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London - Samantha Puleston always felt her husband Andy lived in his own world. Even during the most emotionally charged moments of their relationship, he could appear oddly detached and preoccupied with irrelevant practical details.
“Our daughter Sophie is 18 weeks old, and I had an extremely difficult labour which resulted in an emergency Caesarean,” says Samantha, 41. “I was terrified, but Andy seemed unaffected by the danger. He was calm and even cracking jokes, which made me angry. But I know he wasn’t being like that on purpose - it’s simply how he is.”
To many women, Samantha’s frustration at her husband’s insensitivity will sound all too familiar. Yet the traits she finds most frustrating in Andy are due to more than just stereotypical male behaviour.
She now knows they are the result of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism sometimes referred to as a “hidden disability” because the symptoms are not always immediately apparent.
It means Andy, 46, an accountant from Honiton, Devon, can have problems with social interaction and communication. People with Asperger’s can often misread signals and say or do what many people would regard as inappropriate.
Sam says: “He is very precise and pedantic - if you ask him how he is, he will tell you in great detail. Or if you ask him how something works, he will give you so much information and talk for such a long time it can be baffling. I’m used to it, but I can see people who don’t know him looking bewildered.”
Andy says: “Growing up I knew I was different, but I was never diagnosed. I didn’t fit in. At the age of eight, I had a reading age of six. I also had a speech problem in that I spoke much too fast, and I was diagnosed with dyslexia. But I never let it hold me back, and I was always excellent at maths.”
One in 125 people in Britain have been diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder and experts are seeing a marked increase in the numbers of adults being diagnosed with Asperger’s, particularly men, who are affected four times as often as women.
Asperger’s sufferers are often highly intelligent and their forensic attention to detail and ability to focus can make them extremely successful in their careers. Yet the condition can have a damaging impact on personal relationships. They often struggle to pick up emotional signals from their partners and find it hard to understand how they can make them happy.
For some men, getting a diagnosis of Asperger’s can mean the difference between their relationship breaking down - or not.
“A lot of men in their mid-40s are being diagnosed,” says Caroline Hattersley, from the National Autistic Society. “We’ve got much better at identifying the condition in young people, and often it’s the case that a child will be diagnosed and then the family will recognise the traits in the father, too.
“Asperger’s can make navigating two people’s needs in a relationship difficult. If women don’t understand why their husbands appear unfeeling, it can be hurtful. Often, a diagnosis brings relief to the person with Asperger’s and their family, because it helps explain problems they’ve faced.”
When Andy discovered he had Asperger’s, it made sense of the behaviour Samantha had noticed since their relationship began a decade ago. “When we met, I was struck by his intelligence, but I also noticed he has problems remembering instructions or retaining the order of a list,” she says.
“He is extremely precise, which is why he’s such a good accountant, and he is never happier than poring for hours over his spreadsheets. He’s very good with money and running the family budget.”
Samantha says Andy is a loving, hands-on father to their five children; Reuben, seven, Georgia, six, Noah, four, Barney, two, and baby Sophie. It was after Noah was diagnosed with autism at the age of two that Andy realised he was on the Asperger’s spectrum, and Samantha believes his condition has helped him bond with Noah.
“But his behaviour can be frustrating,” she says. “When you say something to him, he will often take it literally, and when people ask him a question, he’ll give an extremely fulsome answer.”
Andy says: “It was a shock to discover I had Asperger’s, but things fell into place. I know people can be bewildered about how I function. It has helped me understand the way I am, and it helps Samantha make allowances for the way I react in certain situations.”
Not every couple manages Asperger’s so successfully, however. Maxine Aston is an author and therapist who specialises in marriage counselling for couples in which one or both partners has the condition.
She says: “I see a number of highly intelligent, successful men including pilots, policemen and company directors. Often they’re the expert at what they do, but when they get home, they’re in an emotional environment and out of their comfort zone. They often retreat - perhaps by spending hours on the computer, or leaving the house for a few days - which can send their wife into a state of confusion, assuming it’s because of them. The men would love to make their wife happy, but they simply don’t know how.”
Many couples are referred to Maxine after counselling has failed. “It can be damaging, because it focuses on trying to get men to talk about their emotions and think about the impact of their behaviour on their partner’s feelings, but people with Asperger’s can’t do that. Their wives are left thinking: “He’s not making an effort to make things better.” Marriages are pushed to breaking point.
Joanna and Nick Lewis’s marriage was in crisis when they began visiting Maxine for counselling. The couple, both 52, from Coventry, realised Nick had Asperger’s when their youngest son was diagnosed with the condition at the age of ten.
As an electronics engineer, Nick was successful, but found socialising difficult and was struggling to communicate with his wife.
She says: “I knew he was a sensitive man, so I couldn’t understand why he would behave like an inconsiderate idiot. I’d ask him to do something and he wouldn’t; he couldn’t put himself in my shoes. It was as though I was speaking English and he was speaking German.”
Joanna once found her husband’s trousers in the freezer. It was a hot day and he’d thought it was a sensible way to cool them down before putting them on.
When they were listening to a radio concerto, he said halfway through: “The lead violinist has changed.” Afterwards, the presenter said one of the strings on the lead violinist’s bow had snapped so the second violinist had taken over.
“He’d noticed the change because his hearing is so acute. If he’s listening to music, he has to have silence around him, or he feels bombarded by noise and can’t cope.”
If Joanna is watching TV in another room, she has to have it turned down low and the door closed. He has to sleep with ear plugs in and the windows shut. “He has had jobs where he’s struggled because he sees no need to say hello to people every morning, for example - he feels if he’s said it to someone once, what’s the point in repeating it day after day. He has no concept of social niceties.”
She says he can come across as defensive to the point of aggression.
“He hates socialising and is very literal - if I asked how I looked, he’d tell me in frank terms. But he wouldn’t understand why I got upset when he told me I looked fat, for example.”
But Joanna says Asperger’s has also given Nick attractive qualities, such as his phenomenal memory, his drive and passion for music.
She felt Nick depended on her, yet her emotional support was not reciprocated. Counselling helped them communicate.
Joanna says: “I’ve learned to be more direct when I’m speaking to Nick, and I’ve also found it easier to accept his behaviour for what it is. I know it’s not his fault he responds logically rather than emotionally. It can be lonely giving support and not getting much back. I cope because I love him.”
Samantha has come to view Andy’s Asperger’s as a blessing in disguise.
“When Noah was diagnosed, we did some online tests to check for autistic tendencies. I found I am at the other end of the spectrum to autism - I’m creative, impulsive and emotional. So Andy’s calmness, precision and air of detachment balances me out.
“I feel lucky to be married to Andy. He’s a wonderful husband and father. He’s worked hard over the years to understand emotions better and be a good listener, and I find his unique way of looking at the world fascinating. I’d never change him.” - Daily Mail
Could your partner be on the autistic spectrum?
Caroline Hattersley, from the National Autistic Society, outlines ten symptoms to watch out for:
1. Difficulty in expressing emotions
2. Limited interests or preoccupation with a subject
3. Low understanding of the reciprocal rules of conversation; interrupting, dominating, not participating or shifting the topic
4. Insensitivity to the non-verbal cues of others (stance, posture, facial expressions)
5. Repetitive routines or rituals
6. Literal interpretation of instructions
7. Scrupulous honesty and bluntness
9. Forensic attention to detail
10. Compelling need to finish one task before starting another