In my upcoming book Sex, Love, and Mental Illness: A Couple’s Guide to Staying Connected, I include a chapter on disorders usually first diagnosed in childhood. One of those disorders is Asperger’s Syndrome.
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, a movie about a couple in which the man has Asperger’s was released. Asperger’s, it seems, is everywhere.
But is it? Because it was only first diagnosed in 1994 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. Today, however, many children are diagnosed sometime in their early childhood. In any case, Asperger’s is
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. (One male client with Asperger’s, horribly embarrassed when he told me about his Peyronie’s disease, then went out to the reception area after his appointment and confided so loudly to the receptionist that the entire clinic heard him.) 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.
You’ll have to wait until January 2011 to read a copy of my book, which discusses how various psychological problems, from addiction to learning disabilities, affect a couple’s sex life, but until then here are some resources about Asperger’s that may be helpful to you: