Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism in which the person has average to above average intelligence, but very poor social skills. One of the common strengths of people with Asperger’s is an interest in science and math, making them employable and dependable, two qualities that many adults look for in a partner or spouse. However, a lack of empathy or, if empathy is present, its expression, plus a mechanical approach to sex, can discourage both partners from having their intimate needs met.
Asperger’s seems to be current vogue disorder. HBO recently had a documentary on Temple Grandin, the fascinating woman agriculturalist who has written books about her own experience of Asperger’s. Last year, three movies were released that featured characters with Asperger’s. Asperger’s, it seems, is everywhere.
But is it? Asperger’s has a short history, because it was only first diagnosed in 1944 by Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger, the number of people in the U.S. who have Asperger’s is actually unknown. Many adults may have Asperger’s without knowledge of the disorder.
How does someone know that they or someone they know has Asperger’s, anyway? People with Asperger’s usually have poor social skills, obsessions, odd speech patterns, unusual posture, and other peculiar mannerisms. In an adult, the person may have difficulty understanding social behavior that others take for granted, for example, laughing loudly or at inappropriate times. They may have strange collections, such as one physician with whom I’m familiar who collected all things having to do with bees; even his office was decorated in black and yellow.
When people with Asperger’s speak, they may not make sense, not because they speak gibberish but because they don’t know how to segue into normal conversation. Generally, they learn how to get along socially by observing and copying others. Since they don’t do well with change in any case, this only contributes to behavior that may appear strange or robotic. A common myth about Asperger’s is that everyone who has it is a “genius.” Not true. There are people with average intelligence that also have Asperger’s.
Because people with Asperger’s don’t fit in socially, they often apply themselves in school or in their careers. This makes them stable and dependable, which can be attractive to a partner that is looking to settle down. Many people who partner with someone with Asperger’s will marry in the belief that feelings and intimacy will grow over time. While this can happen, more often than not the non-Asperger’s partner becomes disappointed and frustrated.
Sometimes this disappointment and frustration becomes focused in the couple’s bedroom. While adults with Asperger’s vary, many non-Asperger’s partners find the lover with Asperger’s mechanical and emotionally disconnected during sex. Even if they have sexual experience, they may not understand what is expected of them, e.g., mutual pleasuring, vocalization, or emotional expression.
Besides misunderstanding social cues and lacking in empathy, the partner with Asperger’s may also be overwhelmed by the sensory experiences of sex. One man, for example, disliked the smell and feel of his partner’s hair. Another couldn’t stand the little bumps and irregularities of his partner’s skin and asked her to wear a body stocking when they had sex. A woman with Asperger’s complained that she felt “completely smothered” by her husband during lovemaking and decided it was better to divorce than to put up with having to have sex.
Is there any hope for couples in which one partner has Asperger’s? Yes, of course. If both partners are motivated to change, then they can have a more satisfying sex life, one that makes each partner feel wanted and accepted. But a satisfying sex life generally starts outside the bedroom. Partners first need to educate themselves about Asperger’s so that they can understand how it is affecting their intimate relationship. They need to be able to communicate to each other; both need to develop some empathy for the other’s position.
Sensate focus activities may also be helpful in slowing down both partners so that they can concentrate on what feels good, instead of on performance. Learning to give verbal feedback about sex without creating defensiveness is another valuable skill. Being realistic about what may or may not change in the bedroom is another facet of acceptance of the diagnosis of Asperger’s.
A word about diagnosis and treatment: Different people react to a diagnosis of Asperger’s in different ways. Some people are relieved to discover an identity that answers questions for them. Others are curious. Still others are upset or go into denial. No individual should ever be forced into being diagnosed or treated. However, therapy can be helpful for people with Asperger’s and spouses or other family members who are trying to understand and give them support.