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Communicating about Communication

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Communicating about Communication

by Ben and Bobbi Sheahan
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| September/October 2013

Everyone knows that communication is central to a successful relationship. What about relationships in which one partner has Asperger’s Syndrome?

Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) tends to include anxiety, social challenges, and a heightened need for routine. Both of us can tell you what it’s like to be married to someone with AS, so we can share what we’ve learned about conflict and communication. We offer a few thoughts with the humility that comes from knowing that we are hard to love, just like everyone else.

Be Clear

Ben: Be sure that you understand what’s being said to you. I tend to think in numbers, and Bobbi tends to think in pictures. If I refer to “What happened on the 17th at 3:00 p.m.,” she has no clue what I’m talking about.
Bobbi: If I say, “You did THAT,” or if I use a phrase that makes no sense to Ben, we don’t get anywhere. We try not to use pronouns or idioms.

Say No

Bobbi: There’s a phrase that Ben likes to use: “A no is as good as a yes.” Well, yes and no.
Ben: People like us tend to be one extreme or the other: either we can’t say no, or we say no to everything. Imagine when these two types marry each other! Mr. No has to learn to say yes to his bride more often (my recommendation: most of the time), and Mrs. Yes may need to learn some stock phrases like, “I’ll have to think about that,” or “I wish that I could.”

Praise and Appreciate

Ben: I try to be sure, every day, that my wife knows that she is the most important person in my life. Over time, we’ve modified this for Aspies, because we can ascribe too much importance to things: she must know that she is the most important noun in my life—the most important person, place, or thing.
Bobbi: Attention to detail is a core trait in Aspies; we need to remember to notice positive details and not just little things that get on our nerves. We try to give each other five compliments or affirmations for every time we say something negative or critical to one another. It can seem a bit artificial, but it’s always nice to be on the receiving end.

Alone Together

Bobbi: If you both have interests that tend to be solitary—reading, long walks, TV, or video games, for example—draw lines around the time you spend separately pursuing those interests. In our house, we decided it was much simpler to just banish TV altogether.
Ben: This one can really be a struggle for men. It’s easy to find the other Aspie dads at the soccer game because they’re the ones focusing on their laptops and tablets. We have to find the balance so that we get to have some alone time while not isolating ourselves so much that it harms our relationships.

Learn Social Skills

Bobbi: Our friend, author Jennifer Cook O’Toole, is especially good at encouraging Aspies to learn to ask questions and show interest. Those skills can help break the ice at the start, but they’re arguably more important after you’ve been together for a while.
Ben: Keep reminding yourself not to take your spouse for granted. Be proactive about apologizing, show interest in what the other person is saying, and check in with each other about what you’re feeling.

I’ll Be Right Back

Ben: When things are stressful, you may need to walk around or stim, and that isn’t a rejection of your loved ones. You may not think that you are stimming; you may not realize that you are doing anything at all. Ask your friends and family, “This may sound weird, but can you please describe what I do when I’m upset?” and “How does that make you feel?” The answers might surprise you.
Bobbi: Study people who handle conflict well. Learn phrases. These are skills that can be learned.

Structure versus Chaos

Ben: What level of structure makes you both feel safe without feeling like you live in a military installation? In terms of time, money, and environment, what type of life do you want? All of this, as well as the transition into marriage itself, needs to be negotiated.
Bobbi: Another aspect of combining your lives is your physical environment. One of you may be a neat freak and the other may be ready to audition for Hoarders. Or one of you may love to have music or TV on as background noise while the other finds this insufferable.
Ben: Even the temperature of the house can be a battleground.
Bobbi: Oh, yes. Ben would live on the surface of the sun if there were real estate available.

I’ll Stand by You

Bobbi: Aspies can be criticized for being rigid, but rigid sounds so negative. How about loyal, hardworking, persistent, and able to stick to a schedule? I wasn’t complaining about Ben when our kids were babies and I needed sleep, let me tell you.
Ben: The same can be said for anxiety; how about praising one another for being careful instead? When we are backing our vehicles out of our garage, we are one step away from using an air traffic controller to make sure that our kids are safe.
Bobbi: And don’t get us started about babyproofing!

Please Shut Up

Ben: Let’s talk about arguing with an Aspie.
Bobbi: It’s good to have ground rules. Both of us have the tendency to go on and on. We have a signal that’s more polite than “shut up” but basically means the same thing.
Ben: Learn to be aware of your facial expressions, or at least accept the fact that you are unaware of your facial expressions. Bobbi will say, “Are you upset?” I’ll say “no,” and she’ll say, “Tell your face,” and I’ll realize that I look intensely upset or totally disengaged when I’m really not.
Bobbi: I’ve been known to laugh at the wrong times, and I work very hard to control it. It got me into a lot of trouble when I was a kid. It’s also not the best plan in a relationship.
Ben: We also try to agree on built-in deal breakers before we start the discussion. Is this a Two-Yes or a One-No Decision? Agreeing on that beforehand can help you cut to the chase.
Bobbi: Another of our ground rules: don’t repeat yourself more than twice.

Just Say It

Ben: One of the much-discussed Aspie traits is “mind blindness”; intellectually, I know that she isn’t seeing what I’m seeing, but I don’t actually get that. That’s not a reason to fight; it’s an opportunity to clarify.
Bobbi: No hints! Be direct. If you want something, don’t make him guess. Say, “I want a necklace.” Or, better yet, “Look at the necklace you just got me!” Also, if your honey tends to be task-oriented, you can make a project of it. We once spent date night at a department store, and I tried perfumes until we found one that we both liked.

Attention to Detail

Ben: When we were dating, I bought Bobbi earrings for her birthday. My perfectionism, curiosity, and attention to detail all went into high gear. To my credit, I visited only 20 percent of the jewelers I contacted, which means that I visited 14 of them.
Bobbi: Eleven years we’ve been married, and I’m still happily wearing my earrings. I can picture a parallel universe in which Ben is still looking for the perfect jeweler.

Your Children’s Behavior

Ben: For a long time, my daughter and I were getting along so well that I didn’t really tune in to the fact that she was nonverbal. I’d spend hours pushing her on a swing or sitting quietly with her, and we were communicating just fine.
Bobbi: Many parents complain that their partner is not sufficiently engaged with their child with autism. I always encourage them to consider that their partner may also be on the spectrum and may actually be relating very strongly with their child.

Let It Go

Bobbi: They don’t call AS “Little Professor Syndrome” for nothing. Resist the urge to correct each other. Let lots of things go. I can be hypervigilant about locking doors; I can make a big deal of it, or I can just check the doors.
Ben: Another example in our house involves food. Bobbi will cook and prepare and put more choices on the table until I say, “How can I help you sit down?” It wouldn’t help if I got upset with her for making her task bigger; I learned this the hard way in our early years of marriage. If I prepared every meal, we’d eat oatmeal or bread and cheese three times a day. We can kid each other about these differences, but it would do us no good to try to change each other.

He’s Not Ignoring You

Bobbi: I have had to learn to get Ben’s attention by doing things other than raising my volume. He’s not ignoring me; he’s just focused on something else.
Ben: It helps if you eliminate distractions. Instead of turning up your volume, turn down the volume on other things. This applies to sound, but it also applies to any kind of distractions.
Bobbi: This road runs both ways; if I think that I’m multitasking, Ben thinks I’m ignoring him. I don’t stim in the traditional sense, but I love to have something to do with my hands. I have learned to find things like knitting, which allow me to focus my attention on Ben when he is talking, instead of doing a crossword or working at the computer.

“I Disagree” Doesn’t Mean “You’re Bad”

Ben: When she said that she didn’t want to eat oatmeal every morning of her life, she didn’t say I was wrong or evil; she expressed a differing opinion, and that’s her prerogative. Obviously, she’s wrong, but that’s still her prerogative.
Bobbi: After we’d been married for several years, I realized that occasionally having a little oatmeal was like giving a gift to my husband. He is delighted when I eat oatmeal with him. No kidding. I can choose to be irritated or I can say to myself, “How easy was THAT?”

Learn The Quirks

Ben: Everyone has their pet peeves. There are things about me that nobody but Bobbi would want to live with and vice-versa. Everyone who has been married for a while realizes that this is true about their marriages as well, but we need to actually acknowledge this and say it aloud.
Bobbi: The small things can make life easy or hard; it’s part of knowing and accepting each other. I learned early in our marriage that my husband doesn’t like surprises. Can you guess how I learned that? Yes, I threw him a surprise party.

Don’t Overwhelm Yourselves

Ben: We need to be reminded to do this for ourselves and for each other. It doesn’t matter whether you think it makes sense or not. Each of you should be able to call a time-out at any time and say, “I’m overwhelmed.” In my opinion, this would eliminate the majority of relationship conflicts.
Bobbi: There are topics and tasks that I won’t even bring up on a workday because I know that would be too much. Speaking of “too much,” I recently read that women with AS can seem overly social because we’re overcompensating, trying to fit in. That resonated with me to an uncomfortable degree. To the extent that it’s correct, it can cause undue stress on both spouses.

In Conclusion

Bobbi: The skills that would be helpful in any relationship can be even more important for us because of AS traits like difficulty reading body language, the inability to shut up, or the tendency to be in our own little worlds.
Ben: If we are task-oriented and anxious—even about things that are supposed to be fun—we’d never give each other any peace. We set out to write about conflict resolution, but in our discussions, we both kept coming back to gentleness and kindness and having fun together.

Want to learn more? We recommend Loving Mr. Spock: Understanding a Lover with Asperger’s Syndrome by Barbara Jacobs (Future Horizons, 2004).

Bobbi and Ben Sheahan have been married for 11 years. They have four children, one of whom inspired Bobbi’s book What I Wish I’d Known About Raising a Child with Autism (Sheahan and DeOrnellas, Future Horizons, 2011).

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2013. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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  1. Bobbi Sheahan says:

    Thanks, Jean!
    It was a lot of fun to write with Ben. More than once, we joked that our first rule should be, “Don’t write together about
    your relationship,” but it really was fun. I’m so glad that it has resonated with people in the way that is has.

    I agree that employment presents communication pitfalls. It’s important to be self-aware about traits like interrupting (*blush*), struggling with
    eye contact, and focusing on information rather than people.

    Have a great day!

  2. Jean says:

    Thank you so much for this article and the time you’ve spent advising us all of some of the problems you faced and outlining several solutions to overcome the issues. I really appreciated both your truthfulness. The tips given can also assist not only people in marriages/relationships but tweeked to be accessible in a work setting with employers & employee. Will definately be looking into buying the book! Thanks again. Jean