We know that ASD partners have different neurology. They are more susceptible to overwhelm from daily life in a world of neurotypical expectations. How do we integrate this awareness into our marriages and families, while still holding boundaries of what is and is not acceptable behavior?
Examples of reasons an ASD husband may feel burdened by daily life, that are not usually shared by neurotypicals universally:
- dysregulated sleep patterns
- masking autistic behaviors while at work
- sensory overload
- social confusion or isolation
- co-morbid mental health issues
- difficulty with changes to routine
- executive functioning challenges
Knowing these are legitimate challenges, to what standard is it reasonable to hold our Asperger’s Syndrome / Autism Spectrum Disorder husband to when he’s angry or frustrated? Should we accept his behavior when it devolves into explosive rages, meltdowns, or shutdowns? Can he just not help it? He may not be able to prevent it, but there are certainly ways to manage his meltdowns that allow him to have them without harming his family members and their deserved sense of safety.
First, let’s examine the idea of boundaries and rules. Rules are what we set for other people to follow, and boundaries are what we set for ourselves.
Some rules that we set when I work with neurodiverse couples are usually the following, in regard to what the autistic spouse can do to both have his meltdown and take responsibility for managing it:
- When either spouse notices that the ASD partner is becoming dysregulated (i.e. overwhelmed by sensory input, emotional misunderstanding, conversational triggers, etc), they offer that observation to one another – if the NT wife is initiating that statement, she does her best to say so in a neutral tone.
- The ASD partner is responsible for removing himself to a pre-agreed location. Perhaps a bedroom, a small or private place within the home, or – quite often, even leaving the house. This is viewed as an act of love for his wife and family, because sparing them from from witnessing (or hearing) a rage or meltdown is very important. It prevents damage to his relationship with them, and it prevents stress and fear from developing (especially important as a consideration for the harm this imparts to children).
- The ASD partner uses coping skills (discussed in coaching) to help calm himself, or work through the meltdown. He agrees to wait until his heart rate has returned to a measurable normal before rejoining his wife or family members. He maintains awareness that a problem cannot be solved through verbal discussion while feeling flooded by emotion (anger, sadness, rage, fury, frustration, etc).
- If the issue is a communication problem, the spouses will resume discussion through a different means than verbal dialogue. The conversation will not resume in any capacity until the spouses are a minimum of one hour past the husband’s heart rate returning to normal.
For the neurotypical wife, of course it is also her responsibility to not react to her ASD partner by mirroring his dysregulation. She must practice her own self control. This prevents any further escalation and also models calm for her children. Since she also cannot force her ASD partner to follow the rules that have been set forth in the marriage, she sets boundaries for herself.
It is worth noting that even if her autistic husband is not working with me in coaching, it is highly reasonable to request that he follow the above protocol. However, we must recognize that she cannot force her ASD husband to be compliant, respectful or considerate.
Because of this, boundaries are necessary and important. Boundaries are different than rules because it is what we enforce for ourselves, vs. being dependent on someone else’s cooperation.
Some boundaries that we might set when I work with a neurotypical wife:
- If her autistic husband chooses to not remove himself from her presence when emotionally dysregulated, then she will remove herself from his presence. Along with any children witnessing their father having a meltdown.
- If his meltdown lasts for hours or otherwise infringes on her ability to safely be present in the home, or return to the home, then the neurotypical wife will have a plan in place. This plan may include going to the home of a family member or friend, the park or other outing, or even procuring a hotel room or calling the police. The neurotypical wife’s boundary is that emotional and physical safety is 100% her priority. She will not tolerate being unsafe in her home. She will not tolerate her children witnessing a scary event by the other parent. If the police have to be called and even if her husband is removed from the home temporarily, that is a consequence of him choosing to not follow reasonable rules and be a safe person at that time. It is not her fault for holding the boundary. She and her children are entitled to safety. Her husband is NOT entitled to inflict his meltdown upon his family.
- If the ASD husband returns to the environment and tries to insist on talking while still in meltdown mode, the NT wife will remind her spouse that they cannot solve a problem when either partner is dysregulated. She will not be baited into any further discussion. She will remove herself as needed.
It’s worth nothing that sometimes the expense involved in acquiring hotel rooms, etc., serve as a motivator for an Autism Spectrum spouse to reconsider his resistance to self-removal during a meltdown or rage. The important thing for the NT wife to remember is that SHE MUST FOLLOW THROUGH WITH HER BOUNDARIES. Otherwise she teaches her spouse that she is merely threatening and not willing to hold him accountable nor keep herself safe.
While NT wives can have understanding for the emotional dysregulation issues caused by ASD neurology, they do not have to be victimized or held hostage by autistic meltdowns. The Asperger’s Syndrome husband can follow the reasonable rules in place to allow himself to experience the needed release of a meltdown, while not infringing upon the emotional or physical safety of others in the home. The NT wife recognizing that she cannot force him to be considerate, cooperative or agreeable is part of her growth in upholding boundaries. She must choose to put herself and the needs of her children ahead of accommodating the ASD husband’s meltdown. This is often VERY painful for her, because it is so unfamiliar. She is so used to simply enduring the meltdown, his possibly throwing things, destroying things, the screaming, the accusations, the looming physical presence.
Sometimes a coaching client will say, “it’s too hard to leave the room! I can’t just corral everyone into my bedroom and lock the door while in the middle of cooking breakfast!” Well yes, you can! It’s a mindset shift. She can practice what is called “coping ahead,” and have a storage bin full of snacks, toys, clothes, diapers – even noise muffling headphones for herself and the kids – if or when escaping her autistic spouse’s meltdown is necessary. She can have a duffle bag packed and kept in the car if she needs to load up kids and leave the house. Changing the NT wife’s mindset of allowing herself to have needs that matter, when she has so long been overlooked and worn down by the overbearing needs of the ASD partner, is where her work toward freedom and personhood lay. Is it inconvenient, infuriating, and a betrayal that he won’t follow the rules? ABSOLUTELY. (And the larger relationship issue is certainly worth evaluating, but this is a strategy for surviving a moment vs. a lifetime.) She chooses to set boundaries and uphold them. She learns to prioritize herself even if he won’t. And if she can’t leave? Then that’s when the police should be utilized. Not for the sole intention of a criminal arrest, but a transport to the hospital. He can meltdown under professional supervision, or law enforcement, instead of subjecting his family to scary behavior.
The accommodation we give the ASD spouse is this: “Okay, these meltdowns are going to happen because it is part of your neurological response to overwhelm. I acknowledge that you cannot prevent or stop or change the fact that they will exist. What I can do is control my exposure to them, and the way you treat me and our children during a meltdown. I am allowed to set boundaries. I will not rescue you from consequences when you are unwilling to contain the meltdown in a safe place.”