When Mrs Wow and I were dating, the possibility that she might have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was unthinkable. To begin with, my impression of autism was extremely limited and biased. Whenever autism was mentioned, I would think of Raymond in the movie ‘Rain Man’. Despite being a genius with numbers, Raymond (played by the incredibly talented Dustin Hoffman) can hardly understand the world he lives in. He has no clue how to socialise, he doesn’t like being touched, and he goes berserk when his routine is disrupted. Basically, I thought every autistic person is like Raymond. How ignorant of me!
Of course, Mrs Wow is nothing at all like Raymond. How on earth could she have ASD? Thus, in the early years of our marriage before her diagnosis, I was often confused and exasperated by her fussy, unpredictable and irate behaviour. Sometimes, it got so bad that I felt like ripping her head off!
Post-ASD discovery, I have come to understand that the spectrum of ASD is as wide as the ocean (probably why psychologists call it a spectrum) and every Aspie (someone with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of ASD or high-functioning ASD) is different. Many with mild ASD may never discover that they have ASD in their lifetime, or like in Mrs Wow’s case, only discover it in their adulthood. Michael Burry, the hedge fund manager who predicted and profited handsomely from the 2008 financial crisis, didn’t even know he was an Aspie until his own son was diagnosed with it.
Many with mild ASD may never discover that they have ASD in their lifetime, or like in Mrs Wow’s case, only discover it in their adulthood.
Whatever the case may be, at least for me, the revelation that Mrs Wow has Asperger’s syndrome finally cracked the code. It has helped me understand her on a whole new level and this, in turn, has strengthened our relationship. For one, I no longer feel like ripping her head off, or at least most of the time. I’m still human after all.
Based on our marriage of more than 20 years, here are my five golden rules on how to be happily married to an Aspie:
- No Surprises
- Avoid Changing Plans
- Understand the Special Interest
- Know the Triggers
- Don’t Take it Personally
1. No Surprises
From the get-go, Mrs Wow pre-empted me that she hates surprises. I didn’t take her seriously, so I decided to surprise her with a very large bouquet of flowers on our very first Valentine’s Day.
‘Thanks! The flowers are lovely and I’m very touched. But frankly, they are such a waste of money, so what’s the point? And have you forgotten? I hate surprises, so please don’t ever do this again,’ Mrs Wow gently warned.
But a few months later, I surprised her with a birthday gift. She said no flowers and this ain’t flowers. She’s gonna love it! Like before, she showed her gratitude for the gift, but right after, I got an earful about not ever buying her another present. This time, she went on and on about it and I got the message loud and clear. It’s not just flowers. She meant: no presents, no impromptu trips, no surprises.
She just really hates surprises of any kind. Hmmm… how strange. Then it hit me — I no longer have to fret over buying her a gift on birthdays, anniversaries or any other special occasion! ‘That can’t possibly be a bad thing!’ I thought happily.
So the trick is to plan for everything together. For instance, if I wanted to buy Mrs Wow a gift, I can still do so but I have to let her choose it. Any celebration has to be planned way ahead of time — what to eat, which restaurant, who to invite, etc. I know many may think that this sort of arrangement saps romance out of a marriage, but I think there is nothing more romantic than making your spouse truly happy. And planning ahead always makes Mrs Wow happy. So yeah… no surprises.
2. Avoid Changing Plans
Rule 2 is related to Rule 1. This was the next thing I learnt about Mrs Wow, that the whole ‘no surprises’ thingy has to do with control. You see, Mrs Wow loves structure and routine, and she has a to-do list even on her ‘rest’ days. She plans for everything and I mean EVERYTHING. And when things don’t go according to plan, she goes berserk. Which is why she hates surprises — it represents an event that’s not part of the plan!
She plans for everything and I mean EVERYTHING. And when things don’t go according to plan, she goes berserk. Which is why she hates surprises — it represents an event that’s not part of the plan!
Frankly, being a neurotypical (NT), it’s hard for me to fully grasp how a surprise party or birthday gift could be so undesirable to someone. However, at least now I know exactly what triggers Mrs Wow’s explosive behaviour and how to navigate around it.
Classic example: It can be a daunting task to buy food for Mrs Wow. In the past, if what Mrs Wow wanted was not available, I would just buy something else for her (something I know she won’t mind eating). Nevertheless, when I got home, she would go ballistic.
It usually starts with ‘This is not what I ordered!’ Then she would go on and on about why she wanted this and not that… why she wasn’t informed of the change of ‘plan’… blah blah blah… It would just be non-stop grumbling throughout the entire meal.
At first, I thought she was being difficult and was venting her frustration on me because she couldn’t get what she wanted. This would then lead to a pointless quarrel over something I thought was so inconsequential. What the hell, right? We were arguing about food! How ridiculous is that?
One thing I noticed is that no matter what, she would always eat and finish her food. I mean if she was really being fussy, she would have just refused to eat it. But it was never like that. She would just complain, eat, complain, eat, complain some more and eat some more. Once she finished her meal (she never wastes food, ever), she would instantly stop complaining. Just like that. Like a switch.
That was before finding out that Mrs Wow has Asperger’s syndrome. Now when I grab takeaways, I will always ask her for her first, second and even third choice. This way, if Plan A doesn’t materialise, there is always Plan B and C. We don’t argue over food anymore, thank God for that. And I’ve come to understand that it’s not about the food or me. It was the change of plan that she couldn’t come to terms with. This of course applies to everything else in life, from dinner plans to travel plans. So the rule is to avoid any changes and always have a contingency. Should a change occur, simply let your Aspie spouse know (as early as possible) and all will be well.
3. Understand the Special Interest
I believe Rule 3 applies to most if not all Aspies — there is always some sort of special interest that an Aspie is drawn towards like bees to honey. It could be an interest in anything from dinosaurs to cosplay. From what I understand, this often develops at an early age and usually lasts a lifetime. This special interest may start off as a hobby, but will likely grow into a preoccupation that is deeply wedged into the core of an Aspie’s life.
So what’s Mrs Wow’s special interest? Put simply, it’s money. Yes, you could say that Mrs Wow is obsessed with money. I know it doesn’t sound very flattering, but it’s a fact. Then again, if you imagine her to be a money grabbing, gold digging, materialistic green-eyed goblin, you would be totally off tangent as well. Since the day we met, she’s all about working hard and making an honest living.
Put it this way, Mrs Wow is fascinated with the idea of money — what makes it tick, how to attract it, how it flows, how it transforms, the power it wields and the freedom it provides. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. So it’s no surprise that Mrs Wow’s favourite activity is to look at her financial spreadsheets several times a week. To her, it’s fun to monitor our expenses, plan what stocks to buy and so on.
I get that focusing on her special interest is therapeutic for her. At the end of the day, I’m just grateful that her special interest is actually a common interest between the both of us (thank God she is not into creepy crawlies or the likes).
Mrs Wow’s special interest has led us to writing this blog. Make sure you stay tuned because you’ll be hearing a lot more about money matters from her.
4. Know the Triggers
Every NT is unique and different. Likewise, no two Aspies are alike. For Mrs Wow, she has certain triggers or sensitivities that make her go bonkers. Over the years, I have come to know her triggers very well.
When we were newly weds, I just thought Mrs Wow was a very neat and tidy person — definitely a plus. I’m not a messy person myself and I do appreciate it when everything is immaculate. Before moving into our matrimonial home, Mrs Wow made it very clear that she can’t stand the sight of clutter and prefers to have everything tucked away and hidden. ‘Nice!’ I thought. I like the Zen theme too. In hindsight, I had no idea what I was in for. Mrs Wow would put Zen to shame!
As expected, everything in our home was either neatly displayed or stored away. No messy cables. No worn clothes strewn out in the bedroom. Nothing was left unwashed in the kitchen sink. Even our store room was neat and organised — every storage box was meticulously labelled by Mrs Wow. She definitely ran a tight ship and our home was spick and span. Marie Kondo would be proud.
Then it happened. One day, Mrs Wow opened the fridge and started fuming!
‘What did you do to our fridge!’
I walked over to the kitchen, scanned the contents in the fridge from top to bottom and asked, ‘What about the fridge? Everything looks fine to me.’ (A couple of hours ago, I had just loaded up the fridge with the latest batch of groceries.)
‘Look at your beer… the canned drinks. Look at the eggs!’ Mrs Wow pointed to the respective items and frowned at me.
‘Hmmm… I’m looking…’ I gave her a puzzled look. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Nothing was leaking or broken. There was no mess, not even close.
Mrs Wow threw her hands up in frustration. ‘You see this? The logo has to face outwards neatly. All of them. Like this.’ She started turning all the canned drinks such that the logo side of each can was facing outwards, all in the same direction.
‘And the eggs! Some are up. Some are down. The pointy end has to be placed downwards like this. The rounded end faces up. See? And you should arrange them according to their shades, from the lightest shade of brown to the darkest!’ Mrs Wow said impatiently, as she reorganised the eggs to the ‘correct’ order.
While watching her rearrange the items, I was in disbelief and I couldn’t help but yelped, ‘What the…’ The colourful language continued and I called her a nutcase. Okay, I kinda got the part about turning the cans to face the same direction. It’s about aesthetics (though pointless since no one other than us use the fridge). But the eggs? I was dumbfounded.
I think you get the picture. Psychologists call this condition Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In Mrs Wow’s case, her OCD has more to do with symmetry and patterns, less with hygiene although she does have very high standards of cleanliness and hygiene.
She sees symmetry and patterns that most people don’t see. When a photo frame is even slightly out of place or when items are not placed according to a certain pre-determined position, it really bothers her. Actually, that’s an understatement. It goes beyond bother. She can’t help but think about it non-stop. It disturbs her. It haunts her. And until it’s fixed, she can’t think straight nor sleep peacefully, I kid you not. (If you have watched Netflix’s hit K-drama ‘Extraordinary Attorney Woo’, you would know what I’m talking about. The main character who has high-functioning autism also has symmetry OCD like Mrs Wow.)
She sees symmetry and patterns that most people don’t see. When a photo frame is even slightly out of place or when items are not placed according to a certain pre-determined position, it really bothers her.
Over the years, after multiple reminders from Mrs Wow of how things should be placed, we no longer squabble over such things. I guess she has rubbed off on me and I on her. I understand that placing canned drinks with their logo facing outwards is a must for Mrs Wow, so I do it. It has now become a habit for me and honestly takes very little effort to do so. As for Mrs Wow, she also understands that certain things are not ‘normal’ for an NT like me. She appreciates my effort and no longer kicks up a fuss when things are out of place for whatever reasons.
5. Don’t Take it Personally
This rule is perhaps the toughest of all rules to ‘comply’ with. It requires a lot more than just understanding. It requires patience and self-control.
As mentioned above, Mrs Wow has several triggers. Besides her uncontrollable obsession with planning, order and patterns, she is also hypersensitive to odour and motion. Nevertheless, we can’t possibly control everything around us, especially when outside of our home environment, so there will always be occasions when Mrs Wow ‘loses it’.
I think Dr. Tony Attwood (you can catch him on YouTube, ‘Ask Dr. Tony’), who is an expert on ASD, explains it best. He talks about an emotional scale of level one to ten. Level one being cool and calm. Level ten being hot and explosive. For Aspies, there is usually no middle ground where emotions are concerned. It’s an instantaneous swing from cool to raging hot.
For Aspies, there is usually no middle ground where emotions are concerned. It’s an instantaneous swing from cool to raging hot.
Mrs Wow just snaps straight up and down. At one instant she is angry as hell, the next she is back to being a cool cat. More often than not, this swing happens over a matter of minutes. In contrast, for a NT like me, I’m able to regulate my emotions a lot better. It usually goes from level one, then two, then three and maybe hits level five, never making it any higher at that moment. On rare occasions when I do hit level ten, it would usually take hours or even days to cool down. Definitely, not within minutes like Mrs Wow.
Which leads me to my point — don’t take it personally when your Aspie spouse hits level ten. You see, when Mrs Wow gets perturbed, to her, she is truly upset with the event itself (not getting the food she ordered, a last minute change of plans, etc.), not the person. Her volume goes up. Her tone is abrasive and she looks like she could devour me any minute. Then before I know it, she cools right down and asks me, ‘Are you angry with me? Why are you angry? I’m not even angry at you.’ However, it’s already too late and my emotional scale has been steadily creeping upwards without her sensing it at all.
I’ve since explained to Mrs Wow that NTs are somewhat the opposite. Yes, the cause of their reactions is often attributed to an event. But when someone starts shouting at them, it’s always about the person, not the event. It’s just how NTs are wired. Dr. Tony says that we NTs are born to be social zealots. For NTs, it’s always personal. A typical NT will immediately take offence at a person’s tone of voice or aggressive posture, way before they even begin to process what is being said.
I’ve come to realise that for Mrs Wow, she often doesn’t even see the person involved because it’s all about the event that has upset her. Unfortunately, people are always in the way, so she ends up offending them. It has been a challenging learning process for her.
I don’t claim to completely understand what goes on in Mrs Wow’s brain. It’s definitely still work in progress. I just tell myself that Aspies are wired differently, not defectively. So if she says she is not angry with me but at the situation, I tell myself not to take it personally.
I just tell myself that Aspies are wired differently, not defectively.
In practice, I must admit that it’s easier said than done. We sometimes can’t help but get caught up in the emotions and things escalate beyond control. The good news is, it seldom gets out of hand these days as we both try to regulate our emotions.
Wrapping up, no matter what, it always takes two hands to clap. Besides me trying to understand an Aspie like Mrs Wow, on the flip side, Mrs Wow is also trying her best to understand an NT like me.
Aspie spouse or not, in any marriage, it’s not just about understanding each other, but also getting to know ourselves better. This way, a couple inevitably grows together and stays together.
Just my two cents’ worth.
You must read Mrs Wow’s article I Have Asperger’s Syndrome. Don’t Hate Me. if you haven’t done so. It will give you further insight into ASD.