My husband was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 55. Here’s how it improved our marriage.
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We both remember the big tomato soup incident of 2012 as a touchstone.
My husband, Rob, had thoughtfully asked me if I wanted anything from the grocery store.
“Hmmm,” I thought, watching TV. “Soup, I guess. Some sort of chicken soup. Some sort of chicken broth. Not creamy. You know, like chicken noodles or chicken rice. Or that kind with the little meatballs. How do you call this? italian wedding! I was rambling, but that was before we knew.
I continued to riff on the soup. “Chicken vegetable. Oh, are there any polka dots in it? I don’t care, really. Anything made from chicken broth is fine. Everything except tomato soup.
Half an hour later, Rob came into the house and innocently handed me two cans of tomato soup.
Lest you think this is just another example of men not listening, it isn’t. My husband was confused by my subsequent outburst. He honestly thought I said I wanted tomato soup.
A can of soup may be unimportant, but Rob often didn’t understand the conversations about the issues that came with it. A few years after starting the relationship, we seemed to be fighting a lot. It’s not like we’re young and naïve at the same time. We were both middle aged and previously married with grown children. But I was totally frustrated with this sweet, funny, smart, kind man who didn’t have the ability to pay attention. Or to make eye contact. Or interact socially.
One night we were cuddling on the couch, watching the TV show “Parenthood”. In the series, a preteen named Max is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. He is bullied in school for his quirk, but ends up thriving in a children’s school outside of neurotypical norms.
But young Max was not the “aha” moment for my husband. No, that honor belongs to an adult character in the series played by Ray Romano, a photographer named Hank who is quite nice but comes across as socially awkward and clueless. After befriending young Max, Hank reads a book on Asperger’s Syndrome in order to better understand the boy. Viewers see a wide-eyed Hank quickly flipping the pages, highlighting passages. A blister appears practically above his head. The traits listed in the book also apply to him. He realizes that he too has Asperger’s!
Rob turned off the TV and stared at me. “Do I have Asperger’s Syndrome? ” He asked.
Honestly, it occurred to me that something was wrong, but it had bristled at my previous attempts to analyze it. Seeing him portrayed on television clicked.
He has taken several tests online, read articles, consulted our family doctor and a therapist. Yes, Asperger’s syndrome was likely.
How come Rob was not diagnosed until much of his adult life? His parents or teachers probably weren’t aware of this sort of thing at the time. He was considered a smart but difficult child. Little accounts of his condition were considered oddities. In fact, when Rob and I first started dating, a girlfriend said to me, “I heard he was a nice guy, but a little weird.
In fact, the word “Asperger’s” is not the preferred terminology these days. Technically, Rob is somewhere on the autism spectrum, on the not-so-obvious side. The most noticeable characteristics of Asperger’s in my husband are: lack of eye contact; preference for routine; struggle with social interactions; literal understanding of words; hyperfocus on an idea, sometimes obsessively; exceptional verbal ability, especially vocabulary. The latter seems to be an outlier in the list, but it’s true of most Aspies a fact that explains Rob’s success in his first radio career.
I heard Rob before I knew him. He was the popular host of a morning show on a local radio station. I often laughed aloud at his witty, articulate jokes as I listened in my car. So I was confused when I started dating him because he seemed to be a different person. I got it on my nerves first. But no. His real self was a far cry from his laid back character on the air.
“Why is he so talkative and charming on the radio but shy and awkward in person?” ” I was wondering. Later I realized he didn’t have to LOOK at anyone when he was in the studio. I often criticized him for not looking at me during conversations.
Any kind of social interaction is strained for Rob. His expression “stag in the headlights” at large gatherings where 12 people are talking at a time could be interpreted as distant or perhaps boring. He just can’t handle the cacophony of words coming to him.
Rob was worried that he would not make a good impression on my sons. Once, after he told me a clever joke, I suggested he tell it to my oldest son, Jeff, since we were attending a dinner party at his house that night. Rehearsing and Planning the Conversation is a suggested tool for Aspies.
As Jeff opened the door to greet us, Rob blurted out, “Here’s a good joke,” before either of us stepped through the threshold. He started to tell the joke on a rapid fire, amidst the removal of coats and welcoming hugs. I’m not sure my son heard it.
I sympathized, wondering how long Rob had rehearsed and if he was disappointed that his big time was over before we entered the house. Although he understands that conversations have an ebb and flow where he could naturally tell a joke, he is unable to comprehend where this place is.
Its lack of observation skills is also legendary. Once, when we had just moved into a new location, I asked her to help me hang pictures in the living room. “Later,” he said. “Let me finish this. He was intensely focused on the computer screen in his office. Feeling impatient, I did it myself.
Exactly three weeks later, he suddenly turned to me and said, “I can help you hang these pictures now. ” Are you kidding? I was thinking. I had hung five large works of art in the room.
“Uh, look around the room,” I said. He did. He didn’t understand it. “What am I supposed to see?” ” he said. He hadn’t noticed in three weeks that the living room had no bare walls. He is, however, able to notice tiny details, such as the fact that there are fewer pixels in one of two seemingly identical digital images.
So what’s against all of this frustration? What makes the relationship work? A lot. We are both avid readers of everything from popular fiction to complicated philosophy. We text each other funny observations during the day. We try new restaurants on the weekends, although I’m usually the one to push for food experimentation. We are good traveling companions; we once took an impulsive detour through Bruges towards Amsterdam because we loved the movie “In Bruges”. We can sit in silence in the same room, look at our iPads, play Words with Friends with each other, without thinking it’s weird. We share the same political views. Most importantly, we laugh easily and often. A good sex life doesn’t hurt either.
Still, I’m not sure we would still be married if Ray Romano’s character hadn’t practically hit the TV and pat my husband on the shoulder. Suddenly it all made sense. These behaviors that neurotypical people like me found so annoying were the result of different wiring in his brain.
It allowed me to look at Rob from a new perspective. he was not acting in this way out of immaturity, rudeness or laziness. Since a person with diabetes will never be able to eat like a typical eater, a person with Asperger’s syndrome will never think or act like a neurotypical person does. Getting angry with someone with Asperger’s disease is like getting angry with someone with diabetes.
Plus, Rob looks at himself differently now. Knowing was a huge relief. He doesn’t have to think of himself as a socially awkward, oblivious, hyper-focused, but easily distracted jerk. He has Asperger’s syndrome. His brain doesn’t work like mine. He can learn useful new skills, but they will never come naturally to him.
I too need to learn new skills that help us connect better. Rob quit the radio and is now a respected radiology technician in an orthopedic operating room. He says he chose radiology because it appealed to his sense of order and routine; I say he chose to work in surgery because all of his patients are anesthetized. However, he still has to interact with his co-workers and is often bewildered not to grasp the nuances of a conversation.
These days, if he asks me what kind of soup I want, I respond succinctly and precisely: “Progresso Chicken and Meatball Soup, please”. I could even write it down on a piece of paper. Or send him a text. I’m always prone to rambling, but I can’t really fault Rob for having no idea what I’m rambling on.
And sometimes when I want a one-on-one, focused conversation, I only need to say two words: “tomato soup”. He understands.
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