The COVID-19 pandemic is putting a tremendous strain on many people in the autism community in different ways. Parents are taking on additional roles with their children, isolated adults are feeling extremely lonely, some with medical issues may feel especially anxious, and those living in smaller spaces within a family or other group may feel the loss of their restorative, quiet space.
But today, I want to address another group, which I feel may also be experiencing great difficulty in this situation: neurodiverse couples. The speed with which the pandemic changed the world put many couples into “survival mode,” where they had to react quickly without understanding the consequences of the changes they were making to their routines or the long-term effects of the new roles they were taking on. Urgent concerns may have eclipsed thinking about personal needs or their relationship as a couple. Now that weeks have turned into months, I think it is critical for couples to acknowledge and address any strain they are experiencing in their current situation in order to keep anger, resentment, and anxiety from building. I would like to focus on six, key areas that are important for couples to consider together. These suggestions may also be relevant for non-neurodiverse couples, roommates, and other close relationships.
- Communication. While this is important for every relationship, communication can be a particular challenge for a neurodiverse couple. With the amount of time many couples are spending together at home, it is vital to identify solid communication strategies between partners. If possible, structure time to discuss the new issues the pandemic has caused, such as child care & schooling, household chores, financial issues, and safety. Weekly or even short daily planning meetings are helpful to get everyone on the same page. Even with planning, things may go differently than expected, or what may have worked well one day may not be tolerable the next. It is important for partners to be able to listen to each others’ concerns, understand the stress partners might be feeling given overwhelming tasks, and be able to problem solve together.
- Structure & Routine. Whatever routines a couple may have had in pre-pandemic times, they have likely drastically changed. Structure and routine are essential for many people on the spectrum. Is there a way to build in structure given the current situation? Are there things you can do at the same time each day? Is there agreement about the division of labor and when certain chores need to be done? Routines that are built into your new schedule and followed, will help reduce anxiety and conflict.
- Social Interaction. The continued physical restrictions mean partners may not have the opportunity to make the usual social connections at work or in group activities outside of the home. This is not just a consideration for a neurotypical partner. Although some individuals on the spectrum are content not to have social interactions, many also miss being with others. I would encourage couples to be open and honest about what their social needs are and find ways to connect with others in whatever way feels safe. It might be a video conferencing meet-up or getting together while being masked and keeping physically distanced, but of course it’s not quite the same. However, it is far better than feeling isolated or heavily dependent on a partner who may not be able to meet that need.
- Safety Measures. Couples may not be on the same page regarding what is safe and isn’t safe concerning potential exposure to the coronavirus. Partners may have very different opinions about whether or not it is safe to go to the gym, dine in a restaurant, or share an activity with friends or relatives. The couple should find an outside person to help negotiate if this is a problem. And under no circumstances should anyone lie to the other about where they have been or what they have been doing. Everyone needs to understand their level of risk and take whatever precautions they need to protect themselves and their family.
- Personal Time. Each person needs to take care of themselves, and this often includes down-time. Whether it is finding alone time gardening, listening to music, reading, pursuing a hobby, or another type of self-care, it is essential for each person to find what restores them and for the other partner to support it. Having this replenishing time will help deal with the other stresses of life. If there are space constraints, a partner may have to go elsewhere, like on a walk or may even have to spend time in their parked car. Be sure down-time is not taken when the other partner needs help with dinner or other chores. A particularly difficult time may surface when transitioning between “work” and “home,” when “coming home” may only mean leaving one room and entering another.
- Emotional Awareness of Yourself and Your Partner. Remember that the pandemic is taking an emotional toll on almost everyone, even those without day–to-day hardships like unemployment, illness, or job loss. It’s important for each individual in a partnership to take the time to examine their own feelings, all of which are valid, and communicate them to their partner. We know depression and anxiety can be outwardly invisible or covered with a veneer so it’s important not to make assumptions about your partner, even if they seem fine.
I do not mean to suggest that all neurodiverse couples are having difficulty during this time. Some couples feel they have more time to devote to each other and are less stressed. Fewer in-person work requirements and after-school activities may cause relief and the ability to renew relationships and enjoy time together. Building in joint activities such as walking, watching a movie, biking, music, meal preparation or playing games as a couple or as a family may bring you closer.
But if things are not going well, know there are supports to help neurodiverse couples navigate this new world. Virtual therapy for couples works well for many, and finding a therapist who understands neurodiverse relationships may now be easier as the online choice is greater. If you need help finding support or resources, contact us at AANE and we would be happy to assist you.
Also, visit AANE’s Peter M. Friedman Neurodiverse Couples Institute, which offers courses for couples and couples therapists, information about couples coaching and support groups, and ways to find a neurodiverse couples therapist.