Questions about Aspergers and Domestic Violence

This could be a long post as I have a fair to say/ask about this topic so you may want to get a cup of tea. If you read through it I’ll write a funny story at the end of the post about how awesome my little brother is. Firstly, I come from a family of 6 where 50% of the family (3 people) have some degree of aspergers. My youngest brother is the most obvious, but another of my brothers and my dad also have signs of mild aspergers. If you aren’t too sure about Aspergers, take a look at the Wikipedia site Aspergers Syndrome for a good overview.
In the last year, my mum has become involved with a support group for neurotypical (NTs – this basically means non-Aspergers people) partners of people with aspergers (Aspies). A few months ago, after being asked by mum, I went along to the group support with her to see what the group was about and hear some of the other stories. The group meets monthly and the members come from far and wide (some members travel up to 120km/75miles to attend). On the day that I went about 15 women (aged between 30 – 70ish) were in attendance.

I work in the domestic violence field and my role revolves around training, education and generally getting out into the community. I wasn’t going to mention this at the meeting, but when I was being introduced to the group, someone asked me what I did for a living so I just briefly mentioned my job and what it entails. A silent, somewhat unnerving hush came over the group. After a moment, one woman started to talk about her experience of living with her Aspie husband and how that often it played out like an abusive relationship. The majority of the other women in group agreed that elements of their relationships did indeed constitute elements of domestic violence. Over the course of the meeting, fairly unanimous disclosures of abuse (particularly FINANCIAL, VERBAL, EMOTIONAL and SOCIAL – more subtle forms of abuse and control) were made. A number of these stories were shared experiences and, from my understanding of domestic violence, (that one partner uses behaviour which makes the other partner fearful thus having power and control in the relationship) these experiences did indeed seem to constitute abuse.
Common stories and experiences were:
• Isolating, or not letting the NT partner contact friends/family
• Not letting the NT partner having their own time or interests
• Irrational blame of the NT partner if things don’t go right
• Aggressive/abusive/frightening behaviour until the Aspie partner gets their own way (my way is the only way)
• Put downs and lack of emotional support
• Reckless financial decision making and not letting the NT partner have a say OR not giving the NT partner access to money/saving every penny (it appeared to be one extreme or the other)
• Problems with controlling emotions (esp anger/frustration – often marked with sudden outbursts) and taking it out on the partner
• Threats/Fear if the NT partner wanted to leave the relationship
• Lying/manipulative behaviour
• Consistently crossing boundaries and not accepting no as an answer
• Abuse or neglect of children
I know that from my experience living with my family, and from talking with mum, being in a relationship with someone with Aspergers is difficult (I also think it’s pretty difficult and confusing for Aspies too). The group had a guest speaker, a woman who has Aspergers and is a relationship counsellor. In her talk she raised a really interesting point that aspergers doesn’t make people nasty or controlling, it makes them different, but not abusive. This caused a bit of a reaction from some of the women who were having a particularly tough time in their relationships, but I think it’s an important point to consider.
Now I realise that this was a small group of women, but it was astounding that the majority of them had had remarkably similar abusive experiences. Many of the women in the group were hurting and were exhausted from their relationships. One woman had been married for 26 years and had been in counselling for 20 years just to survive the relationship and make sure that her sense of self wasn’t eroded. My understanding of domestic violence is based in a feminist framework where the cultural and societal norms around socialisation, gender norms and expectations underpin the believed right to control. However, after listening to these women I was pretty confused. While I am completely against abuse and domestic violence, I wonder if the intent behind the behaviour was misguided or perhaps a misunderstanding of what are and aren’t acceptable behaviours in a romantic relationship? Could some of these behaviours be an unacceptable response to a situation that the Aspie partner didn’t know how to deal with? I think that some of these behaviours are intended to control or manipulate, but I wonder if the lack of social understanding, which is a marker of aspergers, accounts for some of this behaviour. But then where does the line stop? I personally don’t accept the excuse of stress, alcohol, drugs, (most) mental illness as the CAUSE or REASON for domestic violence, so how is this different? I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about it, and it’s starting to do my head in. I thought I’d share my thoughts with the feministing community and particularly the feminist Aspergers community to see what other people think and if maybe other people’s opinions can help to make sense of what I heard and witnessed.
From the reading I’ve done, the main suggestion seems to be educational interventions (for both parties?) which influence adult behaviour and enhance understanding in intimate relationships. As part of raising my youngest brother, my family has been trying to teach him about other people and how they feel, what certain facial expressions mean and lots of other things like what it means if they turn around and walk away when you’re talking to them (No, it doesn’t mean that follow them around and keep talking about Star Wars. It means they don’t want to listen to you anymore and that they have probably been giving you signs of that for a while). On a personal level I am worried about the relationships that my youngest brother will form. At times in our family environment he demonstrates some of the above mentioned behaviours to get his own way or if he doesn’t understand what’s going on. And to be honest, although not common, when it does occur, it can be scary.
I know that there is debate around accepting Aspergers as a different point of view rather than looking for a cure, and I would like to think that I support this position. Aspies have made excellent progress in many different fields. This entry isn’t meant to be an exercise in Aspergers bashing or anything like that. I’m interested in the prevalence of domestic violence or abusive/manipulative/controlling behaviour and whether, if this is common, anything can be done to promote understanding (in all parties) and change behaviour. Aspergers is starting to get some more attention and is being recognised more and more in different areas of our society. There have even been a few notable movies about aspergers in the last few years (e.g. Adam, The Black Balloon). However, I think it’s still a relative unknown to many people.
Thank you for taking to read this entry. It’s been a long haul and I’ve had a lot to write, and some of it hasn’t been that easy to get down. I would love to hear your thoughts and your comments.
Also, as promised, the story:
I took my youngest brother (13) to see the Wolverine movie (no major spoilers ahead). He loves action movies and particularly super hero fantasy movies. Sometimes he doesn’t understand what’s going in movies – particularly when it’s an emotional part of the movie or when the filmmakers are relying on body language and facial expressions to convey what’s happening. Anyway, at the start of the movie Wolverine is in a special government group which goes around doing nasty, secretive and questionable business for the government and generally killing lots of innocent people for mineral resources and political power. Watching the facial expressions and picking up on the body language I could tell that Wolverine was feeling pretty awful about his part in killing so many people. So when he finally left the group I could understand why. My brother however leant over and asked “How come Wolverine’s leaving?” I said it was because he was sad that they were killing so many innocent people. He was happy with that response. A little later in the movie, Wolverine becomes a lumberjack and so they show him working in a plantation of pine trees for a little bit. After a little while my brother leant over to me and asked “How come he’s not upset about killing so many innocent trees?” This question completely threw me. I think I answered something like “Oh, they grow the trees so they can specifically cut them down to use.” To which he replied “Oh, ok. So, would it be ok to do that with people if they grew people on purpose?” I wasn’t too sure how to explain the different sides of scientific, moral, ethical and potentially legal elements of this idea to a 13 year old in a cinema full of people watching Wolverine, so I think I just said that I didn’t know and that we could talk about it after the movie. However, whenever I think of this incident, I’m amazed at the different views of the world we have and how he keeps me on my toes; and it makes me love him just that little bit more.

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