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Hey everybody. Welcome back to the Testing Psychologist podcast. I am here today talking with Dr. Wendy Marsh about neurodivergent couples. Now, this topic is a little bit outside the typical assessment realm but such an important topic. Wendy is a very compelling [00:01:00] individual and so fun to talk to. So I had to interview her.
Let me tell you a little bit about her before we get to the episode. Wendy is an award-winning author and speaker on autism spectrum disorders and she provides autism assessment for adults in her private practice. Her latest book, Recognizing Autism in Women and Girls, is available now and she’s already at work on her next one, Love on the autism spectrum, neurodivergent couples communication.
As you can tell, we spend a lot of our time talking about the material in her second book that I mentioned. There are so many interesting stories and things to take away from this episode. I think you’ll really enjoy it.
Before we get to the episode, I invite everyone as always to check in on The Testing Psychologist mastermind groups. We offer groups at every stage of practice development and would be happy to speak with you if you are looking for some accountability and connection as you build and [00:02:00] grow your practice.
Without further ado, let’s get to my interview with Dr. Wendy Marsh.
Hey Wendy, welcome to the podcast.
Dr. Wendy: Thanks. It’s great to be here.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, thanks for being here. I was thrilled to be put in touch with you. I am shocked honestly that I haven’t heard your name before. You’ve done a lot of writing and publishing in this area of autism and I’m super grateful that you’re willing to spend some time with me here today to talk about neurodivergent couples. It’s great.
Dr. Wendy: I’m very happy to do that.
Dr. Sharp: Yes. Well, I will do my best to not sound too [00:03:00] naive. I’ll probably ask a lot of questions that you’ve answered a lot before.
Dr. Wendy: Well, let’s just wing it.
Dr. Sharp: I like that. That’s usually my style. I’m glad you’re on board with that.
Dr. Wendy: Perfect. Yes.
Dr. Sharp: I’ll start the same way that I start with all of my guests which is asking why this work in particular out of all things is important to you right now. Why are you focusing on this?
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. And thanks for asking that one because this one really is personal for me. I’m about to write a two books for my publisher. One for couples; they want to call it Love on the autism spectrum for dating couples, and one for neurodivergent couples who are in a relationship and having communication problems. The reason it’s personal to me is my late husband of 27 years was autistic.
We didn’t know that when we got married. You just fall in love like you do, but as our kids were getting diagnosed with autism [00:04:00] later, although I’d been working with autistic children in the schools for some time, I didn’t notice that I was living with them as well.
And so, I know firsthand that autistic people can have truly happy and fulfilling marriages or relationships. I know that many autistic people struggle to find the right person to connect. There are so many communication issues when it comes to autism that it can be hard for two people to connect and find each other, but I know what’s possible. So I would love to help other people find the one that’s for them and then once they find that person, to really work on the communication in ways that support that relationship.
Dr. Sharp: I love that. There’s so much to dig into already. And the thing that pops out right [00:05:00] off the bat is that you’re already busting one of those myths about autistic folks is that they either, well, there’s lots of myths in there: They can’t fall in love. They don’t want to fall in love. They don’t like being married. They don’t want to be married. They can’t get married. There’s all sorts of stuff to sort through there, right?
Dr. Wendy: Oh, yes. And I have to say, and I said this when he was alive too, so I’m not just… but he was the best husband in the world. And so many of the characters that made him such a good human being are also characteristics that many autistic people share: Extremely loyal. Very dedicated to what was important to him. Willing to stand up for anyone else for the underdog. Although it’s hard for most autistic people to stand up for themselves and to self-advocate, they usually have a real heart [00:06:00] for others that are in pain or in need.
Another myth is about them lacking empathy. Now, I’ve known a lot of autistic people. I haven’t met one who lacked empathy. I don’t think most of them had typical empathy. Usually, it’s extreme. It doesn’t always show on the face, but empathy is often deeply felt and difficult to communicate. But I haven’t met one that one person with autism that lacked empathy.
Dr. Sharp: I’m so glad that you’re bringing all these things up. These are all maybe misconceptions that I’ve heard over the years. And that matches my own experience as well. I would say I have at least as many autistic folks who come through my practice. We do evaluations primarily where either they or their parents would say they actually feel things [00:07:00] much more intensely. They’re just not sure what to do with it or how to manage those feelings sometimes. I see just as many of those folks as the ones who, ”lack empathy,” or appear to lack empathy.
Dr. Wendy: Yes, appear to lack empathy. I think it can be difficult to see what’s going on inside.
Dr. Sharp: So if we’re going back, I’m so curious when you’re putting these books together, and I’m curious, when you started digging into the research or just experiences of neurodivergent couples, actually, I’m going to back even further up. Would you do me a favor and give me your definition of neurodivergent?
Dr. Wendy: Oh, yeah. Let’s put me on this spot here.
Dr. Sharp: I know.
Dr. Wendy: I don’t know if I’m going to get it right but I’ll tell you what it seems [00:08:00] like to me is people whose brain is a little bit different from the majority brains. Often, it’s autism, often it’s ADHD, OCD, down. Anything that’s not just like everybody else’s brain, I think is neurodivergent.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I feel like I’ve seen so much out there especially over the last, gosh, let’s call it 1 to 2 years, right? The the Neurodivergency Movement, of course is gaining a lot of steam, rightfully so.
Dr. Wendy: Yes.
Dr. Sharp: And as that has happened, I’ve seen so many different definitions of neurodivergence. I’m always curious how folks are conceptualizing this.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. I think a bigger definition is probably better than trying to narrow it down too much.
Dr. Sharp: That makes sense to me.
So getting back to the question I started to ask, which is, when you started to look [00:09:00] into all this and maybe come up with this conceptualization for the book, what were some of the issues that popped out? Like some of the most important things that you wanted to cover in a book about neurodivergent couples?
Dr. Wendy: That’s a good question. Part of the research I did was into what people say about couples in general because that’s a good place to start. So I did complete level one of the Gottman training of couples therapy. I learned a lot. They are the experts on couples.
Dr. Sharp: Yes.
Dr. Wendy: So there was a lot to learn there. They have books that I’ve read and there’s popular books like the Love Languages. I think everybody knows about the love languages now. But there can be different… When any two people have different love languages, they need to communicate [00:10:00] better about that. But with people on the spectrum where communication is already an issue, it can be even harder.
Another thing about that with autism is, everybody’s heard the theory of mind, that it’s difficult for them to have perspective and put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
Dr. Sharp: Yes.
Dr. Wendy: It’s a theory. I haven’t done a lot of research into that particular area but I have known people who tend to have the feeling that what they know, probably everyone knows. It’s like, if I know it, it must be common knowledge. So that leads to, if I have this particular love language, if this is what I want, then that is what I will give to the person I love. And I think that’s true for all people, that that’s what we tend to do, but it might be even more so autistic people to keep trying to give someone else what they themselves want.[00:11:00] Dr. Sharp: That makes sense. Yeah, of course. I think we could dig into all of that.
I am curious from what you found, I’m trying to think how to ask the question, are there really truly differences in in neurodivergent couples’ functioning, communication, et cetera compared to neurotypical couples or is it kind of a parallel track but just…?
Dr. Wendy: That’s a good question. And honestly, I have less experience with typical couples.
Dr. Sharp: That’s great.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah, it’s hard to know because I’ve been in a majority autism household for decades, with my husband and 2 of our 3 children. [00:12:00] Now we’re 50/50, 2 on the spectrum, 2 off the spectrum.
Dr. Sharp: Got you.
Dr. Wendy: I see if I forgot your question. It was about…
Dr. Sharp: And it was not a very eloquent question, so maybe I can rephrase it. I’m curious, we talk about how there are often, not sure if this analogy will make sense, but we talk about how there are often more differences between or within groups and between groups, right?
Dr. Wendy: Oh, yeah, is that is […].
Dr. Sharp: You see what I mean?
Dr. Wendy: Yeah.
Dr. Sharp: That’s what I’m wondering is if neurodivergent couples are actually that much different than typical couples in the way that they communicate or their concerns in their relationship or conflict in the relationship. If we’re talking about a whole [00:13:00] separate construct here or just a different variation of couples, you know what I mean?
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. I get that and I think there is not that much difference. The little things can get in the way; sensory issues, for instance. If one person really hates a certain sound or texture and it’s what the other person likes, that can be a problem. But for the most part, having lived in a neurodivergent marriage that I thought was a typical marriage, I don’t think we’re that different.
Some things might be harder. Communication might be harder but it’s hard for everyone. But it’s not like a whole different animal. It’s just like some things might be more intense or more difficult but not insurmountable.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. Well, maybe we could dive into the communication piece for a little bit. I’m curious if you have [00:14:00] found any major differences or challenges with neurodivergent couples in terms of communication that are worth speaking to.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah, I think one thing that I’ve noticed in some couples when there’s one typical partner and one neurodivergent partner is there’s two ways that that can go as far as being out of balance. Either there’s a feeling of, well, I’m the typical person so my partner needs to make all the changes to be more typical because this is what the world is. It’s a typical world. So they should make all the changes.
And then the other one is, well, my partner has a disability, therefore, I’m going to have to make all the changes. And that might be hard on me but I guess I have no choice because I love this person. And neither one is true of course. Like with any relationship, it has to be half and half, even if there’s a disability going on [00:15:00] there.
Dr. Sharp: Right. So you’re saying that it’s not black and white?
Dr. Wendy: Yes, exactly. It’s not black and white.
Dr. Sharp: Yes.
Dr. Wendy: And it’s never all one way or all the other way. It’s always be meeting in the middle.
Dr. Sharp: Right. So that’s again, stereotypically something that can be challenging for folks on the spectrum, right? It’s like living in the gray or being flexible and so forth. Do you find that that comes up in relationships as well?
Dr. Wendy: Yeah, to a certain extent. There is a desire to have a rule for everything. And when somebody doesn’t keep that rule, it can be hard even if it’s just an imagined rule.
Dr. Sharp: Yes. I can see that. I’m thinking of all the rules of our own house that I’ve created and not shared with my wife or kids. [00:16:00] I think we all do that to some degree anyway but with folks on the spectrum, that might be a little more intense.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. A little more, but it’s not a whole different planet.
Dr. Sharp: Right. There’s a continuum.
Any other communication issues that you have noticed that tend to come up, and maybe not even with folks on the spectrum necessarily but you mentioned ADHD or any other neurodivergent manifestations?
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. Putting things in writing sometimes can be very useful, I think for ADHD as well as other neurodivergencies. And one thing about many people with neurodivergencies is there’s a stress functioning balance, whereas stress goes up, [00:17:00] functioning goes down, and someone who might be very eloquent in their ability to communicate verbally might become nonverbal in the presence of a lot of stress.
And when you love someone and you want to please them and you feel like, Uhoh, I’m not doing the right thing, I’m not being a good spouse. That’s stressful. It may not show on the face but but that stress makes it harder. And then people tend to walk away, like, I can’t talk about this, walk away. And that’s looks like stonewalling. It looks like a bad thing, but they just need space.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I’m glad that you brought that up. Stonewalling, that’s one of the Gottman principles, right?
Dr. Wendy: It’s one of those horses of the apocalypse, I guess.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. And I think it’s easy to forget sometimes that a lot of folks will stonewall because they’re just completely overwhelmed. And it’s like that [00:18:00] freeze response in the context.
Dr. Wendy: Yes, exactly.
Dr. Sharp: So you’ve noticed that certainly with some of these couples.
Dr. Wendy: Yes.
Dr. Sharp: I wonder, are there differences that you’ve noticed? We haven’t really made the distinction between, how would I call it, 100% neurodivergent couples versus 50/50 neurodivergent couples where one partner is neurotypical versus where both are maybe neurodivergent. Do you have any sense of how that makes a difference?
Dr. Wendy: That’s a good question. I haven’t known as many personally to work with over time who are both neurodivergent, but I am imagining that it wouldn’t. Now see, I’m just imagining that so I don’t know.
On the one hand, I think an understanding of knowing this [00:19:00] person really gets me and I can say, I can’t stand the sound of you brushing your hand against your notebook because of the sound it makes. A neurotypical person might say, “That doesn’t make a sound. I’m touching something. It’s not making a sound.” And the autistic person or the neuroatypical person might say, “That sound is so horrible, it hurts my stomach and it makes me want to vomit when you touch that fabric.” And another person who also had sensory things that might be theirs but they can go, “Oh, I get that. I’m not going to buy that fabric anymore.” Rather than trying to get them to get over it, a typical spouse might say, “Oh, just get used to it or get over it,” and that’s not going to work.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I know that there’s some research out there that would suggest that at least with autistic individuals. [00:20:00] Autistic folks tend to communicate better in a group of autistic folks versus a mixed group. I think I’m getting that right, that there are fewer problems in communication and more connection.
Dr. Wendy: I’ve definitely heard that. Because I’m not autistic, I’m just quirky, I guess, I’ve never been in a room with only autistic because I’m there and that messes it up. But I have been at conventions like Comic Cons and Anime conventions where you see a whole lot of people that are probably neurodivergent and very few people who are not. And to observe the interactions is just wonderful.
One time I saw a guy, and of course, everybody’s in a costume in a cosplay. A guy was walking in [00:21:00] whatever his particular one was with his head down saying, “Too many people, too many people, too many people, too many people.” And I thought, “Oh, I know this guy,” but I don’t know him.
And then another guy in the same similar kind of costume stepped out in front of him and said something like, “I see that you whatever and we shall fight or whatever.”. And the guy immediately got into his character as it related to the other guy’s character and they started a little battle and a little dialogue which I’m sure they had previously memorized from watching whatever a show it was.
But that guy saw this guy’s in trouble. He needs to not be himself. He needs to be his character. And he stepped in and they created that. And it was so beautiful to see. For me as just a neurotypical stranger, a mom type, to go up and say, “Are you okay honey?” would not have been useful in that situation. He needed someone to engage him [00:22:00] in the quest.
Dr. Sharp: I like that. Engage in the quest and speak the language. It sounds like there was a little bit of a language to it.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah, they had that same language.
Dr. Sharp: Yes. That’s a great story. It’s makes me think about attachment and soothing within neurodivergent relationships. I don’t know that I have a well-formulated question. I’m just being transparent. I’m making an assumption that might be challenging, but I’m not sure. I’m curious in your experience and in your research what you found about that sense of connection and soothing and regulating one another as far as neurodivergent relationships.
Dr. Wendy: That’s a good question. I have met people more than one, people who [00:23:00] have told me that what they really need is for their partner to just lie down flat on top of them. And I’m thinking they need proprioceptive input. And rather than a weighted blanket, they are having a human who is heated. So it’s like a heated, weighted blanket. And who’s willing to just lie flat on top of them and give them that whole pressing down into the floor. And that’s what they need when they’re over stress. And I think at least three people that I’ve met have had that exact same thing. I think that’s wonderful. It’s not something you hear about usually but it works for them.
Dr. Sharp: Right. Okay, this is the same concept as a neurotypical relationship maybe just a different means of soothing
Dr. Wendy: Yeah, that the partner doesn’t think, well, that’s weird. I’m [00:24:00] just going to lie down the top of you. And it’s not like a thing, it’s just like, we’re just going to lie there like two rocks on top of each other. But the neurodivergent partners don’t think that’s weird. It’s like, “Oh, I get it.” Amythest Schaber has as an autistic YouTube and I think at Neurowonderful. And she has created online, I’ve read about it, neurodivergent languages of love.
I don’t have them memorized but one of them is something like squish the soul out of me. I think one of them has to do with, I found this rock feather leaf twig that I thought you would like to see [00:25:00] about sharing unusual interest but it’s a whole different way of looking at the love languages.
I recommend her, Amythest Shaber. She’s good.
Dr. Sharp: Sure. I’m going to put her in the show notes.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. And she spells Amythest- A-M-Y-T-H-E-S-T.
Dr. Sharp: Oh, okay. Thanks for anticipating me misspelling that.
Dr. Wendy: Well, it’s not a typical spelling.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I’ll definitely put those links in the show notes.
Dr. Wendy: Thanks.
Dr. Sharp: I love that there are resources out there like that.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah.
Dr. Sharp: So we’re talking about soothing. Again, I’m just struck by it. This is the same to me as enjoying a massage or [00:26:00] that physical touch love language. It’s just that added sensory component.
Dr. Wendy: Yes.
Dr. Sharp: There are many of us that also like that. That’s funny. I remember when I was a kid, I don’t think my dad was autistic. I’m pretty sure he is not. But he used to always ask us to walk on his back. He was like, “I want to lay on the floor. You just,” this is when we were like 6 or 8 or 10 adults. But that deep pressure can go a long way.
Dr. Wendy: And also there can be a mismatch in one person maybe preferring a light touch and somebody else needing a deep touch and a light touch would just drive them crazy.
Dr. Sharp: Sure.
Dr. Wendy: But communicating about that instead of just doing the thing that drives your partner crazy without knowing, that’s [00:27:00] where opening up communication is a good thing.
Dr. Sharp: Yes, absolutely. I am thinking about communication a little bit more. I’m bouncing back to that. Just like you said, communication is pretty important. I wonder if there again are things that you found or strategies that you might know of that neurodivergent couples tend to employ either differently or maybe similarly to neurotypical couples when it comes to communication. Again, I’m making a lot of assumptions but I’m guessing there’s either overcommunicating or under-communicating and how do we navigate that?
Dr.Wendy: Yeah. Some people really need to [00:28:00] unload verbally. Like if they come home from work, they have to talk nonstop. And there may have an amount of time that they have to talk maybe an hour without a pause perhaps. And that can be challenging to balance if the other person does not want to hear all that but loves their partner dearly. They have to find a happy medium.
I just remembered when one of my kids was a child, like 6 years old talking to me about insects or something on and on while I was trying to cook and I’m distracted. And finally, I said, “If you wait till I’m done cooking, I could really listen to you.”. And he said, “I don’t care if you listen to me. I’m just talking.” And it’s like, “Okay,” didn’t know that Job was autistic but that was the case.
It may be that the person doesn’t [00:29:00] necessarily need someone to listen to them. They just need to say it. And I don’t know if they would feel hurt if their partner put in earbuds and listened to music instead. I don’t know because every partner is different. Every couple is different. But to be able to talk about here’s what I need when I come home, if I don’t talk, I will go crazy, and here’s what I need when I come home, I cannot listen to anyone. I have to be alone in my room and then find out how they can both get their needs met without driving each other crazy.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I love that. I did want to circle back too to something you said at the very beginning which is, I forget how you phrased it but it was something around this idea that autistic people can make really good spouses because some of the typical qualities of being autistic can go really well [00:30:00] with relationships. I wonder if you might elaborate on that a bit.
Let’s take a break to hear from our featured partner.
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All right, let’s get back to the podcast.
Dr. Wendy: Well, let’s see. Integrity was really important to me. And people I know who are autistic have really strong integrity. They do not waiver in their beliefs and [00:31:00] they believe in things that I also believe in that we need to take care of people who are less fortunate and that kind of thing.
Now, when I met my husband, we were in our late 20s. We did not meet in high school or college. If we had, I don’t know if I would’ve even gone out with him honestly, because he was probably more autistic. He learned how to be a husband because he knew he really wanted to be married. So he studied how to be in a relationship, how to be in love.
He and a friend used to like to hang out at a mall, he and Greg just were hanging out watching people. And he’d say, “Well, look, that guy, he’s ugly and he has a woman, and that guy over there is fat and he has a woman. And look at him. [00:32:00] He’s mean to his woman, but she’s with him. And here we are sitting here with each other and we don’t have a woman. What is it?”
So they decided to study how to become a good spouse, a good man that a woman would be interested in. I don’t know exactly how he did it, but it was effective because, by the time we met, we met in a writer’s support group. It’s the kind of group where you share your hopes, your dreams, and how many pages you’re going to write that month. So you really get to know people kind of deeply without necessarily having a lot of one-on-one conversations. So I knew that he wanted to be married.
In January, we make our annual things [00:33:00] and he said, “I will be married by next January.” And I thought, “Ha aah, David doesn’t even ask anyone on a date. How is that going to happen?” And you know by the next January I was married to that man.
Dr. Sharp: That’s wild.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. I’ve gotten off on a tangent because I do enjoy talking about David. He was a good man.
Dr. Sharp: That’s totally agreeable.
Dr. Wendy: He had integrity. He was intelligent. So it’s probably more the Asperger type. I think he had learned to mask the things that might have looked more unusual, although, I value quirkiness. After he was diagnosed, he found that he could start to be more himself and not mask.
I think in our early marriage, he was afraid that if I got to know the real him, I would leave him. Of course, I was never going to leave him. And honestly, I did know [00:34:00] who he was. I didn’t know the diagnosis, but I knew the man behind the mask. And many late-diagnosed adults are the ones that I spend the most time with in my work because that’s what I do. I do adult autism assessments. And they have been masking their whole lives trying to pretend to be normal. I can’t say normal without doing the air-finger quotes.
Dr. Sharp: Of course.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. Excuse me, but they have been pretending to be what they think the world wants them to be. And once they find out that they’re autistic, there’s a feeling of, “Oh my goodness, that explains so much. I’m not failing at being a human. I am thriving as an autistic human.” And there’s just a lot of forgiveness that can go on for the past. I’ve [00:35:00] gone off on a bit of attention. I don’t know if I truly answered your question.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, it’s totally okay. It’s really…
Dr. Wendy: I was about the wonderful aspects of autistic people and honesty and loyalty, devotion, the same loyalty that has someone still loving Pokemon in adulthood as they did in childhood. They’re not going to give up on something that they love and they’re not going to give up on a human that they love either. They’re going to stick it at that. The ones that I have known, they’re loyal to the things that they love and the people that they love.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I’ve heard it conceptualized and I think you said this before when we talked the first time that it was almost like your husband’s special interest was you.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah, I think it was. He was devoted to making me happy. And when we were first getting [00:36:00] him assessed, when we thought maybe he’s on the autism spectrum, I did ask the psychologist, “Please don’t cure that piece of it.”
Dr. Sharp: No.
Dr. Wendy: “This is working for me.”
Dr. Sharp: Yeah.
Dr. Wendy: And of course, the only way that can work is if it is mutual. Early on when we started dating, I realized, wow this man absolutely loves me in a huge amount. And it would be weird unless I absolutely loved him just as hugely. And we created that magical relationship every day for the rest of our lives. And that’s a really fun way to live your life.
Dr. Sharp: Absolutely.
Dr. Wendy: And you just have to sometimes just jump off a cliff and say, “We say we’re going to do this. Let’s just say we’re going to do this. Let’s just say we’re in love and we’re going to be married [00:37:00] forever. And no matter what happens, every day we are going to remember how much we love the other person.”
Dr. Sharp: That’s a pretty inspiring story. I wish the listeners could see you because your face is just lighting up and I can tell that this is so special.
Dr. Wendy: Well, he has always been my favorite creation in the universe. And now that he’s been gone for almost 13 years, I can remember all of the happiness and not have the intense pain of the first few years of widowhood for anyone. It’s hard. He had a heart attack when he was 54. But that happened and now it’s like, would I be writing books if I were still married to him? Probably not. [00:38:00] So I’ve done things in my life that I probably would not have done if I had not survived the whole widowhood thing.
Dr. Sharp: Right.
Dr. Wendy: And any couple that is in love, you know that somebody at some point, unless they die at the same time, that’s going to be part of the life and it’s worth it.
Dr. Sharp: Yes. It was beautifully said. It’s weighing heavy on my mind. I just finished a book called Fate and Furies and oh, it’s a story about one partner dying and what happens to the other one afterward. I know this is not exactly on topic, but this is where are.
Dr. Wendy: It’s not, but it’s part of life and we’re talking about life.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. That’s a good way to put it. I do like this… Oh, go ahead.
Dr. Wendy: Well, I was just going to say, I [00:39:00] realized at some point that it would be better, we first fell in love, we were a lot young, we were in love, we said,” Let’s live until sometime after our 50th anniversary, and then let’s die at the same time so neither of us ever has to live without the other one.” It’s a great plan if it works. But at some point, I realized, as hard as it would be for me to lose him, he could not survive without me. I realized that really I needed to live longer than he did. And I don’t know if you remember the TV show, Monk, the Obsessive, Compulsive Detective.
Dr. Sharp: Yes.
Dr. Wendy: My husband was very much like Monk was before his wife died. And they say obsessive-compulsive but really he was autistic, wasn’t he?
Dr. Sharp: It seems like it.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. He seemed autistic. I know he was a fictional character [00:40:00] but he just fell apart when he lost the love of his life and he was not okay. And sometimes that can happen in a neurodivergent couple because they feel the joy so intensely. And most neurodivergent people especially, I know more autistic people than other neurodivergence.
They feel so intensely the joy and the wonderful things and just noticing how beautiful Desmos falling in the sunshine or a video of someone mixing paint. There are just some things that they get tremendous joy out of and the rest of us go, “Oh yeah, that’s nice. Oh yeah, the beauty and nature,” But they really feel that and I’m afraid although I don’t know anyone who has gone through this yet, I’m afraid that it will be so much harder for an autistic person [00:41:00] for instance, to lose their partner.
I hadn’t thought about that until we just started talking about this but it’s probably something that couples need to, I don’t know, prepare for. Maybe I should put this in my book. Do you think this should be part of it?
Dr. Sharp: It seems like it. Yeah, it sounds like it’s worth exploring at least.
Dr. Wendy: Because it’s part of a lifetime.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. Now I’m thinking about your book outline. I wonder if it’s worth it to really dig into a chapter on widowhood on either side; what it’s like for the neurodiverse individual to lose a partner versus the other way.
Dr. Wendy: That’s probably something I should think about.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah.
Dr. Wendy: I hadn’t thought of it yet, but that is, as you said, it’s part of being a couple. I just hate to leave a book on a sad note but I’ll see what I can do with it. I’ll think [00:42:00] about it.
Dr. Sharp: There we go. It’s got time to develop.
Dr. Wendy: That’s going to be the second book, so I’ll have time.
Dr. Sharp: Awesome. I wonder, are there other qualities that you think lend themselves well to relationships that we might not think of right off the bat? Any neurodivergent qualities that you’ve found or seen that contributed to…
Dr. Wendy: I’m sure there are many: loyalty, and integrity because honesty is important to me. I don’t think I would be happy with someone who lied or cheated. So there was never any question that I would have to worry about him cheating on me because that was not going to happen.
Dr. Sharp: Right.
Dr. Wendy: I can’t think of another specific [00:43:00] one but I’m sure there are, maybe your listeners will be thinking of it and saying, well, you should have said this.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, I’m thinking about it as well that at least the capacity to get really into certain topics. Certainly, the idea of having your partner be your special interest, that lends itself well. I know that just the capability to really commit to a project or an idea can go a long way in a relationship if it’s about how to raise kids or how to train a dog or how to build a fence. There’s any number of situations that can really be helpful.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. And being on the same page about those things is just, for any couple, so important.
Dr. Sharp: I know I’m asking a lot of random questions that you may or may not know but I also wonder just about… I mean, [00:44:00] is there any reach research out there that you know of in terms of neurodivergent non-straight couples? The term is escaping me. I can’t think of it but…
Dr. Wendy: Well, the LGPTQIA+?
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. All that.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. And there’s a little research so far but I think we need more because in practice, in meeting many people with autism, there seems to be a much larger, and this is what the early research suggests as well, a much larger proportion of LGBTQIA individuals on the autism spectrum.
Whatever gene says you’re going to be autistic seems to be[00:45:00] happy next to the gene that says you’re not going to be straight, you might be bi. And some are asexual. So they are actually not interested in a relationship. It’s a smaller minority.
People think, Oh, autistic people don’t, but it’s a minority. And in that minority, there are those who want a romantic relationship. They just don’t want it to be sexual. They want someone to sit next to on the couch and watch tv but not the whole everything else of a relationship. But there are a lot. I meet so many trans, bi, gay, straight just all kinds of people.
I have permission to share. My own two children who are autistic are also both trans. I used to have two daughters and a son. I now have a son and two daughters.[00:46:00] Dr. Sharp: Yes, took me a minute for my brain. Same gender distribution, but different kids.
Dr. Wendy: Different kids. And if someone looks at my books, they can see in the dedication, each one is dedicated to my three kids and to the memory of their dad. But the names change for every book, it’ll be Ann, Shavan, and Andrew. And then it’ll be Ann, Shavan, and Noel, and then it’ll be Cat David, Shavan, and Noel. I think we’re set now.
Dr. Sharp: Yes.
Dr. Wendy: I think we’re done with that but it is so gratifying to see someone really acknowledge who they are and say, “Okay, this is me,” and live as who they are [00:47:00] rather than who society expects them to be based on what they were assigned at birth. I hope for that for all people and I know a lot of them are autistic and not all of them are.
One person shared that for them, their coming out as trans with their family was easier than coming out as autistic. The family could accept them being trans better than they accepted them saying I’m autistic, which I thought was unusual but everybody has their own path. It’s not always an easy path although I know parents are always going to worry about their kids and if there’s anything about their kid that makes their kid more likely to maybe get bullied or beat up, then parents are going to worry about that. My hope is that they do not [00:48:00] let that worry come out in words like, are you sure? Maybe it’s just a phase you’re going through. Those are not helpful statements.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I know that’s a whole can of worms. I’ve been trying to get someone on the podcast for a long time to talk about gender non-conformity within the autism spectrum.
Dr. Wendy: Oh, good. Well, I’ll be happy to hear that one.
Dr. Sharp: Yes. I know there’s good research out there.
Dr. Wendy: I don’t know what all of it is. I know what direction it points, but I’m looking forward to hearing whoever you get to talk about that.
Dr. Sharp: Sure. Well, it sounds like you have that lived experience which is, it’s like they say a picture is worth a thousand words. I feel like a lived life is worth a thousand research studies.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. For me, the lived life really works [00:49:00] great because I learn a lot from it, but it doesn’t translate into everyone else understanding it the way a research project would actually share it with the world.
Dr. Sharp: Yes. I am curious. I wonder if we could maybe back up and just fill in some of the gaps. You said that you had the experience of intuiting that your husband was autistic but he wasn’t diagnosed until later in your marriage. If you could just speak about that process, like how did you come to the point or he came to the point that you decided to get the evaluation?
Dr. Wendy: That’s a good question. I intuited who he was but I didn’t have a label for it at that time. I had worked as a special teacher for 20 years and then I was a school psychologist for 20 years. Then I specialized in autism and became a licensed educational psychologist, a BCBA- Board Certified Behavior Analyst.
When our [00:50:00] youngest was experiencing anxiety and depression, which is so often the first thing that we see in people who’d then turn out to be also autistic, we got her to see a psychiatrist. And the psychiatrist suggested that it might be Asperger’s Syndrome, which is what we called this back in the day. And I will admit, my thought was, “Excuse me, I know you have the whole clinical doctorate thing I do not have, but I think I know my child and I think I know autism and you look like you’re about 12” but what I said was, “Well, I hadn’t thought about that. Let me do some research.”
And then I got Tony Atwood’s book, his first Asperger’s syndrome book, and it just left out the page at me. Here, I’ve been working with autistic kids [00:51:00] and living with autistic people and didn’t even know it. So I let my husband read the book. He is going, “That’s me, that’s me, that’s me.” And then our youngest was getting diagnosed and my oldest, I let him read it. At first, he was saying, “No, I know what I am. I have OCD, I know what it is.” But once he read the book, he recognized himself. So we got all three of them diagnosed formally.
Dr. Sharp: So your kid led the way.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. The youngest led the way. And that psychiatrist who looked like she was 12 really knew what she was talking about.
Dr. Sharp: Imagine that.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. I was glad I didn’t say anything about, “I don’t believe you.” I just said, “Let me think about it,” because she was right.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. [00:52:00] Younger psychologists take hard.
Dr. Wendy: Yes. You do know what you’re talking about.
Dr. Sharp: Right. And then how did that change things if it changed things for you and your husband after that with the diagnosis?
Dr. Wendy: That’s a good question. He had always struggled with low self-concept and so I felt like part of my mission in life was to let him know how wonderful he was, which was fun for me, and yet internally he still struggled with a low self-concept and just didn’t feel great about himself.
I just remembered we were in a group once where someone made a statement like, “You can’t really love someone else unless you truly love yourself first.” And I had to disagree. I said, “You know what? I know David loves me absolutely and he does not love himself that much yet, and we’re working on it.”
But once he knew that it was autism, [00:53:00] it’s like, whoa. He’s doing great for someone with autism. He was not failing at being normal. He was not an alien. He was not any of the things that he had been internally beating himself up about. He was actually just a different kind of brain. It’s a great brain but it’s not your cookie-cutter brain. He was also lefthanded. And there’s nothing wrong with being lefthanded unless you walk into a Target store to buy a pair of scissors and then you’re going to feel like a minority. You’re going to feel like, Oh no, Target does not love me.
Dr. Sharp: No.
Dr. Wendy: Because all the scissors are right-handed scissors. And I think autism is kind of like that. I don’t want to minimize the struggle of someone because it’s hard to be autistic in a non-autistic world. The sensory, the social, the stresses, I know it’s hard but it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them.
I have to use the DSM [00:54:00] when I diagnose because that’s what we use, but the words like abnormal this and failure to do that, I always make sure my people know these are the words that we have to use but that’s not where my heart is. My heart is, it’s a difference and it’s a struggle and it’s a challenge in many ways but it’s not a problem that needs to be solved. It’s something that needs to be changed.
Dr. Sharp: Well said. You brought up that question or point at the beginning of couples can fall into one of two dynamics where one partner says, “Hey, this is the world we live in. You need to adapt to it.” Versus, “Hey, you have a “disability” and we need to accommodate that.” I think what you’re touching on now really gets back at that.[00:55:00] Dr. Wendy: And meeting halfway with accommodations is what’s needed. Where that becomes a problem is where the atypical spouse, I’ve seen them feel very discouraged and like, “Now, my needs don’t matter. Now, I’m not allowed to ask for what I need because everything has to be what he needs because,” which is not what he was probably asking for. But that has been something that some spouses have put on themselves, like, oh no, and then it’s depressing for them.
Dr. Sharp: That’s a lot to carry.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah. And it shouldn’t be carried. It really should be like with any relationship, a halfway meeting in the middle.
Dr. Sharp: Sure. Well, let’s see. We have touched on a lot of different topics. I know there’s plenty more that we could talk about and our time is nonetheless running short. So I’m [00:56:00] curious, Wendy, what did I not ask about? What do you want to make sure and share before we wrap everything up here?
Dr. Wendy: I think you asked some great questions. I can’t think of anything that you didn’t touch on. I think we had some really good conversations. It didn’t always go in the direction that I thought it would, which was fun. I’m sure I’ve gone off on tangents that I certainly didn’t plan on going but it was a fun trip.
Dr. Sharp: Well, I’m glad to hear that. For me, that’s the mark of a good interview is that we don’t just stick to the script.
Dr. Wendy: Yes. Well done.
Dr. Sharp: Have some other conversation. Well, not try to pat myself on the back. I’ll tell you what. I will ask one last question to get back to something we touched on, which is this idea of sexual functioning in neurodivergent relationships. I am curious [00:57:00] if there’s anything to add to that as far as how neuro-divergent couples maybe approach the sexual part or if there is a bigger incidence of less sexual contact. I don’t know. This is a wide-open question.
Dr. Wendy: And I’ve known people that I’ve worked with, a lot of people, there are some who are very, very happy to be very sexual with their partners. And it’s like, their heightened awareness of sensory things means everything is heightened and is better. There are those who it’s like, well, it can be great as long as everything is a certain way and there are no other stressors and there’s they might need more accommodations.
And of course like with any couple, it comes right back to communication [00:58:00] and to both sides being willing to say, “This is what my partner prefers.” And that it’s obviously never just going to be one-sided. And there are some who are asexual-who are not sexual. There are some who are polyamorous. And that’s another whole issue when you get your person on that’s talking about all the different studies. Talk more about that too and I will be listening.
Dr. Sharp: That sounds great. If there’s any theme to pull from all of this, at least what I’m taking is that neurodivergent couples are very similar to neurotypical couples. There are communication issues, there are sexual issues, there are successes, there are wins there.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah, it’s kind of like everything is magnified though. So a communication problem can be [00:59:00] big. Sexual enjoyment can be big. The goods and the bads, the ups and the downs might just be more so. It’s like experiencing life more fully.
And as I’m talking I hear myself and as I said, I’m not autistic and you’re probably at some point will want to bring on somebody who is autistic who can speak to their experience. because my lived experience is family member, spouse, widow, and parent. And professionally, I do adult autism assessments every day.
Dr. Sharp: Right.
Dr. Wendy: Well, five days a week.
Dr. Sharp: Okay.
Dr. Wendy: Not every day, for a while I did it every day and then I realized I can’t do that.
Dr. Sharp: Good for you.
Dr. Wendy: Weekends.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. Weekends are good.
Dr. Wendy: Yeah.
Dr. Sharp: Well, I really appreciate you coming on and talking through these things.
Dr. Wendy: And I appreciate you too. This has been so much fun for me. I’ve enjoyed getting to chat about stuff that I like to talk about, so thank you.
Dr. Sharp: I’m so [01:00:00] glad. Anytime. And if people want to reach out to you, what’s the best way to find you?
Dr. Wendy: They can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Sharp: That’s great. Well, thanks again and I hope that we chat again soon.
Dr. Wendy: You’re very welcome. Okay. Thanks so much.
Dr. Sharp: All right, y’all. Thank you so much for tuning into this episode. Always grateful to have you here. I hope that you take away some information that you can implement in your practice and in your life. Any resources that we mentioned during the episode will be listed in the show notes so make sure to check those out.
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