Autism in relationships: Therapist inundated by number of couples seeking help

Bec Whetham

Relationships can have their challenges, but what if the challenges relate to an inherent part of a person?

A Melbourne therapist said that was the question being raised for many couples where one partner did not know they were autistic.

Melbourne-based autism therapist and special education teacher Jo White has spent the past 20 years working with autistic children, adults and their parents.

She said many couples were seeking out her services to help delve into the root causes of behaviours that might have been dismissed by other professionals as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anti-social behaviour or simply a bad attitude.

Ms White said she believed she was one of a few autism therapists who specialised in adult relationships and family dynamics.

She said there was a lack of practitioners with the right training, let alone enough materials and resources to properly assist people.

"I wish there was [more]," she said.

"I've been looking for more and more help for myself to work out exactly how I can work with couples."

Jo White sits with a clipboard in her counselling office.

Photo Jo White said she is one of few relationship counsellors in the country who understands autistic behaviours.

Supplied: Jo White

Partnerships under pressure for some

Former special education teacher *Sarah, who did not want her real name used, told the ABC she had been with her husband for 10 years when she suspected he could be autistic.

"We [went to] quite a few different psychologists and relationship counsellors, but they all tended to either think he was emotionally abusive — which I categorically denied … I couldn't see it like that," she said.

"Or, they thought he's just very aloof and cut-off."

She said some therapists suggested her personality was to blame.

"All counsellors thought there was something with me because I was always in tears," she said.

"The moment somebody asked me 'how are you?' I would be in tears because that's something my husband never asked."

Jo White said without a formal diagnosis, couples could go through all kinds of counselling and therapy without any change.

"Nothing's really hit the spot because that essence of autism has been missing, that perspective," she said.

"They've come to me, really quite negative, going 'oh, this isn't going to work, we've tried everything before, what's going to make the difference?'"

She said while there were services for parents seeking a diagnosis for their child and funding for therapy and support, the path was not as clear for adults.

Sarah said the expense — and the perception from her husband that there was nothing wrong — meant it was hard for some to push for a formal diagnosis.

"A formal diagnosis costs about $1,000 and for an adult, who has a job and is bringing in some income and has a wife and three children, why would he go for a diagnosis of something that he doesn't see as a problem and pay $1,000 for it?" she said.

Ms White said while beneficial, going through the process as an adult was tough.

"There's grief. There's relief. There's a whole range of emotions that go on there," she said.

"From my perspective, it's one of the hardest things to deal with because, particularly if they've got young children — they're struggling, they're really struggling with behaviours."

Father undergoing diagnosis after daughter diagnosed

For Dave Stergo, it was a visit to Jo White for his 13-year-old autistic daughter that sparked a decision to get a diagnosis for himself.

He said since becoming aware of his autistic traits, his relationships had changed dramatically.

"It was a little bit shocking to me, but it also made sense because of the things I'd been reading for my daughter," Mr Stergo said.

He is currently going through the diagnostic process.

Dave Stergo sings and plays a guitar.

Photo Dave Stergo decided to undergo his own autism diagnosis after his daughter was diagnosed.

Supplied: Bob Hutchison Photography

He said the fact his wife was also diagnosed as autistic had explained some factors of their own relationship, including that their connection was not formed on the same "chemistry" others might experience.

He said their relationship was based on a common yearning for family and understanding, rather than a romantic connection.

"I was never able to form attachments to anybody. I didn't know how … I was always awkward, I always had very poor self-esteem," he said.

"It makes sense to me now why I couldn't do it."

He said the physical side of their relationship had been a challenge given touch causes him pain and his wife comfort.

"I find that when somebody touches me, it's like they've burnt me, it's that intense," he said.

"I've had to learn how to process that cognitively.

"Most people learn to filter things out … I've never been able to do that, I have to process everything cognitively."

He said while a diagnosis might not provide all of the answers for his relationship with his wife, he was now more aware of his sensory triggers and strategies to manage them.

How can people make it work?

Ms White said applying simple, basic rules around the home could make a world of difference.

One strategy she used was Doctor Gary Chapman's Five Love Languages, to help couples understand the different ways they give and receive love.

"I work on helping each individual learn each other's love language. It can become very simplistic," Ms White said.

Like any relationship issue, Ms White said there was no magic involved.

"[There are a] lot of times where things like this don't work, but they have been really beneficial for a number of clients that I've worked with," she said.

Counsellor Jo White sits at the desk in her office writing on a piece of paper.

Photo Jo White said identifying autism in a relationship can make all the difference for couples who are struggling.

Supplied: Jo White

Ms White said autistic partners were generally kind.

"But the issues around emotional connection, black-and-white thinking, understanding from another person's perspective, all impact the partner," Ms White said.

She said partners can sometimes take on the role of carer to help manage the person on the spectrum and there was often "emotional intensity" within a relationship that could be "very hard to deal with".

She said she had been inundated with clients and now had a four-month waitlist.

"Many come here and more often than not I can't accept them at the time … that's not right. If people need help they need it right now," she said.

To meet the need, she is training others at her practice.

"They may have a psych background or a counselling background, or teaching, or really big autism background but no-one really has the combination of everything, so working with couples is something that is different, hard, hasn't been done often, so I find I'm training these people as we go," she said.

Understanding autism 'really important' for counsellors

Autism Awareness Australia chief executive Nicole Rogerson said the issue was a common one.

"Often for a small subset of people with autism, they're not diagnosed until their adult life so they may have entered into a relationship or even a marriage not knowing that they're on the autism spectrum," she said.

"Once in a couple, if there are issues within a marriage or a couple and one of the individuals in that couple is on the autism spectrum, it's critical that the counsellor understands and takes into consideration that autism as a really key factor here.

"Because it's very much that that's who the person is, that's how they're made up. So it's really important that there's an awareness and an understanding of the role autism is playing in that person's life before you could get close to being able to help in a counselling setting to see how that couple can manage it and stay together."

She said counselling might not change behaviour, but simply increase understanding.

"It doesn't mean that behaviour can't be altered or changed within a marriage, like anybody else's, but you just have to understand that the autism often takes, you know, a fairly heavy toll on that person. And oftentimes, they can't help [their behaviour]," she said.

"So if it is something sensory, or it is something organisational, it's really important to that person, it makes up who they are, and contributes to their comfort level and how they feel like they're doing in their day-to-day life so, you know, you don't want to be punishing that person because of their autism.

"You just have to take it into consideration and continue counselling on that basis."

A man sitting on a couch holds his head.

Photo Sarah said her relationship couldn't be fixed.

Supplied: Unsplash

Counselling doesn't always work

Sarah* said her marriage could not survive their differences.

"Whenever we had an argument or some kind of conflict it became emotional for me and he would become aloof," she said.

"The next morning, I was still hurting and for him it was over, he couldn't even remember [and] things never got resolved. There was this build-up of things that never got resolved."

She said she was lamenting how things had turned out.

"It's a real tragedy," she said.

"There are two people who actually love each other, and yet are so different that they can't make it work."

from https://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-3...