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Somewhere inside, a path to empathy

By David Finch
New York Times

It wasn't working, any of it. Our third year of marriage threatened to be our last. I'd become cynical and withdrawn, obsessive and preoccupied, dismissive and unhelpful.

“I don't know when things got bad,” Kristen said, wiping away tears. “I feel like I've lost you, and I don't know what will bring you back.”

In reality she hadn't lost me. She'd found me. The facade of seminormalcy I'd struggled to maintain was falling away, revealing the person I'd been since childhood.

I didn't know what was wrong with me, though my wife, a speech pathologist who works with autistic children, had her suspicions. Even so, it would be another two years before she would put all the pieces together and attach a name to what was ruining our marriage: Asperger's syndrome.

Kristen started learning more about Asperger's syndrome, a comparatively mild autism spectrum disorder characterized by egocentricity and impairments in communication and socialization. That's when she started seeing parallels to my behaviors.

One evening after we put the kids to bed, Kristen wrapped me in a hug and asked me to come to her office. She allowed me to complete my 8:30 p.m. routine, aware of how essential it is to my peace of mind: circle the downstairs, note which lights are on and stare out the front window, visually lining up the neighbors' rooftops. I finally joined her at her desk, where she was ready to administer an online Asperger's evaluation.

For two hours, she led me through questions that at times had us both laughing with recognition:

Do you often talk about your special interests whether or not others seem interested? Who's not interested in cleaning-product slogans?

Do you rock back and forth or side to side, to calm yourself? Where's the hidden camera?

Do you get frustrated if you can't sit in your favorite seat? Friendships have ended over this.

And on it went.

During the years Kristen and I dated, I was on my best behavior. When I slipped, she seemed to find my eccentricity endearing.

That's just how it goes with Asperger's. Many of us who have the disorder, identified by the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger in 1944, could probably pass for normal if it weren't for three defining characteristics: egocentricity, odd and sometimes repetitive behaviors, and an obsession with a special interest.

The obsession tends to make us experts in strange subjects (for me, motorist regulations, the characteristics of sounds and the behavior of cattle, among others), with an enthusiasm for discussing them at length at cocktail parties, oblivious to audience interest.

On a friendly level, and for short periods of time, I was able to sustain a wonderful version of myself. But Kristen was living with me, and she had become increasingly skilled in assessing autism spectrum disorders.

Before long, my endearing quirks multiplied and became exponentially more annoying until eventually her life was flooded with my neuroses.

Ashamed by my seeming insanity, I withdrew until our life became long car rides without conversations or laughter, silent evenings watching TV in the same room but feeling worlds apart.

How does someone with Asperger's rid himself of the very coping mechanisms that allow for day-to-day functioning?

Autism spectrum disorders are not cured with medicine, but their behaviors can be worked with. What I needed initially were communication skills and a sense of empathy, neither of which I had. Fortunately, I was living with a highly qualified therapist with a strong motivation to help.

Her objective: re-invent our marriage. Her mission: figure out how to get me to communicate.

I know: a lot of husbands could use a lesson in this.

We worked on how to vent constructively, a process that began with her actually having to explain to me why my insolent behavior might upset people. Positive changes – me talking reasonably about a problem – were rewarded with her newfound joy in being in my company, which is what I craved more than anything.

Acquiring empathy seemed a taller order, given that my Aspergerish point of reference is myself in every circumstance.

We're not out of the socially crippling woods yet, and we probably never will be, at least when it comes to my fixations and repetitive behaviors.

But overall I'm a good patient, and we've made steady progress. We've even reached a therapeutic milestone. When something is wrong, Kristen is able to whisper to me those three magic words: “Can we talk?” And instead of shutting down and freezing her out with silent brooding, I'm able to provide an equally magical response: “Yes.”

David Finch lives outside of Chicago and works as a marketing engineer.

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