Double Rainbow: Tony Attwood tells us to "make lemonade."

Well, he tells non-autistic people to make lemonade, specifically. Guess who the "lemons" are in this metaphor.

Popular fiction both shapes and reflects cultural attitudes. In a previous post, I picked apart the film Adam and expressed concern over the film's troubling conclusion that people with Asperger syndrome—and by extension all autists, since Asperger's is thought of as a "mild form of autism"—are simultaneously too childlike and too threatening to maintain healthy romantic relationships.

This is a reflection of the attitude that pervades Tony Attwood's A Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, a popular nonfiction book that often serves as an introductory text to Asperger syndrome for lay readers. Attwood is touted as an "expert" on Asperger syndrome. His Complete Guide has an entire chapter titled "Long-term Relationships" that he starts off with a quotation from Hans Asperger's original paper on the behavioral profile that would eventually become Asperger syndrome:

Many of those who do marry show tensions and problems in their marriage. - Hans Asperger, ([1944] 1991)

So right off the bat readers with Asperger's know we're going to be presented as a problem. (And that "long-term relationship" must equal marriage?) The chapter actually starts with kind of an odd little prelude:

A man or woman with Asperger's syndrome can develop intimate person relationships...For such a relationship to begin, both parties would have initially found the other person to be attractive. What are the characteristics that someone would find attractive in a person with Asperger's syndrome?

What a strange question. Attwood then dedicates an entire section called "Choice of Partner" to answering it. I find this so odd because it generalizes what is in reality an inifitely diverse range of experiences, and because it essentializes Asperger's. People become attracted to each other for an endless variety of reasons, and a person's "attractive" qualities don't have to be related to or defined by whether or not she/he/ze has Asperger syndrome. Yes, autists on the whole share a core set of behavioral traits, but the expression of those traits is tremendously varied. We're as diverse in our personalities and experience as non-autists. Asperger's doesn't have to dominate a person's identity.

It is in this first section that Attwood begins to infantilize people with Asperger syndrome, and to make some upsetting generalizations about gender. The man with Asperger's syndrome can have an "appealing 'Peter Pan' quality," and "appears to have a 'feminine,' rather than 'macho' quality," he writes. Apparently this makes such a man "the ideal partner for the modern woman." I'm sorry—what?

According to Attwood, men with Asperger syndrome seek out partners who "can act as an executive secretary to help with organizational problems, and continue many of the emotional support functions provided by their mother when they were living at home." Non-autistic men "who have natural paternal and compassionate qualities" may find women with Asperger syndrome appealing because of their "social immaturity and naïvety," whereas women with Asperger syndrome "often seek a partner with a personality similar to themselves. They feel more comfortable with someone who does not have a great social life and does not seek frequent physical intimacy." The brief final paragrah of the section is dedicated to autistic women's tendency toward ending up with abusive partners. Autistic men are never similarly warned. I guess the (unbearably problematic) idea is that autistic women are lowest on the totem pole of childishness and are thereby the most likely to be victimized.

Attwood presents all of his hypothetical relationships as heterosexual partnerships between a person with Asperger syndrome and a person without. At no point in this section or anywhere else in the chapter does he address same-sex relationships or relationships between two people who both have Asperger syndrome. And he certainly never acknowledges that there are genders other than "man" and "woman."

The next section addresses "Problems in the Relationship," and of course all of these problems are caused by the partner with Asperger syndrome. Our diabolical blend of neediness and emotional distance inflicts agony on our poor non-autistic partners. We represent the very essence of self-centeredness—just like children. (Or children as they are popularly constructed.)

Sadly, I am not being hyperbolic when I say that this section presents Aspergian lovers as downright monstrous. A few choice passages include:

The most common problem for the non-Asperger's syndrome partner is feeling lonely...Although the couple are living together, conversations may be few, and primarily involve the exchange of information rather than an enjoyment of each other's company, experiences and shared opinions. As a man with Asperger's syndrome said, "My pleasure doesn't come from an emotional or interpersonal exchange."

The non-Asperger's syndrome partner suffers affection deprivation which can be a contributory factor to low self-esteem and depression. The typical partner is metaphorically a rose trying to blossom in an affection desert (Long 2003).

A recent survey of women who have a partner with Asperger's syndrome included the question "Does your partner love you? and 50 per cent replied "I don't know" (Jacobs 2006)...The person with Asperger's syndrome may express his or her love in practical terms; or, to change a quotation from Star Trek (Spock, examining an extra-terrestrial; "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it") in Asperger's syndrome, it is love, but not as we know it.

Unfortunately, people with Asperger syndrome can have a history of limited ability to manage conflict successfully...There can be concerns about verbal abuse, especially as a response to perceived criticism, with an apparent inability to show remorse and to forgive and forget.

So we're cold, distant, alien, and even abusive, all because we have Asperger syndrome. Yet we're still simultaneously "innocent" and childlike, which isn't just exhausting but also a turn-off: "Non-Asperger's syndrome partners may also have difficulty having a romantic and passionate relationship with someone they often have to 'mother,' and who may have the emotional maturity of an adolescent." Attwood also returns to his weird little idea of the "modern woman" in this section:

In modern western society we have tended to replace the word husband or wife with partner. This is a reflection of changing attitudes towards relationships. Women today are justifiably no longer content with their partner just being the provider of income for the family. They expect their partner to share the work load at home, for domestic chores and caring for the children, and to be their best friend in terms of conversation, sharing experiences and emotional support. Sharing, and being a best friend, are not attributes that are easy for the person with Asperger's syndrome to achieve.

The single most disturbing passage of the chapter, for me, is the concluding paragraph of the "Problems in the Relationship" section. Attwood cites a study that literally suggests that people with Asperger's are emotionally and physically parasitic toward their non-autistic partners:

A recent survey of the mental and physical health of couples where the male partner has Asperger's syndrome, a diagnosis not shared by the female partner, indicated that the relationship has very different health effects for each partner (Aston 2003). Most men with Asperger's syndrome felt that their mental and physical health had significantly improved due to the relationship...In contrast, the overwhelming majority of non-Asperger's syndrome partners stated that their mental health had significantly deteriorated due to the relationship. They felt emotionally exhausted and neglected, and reported many signs of clinical depression. A majority of respondents in the survey also stated that the relationship had contributed to a deterioration in physical health.

Attwood uses this information to extrapolate that people with Asperger's have fundamentally different needs than people without, and to reinforce his assertion that people with Asperger's are blind or indifferent to the needs of our romantic partners. He never questions the parameters of the survey or comments on its limitations. What part did the gender dynamic of the relationships play in the results? How big was the sample? What were the other demographic qualities of the sample group? Is it possible that people experiencing a high level of dissatisfaction were more likely to respond to the survey in the first place?

Attwood wraps up his soul-crushing exploration of intimate relationships with a section titled "Strategies to Strengthen the Relationship." He never once suggests that people in an unhappy or destructive relationship might consider ending the relationship. He advises that the partner with Asperger's seek counseling to improve interpersonal skills, and that the non-autistic partner look for emotional support outside of the relationship. An intimate relationship with a person who has Asperger syndrome is presented as an inescapably bad situation which one can only hope to make the most of. Attwood concludes with "As one partner said, 'When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.'"

Good to know I'm "a lemon."

While Attwood is done talking about romantic relationships at this point, the chapter on "Long-term Relationships" continues with a section on "Having a Parent with Asperger syndrome." In that section, he describes how we fuck our kids right up by thoroughly depriving them of affection. I wish I were kidding. 

Attwood is a practicing clinical psychologist, and he seems to do a lot of counseling of couples and families in distress. In The Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome, he has apparently taken the experiences of clients who come to him for help with extremely negative situations and used those experiences to generalize about Asperger's on the whole. The result is a tremendously skewed picture that reinforces the most damaging stereotypes about Asperger syndrome and autism, while presenting itself as a reliable guide to the condition. This kind of popular nonfiction contributes to the overall discourse about Asperger's, and the stereotypes it presents are reflected and re-presented in fictional narratives. The unfortunate result, as I remarked in my review of Adam, is that autists are caught up in a discursive web that portrays us as anything from parasitic monsters to inspirational aliens—but never quite as human beings.

Previously: Autism vs. Asperger Syndrome, Snow Cake

by Caroline Narby
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I write a little bit in the areas of embodiment and autism. I am very disappointed that Bitch Media has announced their intent to discriminate against people with disabilities in the hiring process for an executive editor. 

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16 Comments Have Been Posted

It's hard to make

It's hard to make generalisations without having read the whole book, but this sounds like a *very* narrow viewpoint. Almost like Attwood made his pronouncements having only met a tiny handful of Asperger's people. I would agree that, yes, sometimes I wish my husband was more verbal in sharing affection...but I'll bet there are plenty of people who feel that way, and not all of them have Asperger's partners. The 'childlike' part is just plain wrong in my experience. I apprecitate that there's a lot of variation on the Asperger's/autism spectrum, but it certainly sounds like reading this book is the worst possible thing someone trying to understand their Asperger's partner/child/ friend could read. Does anyone have suggestions for better books on the subject?

Besides everything you've

Besides everything you've mentioned, Atwood also apparently considers us incapable of having successful romantic relationships with other people on the spectrum - I can't remember, does he even mention the possibility in his books, or does he just go off the assumption that we'd all seek out 'keepers' to put up with our lemonness?

One theme I've noticed in

One theme I've noticed in several recent posts seems to be this bizarre notion that Aspies (and by extension, all autists) can't love (not by the author, but in the work being commented on). I don't understand this, and it seems like they're saying we're not even animals (or maybe these are the same people who don't think animals can love). I've noticed frequently pop culture depicts those on the spectrum as robotic, or computer like, and I wonder if the "inability to love" is related to that.

It also reminds me of how some people will say cats aren't affectionate, just because cats are affectionate differently than dogs (in general, obviously each one is an individual).

I haven't read the book but

I haven't read the book but from the sections you quote, it does sound as if he is very negative. Which is surprising to me because in an aspie forum, someone once quoted him as the source of this positive definition of Asperger's"

A. A qualitative advantage in social interaction, as manifested by a
majority of the following:
peer relationships characterized by absolute loyalty and impeccable
free of sexist, "age-ist", or culturalist biases;
ability to regard others at "face value"
speaking one's mind irrespective of social context or adherence to
personal beliefs

(there's more but didn't want to make this too long a comment)

He has also done some interesting work about the fact that Asperger's can manifest differently in women than in men, which is why many women are not diagnosed until later in life.


Do you watch Fringe? I was wondering what you thought of last week's episode. It involves a character with a possible Asperger/autism diagnosis and relationships (albeit father/daughter rather than romantic).


Fringe depicts two parallel universes, ours and a slightly-different alternate universe where nearly everyone has a doppelganger who has a slightly different personality and life history. Our universe's Astrid seems to be neurotypical, but alt-Astrid suggests the usual depiction of an autistic savant. She speaks in a robotic voice, does complex math in her head, and avoids eye contact.

In this episode, alt-Astrid flees to our universe in grief at the death of her father. At the end of the episode, she cries and tells Astrid that she fears her father was disappointed in her for not loving him "in a way he could understand." Astrid comforts her by telling her that her own father is somewhat cold and their relationship distant, so that was probably just his personality.

However, at the end of the episode, Astrid comes home to her father, who is waiting with a home-cooked meal and a hug, so she clearly lied. This could be seen as a little patronizing.

In addition to showing emotion about her father, alt-Astrid is quite insightful about Walter's relationship with his own son, although the way she expresses it could be seen as naive and lacking tact. Walter is not offended, though--he seems to like her better than Astrid because, like him, she speaks her mind and doesn't observe social niceties.

I have read Tony Attwood's

I have read Tony Attwood's book, had a partner with high functioning autism and I am a researcher in neuroscience myself. I have spent considerable amount of time in understanding perspective of autistic individuals, their way of seeing of the world. I don't think Attwood is implying that autistic individuals can't feel or give love. They can feel love, attachment, but their need are much limited in comparison to typical individuals. Even among typical individuals, people have different needs but when it comes to autistic individuals, its all together different scale. These differences come from the brain structure and its better to accept the difference and find a way around to compensate for the missing abilities.
Tony Attwood, his study might not be complete but they are still valid.

I am married to an autistic

I am married to an autistic man and if we didn't have children the autism wouldn't be a problem but we do have children and it is.
Of course people can't generalise about autism but it IS the autism that contributes to marital breakdown.
My husband cannot tolerate stress. He covers his ears in a crisis. It means that burdens are not really shared. It means that I am not really supported. It means that asking for help, even calmly, doesn't help. All he sees are his own good intentions but he doesn't see that good intentions alone don't change situations. He perceives his own lack of energy acutely. So acutely, that he can't put it aside in order to make someone else feel better, or to feel a personal responsibility for the care of another. If I say, "I'm sick, I can't make dinner", my husband doesn't feel that he ought to step into the breach and make dinner for the family. These are things that you can't foresee when you are "dating" an autistic person. If you're autistic and you want a relationship that doesn't fail, I would advise you to really make an effort to understand neurotypical people instead of expecting that your handicaps are catered for. When children are involved, you can't behave allergic to everything that "must be done". Individualism is not a virtue when raising children.

Sympathy and Suggestions

I hear your frustration here, but I think your advice is more global-- anyone who wants to be in a working relationship needs to go out of their way to learn a lot about how the other person thinks, feels, and functions. And that's not an easy thing for anyone to do, autistic or not.

It sounds to me like you need to sit down with your husband and talk these issues out very explicitly-- and not just because he's autistic. I've heard similar complaints in many marriages where both partners are neurotypical.

Your last example, about making dinner: here is where the literalism of autism can be a roadblock. It may not be obvious to your husband that your saying "I can't make dinner tonight" actually means the same thing as "I need you to make dinner tonight." However, there is a good chance that he would step up to the plate if you tell him exactly what you need him to do and why (probably best to have an extended discussion at some time when you're not actually sick first).

If he suffers from lack of energy, he may be experiencing depression or something else, physical or emotional, that needs treatment. That needs to be addressed as an issue in its own right, and probably is not related to his autism. While it's true, too, that autistic people may become more easily overwhelmed than neurotypicals (especially by loud noises, etc), an inability to tolerate stress at all is something that can be worked on and improved with therapy.

Perhaps, too, it would help to ask him what he /can/ contribute. Yes, he may fall apart in a crisis, but to make up for this, perhaps he can take on more of the routine responsibilities in order to give you a rest-- such as meal prep, housekeeping, managing paperwork, etc. He may have to be taught how to do someone of these things, but he is probably quite capable of them all.

Chances are, your husband loves you very much and isn't aware of how overwhelmed you feel-- or if he is aware, doesn't know how best to fix the problem. I think the two of you can sit down and negotiate some solutions that will make you feel less put-upon-- and will make him happier as well, because he'll be able to make you happier. I wish you the best of luck.

Old post

I am an Aspie with an Aspie and I can completely relate to everything you are saying. I know it is very hard to be in your shoes, because I have matching ones, except one of mine is a different color being an Aspie myself. :)

I am the NT partner of an

I am the NT partner of an Aspie and I must speak up here. Not ALL people with AS have ALL of the characteristics that Attwood describes. However, MY experience with my AS/ NT marriage IS like what he describes. I am a member of a support group for NT spouses and the stories are all very similar. Denial and blame are two very very common AS traits and while I understand that it may be uncomfortable to hear, being married to someone whose emotional range, maturity level, and communication abilities are so very different than what one was socialized to expect in a marriage is, indeed, devastatingly painful. Just because you don't want to believe it or don't like it, doesn't mean it isn't true for many of us, especially those of us who unknowingly married undiagnosed Aspies only to discover much later that we would NEVER be in a partnership with what WE experience as a real, deep emotional connection. My husband experiences his deepest and strongest emotions at (according to HIM) about 25% of my emotional capacity. We don't share what other couples share- moments of spontaneous connection, reciprocal smiles, laughter, tenderness, shared's a dry, businesslike arrangement for me, whereas for him it's just "life". So yes, MY experience of the marriage is vastly different than his. It's NOT satisfying emotionally and I am depressed. I don't want to leave someone because of a condition they can't help, but again, shouldn't my needs count for something too?

I think the key to the

I think the key to the previous post is that you say that some people "unknowingly" marry an undiagnosed aspie.
In most Western cultures our choice to marry someone is based on our premarital experience of who they are as a whole, aspie or NT.
We tend to spend varying amounts of time together with our prospective spouses, and it is advisable we do so. So when we finally commit to spend with them the rest of our lives we have a fair idea of what to expect from our partner, what their views are of various topics, etc. At least that's what should happen.

The problem seems to be in my experience -I'm thinking of my mum as an example- is that often women choose to overlook those "funny quirks" of their boyfriend, expecting that they will change for the better over time. They are setting themselves to be disappointed.

With regard to the previous poster, I am puzzled as to how such difference in emotional ranges between her and her aspie partner was not realised before they got married. No matter how good an aspie might be with their coping skills, I think some traits such as the lack of reciprocity might have been evident from the start. Maybe she just chose to ignore them.

I wonder how often women who marry aspies do so in full awareness of their boyfriend's social inefficiencies, and once married they set to work to try and change their partner into the NT he will never be. I can see how this attitude would put extra pressure in a person who already struggles with social interaction, causing them emotional exhaustion. In that context it is easy to see how the aspie would seek more and more "me time" alone in a desperate effort to seek restoration, and the NT partner would end up feeling lonely.

To make a gross analogy, it seems that aspies and NTs are like people who speak different languages. The aspie has learned NT as a second language but he still has a thick accent, which leads to frequent misunderstandings, whereas the NT speaks the local language and expects everyone else around to do so.

My point? it is easy to blame the aspie. He is the one who has trouble to communicate, and as he cannot speak up for himself the NT part assumes they just don't want to and place on them all the blame for their unhappiness.

This is my two cents and I have no scientific backup to say this other than life experience at being married to a maybe-aspie, and at raising an adorable autie.

People who seek out a support

People who seek out a support group are going to be people who are struggling. What about all the happily married AS/NT couples who would never even think of seeking a support group for partners of AS people because AS is no big deal to them?

My parents are an AS/NT couple. They have been together for 30 years, and both have no doubt the other one loves them. The traits my NT mom finds frustrating about my AS dad have nothing to do with his AS - they have to do with him having grown up in an abusive household and forgetting that she isn't like his mom or his sister. And she also grew up in an abusive household, and also sometimes forgets we aren't like her family of origin.

My Mom also works as a family law lawyer, and as such, she regularly sees NT/NT relationships that are *far* more dysfunctional than most NT/AS relationships. Most dysfunctional NT/AS relationships I've heard of suffer the exact same problems as dysfunctional NT/NT relationships, and for pretty much the same reasons. In most of these cases, AS is an excuse, not the real reason. Either the AS partner uses it as an excuse, or the NT partner blames stuff on AS when it's actually other issues - sometimes the NT partner's issues.

If there is any higher rate of dysfunction in AS/NT couples, my guess is it would be a combination of AS kids being more at risk of receiving dysfunctional parenting (because unresolved grief over having a disabled child can adversely affect parenting skills) and dysfunctional NTs being more likely get into a relationship with an AS person (both because the AS traits may appeal to them, and because AS people are poorer at spotting warning signs early on in the relationship). AS does not affect the ability to love.

Support groups

I attend a lot of adult autism support groups and that is very true. I've met many older Aspies who are 40 or over who were diagnosed later in life. Many of them have struggled with going from job to job, relationship to relationship etc. but I think the majority of their problems were caused them not knowing what was going on. By then, many of them have developed many maladaptive behaviors that are hard to unlearn. One maladaptive behavior that often occurs is having a person to rely on to an unhealthy degree (a partner, a parent, a friend) for lack of learning day to day life skills. Hence the comment about "parasitic" relationships has a grain of truth, but it's exaggerated by selection bias. Sometimes we do need more support from our partners, or a PCA and that is fine to recognize, as long as you can figure out when you really need them and when you don't.

On the other hand, there are some people who find their niche in society and manage to get by and are never identified. Also people who have problems are more likely to get diagnosed. The squeaky wheel gets the label as my partner says.

I will say though, even if you were diagnosed at a younger age, it does take a major conscious effort to figure out how to relate to people and have healthy relationships. Both my partner & I are Aspies, and we've spent a lot of time in therapy trying to figure things out. I'll also say, often the most successful AS/NT relationships I come across are ones in which the NT has training in autism, or prior experience with it.

More recent stuff by Atwood is better

I would definitely recommend that everyone watch Dr Atwood's youtube videos. They are wonderful, and are miles away from the negative quotes here. Maybe it's because the book was written ten years ago...perhaps in the intervening years, he grew into a deeper and more positive understanding of Aspergers.
One of his youtube videos explicitly mentions AS/AS marriages as tending to be quite happy.

so glad i found this article

Thank you so much for writing this. I've got Attwood's book and yes, this chapter left me feeling hopeless, broken, unworthy. It's actually quite rare to read a positive description of AS/NT relationships...I'm always left wondering if there's any point in bothering to try let someone in, if I'm only going to ruin their perfect NT life. This is the first time I've ever commented on anything online, but I just have to say thank you thank you thank you for challenging this destructive viewpoint. So glad I stumbled on this article from a google search, you've really helped me.

RIGHT Facts, Wrong Conclusion ~ Lemons ~

Actually, the lemons to lemonade correlation was NOT made by Attwood, but by one of his NT clients; which Attwood then inserted into his book as he recounted his clinical experience.

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