After one spouse is diagnosed with high-functioning autism, the typically developing spouse will often reinterpret the entire relationship. At the same time, the partner with autism may have more of an inclination to go on with life as usual.
Once typically developing people find out that their intimate partners or close family members have autism, they can begin using their theory of mind skills to reinterpret their loved ones’ experiences through what they imagine might be their loved ones’ eyes.
The typically developing people may not get it right all the time, of course, but their theory of mind skills give them the capacity to glean insight into what their partners with autism have been perceiving socially and emotionally during their relationships.
Family members with autism — who do not have as well of developed theory of mind skills — are less able to garner new insight into their typically developing family members’ perspectives after autism is pinpointed. Even after the autism has been found, they will likely be less aware of the present and past miscommunications than will the typically developing family members. In general, people with ASD have less awareness of others’ emotions, perceptions and intentions than typically developing people and this lack of awareness of others likely extends into a lack of awareness that emotions and communications are being experienced differently by different family members with different brains.
So… the typically developing family members generally experience major, new, life insight after a diagnosis is made. And the partners with autism generally don’t.
This leaves family members with autism wondering why typically developing family members may be making such a big deal about discovering the autism. Many people with autism may reason that after all, it is them, the people with autism, not their typically developing partners, who qualify for a diagnosis.
Most people with autism are very aware of how much they are personally struggling. Many also have anxiety, depression and ADHD and they can’t imagine why getting a diagnosis of autism means so much to their typically developing family members. They may think that the diagnosis means that the typically developing partners should either pay more attention to them because of their disability or that the typically developing partners shouldn’t really see anything more about the relationship than they ever have seeing as how the diagnosis of autism may not give the partner with autism much new insight into the relationship.
At the same time, typically developing partners find themselves reinterpreting years of social interactions and viewing them with the new understanding that their partner and close family members are experiencing the world very differently than they had previously assumed.
Once reinterpretation has taken place, many typically developing partners consider major life changes. The new information affects them dramatically. They often start looking for new resources and answers. Often they find a lack of understanding by the professional community. Many times professionals advise them in the same way their ASD family members advise them. Namely, to pay more attention to their partners with ASD or take better care of them.
Typically developing partners themselves may have a very different reaction to the information than a professional does, however. A marriage is different than a parent-child relationship, a teacher-student relationship or a professional-client relationship. Many typically developing partners may come to the conclusion that they have already been paying too much attention to their ASD spouses’ needs and that the adjustment they need to make is not giving them more attention, but less.
This can be very flustering to partners with ASD who feel like they need help and who look to their typically developing partners as their major source of assistance.
Professionals can assist these families by taking both partners’ perspectives seriously and offering both partners appropriate help in their different situations. The partners’ needs should be seen as separate. Most importantly, professionals should resist the inclination to give typically developing spouses the kind of advice that would be appropriate for a parent or a teacher. A marriage relationship is different.