Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ticket-Punching: Couples on the Autism Spectrum

Many times in sessions with couples in which one partner is on the spectrum, much time is spent addressing an issue my wise Uncle Bob coined “ticket-punching”.

Here’s the definition:

Ticket-punching: v. an over-focus on schedules made, boxes checked and tasks accomplished, whereby the autistic adult is perceived as “missing the moment” and “more interested in lists than experiences”

This ticket-punching behavior, so I’m told, is especially prevalent during traveling.  Some adults on the spectrum may be great travel coordinators – almost too good at arranging tours, meals, destinations and activities.  His partner benefits greatly from this talent, of course: who wouldn’t love to have all these arrangements made competently, efficiently, and even cheaply?

But there does seem to be one problem.  The non-Aspie partner may complain of feeling alone on the trip, like the only one actually experiencing all these wonderfully scheduled happenings.  Out touring, she may look to her partner to share a smile of enjoyment, and find he’s busy consulting a map or phone, planning for the next event.  During dinner, she may move to share a taste of her dessert, only to find him more preoccupied with calculating the gratuity, the offered bite left untaken. At the end of the evening, she may find that they’re “sharing” a sunset – but instead of feeling companionship, she can sense he’s a million miles away.  It’s not a content quietness they’re enjoying, but a strained silence she’s enduring.

I often hear these clients ask Why?  Why go to all the trouble and expense, the time and the effort, only to stay so emotionally disconnected?  She may find trips less and less enjoyable because of the loneliness, or she may find the change of scenery a necessary distraction to home life.  Whatever the case, she’s often dissatisfied with the vacation, and the harder he works to make it a success, the less of a success it tends to be.

But here’s what I suspect.  I suspect he has difficulty enjoying the trip, (unless he’s actively engaged in learning).  I suspect that opportunities to sit and enjoy the scenery are either solitary activities for him, or if engaged in together, leave him baffled as to what to say or do.  I think ticket-punching gives him a role to fill that allows him to watch his partner have fun and enjoy herself – and this is often the closest he feels he can come to having fun himself.  He’s much more comfortable with setting the stage for his loved ones to enjoy themselves than he is with joining them emotionally.  If he cannot join, he logics, he will make himself useful.  And he often does.

From his perspective, really enjoying himself, getting lost in the moment, means he is likely to do something “wrong”.  Fun may mean embarrassment over that goofy laugh, or laughing too loud or too hard or too long or at the wrong time.  Being unselfconscious could mean losing pace with the tour group because he is caught up in marveling at the stars, or ordering dinner before the server has taken his drink request, or starting to talk excitedly before his friend is finished with his story or missing the cue he was supposed to pick up that now is the time for silence.  Letting go and participating could mean possibly ruining the trip, alienating fellow travelers, making a fool of himself.  The risk-benefit analysis points to sticking to what he’s good at: setting the stage for others, who don’t make such errors.

And here’s another benefit: adults on the spectrum can often enjoy the memory of happenings much more easily than they can enjoy those happenings in the moment.  Visiting a happening via memory is risk-free – it’s safer to have fun once you cannot fail.  It’s not that adults on the spectrum don’t feel – very deeply, in fact.  It’s that feeling, and expressing that feeling, has become associated with things like embarrassment and failure.  Those of us who can enjoy a trip without obsessing on expectations and possible points of social failure are so lucky.

So you may try starting small.  If you and your partner want to try to experience the moment, why not take it slow.  Expect that a vacation to the Galapagos Islands will bring with it an immense amount of anxiety; a short drive to the park or dinner.  He may try talking before thinking too much about it, and you may try accepting social errors as part of the desensitization process.  If you both try to be present emotionally, perhaps you’ll find that silence can be more comfortable than you thought.


Kimberly said...

I found that fascinating - and i dont even have an Aspie partner. Write on!

Anonymous said...

This is exactly right. I would rather watch my kids have fun than try to join in. Thank you for this post.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I wish this werent so very true. Its so nice to have the money to travel, so sad to not enjoy it. I dont know if my aspie partner can enjoy anything actually. I wish I knew what to do to make him happy. Thank you for another normalizing article.

Katzedecimal said...

Another factor is that many of us Aspies don't react well to changes in our routines and environments, and a trip is nothing BUT change. If we're going to another culture, it may trigger enormous social anxiety: We can't even get it right in our OWN culture, how badly are we going to mess up in someone else's? A trip takes us wildly beyond our control, so we may try to compensate by taking what control we can, in order to help ourselves cope.

butterflidreams said...

Wow, this completely explains why my aspie husband and our three kids have been to some of the most beautiful places on earth, yet I have never felt so lonely or disconnected as I do when on vacation. You described my life to a t. I sure wish my husband would get therapy and help. It is an exhuasting. We have the money for nice vacations, but I would rather stay home than endure the disconnect that is so very in my face when we are on vacation.

Kmarie said...

My neurotypical husband has become increasingly more sensitive as I constantly communicate what I am he is more like me and neither of us enjoy vacations...we just went on one and said never again...our kids and I cried when we saw our home we were so relieved...and my hubby said that our home is the place we belong and day trips are just as fun for us...we now plan "stay cations" and day I find that contrary to popular autism beliefs we all have RICH imaginations...we do not have to go anywhere to experience the wonders of the world. Many places I have been I feel I have already travelled yet I have not...and I don't understand why people need to travel to find themselves or find beauty...we can find it within and in any circumstance if we look and if we have our sensory environment at a comfortable level we are excellent partners for the experience. My husband loves going on day trips with me...what I lack in one area - I more than make up for in others...just like he does with his may be more obvious issues with some of my issues but I believe we all have to communicate and understand each other more...

thank you for writing this post.

Fiona said...

I took a month to prepare my two week trip to Tokyo.
I had everything I could think I might've needed (maps, prices, schedules, possible weather, facts and details about all the places I wanted to visit...) I even walked around my hostel on Google Maps before leaving just to make sure I wouldn't get lost on my way to the station.
I sometimes think that the planning is better than the experience itself.

Anonymous said...

My husband "planned" (re: booked) a surprise trip twoish years ago to San Francisco. He joked that we were going to North Korea for weeks. I had to call my mother in law for reassurance that he was joking. He didn't understand that if I don't know where we're going, I can't plan anything. If I can't plan, I can't get excited about it. I can get excited about a wrapped gift because it will never make me worry that I will pack clothes that might be wrong or that I will forget to pack the charger for the camera. I like trips. I'm a military brat (and case that wasn't clear) so I am actually somewhat accustomed to different environments.

But I did not know we were going to San Francisco until the day he picked me up from work before the trip. At which point I was exhausted from guessing and wondering and worrying and telling everyone in my circle--yes, it's nice, romantic, etc. But I am FREAKING out!

I tend to get stressed about little things when we are on vacation. Like getting into the correct lane to make a turn when we are navigating a new area. Overall, though, I do enjoy myself, I just need something specific to look forward to rather than this mysterious undisclosed location.