Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Adults with Asperger's: Why Freezing Strawberries Can Be Hard

In working with couples in which one partner is on the spectrum I'm often struck with how similar their experiences, both big and small, are.  Of course in initial sessions I get quite a different account from each partner.  Because one partner in the relationship is often both vocal and articulate, I get lots of information from him/her.   In fact, I depend on this partner to convey how s/he feels in the relationship. This ability to describe emotional states is a valuable part of therapy.

But gathering information from the Aspie partner goes a little differently.  Many folks with Asperger's have a difficult time recognizing and naming their emotional states.  Most of my clients know if they're comfortable or not comfortable, but distinguishing between emotions like guilt and sadness, or happiness and excitement, is trickier.  Funny that many of these adults enter into relationships with partners who are so highly empathic; I've heard couples report that the non-Aspie partner will know her partner is anxious before he does!

This difficulty naming emotions wouldn't seem like too much of a disability, except that we rely on our ability to notice and name our internal states constantly - throughout interactions with everyone from the mail carrier to our spouse.  Think of the lack of control that can come from not being able to name your emotion - how then can you modify your environment or the behavior of others to meet your emotional needs?  Here's an example of the kind of interaction that can emerge:

#1: I'm so angry with you for forgetting to freeze those strawberries!
#2: I didn't forget.
#1: Yes you did.  You always do. I told you to freeze them, and there they sit on the counter!
#2: That's because I haven't gotten to it yet.
#1: Well when did you think I wanted them frozen? After they've gone moldy?
#2: They're not moldy.
#1: That's not the point! I asked you to do me a simple favor and you just won't do it! I really do have  
      to do everything myself. Can 't you understand how that hurts me?
#2: (silence)...beginning to shut down
#1: Is that a "YES"?
#2: (silence)....shut down

In this example (as you may have guessed) Partner #2 is the partner with Asperger's.  As tension rises during the conversation, he is unable to identify his emotional state - things are moving too quickly, and she's waiting for a response.  There's no time to slow down and ask himself what he's feeling - to do so might even further escalate the situation.  Because accessing emotion takes time - more time than is socially sanctioned - he may focus on the information coming his way - because frankly, he can process information with lightning speed.  Once she's offered a statement that's untrue ("I really do have to do everything myself"), the conversation is largely over.  He cannot correct her statement without furthering their journey down the rabbit hole.  He cannot acquiesce, because the statement is not correct.  With no option, he shuts down.

In an effort to justify feelings, many of us exaggerate information.  Without doing so, it seems, we are not taken seriously.  But doing so invites debate.  Were the strawberries really in danger of going moldy?  Perhaps not.  Because she has expressed her feelings in terms of information, the validity (or lack thereof) of the information is relevant.  This debating of information is often a major way these conversations get derailed.

But there's an exciting twist to this story.  Healthy communication requires sharing perspective using reality-based language.  It requires resisting the temptation to read into behaviors, to assume motives.  Yet most of us are socialized to infuse our communication with emotional intensity when we feel unheard.  Of course this will not work in an Aspie relationship.  Nothing will close down a conversation more quickly.  Healthy communication is literally the only thing that will work.

If folks with Asperger's tend to miss emotional cues unless the cues are potent and unmistakable, it's natural for partners to want to amp up the intensity in an effort to be heard.  It's painful when this backfires for both partners.  Developing a system that helps you and your partner navigate conversations - and communicate intense emotions in non-threatening ways - is crucial.  Without systems to manage these moments, partners will feel both bullied and unheard.

While freezing strawberries may seem to be an inconsequential issue, it's often these everyday rough spots that couples address in sessions.  When simple interactions can veer so far south, the couple is at risk for chronic hypervigilance and reactivity.

More on these systems to come.