The Therapist Who Understood Autism in Adults

This story is fiction. Learn more about my use of fiction HERE.

Megan’s father had high-functioning autism and today was Megan’s first day of therapy. She sat in the office waiting room with her chin in her hands and thought about how different her life was than the lives of other 15-year-olds. She was old for her age…. mature…. and she knew it. She wondered if her new therapist would understand.

Megan’s mother sat quietly in the chair opposite Megan, looking into Megan’s face. Megan knew her mother was concerned about her. She squirmed in her seat.

I wish she didn’t worry so much, Megan thought.

Both Megan and her mother were typically developing. Megan’s family had two kinds of people: people with autism and typically developing people. It was weird to think about it that way, but it was so true. Even though other people in families without any autism didn’t get it, Megan knew her family was a mixed family. It was undeniable.

Typically developing people are different than people with autism and Megan knew which category everybody in her family fell into and what that meant for her. So what if the word “category” wasn’t PC or sounded bad? It was the truth! Megan was typically developing and her father wasn’t — even if most people were unaware of what that meant for the two of them and the rest of her family.

Megan was different than other typically developing kids. Her 15 years had taught her to be an expert caretaker. Other kids just wouldn’t get it. She was an expert in managing autism and wondered if her new therapist would understand anything about her perspective.

At only 15, Megan understood how to help prevent meltdowns, how to withhold the wrong information from her father and share the right information with him — not to deceive him, but to simplify both of their lives emotionally. Megan knew that if she offered the wrong information, her father might get needlessly upset and that his escalated emotions would just be needless trouble… putting her in the position of needing to calm him, or, preferably, retreating to her bedroom and locking the door.

She knew it wasn’t her job to manage her father’s tumultuous moments. Her mom had been sure to help her understand that no matter what, taking care of her father wasn’t Megan’s responsibility. Megan kept that in mind every time she retreated to her bedroom when a meltdown began.

That didn’t mean Megan didn’t have to take care of him sometimes or that she wasn’t willing to help. She was… it’s just that she didn’t like it. She understood that people with autism need a lot of emotional care and that as an experienced typically developing teenager, she had enough insight and capacity to help her father through some of his more difficult moments. And since she could help him, sometimes she would.

“It’s not my job to be his caretaker, though” she often repeated to herself, even while helping calm him. “It’s my job to go to school and to build a life for myself. That doesn’t mean I’m selfish, it means I know that a lot of children of people with autism grow up to marry someone on the spectrum. I’m not going to sacrifice myself too much and make that mistake. Being married to someone with autism was too hard on my mom and I deserve a better life than she had.”

Megan’s mother had taught her well. Megan knew that she knew to say these things to herself because her mom had made it clear — over and over again —  that Megan should do everything she could to ensure a better life for herself.

Megan looked up and saw her mother’s worn face. It seemed like the divorce had lasted Megan’s entire life. Her father just wouldn’t let it go and wouldn’t acknowledge that her mother had ever done anything right. You’d think the couple was still married the way the war raged on. Megan knew very well that her father had been abusive of her mother even while he was sure that he was the victim.

He wasn’t a victim. Megan had seen enough to know. He couldn’t see anyone else’s perspective and always believed he was being taken advantage of when in reality people were serving him and helping him. What a nightmare it had all been.

But despite it all, Megan loved her father. She loved their long conversations about basketball and the happy times they spent cooking together. Her father was a good friend. She could see the way he was intentionally hurting her mother and also that he didn’t understand how obvious it was to her that he was in the wrong. She could see all the ways he tried to be a good father despite the horrifying way he was acting towards her mother.

Autism, what a mess, she thought as she tried to sort through her mixed feelings. Her mother was right: she did need a therapist.

As long as Megan and her dad stayed within their shared interests and as long as she didn’t talk too much about herself or expect her father to understand her emotions or perspective, he was a lot of fun.

And since Megan knew about the autism and understood her father’s limitations, her feelings weren’t too hurt when he couldn’t provide her with emotional support or understand why she was upset about something. Emotional information about herself was simply one of the topics she never tried to broach with him. There was no need. He wouldn’t understand anyway. And that was okay. That’s the way her father was.

So, she’d take care of him emotionally, but he couldn’t return the favor. A lot of times, she was more the parent than the child.

Life with autism was like one big, long contradiction. Megan could know that he was abusive of her mother and still love him. He had autism after all. He was trying so hard so much of the time.

Megan knew that ultimately, she had an awareness of the world her father was missing. She knew that if she were less of a person, she’d be able to take advantage of her father’s inability to perceive what was happening socially and lie up a storm to get away with things.

But that’s what other kids might do… kids with normal parents, she thought. Kids who didn’t have to deal with the reality that their fathers had developmental disorders could take advantage of their parents, but it wouldn’t be fair for Megan to act that way towards her father.

But he takes so much advantage of my mom. Wow, this is so confusing, she thought to herself. How can I ever expect a therapist to understand?

Well, regardless, thank heavens she understood autism herslf! Megan had a lot to be thankful for. If she didn’t understand autism, she’d need A LOT more help from a therapist than she was hoping to get today. At least understanding what autism was helped her make a little bit of sense of her family and her parents’ ridiculous divorce.

I hope the therapist gets here soon. If she just understands autism, I’ll be able to talk about what it’s like to have a father on the spectrum without trying to explain every detail.

That was Megan’s true wish: wish for support from a typically developing adult who wasn’t her mother and who understood autism, too. Even though Megan knew she’d be okay without, another adult outside the family who could really understood is what Megan wanted more than anything. Talking to her mom just wasn’t the same.

Megan’s mom had been hurt in the marriage and the divorce — a lot — but Megan didn’t want to hear about it or to have to talk to her mother about her father. She loved her father and all of that was her mom’s problem. And it had to be. Her mom was often tired and hurt from managing all her father’s attacks, but both of them agreed that it wasn’t Megan’s job to take care of her mother’s pain either.

“It’s my job to take care of me,” she whispered to herself. Not my dad, not my mom — me. 

“Hello, are you Megan?” A kind-looking woman had just stepped into the waiting room.

“I am,” Megan replied. She’s finally here. I’m going to find out if she understands autism.

Megan looked up at her mother’s face. Her mother smiled gently, then nodded towards Megan, reassuring her. Typically developing people nod like that, Megan thought. And I know what it means because I’m typically developing. But will the therapist understand that people with autism don’t understand?

Megan stood and followed the therapist from the waiting room. She felt her mother’s eyes following her all the way to the door.

The therapist’s office was warm and well decorated. Megan sat in a comfy chair and played with a knick-knack on the therapist’s end table while the therapist made the first conversation. Megan answered questions about herself and talked about how difficult her parents’ long divorce had been as well as how glad she was that they weren’t married anymore.

“It was such a bad marriage for my mom,” she said. “I love my dad, but my mom was so unhappy. That wasn’t a real marriage. And my dad, he’s pretty much unhappy all the time no matter what. I don’t think he’ll be able to find another woman to marry him — I hope not anyway. That would be terrible. I want my mom to remarry, but not my dad.”

Megan saw the therapist nod.

Well, she’s obviously typically developing, Megan thought.

“Do you know anything about high-functioning autism in adults?” Megan asked.

“Yes,” the therapist said. “I know that when a family member has high-functioning autism, you spend a lot of time taking care of that person and I know that the person with autism rarely knows that you’re doing anything for them. It’s a thankless job. You work and work and work and put a lot of effort in, and the person with autism isn’t aware that you did anything at all. They might even feel taken advantage of.”

“You understand!” Megan shouted, almost jumping out of her seat. “You get it! I can’t believe you get it! Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. My father has autism and I’ve been so alone. Almost nobody gets it. Thank you for being alive!”

Megan’s smile was enthusiastic. What luck to find a therapist who actually understood! This therapy was going to be worth it.

Learn more about my use of fiction HERE.

It Takes Two to Tango

“It takes two to tango” is an old adage most often interpreted to mean that fights only happen because both people are participating.

Its moral is: If you’re part of a fight, it’s your fault, too. You wouldn’t be in the fight if you weren’t choosing to be in it. If you want to stop a fight that you’re part of, stop your half of the fight and the fight will end.

And, that’s true when a you have the power to walk away from a fight. You can choose to leave any fight you are able to safely walk away from. And walking away won’t even mean losing the fight. If you are safe to get away, then you win when you leave?

But what happens when you’re not safe to walk away from a fight? What if you can’t get away from the other person? What if there are other people, possibly small children, depending on you to stay in the fight? In such cases, is it good or healthy to always give in and allow the other person to “win”?

The moral of the adage should be the opposite. In actuality, it takes two to get along. It takes two to work together. It takes two to be a team. It takes two to collaborate.

Mixed-neurological relationships are rife with fighting and low on teamwork and collaboration. Teamwork and collaboration are easier when both people have theory of mind skills. When each partner can somewhat accurately perceive the other persons’ perspective and intentions, they can more easily find ways to work together for the mutual benefit of both.

When only one of the two people in a relationship has theory of mind skills, that person, the typically developing partner, is working to be aware of the other partner’s, the ASD partner’s, intentions and perceptions. Yet at the same time, the partner with ASD isn’t keeping in mind the typically developing partners’ intentions and perceptions. The result is that both partners are thinking about the ASD partners’ intentions and needs and only the typically developing partner is thinking about the typically developing partner’s needs.

Things can get out of balance after a while, favoring the partner with ASD’s needs. And people with ASD do, at no fault of their own, have a lot of needs.

In marriage, ASD partners’ needs do not negate the needs of typically developing partners who, over time, become worn due to the lack of reciprocity in communication, caregiving and connected sexuality and affection.

A marriage is different than a parent-child relationship, a therapist-client relationship, or a teacher-student relationship. Ideally, it is a relationship of equality in which both partners are working together or caring for each other. But in mixed-neurological marriages, due to the difference in theory of mind skills between the partners, this kind of reciprocity and teamwork doesn’t happen.

It does take two to tango. Watch the dance. It is a typically developing dance with both partners responding to the other. It is about connection, eye contact, sexuality, and working together for the benefit of both. The tango is a dance of social communication an autism is affects social communication. The tango can’t happen in mixed-neurological marriages because only one partner’s brain knows how to do the dance.

It takes two to tango.

It takes two to work together.

It only takes one to perpetuate a fight and it’s not always possible for the other spouse to walk away.

Anne Janai, M.L.A.

Stephanie’s Story of Trying to Parent as a Team

This post is fiction. Learn more about my use of fiction HERE.

Stephanie, a typically developing mom, had just figured out that her husband, Gerald, had autism. She hadn’t known about the autism before getting married and having kids. And she hadn’t known about it for the 17 years they had been together. A couple weeks ago she figured it out. Finally! Answers! She had even connected with some other typically developing spouses in an online Facebook group and had been able to share some of her marriage experiences there. It had been so relieving to finally talk to people who understood!

The next thing Stephanie wanted to know was whether or not it would be possible to learn to parent with Gerald — to parent together as a team. Parenting had always pretty much felt like a solo act to Stephanie. She had watched as other couples used team work in their parenting and had wondered if that would be possible for her now, too. Now she had more information about what was going on, after all. Maybe she could make team work happen.

I get it, she thought. Gerald and I communicate differently. We’re like two coils wrapped around each other, always touching, but never connecting. I’m not doing a good enough job of communicating my needs in a way he’ll understand. An since he doesn’t understand my needs, he doesn’t respond to them. He doesn’t help me. He doesn’t get my body language, but if I communicate my needs directly using language, he might understand and help me.

She chose a particular parenting problem she’d been having and decided she’d give teamwork a try.

Recently, the kids had been fighting over the computer for hours upon hours upon hours… non-stop bickering. They hadn’t been able to find a fair way to share it.

Trevor had just turned 15 and was typically developing like his mom. He had recently shot far past Stephanie’s height and put on a lot of new lean muscle. Stephanie was pleased with Trevor’s new strength, but not too happy when Trevor used it to help him win arguments. Yesterday, when she had asked him to give his sister a turn on the computer, Trevor had stood up from the computer chair, puffed out his chest, widened his shoulders, looked down at Stephanie and simply but firmly said, “no.”

That had bothered Stephanie — a lot. If Gerald didn’t have autism, he’d be modeling appropriate body language and Trevor would hopefully be picking up on this. Trevor would already know what he did today was wrong. But with Gerald’s autism, that just wasn’t happening.

Maybe if I help Gerald understand exactly what I need by saying it clearly in words, Gerald will be able to help,” she mused. Maybe that will help me feel like we’re parenting together — together as a team.

Stephanie decided to try to explain to Gerald what she needed. Before dinner, she sat together with Gerald on the couch and recounted the way Trevor had stood and said ‘no’ about sharing the computer.

“Trevor’s just growing into his body,” Stephanie continued after finishing her story of what had occurred. “Trevor doesn’t understand, yet, that he can’t use his size to win arguments. When I ask him to get off the computer and let his little sister have a turn, he can’t just stand up, look down at me and say ‘no.'”

“I agree,” said Gerald, “that’s wrong.” Gerald then went on to speak about how important it is for teenage boys to be strong.

“Yes,” agreed Stephanie. “I am glad Trevor’s growing so much. I’m glad he’s strong.” And she really was glad. “But he’s bigger than me now, and he needs to know he can’t use his size against me. Instead, he needs to tell me why his perspective is important to consider and then we’ll consider everyone’s perspectives together and find a solution. That’s the right way to solve the computer problem.”

“I agree,” said Gerald. “Words are always the best solution.”

“You’re his father,” Stephanie continued, feeling pleased that Gerald seemed to have understood her clear and specific communication. “Will you please make sure Trevor understands that men aren’t supposed to use their size to win arguments against women? Can we try to work together to communicate that to Trevor tonight before bed? Together?”

“Yes, of course. I can help with that,” Gerald said. “I definitely see your point.”

“Thank you,” said Stephanie, feeling relieved and hopeful. She had done it! She had thought through exactly what she needed Gerald to understand about the changing social dynamics in the family. She had told Gerald how he could help her navigate one of the normal parts of boys growing bigger than their mothers.

Stephanie couldn’t help but be excited. I really hope Gerald’ll help out now that I’ve explained in a way that makes sense to him! she thought.

That night, after a late dinner, Stephanie and Gerald were standing together in Trevor’s bedroom. Trevor was sitting on the edge of his bed facing his parents.

I’m going to try it now, thought Stephanie. I am going to see if Gerald can support me when I speak to our son about what I need.

“Trevor,” Stephanie began, looking at her son but glancing back at her husband’s face to try to figure out if Gerald could tell that this was the moment she hoped he’d jump in to help. “You’re bigger than me now, Trevor. You could knock me over if you tried. I know you wouldn’t,” she smiled to make sure Trevor knew she wasn’t accusing him of anything, “but I know you could if you wanted to… and you know that too.”

“Yes,” Trevor said as he slid closer to the edge of the bed and straightened his back.

Wow. Trevor’s feeling defensive, Stephanie thought after reading Trevor’s body language. I sure hope Gerald remembers that I asked him to help me explain. Gerald probably didn’t recognize the implications of Trevor’s response.

“So, what I’m trying to say, Trevor,” Stephanie courageously went on, “is that if I ask you to give your little sister a turn with the computer, it’s okay to tell me why you don’t want to and to start a discussion, but it’s not okay to stand up and look down at me and forcefully say ‘no.’ You’re bigger than me. When you do that, you’re using your size to win. That’s not fair to me or your little sister.”

I explained that out loud as clearly as I could, Stephanie thought.

Gerald said nothing.

Gerald’s silence hurt. I thought he understood! I thought he knew that I needed him to help me communicate this to Trevor! I wanted Gerald to work with me to parent the kids. Stephanie felt a raw and lonely ache in her chest.

Trevor stood up and walked nearer to Stephanie. His face was stern and impenetrable.

I can’t believe this is happening, thought Stephanie. Trevor’s doing this right now, right while I’m trying to help him understand not to? This is terrible.

Once he was only a few inches away, Trevor looked down at Stephanie and very seriously said, “But Mom, I am bigger than you.” He raised his eyebrows and smiled sardonically and without humor, looking straight into his mothers eye.

Stephanie sensed a glare. Trevor knows exactly what he’s doing, she thought. And on some level he knows that Gearld doesn’t know, even if he’s not thinking about it. Trevor knows he can get away with this. Now is Gerald’s big chance. Now is Gerald’s chance to support me and stand up to Trevor so Trevor will understand the boundaries.

“Yes,” said Gerald, calmly and seemingly not having noticed that Trevor was communicating anything to his mother. “Trevor is getting big now. And it’s so good for boys to be big.”

“Gerald!” cried Stephanie, hurt and aghast. “I told you I needed you to support me — to help me help Trevor understand that it’s not okay for him to use his new size against me.”

Trevor edged even closer to Stephanie and flexed his chest just as he had earlier in the day when Stephanie had asked him to give up the computer.

Stephanie’s eyes grew wide. Her heart palpitated. It was obvious that Trevor understood he didn’t need to listen to Stephanie’s request and that his father wouldn’t do anything about it. She and Trevor were communicating with a shared language used by typically developing people, but Gerald had no idea what was going on. Somehow, even if Trevor didn’t know his father had autism, Trevor knew he could take advantage of the situation. Trevor had been living in a mixed-neurological family all his life. He didn’t know anything else.

“But it’s true,” said Gerald. “Look how big he is. I don’t see what you’re upset about.”

“No, you don’t!” screamed Stephanie, defiantly agreeing and realizing the autism was preventing Gerald from understanding.

“You don’t have to be so irrational and selfish,” said Gerald calmly. “It isn’t all about you.”

The irony stung and Stephanie was crushed. She turned and ran from the room, sobbing. She ran down the stairs and out the front door, wiping her tears as she ran. Her bare feet scraped across the asphalt.

“This is never going to work,” she said aloud and to no one, again by herself. “Gerald just doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand Trevor’s body language and he doesn’t understand my perspective or my needs. He doesn’t get the way men use their bodies to communicate with each other and women and…. he just doesn’t get it and I am completely alone. I’ll have to teach Trevor myself.”

Stephanie cried realizing her first hopes for working together with Gerald as a parenting team now that she knew about autism were unrealistic. Communicating her needs clearly in words wouldn’t be enough to help Gerald understand her perspective or the social nuances of body language, eye contact and size. Clear language could never help Gerald understand the nuances of social communication or a son using his size against his mother.

Stephanie was tired. She’d been parenting alone for a long time and it didn’t look like parenting alone would end soon.

After about 30 minutes, Stephanie was ready to re-enter the home. She took a deep breath and stepped in. It felt hot, muggy… claustrophobic.

“Why did you run off like that?” Gerald asked when she entered the bedroom. “You had no right to storm out of the room that way as if Trevor did something wrong — or me. Stop being so selfish.”

Stephanie hid her tears and thought again on the irony.

Learn more about my use of fiction HERE.

Using Fiction to “Show” instead of “Tell”

Telling stories is important. Stories help others understand what it’s like to be on the inside of a particular situation, issue or problem. Stories “show” rather than “tell” and sometimes I like to write “showing” posts rather than “telling” posts.

True stories have one major downfall: they’re personal. In many cases, personal information should be kept confidential to protect the privacy of all involved.

My solution to this problem is to write fiction. None of the characters in my online stories are real people. Instead, they’re collective fictional representations of the many stories I’ve heard from the many real people I’ve interacted with in my life and work. No character is intended to represent any one actual person. There’s no need: the stories people who live in families with autism tell are generally fairly similar. My fiction shares their experiences in a way I hope others can understand and resonate with.

I hope you enjoy!

You can read some of my stories at these links:

Stephanie’s Story of Trying to Parent as a Team
The Therapist Who Understood Autism in Adults

REAL Mixed-Neurological Relationships Values

These are the Shared Values my colleagues, Bronmaree Wilson and Pnina Arad, and myself have decided upon.

  1. We believe that all people are of equal worth and value, regardless of neurological differences. We believe in neurodiversity.
  2. We believe that all marriages and intimate relationships should be relationships of equality.
  3. We believe that the perspectives of both spouses are equally valuable.
  4. We believe that both members of all marriages need and deserve support from their spouses.
  5. We seek to support both members of mixed-neurological marriages without favoring the typically developing partner or the partner with autism.
  6. We adjust our understandings based on what science tells us about mixed-neurological relationships.
  7. We believe that the neurological incompatibilities in mixed-neurological marriages affect communication and social interaction between the spouses and can cause distress in both partners.
  8. We believe mental health professionals, families, communities, religious leaders and society need a better understanding of mixed-neurological marriages so that both partners’ needs and concerns are believed and taken seriously and so that both partners are supported equally.
  9. We believe every individual has an inherent right choose when to enter a marriage and when to leave a marriage.
  10. We believe that intimate partner violence, whether physical, verbal, psychological, sexual or financial, is unacceptable.
  11. We believe that mixed-neurological marriages are susceptible to intimate partner violence.
  12. We believe both partners in mixed-neurological marriages are susceptible to trauma in their relationships.
  13. We believe that using money or children to coerce a spouse into sexual consent is different than, but akin to, rape.
  14. We believe that using money or children to coerce a partner to stay in a marriage is unethical and destructive to individuals, families, children, communities and society. We believe governments are obligated to legislate and enforce laws accordingly.
  15. We believe religious leaders can improve their communities through learning about mixed-neurological marriage and divorce and providing support to both partners regardless of the decisions they make.
  16. We believe that encouraging others to stay in marriages that include intimate partner violence is unethical and harmful to individuals, families, children, communities and society.
  17. We believe the claim that divorce is always bad for children is false.
  18. We believe the divorce process can be particularly difficult for mixed-neurological couples and that governments are obligated to legislate to protect families from the unnecessary distress that can occur during divorce when one adult is typically developing and one adult is on the autism spectrum.
  19. We believe that both partners should leave divorce as financial equals and that laws that work to ensure children are well taken care of after divorce are paramount.
  20. We believe that married people, divorced people and single people all have equal worth and value.

What is a Mixed-Neurological Relationship?

A mixed-neurological intimate adult relationship is a relationship between a person with high-functioning autism and a typically developing person. Typically developing people are people who don’t have autism or another developmental disorder. In a nutshell, high-functioning autism is autism (or ASD) without cognitive or language impairment.

Many people with high-functioning autism will marry and have successful careers.

Chances are that some of the high-level employees in your workplace have high-functioning autism. They can be doctors, surgeons, data analysts, financial analysts, IT professionals, programmers, physicists… you name it. Those who are able to find employment within their niche interests are often able to contribute unique skills to the workforce. And not all people with high-functioning autism in the workforce are in exceptionally high-level jobs. In most cases, their colleagues will not be aware that they have ASD. Your colleague in the next cubical could have ASD and you wouldn’t necessarily know it.

Autism has a genetic component and sometimes people with high-functioning autism aren’t themselves aware that they might be on the spectrum until a family member, usually a child, is diagnosed. In some families, one parent and one or more children have ASD.

High-functioning autism is easier to recognize in children than adults and until the last twenty years or so, most children with high-functioning autism went without the advantage of a diagnosis. These children used their intellect and their resourcefulness to develop compensatory strategies on their own. By the time they reached adulthood, those strategies masked the most obvious signs of ASD.

Often, neither they nor their current intimate partners knew about the autism when their intimate relationships began.

Intimate adult relationships between typically developing adults and adults on the autism spectrum are mixed relationships because the partners are neurologically dissimilar in a manner that affects their communication and social interactions. Intimate adult relationships are commonly accepted as the most important relationships of one’s lifetime and successful communication and social enjoyment are critical to adults’ satisfaction within them.

Currently partners in mixed-neurological relationships have few resources to help them navigate their differing communication styles. In fact, there is scant acknowledgment that mixed-neurological relationships even exist and few resources to assist professionals in working with them.

Most of us have heard of mixed-orientation relationships and mixed-faith relationships and the difficulties that arise between partners who navigate these differences. It is less common to consider the friction that may occur when the incompatibility between partners is neurological.

My programs provide information, strategies, resources and support for typically developing members of mixed-neurological relationships and their partners.