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.