Mutually Assured Distraction

Gus and Leah

About the Authors

Gus and Leah are a married couple on the autism spectrum and members of the AANE Speaker’s Bureau. Read their full bio here.

October 2021

We are an adult couple, both of us on the autism spectrum, married for almost exactly five years. Gus is more of a classic STEM geek, working as a computer engineer, whereas Leah swings more on the NVLD side of things and works in online content development and digital media. We consider this blend of consistency (both on the spectrum) and complementarity (different subtypes) an asset. Despite the continuing plague, we are fortunate to remain healthy and employed working remotely, without driving each other crazy (crazier?) — so far, at least.

The thunderbolt of disruption that struck in March 2020 shook everyone, but hit those of us on the spectrum in a particular way: everyone knows how much we love dramatic changes in routine. Support groups and fragile communities were also broken apart or placed on indefinite hold, pushing many into deeper isolation. Those constantly surrounded by family members can experience paradoxical, legitimate cravings for re-socialization and solitude.

The whiplash of masks/no masks/masks again is taxing for everyone. But we with audio processing issues must now read invisible lips. Zoom meetings and “parties” are worse than unsatisfying; having even fewer nonverbal clues to work with than usual is both troublesome and exhausting.

What to do, besides complain? We feel that immersing oneself in philosophy, music, poetry, art, etc. are not escapist indulgences, but a source of rejuvenation. You shouldn’t feel guilty for merely “consuming” on the weekends, for example, rather than always being creative or useful. Forcing productivity when our brains and bodies wear us out during the week is just a recipe for more wear-and-tear.

Regardless, we have never been more grateful to have each other.

Since plenty of people with autism are both (a) single and (b) eager to find a companion, we suspect many reading this are curious about how we met. The answer is… by seeking the company of others with our special interest. In our case, a passion for creative writing led us to the same Meetup group. Imagine: two autistic strangers find each other, and romance, in a bookstore one Friday evening… what an implausible scenario!

Jesting aside, we suspect this method could work for others too. It’s even possible to believe that soon, meeting new people in a group setting, in person, may once again become routine.

Autism is commonly associated with interpersonal communication deficits. You might imagine that an intimate relationship between people with this condition would face certain challenges. You would be correct. And most of the problems involved cannot be “fixed” outright, but require constant maintenance — plague, or no plague.

Our greatest struggle is actually coping with generic emotional and attentional issues commonly comorbid with autism: depression, anxiety, emotional regulation, impulsivity, lack of focus, etc. Although these are individual difficulties, we share some conditions (and medications), and they obviously do interfere with our relationship. Psychiatry and psychotherapy help keep them in check.

The next largest problem-cluster: sensory issues. These often interfere destructively; e.g. both of us startle at abrupt, loud noises, and both of us are constantly dropping things. Patience, flexibility in adapting one’s behaviors, and a sense of humor help here, along with practical measures like the judicious use of sound-isolating earphones and unbreakable dinnerware.

Finally, emotional issues closely tied to autism: misreading each other’s feelings and intent, alexithymia, meltdowns, shutdowns… While not our biggest problems, they are bad enough on their own. But some strategies do help:

  1. No mind-reading! Don’t assume you know what the other person is thinking or feeling, unless they tell you.
  2. Don’t assume the other person can guess what you’re feeling or thinking.
  3. Do assume the best of intentions; give the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Allow each other lots of space, including time alone, without judgment.

There’s so much more we could discuss: our challenges with executive functioning and working memory; how we avoid enabling each other in shared areas of weakness; finding solutions to practical matters we would both rather avoid due to various phobias, etc., etc., etc.

So is it harder for us than for “typical” couples? Probably not. No interpersonal relationship is without difficulties. And having the same atypical struggles in common gives us a privileged understanding of each other’s needs, and a unique solidarity.

At least the pandemic has made one thing crystal clear: the two of us would rather be sequestered with each other than with anyone else on earth!

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