Living with Asperger’s

    The possibility of an adult with Asperger’s syndrome
    should be considered when there is conflict and domestic violence
    in a family, say counsellor Ruth Forrester and children’s
    services manager Maxine Aston.

    The public and professionals are becoming more aware of the
    impact of Asperger’s syndrome on families. Asperger’s is a subtle,
    almost paradoxical, disability which is four times more likely to
    be diagnosed in males. It was believed by some professionals that
    men with Asperger’s do not marry, but this is not the case and the
    more able people do form relationships, marry and have children.
    They are often capable workers and are highly qualified but
    nevertheless have great difficulties in personal relationships.

    Diagnosis is problematic because of disagreements about
    criteria, but also because of a convergence between “macho” male
    characteristics and many traits associated with Asperger’s. There
    are obvious dangers in confusing the two.

    Research supported by the National Autistic Society into the
    intimate relationships of couples where one partner is affected by
    Asperger’s shows that men with the condition tend to choose
    partners who are maternal, strong, and with nurturing qualities,
    often older than themselves. Women are attracted to men who appear
    to be kind, gentle and slightly immature, and who flatter with
    obsessive attention.

    Although men with Asperger’s can have relatively high status
    occupations, including engineers, computer specialists and
    university teachers, problems can arise when they are married.
    Attwood1 describes a spectrum of Asperger’s behaviour,
    from the passive to the arrogant and aggressive, and it is likely
    to be the latter who perpetrate domestic violence. Also, the whole
    responsibility for the relationship rests with their partners, who
    report a feeling of “going mad”, and who frequently become
    depressed and may take medication, yet are reluctant to separate
    because of concern about how the person with Asperger’s will cope.
    Living with the condition is stressful for the family, particularly
    if both partners work. It might be less so in traditional families
    with role differentiation by gender and greater overt control of

    Having a diagnosis can be helpful and whole family interventions
    can be developed to manage everyday life. Also, having Asperger’s
    does not make a person abusive, but it can make them

    However, if the partner with Asperger’s is in denial, he may try
    to deflect his problems on to his partner and the children, and
    there are anecdotal reports of stalking, intimidation, manipulation
    of children, and domestic violence. There is an added danger that
    in such situations men may appear to be calm, in control, and
    shocked to be accused of abusive behaviour when approached by the
    police or social workers. It is important to stress that many men
    with Asperger’s do not harm their families, but some of the key
    features of Asperger’s make it more difficult to address any such

    Consequently, the syndrome presents challenges for service
    providers, because the psychodynamic model which underpins social
    work and mental health traditions does not help in understanding a
    disability which is organic. Also, there are still many
    misconceptions; for example, that autism is caused by poor
    parenting – although bad family experiences undoubtedly make
    problems worse.

    Meanwhile, there are deficits in skills, training, and service
    provision. People with Asperger’s are likely to present to mental
    health services, often through civil or criminal court action, and
    the condition is easily confused with psychosis or personality
    disorders. There has been criticism of the failure of psychiatry to
    learn about Asperger’s, and although more progress has been made
    made through the assessment of children by special educational
    needs services, what happens when people get older?

    Any serious strategy to assist families must start with the
    principle of protecting children from significant harm, as well as
    the unacceptability of violence and intimidation. But what else
    could be done?

    The National Autistic Society published Ignored or
    Ineligible,2 which set out the parameters of an
    effective service. This emphasised collaborative planning between
    statutory partners, users, carers, children and voluntary
    organisations. Also, educational models of the management of
    children with Asperger’s have been developed and could inform
    clinical practice and family counselling.

    In addition, families affected by the syndrome have a special
    insight and can tell us about their needs. They must also be part
    of the solution. Meanwhile, local routes for assessment, diagnosis
    and clinical support should be established so that GPs and
    psychiatrists routinely consider Asperger’s and can refer people to
    specialists who can confidently diagnose and offer management
    strategies. This service need not be medically-led and
    psychologists, carers of people with learning difficulties, and
    speech therapists have a significant contribution to make. There
    also needs to be a network of services available, from care
    management, family counselling and employment support, to help for
    partners and children as carers. Links between child and adolescent
    mental health services and adult mental health services are
    crucial. Then front-line domestic violence agencies, including the
    police, Women’s Aid and the Children and Family Court Advisory and
    Support Service (Cafcass) need to build up their knowledge base, as
    should family lawyers.

    Currently, social work awareness of Asperger’s syndrome is poor.
    There is some knowledge in teams working with learning difficulties
    but they are highly targeted and most people with the syndrome will
    not receive a service. Also, the identification of Asperger’s is
    undermined by the focus of social work assessment in children’s
    services on mothers rather than fathers.

    Nevertheless, those in children’s services should be able to
    screen, using the assessment framework, although the ability of
    people with the syndrome to camouflage their problems and of
    partners to protect them should never be underestimated. The taking
    of a full history is essential. Similarly, listening to children
    and partners is crucial, though direct accounts in the early stage
    of a relationship may be hard to obtain. Schools, health
    professionals and extended family members might also give clues
    about parental behaviour and its impact on children. Because of the
    relationship dynamics, legal intervention to protect the children
    (and the partner) might need to be undertaken at an early stage.
    Finally, practice managers should be trained so the possibility of
    Asperger’s is considered during supervision sessions.

    The danger of conflict also needs to be recognised. Anger,
    threats of violence and litigious complaints are features of the
    behaviour of some people with the syndrome. Intimidation of workers
    is a real possibility. To deal with threats to families or workers,
    clear and consistent messages need to be given that this behaviour
    is not acceptable, using the courts and the police to protect
    families and workers if necessary.

    Asperger’s syndrome presents gender politics in families and
    between social workers and users at their crudest, and a key
    question is whether there are educational interventions which can
    influence adult behaviour in an intimate relationship. We would be
    interested to hear from any practitioner who has developed methods
    for working with children or adults with Asperger’s who would like
    to contribute.

    Relationship woes

    Problems reported by partners of people with Asperger’s


    Unpredictable outbursts of anger

    Lack of executive control over life

    Irrational blame of others

    Alcohol abuse

    Sexual problems

    Lack of empathy

    Problems in socialising

    Children overcontrolled and emotionally abused

    What is Asperger’s?

    The condition was first described by Hans Asperger in 1943.

    There is a strong genetic link.

    It affects one in 250 people.

    It is an autistic spectrum disorder.

    The key diagnostic features are social relationships,
    communication and imagination.

    Special interests are often pursued obsessively.

    There is no cure. It can be managed through recognition,
    support, medication and structured counselling.


    Maxine Aston is a Relate counsellor, trainer, and is the
    author of The Other Half of Aspergers Syndrome, National Austic
    Society, 2001. Ruth Forrester is head of children’s services at
    Powys County Council with responsibility for special educational


    1 Tony Attwood, Asperger’s Syndrome, Jessica
    Kingsley, 1998

    2 J Barnard, V Harvey, D Potter, A Prior, Ignored or
    Ineligible, National Autistic Society, 2001


    National Autistic Society at

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