgement

Life can be overwhelming.

And life inside a mixed-neurological family is more overwhelming than people who aren’t managing autism and family relationships can possibly understand.

What many families managing autism may not know is that often, when a child is on the spectrum, one of the parents is on the spectrum, too. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course. But it happens. A lot. Autism has a genetic component and figuring out that a child is on the spectrum may be the first step in recognizing autism in a marriage.

Whenever a child is diagnosed, it’s time for the parents to look at each other and ask, “Is one of us on the spectrum?”

That’s easy enough to ask, but what does intelligent autism in adults look like? How would you know if one of you were on the spectrum?

The reality is that a lot of professionals don’t recognize intelligent high-functioning autism — even autism professionals! Most autism professionals who work with adults on the spectrum are used to seeing clients who have lower levels of intelligence. When professionals are looking for autism in adults, they’re not looking for intelligent high-functioning autism. And let’s face it. There’s a big difference between someone with autism who has an IQ of 120 or 130 or higher, and someone with autism who has an average IQ of between 90 and 110.

I’m not trying to be elitist when I write this. I’m trying to be REAListic.

Intelligent adults with high-functioning autism usually develop very honed compensatory strategies. Most older adults were never diagnosed as children and struggled alone to figure out how to manage a typically developing world. Many have heroically memorized social cues so that they can get along in the world. This can make intelligent adults with high-functioning autism seem very similar to typically developing people in day-to-day work or community social interactions. Close family social interactions are different, however.

And, it is these intelligent adults with high-functioning autism who are often getting married and having children. Their compensatory strategies are honed enough that marriage and family become a real social possibility. Many get married and have children without knowing about the autism at all. Then, a child with autism comes into the family. A diagnosis is made.

And… well… when the child is diagnosed, the parents may get their first clue that they’re in a mixed-neurological marriage.

If you’re the typically developing spouse of someone with intelligent high-functioning autism, you’re probably already an autism expert. You’ve been living with someone who doesn’t interpret social cues, facial expressions and body gestures the way typically developing people do. You’ve been living with someone who probably isn’t great at seeing your perspective and understanding why you see the world the way you do.

If you’re a parent of a child with autism and you have autism, you may be seeing some of yourself in your child. You might be worried that your child will go through some of the same struggles — including bullying — that you went through when you were little. You might want to know what you can do to make your child’s life easier.

Many intelligent adults on the autism spectrum have a hard time accepting that they have autism. That said, one of the first things you can do to help your child is accept that you might be on the spectrum. Accepting the reality of what’s happening is the first step to making lives better.

If you’ve always lived inside a brain that has autism, it can be difficult to comprehend that typically developing people have the ability to fairly accurately sense each others’ intentions and emotions without saying a word to each other. They’re using the information they glean from that sense to make social decisions ALL THE TIME.

Every. Second. Of. Every. Day. And. Every. Time. They. Talk. To. You.

Typically developing brains literally cannot turn their sense of awareness of others’ intentions and emotions off. It’s a sense that’s a little bit like the sense of hearing. Just like it’s pretty difficult to truly plug your ears, it’s pretty impossible for a typically developing person to turn off their awareness of other people. When they’re in the presence of other people, they feel the other people’s emotions and sense their intentions — and they do it fairly accurately. (Not perfectly all the time, of course, but fairly accurately.)

Many intelligent adults with high-functioning autism have a hard time believing that they’re missing a sense they’ve never personally felt. It’s hard to believe in the accuracy of a social sense you haven’t yourself experienced.

And that means that it’s easy for an intelligent adult on the autism spectrum to deny that he or she has autism. If you’ve never experienced something yourself, it’s hard to know what it means for you — and your family — that you’re not experiencing it.

The thing is, denying the autism doesn’t help. Denying that your typically developing spouse really does have a sense that you don’t have doesn’t help. The first step is to accept that you have a brain that is working differently than your typically developing spouse’s.

To be quite honest, when the partner with intelligent high-functioning autism in a mixed-neurological marriage is unwilling to accept the autism, there is little hope for improvement in the family relationships. That goes for marriage relationships and parent-child relationships.

Step one is acknowledgement.

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