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.

More Research for the Good of Our World: We must Acknowledge Intelligent High-Functioning Autism and Marriage

I recently wrote a post called “Intelligent High-Functioning Autism” pointing out my personal belief that most mixed-neurological marriages are marriages between typically developing people and people with high-functioning autism who have above average intelligence.

I received feedback from many typically developing spouses saying, “Thank you! I had never thought about the professional community not recognizing us because they can hardly recognize intelligent high-functioning autism.” And I received feedback from a few typically developing spouses saying, “My spouse is of average intelligence, not high intelligence.” I decided to write this post as a followup.

It is of course very important to recognize that there are many mixed-neurological marriages between typically developing people and people with autism who are of an average intelligence. Many people marry for all sorts of reasons. These couples are real and are struggling to manage autism in their marriages just like the people in mixed-neurological marriages when the person with autism is highly intelligent.

Whenever I am writing or speaking in generalities, I am doing just that: writing or speaking in generalities. I am referring to patterns, probabilities and likelihoods. I am saying that, in general, it is my perception that most mixed-neurological couples are couples managing highly intelligent autism, not average-intelligence autism or low-intelligence autism.

The way diagnoses are managed today, average intelligence means the person with ASD still has high-functioning autism, or autism without intellectual or language impairment. In my experience, at least in the United States, more people in these marriages are receiving more help from the professional community than are people who are managing above average intelligence in mixed-neurological marriage.

That doesn’t also mean, however, that they dynamics of mixed-neurological marriage are well understood or that the typically developing partner is receiving treatment or help for the effects the mixed-neurological relationship has on him or her. Usually the partner with autism receives the help and the typically developing partner is counseled to act as a caretaker even though a marriage relationship is inherently different than a parent-child relationship, a teacher-student relationship or a professional-client relationship.

And let’s face it: with autism, level of intelligence does make a big difference. It matters. A lot. Intelligence is one quality some people with autism are best able to use in their own favor. It helps them memorize the minute and nuanced social cues typically developing people are constantly sharing without thought. In general (but of course, just “in general”), higher levels of intelligence help people with high autism develop more effective compensatory strategies. And, the better the compensatory strategies, the more likely it is that the person with autism will achieve marriage.

But — and I’ll say it again — SOOOO much more research needs to be done. It is one thing for me to make these claims. It is another thing for science to prove them. The science needs to happen. But before research can really take off, scientists need to know that a problem exists. They can’t ask the right questions if they don’t have any idea what questions to ask. And right now, they don’t. Not really. Mixed-neurological marriage is hardly acknowledged and when it is acknowledged, most clinicians are thinking of the people with autism they treat in their clinics. Yet those people are not likely from the same population as most of the people with autism who are in mixed-neurological marriages.

Yet all of this is still just a hypothesis, an assertion. The research hasn’t been done! One of the primary objectives of REAL is to start a conversation for the purpose of promoting the future research that must be done to better investigate these assertions — and then, ultimately, to better serve mixed-neurological families across the world.

As a final thought, many of the mixed-neurological marriages (of which I am aware) that do occur between a person with autism of average or low intelligence are arranged marriages, particularly among Orthodox Jews. It is easier for a person with autism who has a lower level of intelligence, and consequently (I believe) less effective compensatory strategies, to achieve marriage without full courtship.

More acknowledgment of mixed-neurological marriage and more research are critical.

Mixed-neurological marriages are affecting families, intimate relationships, parenting, marriage, divorce and mental health across the world.

Intelligent High-Functioning Autism

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that autism is heterogeneous disorder. There are sooooo many different manifestations of autism that are are all called “ASD.” The situation is more than confusing. In the future, autism subtypes will be more well defined and parents, spouses, family members and professionals will all have more information to help them understand the puzzle.

Often, when I talk about mixed-neurological marriages, people imagine someone they know who has autism and think about what it would be like if that person — the person they know — were married. Yet, many people with autism will never marry and have children.

In a nutshell, high-functioning autism is autism without language or intellectual impairment. There are many people on the spectrum who are able to use language and who have a solid average intelligence. These people also have high-functioning autism, but it is less likely that they will marry.

Although not nearly enough research has been done and we don’t have the numbers to prove it, my inclination (based on my personal experience in the autism community) is to believe that most of the adults on the spectrum who get married and have children are highly intelligent.

Many autism professionals working with high-functioning adults on the spectrum may be spending a majority of their time working with people who who have average levels of intelligence, not their high-intelligence counterparts.

It may be that highly intelligent adults with autism are very rarely seen by professionals. In many cases, it may be that their spouses are their primary — and even only — caretakers. The professional community may have little to no experience working with the adults on the spectrum who are the most likely to be married.

Highly intelligent adults with autism are able to use their intellect to develop sophisticated compensatory strategies that make it easier for them to achieve marriage. They are often very employable and many are geniuses in their fields. Silicon Valley is full of them! From the outside, most friends and colleagues of people with highly intelligent autism wouldn’t notice much aside from some “quirkiness” and maybe some different speech and social patterns.

Inside marriage and close family relationships, however, impairment in capacity to understand partners’ and children’s perspectives and intentions makes a big difference — high intelligence or no. Typically developing human social communication is complicated stuff. It includes voice inflection, gestures and body language to communicate nuanced meaning, emotions, and ideas. That kind of communication isn’t happening in mixed-neurological relationships, regardless of levels of intelligence, leaving typically developing partners and children confused as to why the very intelligent ASD family member doesn’t seem to understand.

It may be helpful for autism professionals considering mixed-neurological marriage and close family relationships to keep in mind that the clients they most often see are not usually the same clients who are getting married and having children.

In general, I think it was a step forward to lump Asperger’s in with the many other manifestations of autism. This helped us understand what is similar about this large group of heterogenous people. I’m also looking forward to a time in the future when we all know a lot more about all the many different subtypes of autism so that we don’t keep confusing highly intelligent people with high-functioning autism with others who also have high-functioning autism, but whose compensatory strategies might not be quite as honed.

It’ll be nice, too, when a common vocabulary for different subtypes of ASD is established so professionals — and everybody else — can have a more clear picture of what we’re each talking about.

Typically developing spouses who come to the conclusion that their partners are on the autism spectrum may be talking about a very different manifestation of autism than professionals are accustomed to seeing in the clinic. Professionals may better understand what typically developing spouses are trying to say once the idea that highly intelligent married people on the autism spectrum aren’t generally the same people as those who are regularly getting professional autism assistance.

Hopefully, at some point, there will be enough services available for highly intelligent people on the autism spectrum that professionals will see more of them.

Well….. more of them outside the marriage counseling room.

Abuse Dynamics in Mixed-Neurological Relationships


Mixed-neurological relationships are vulnerable to physical, verbal, psychological, sexual and financial domestic abuse, with psychological abuse being the most common (Rench, 2014). Both partners are vulnerable to experiencing trauma in the relationship.

People with autism have a difficult time understanding how their own actions affect others and will often take actions that harm their spouses without understanding how that harm will, in turn, affect the relationship, circumstances and escalate the conflict. This lack of understanding diminishes any incentives the partners with autism might otherwise have to take actions that would reduce conflict. As a result, people with autism are often instigators of conflict and abuse in adult relationships.

Over time, the typically developing partner acts in self-protection and contributes to the conflict, creating a negative system for both partners. Sometimes typically developing people seek out relationships with those who have autism because their higher levels of social skills give them power advantages. In some cases, typically developing partners will use their power advantages abusively. Usually, however, typically developing people who fall in love with people with autism are natural and empathetic caregivers who enjoy helping others (Aston, 2009).

Partners with autism often incorrectly perceive that they are the victims of abuse even while they are the perpetrators. Their impairment in capacity to understand how their actions affect the circumstances and their impairment in immediate empathy contribute to this lack of understanding. Their diminished capacity to comprehend their typically developing partners’ intentions plays a role in their misperceptions that they are the victims (Marshack, 2009).

Typically developing partners often unknowingly enable abusive behaviors from their partners, worsening the situation. They often have advanced theory of mind skills and accurately perceive their partners’ with autism don’t intend to be abusive — even while the abuse is occurring. Yet sometimes partners with autism do intend to be vindictive and abusive. Typically developing partners will often be too willing to forgive abusive behaviors when in reality, quick, accurate feedback about what is and isn’t acceptable is what people with autism really need in order to learn how to behave appropriately in social situations.

In many cases, typically developing partners unhealthily excuse abusive behaviors that are taken against them. No one should have to endure abuse regardless of others’ intents and capacities to understand. “Mindblindness” is not an excuse for being abusive.


Aston, M. (2009). The Asperger Couple’s Workbook; Practical Advice and Activities for Couples and Counsellors. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley

Marshack, K.J. (2009). Life with a Partner or Spouse with Asperger Syndrome: Going over the Edge? Kansas: APC.

Rench, C. (2014). When Eros meets Autos: Marriage to someone with autism spectrum disorder. (Doctoral dissertation, Capella University). Available from Proquest Dissertations and thesis database.

Autism and Relationships Post Holiday Self-Care

strong>The holidays can be especially taxing for mixed-neurological couples. Many mixed couples experience more conflict than respite. While same-neurological typically developing couples are often using the time off to relax and rejuvenate from the year’s work, mixed-neurological couples are managing the stress of communication and the mutual sense of unmet needs. So little is known about same-neurological ASD couples that it’s hard to even make conjectures about what they may be experiencing. Again, far more research is necessary. 

Both partners in mixed relationships can recover from the holidays through self-care. If you’re the ASD partner, remember that it’s also very important for your typically developing spouse to get some time and space for self-care, too. Your life isn’t easy and you do manage daily difficulties that your partner doesn’t face, but your partner also has needs and a perspective. Your partner gets tired and experiences difficulties, too.

Many of you also have children on the autism spectrum and your typically developing partner is probably using all of the skills that come along with having a typically developing brain to help your children on the spectrum succeed. 

And that is hard! Autism in children is taxing on parents and families. Your typically developing partner needs a break, too.

Self-care is for both partners and both partners need to think about ways the other person might take some time off to be alone and recuperate from any holiday conflict.

So, regardless of neurology, here are some of the things you can both do to support each other and yourselves this post-holiday season. And, if you’re typically developing, you can do these things regardless of whether or not you get support from your ASD partner: 

  1. Take time away from the family and relationship to spend with same-neurological friends

    Typically developing report feeling a sense of relief and peace when socializing with other typically developing people (RESEARCH IDEA). 

People with ASD report enjoying the time they spend with other adults on the spectrum who share their same special interests.

  3. Take the time and spend the money to get a massage. Remember to stretch. 

    Physical tension affects mood can impede recovery from long periods of difficult mixed-neurological interactions. Both partners can benefit from working to ensure their muscles are relaxed and loose. Alleviating tension now can lesson the likelihood that difficult interactions in the future will explode into fights. 

If you’re the ASD partner, remember that your spouse needs a massage, too. Buy gift certificates for both of you so that both of you can be cared for equally.


  5. Practice Meditation and Mindfulness


Meditation and mindfulness are all the rage in today’s world. There are countless apps and books available that can help both partners. Take establishing the challenge of establishing a practice seriously and, if you have ASD, remember that your partner needs support in developing a practice, too.

  6. Exercise in a way that is personally enjoyable to you

    Early on in the New Year, many of us are revisiting our health goals. If you’re in a mixed-neurological relationship, you need to take your health very seriously. But since you’re probably dealing with more incessant stress and a consistent low-level of trauma in your relationship (RESEARCH IDEA), you also need a program that is going to be responsive to your emotional needs, too. 

Find a way to exercise that works for you. Do you prefer to try to keep your heart rate up while running around the house and doing chores? If so, just do it! The gym isn’t for everybody.

    Or do you prefer hot yoga (also great for relaxation and breathing)? What can you do to find a routine that works for you? 

Support your partner in the routine your partner chooses by speaking respectfully about your partner’s decision and by making sure your partner has the time and space to take exercise seriously. If you have ASD, try to avoid the mistake of putting pressure on your partner to perform up to your expectations. Your partner needs a chance to exercise the way your partner wants and with your support rather than pressure.

  7. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables

    I know, it sounds silly. We all know that it’s best to eat well. The thing is, people in mixed-neurological relationships experience a level of difficulty and stress that others can’t fully comprehend because they’e never lived it. Your bodies need more physical support than others. Take eating antioxidants seriously. Do what you can to incorporate them into your regular diet. Think green smoothies or whatever it is you like to eat! 

Don’t underestimate the benefits of a healthy body in stress management. 

Avoid sugar and meaningless carbs when you can… just because you’re worth it and it will make you feel better. You deserve to feel good!

  8. Engage in other healthy practices that bring you peace

    We’re all a little different and we all find peace in different activities. Take the time to do what makes you feel good. What is it that you really love? Painting? Poetry? Skiing? Do it!

  9. Avoid alcohol and other non-prescription mood-enhancing drugs

    Turning to alcohol and other substances is easy in the present, but they tear down your body rather than build it up. Spinach is better than alcohol and spinach with berries and protein powder in a green smoothy is yummy, too! 

If you’re in a mixed-neurological relationship, you have a lot of extra life stress and conflict to deal with. Take care of yourself as best as you can. 

  10. Get the right medical care

    ASD Adults: Many adults on the autism spectrum don’t want to admit they have autism. There’s no shame in being on the spectrum. Get the help you need. Be honest during diagnostic interviews and when answering diagnostic measures. 

    Typically Developing Adults: Many typically developing adults in mixed relationships also avoid getting the professional and medical help they need. Don’t make that mistake. Right now there aren’t a lot of professionals who know how to help you with your relationship, but don’t let that keep you out of the doctor’s office. Speak about what you do know… professionals need to hear. 

And get whatever help you need for your physical body, too. Longterm trauma and stress has an affect on your body. Don’t be ashamed to admit what you’re really going through. You deserve help, too. 

Being a caretaker is taxing.

    Remember that old oxygen mask on the airplane analogy? You’re the typically developing partner. You know it’s your job to keep the oxygen masks on everybody in the family. Get yours on first. 

Happy New Year to all! Good luck in whatever journey you choose for your future!

Two Words of Caution Regarding Research, Science and Neurodiverse ASD Relationships

First, so you know where I’m personally coming from, I am a person who respects others of all faiths. I am also not myself personally a faith-based person. Mostly, I’ve learned not to spend my life energies focusing on family, love, and being as good of a person as I can.

I begin with that statement because this post is about understanding what science and individual research projects can and can’t tell us and I do not want it to be mistaken as a science vs. religion post or a science vs. faith post. When I speak about the limitations of science, I’m simply doing just that: I’m speaking about the limitations of science. That’s all. I support science and I support everyone in their individual faith practices and traditions. And I support atheists, too. I support people.

Science has made obvious leaps and bounds in the last several years. We’re using fMRIs to scan the brain to measure what parts of the brain are using the most oxygen when during certain mental tasks. We’re using technologies like Transcranial Magentic Stimulation and sophisticated behavioral therapies based on decades of psychological research that has been synthesized with modern IT systems to develop individualized treatment programs for children.

In some fields, research is just beginning. In others, such as the applied behavioral psychology that has led to the use of ABA therapy for children with autism, there is such a preponderance of evidence that it is difficult for anyone to credibly deny that ABA therapy is helpful. That doesn’t stop well-qualified people who don’t understand behavioral psychology from discounting behaviorism, how behavioral psychology might be particularly applicable in helping people with autism or how it has been proven in multiple contexts that span far beyond autism. Books and books are written on the subject of what is wrong with behaviorism — and are, in general, written by smart people making false assumptions about what the science and research does and does not mean.

False assumptions about science are very easy to make. In order to really understand most fields, one must truly be a subject matter expert to speak accurately about the science. Outside of individual expertise, we’re all just amateurs reading blogposts and news articles about what the science “means.” And blog posts and media articles usually have one slant — they’re written as clickbait. They sensationalize scientific findings from individual studies and promote the studies as if some concept has unequivocally been “proven” or “disproven.”

Sometimes theoretical concepts that should used as the basis upon which to design research methodologies are confused for research without the public understanding the limitations of theories, the purposes of hypotheses and the differences between theories, hypotheses and empirically gathered data.

We can debate about it online — and possibly some of you will — or we can use what understandings we have now in an effort to improve our own families and lives. The former will result in long discussions and arguments and the formation of battling coalitions and organizations. The latter has the potential to change lives.

The reality is, that with a few exceptions, most of science and research in the field of autism — and most definitely in the field of mixed-neurological marriage and mixed-neurological close family relationships — is so new that it doesn’t unequivocally tell us much of anything. It offers new ideas and insights upon which more research projects can be developed. And once those research projects are complete, still more research projects must be developed and implemented. Results must be found, analyzed and then built upon again. Science is an iterative process that takes years and the cooperative work of many people seeking to better lives despite their many agreements and disagreements.

Yes, ABA therapy really has stood the test of time and evidence. Yes, fMRI technology really does measure brain activity and no doubt can do a better job of diagnosing autism than human interviews and human counts of DSM criteria that throw patients into a rough ballpark and give adults the opportunity to try to convince clinicians that they either do or don’t qualify for a diagnosis of autism. I’m excited to see what comes of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and many of the other projects seeking to help individuals and families with autism today.

All of that said, no individual research project can stand on its own — not mine or anyone else’s. Studies must be performed and then performed again. Methodologies should be tweaked and then tweaked again. New research projects that replicate old research projects must be performed.

In the end, online discussions and the work of activists for or against any cause often lend themselves to conversations led by confirmation bias. Confirmation bias occurs when we are exposed to ideas and even research results that conform to our current beliefs about how the world works. We see those ideas and are attracted to them. We find one research project that supports our view of the world and we promote that one project as if it is the full “truth” about the world rather than recognizing it as what it really is: one research project seeking to explain something so that other research projects can be scaffolded on top of it.

In conclusion, I offer two words of caution that specifically relate to discussions about mixed-neurological marriages and close family relationships:

  1. Be careful about citing any one study or piece of research to draw any one foregone conclusion. If you are doing this, you are probably a victim of your own confirmation bias. Keep an open mind. The reality is that not nearly enough research has been done on the subject of mixed-neurological marriage and close family relationships and much of what has been done is qualitative rather than quantitative. There is so much more that must be learned, studied and proven. We are treading on the first few stepping stones of a long, long path that reaches out into the distance beyond what our eyes can currently see.
  2. And at the same time, be careful not to discount your own individual life experiences and gut feelings. It’s okay and even important for you to strongly support your own perspective even if there ins’t already enough research out there to support it, too. You know you and speaking your own truth without quoting research to back it up is perfectly acceptable and is an important part of having your own voice. Strength comes from inner conviction. There is no need to doubt yourself so strongly that you cannot move forward before enough research is done.

Yes, I recognize that these two words of caution are seemingly contradictory. It is my hope that on closer observation it will be recognized that what we are calling for at REAL is more research and more awareness of mixed-neurological marriages and close family relationships. Autism is common and the dynamics of mixed relationships have a major impact on mental health around the world. It is time that mixed relationships are recognized, more thoroughly studied and that the perspectives of typically developing partners and typically developing family members are weighted equally to the perspectives of those of autism.

It is time that the REAL strengths and weaknesses of autistic minds and typically developing minds and their disparate impacts on social interactions, communication, and social understandings in marriage and close family relationships are fully acknowledged — not in an attempt to deprecate or harm anyone, but in an attempt to provide services and help.

Otherwise, the most vulnerable parties may be left without the support and assistance they need and deserve.

And often, these vulnerable parties include children in the very first stages of long lives that will be affected by their own autism or the autism of their parents or siblings. This is too important to be ignored or silenced by criticism and contentious, circular online debates.

If you have autism, take action to make your own life better. Get the help you need.

If you’re typically developing, take action to make your own life better. Get the help you need.

After an ASD Diagnosis — Reinterpreting Life vs. Life as Usual

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.

Shame and Being Neurotypical

I have an untested hypothesis about shame and neurological differences. I use the word “hypothesis” because this is a notion I’d like to test at some point in the future.

My hypothesis is that typically developing (aka “neurotypical”) people feel shame differently than people with autism. A typically developing person uses theory of mind skills to make assumptions about what others are thinking, feeling and intending. I believe this awareness of others’ minds may make typically developing people particularly vulnerable to feeling intense shame and embarrassment.

A typically developing person will be aware of others possible beliefs and opinions about the self and my be prone to feeling deep shame when they have done something they believe to be socially irresponsible or wrong and when they believe others will judge them for it.

This can be true whether or not they really have done something “wrong.” Just the sense that others will believe they have is enough to elicit “shame.”

I do not believe shame is a useful feeling. It gets in the way of voice and empowerment and promotes silence. Many typically developing partners remain silent about their stories because they know just how devastating and powerful their senses of shame can be.

And, sadly, shame is often used against typically developing spouses by partners with autism. It happens all the time. It is common for partners with autism to seek out alliances among family members, communities and friends and then to tell their typically developing spouses that others are judging and are on the partner with autism’s “side” in a conflict.

This often serves to further silence the typically developing partner.

Typically developing people can overcome shame by realizing that they are not bad people, regardless of what their spouses with autism may say. They can overcome shame by coming to this realization even when they have done something wrong. No one is perfect.

And typically developing people can overcome shame by becoming aware that their sense of shame may be related to just how fantastic they are at seeing other people’s perspectives.

And shame can be overcome by learning to have voice.


Tell your stories. They are REAL and there is nothing to be ashamed of.

On a related but different note, I know that people with autism also feel shame. I hypothesize that when typically developing people use the word “shame” to describe their subjective experiences, they may be using it to describe different subjective experiences than are felt by people with autism using the word “shame” to describe their own subjective experiences.

I say this because it makes sense to me that a person with theory of mind skills will have a different experience with shame than will a person without theory of mind skills.

This is just one of the many examples of the difficulties of mixed-neurological communication. Typically developing people will use the word “shame” to describe a feeling they believe people with autism also experience without realizing that “shame” may be a very different experience for people with autism than it is for typically developing people.

People with autism will observe the reaction of typically developing people to shame but will not have a lived awareness of what that experience of shame is like from a typically developing perspective.

It is difficult to communicate when two people are using the same word to mean very different things.

Things I Need to Tell my NT Daughter as She Grows Up

Guest Blog Post (Anonymous)

  1. Know what emotional and psychological abuse is, and maintain tight boundaries.
  2. Take relationships slow. Pay attention to behavior that seems “off,” confusing or inconsiderate. Do not make excuses for it.
  3. In a healthy relationship, conflict is normal and collaborative resolution is a reasonable expectation. Pay attention if you are always the one who has to smooth things over and “just forget about it.” If you express hurt, you can and should expect a non-defensive apology and concern from someone who claims to love you. If not, move on.
  4. Maintain your financial independence, no matter what. Do all that you can to earn your credentials and become established in a career that you can earn a living in.
  5. You should feel that you are sexually desired in your relationship. Pay attention to feeling rejected or marginalized because they are preoccupied with their own interests and rituals.
  6. Your partner should show at least equal initiative in the relationship. Pay attention if you are always the one suggesting and planning activities together and initiating intimacy.
  7. Autism is a genetically inherited neurological developmental disorder. Adults with autism will never fully mature. Because your dad and other family members have this condition, know that any children you have may also inherit the disorder.

How do Theory of Mind Deficits Affect Divorce?

Partners with autism lack the immediate empathy and theory of mind (or ability to see their spouses’ perspectives) that would otherwise help them understand the wisdom of putting a halt to their own aggressions during divorce (Baron-Cohen, 1995; Frith & Happe, 1999).

With only an awareness of their own perspectives, partners with autism will often believe that they are being greatly wronged by the divorce and that their typically developing partners are exploiting them when in actuality, the marriages have been very harmful to the typically developing partners.

It is not uncommon for partners going through divorce to have different ideas about what is “fair.” In mixed-neurological relationships, however, the partner with autism’s theory of mind deficits and lack of immediate empathy prevents insight into the typically developing partner’s intentions and perspective. The partner with autism will usually believe that what is “fair” is for the partner with autism to take all or almost all of the resources.

The partner with autism may be excessively pedantic, over-focusing on irrelevant details and may have immature conflict resolution strategies that remain at the level of an ‘eye for an eye’ and ‘you started it so I can use any retribution that I like.’

This dynamic is especially difficult in marriages in which one partner has been the provider and the other has raised the children. If the partner with autism is the provider, he or she may feel that there is no need to pay alimony and that the children should lose the other parent. If the partner with autism has cared for the children, he or she may feel that the provider must continue to sacrifice everything even if that means that the provider must work full time while paying child support and alimony and with hardly enough money to pay for reasonable housing.

In most cases, the typically developing partner would have been willing to agree to an equitable solution early on in the divorce. Theory of mind skills help people understand why it is in their own best interests and the family’s best interests to stop fighting. Their perspective taking skills help them have a more accurate understanding of what is closer to fair. 

The partners with autism do not have the capacity to understand how much harm they are causing. They will feel the effects of the harm, along with everyone else, but they will mistakenly assume it was the typically developing partners’ fault instead of realizing their attorneys are taking advantage of their theory of mind deficits and are financially exploiting the family as a whole.

Many mixed-neurological divorces cost far too much money and go on for years even when the family’s collective net worth does not justify the fight. This dynamic is very traumatic for families and children, overloads courtrooms with unnecessary cases of fighting ex-spouses, and costs the tax payer. Abolishing fault divorce and having laws that require the use of equations will do much to end high-conflict mixed-neurological divorce.

Countries and states that don’t have laws that protect both spouses equally make it very difficult for unhappy spouses to achieve divorce, especially when children are present. This inequality is destructive because mixed-neurological marriages are vulnerable to trauma and domestic abuse and children and both spouses can be harmed when divorce isn’t easily attainable.

What the family needs is for laws and attorneys to protect both spouses and the children. Attorneys who don’t mind helping their clients exploit the legal system to meet their objectives will not help their clients with autism achieve happiness and success after marriage, but will line their own pockets with a distressed family’s money.

Mediation is not likely to be successful because theory of mind skills are necessary to collaborate towards solutions that work for the family as a whole. Sending mixed-neurological couples to mediation may do little more than increase the cost of the divorce for the family. 

Partnerships that include abuse should not be eligible for mediation and mediators who suspect abuse should discontinue mediation.

Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Boston: MIT Press.

Frith, U. & Happe, F. (1999). Theory of Mind and self- consciousness; what is it like to be autistic? Mind and Language, 14, 1-22.