A few weeks ago, my six-year-old daughter had a play date with a new friend at a local park.
Schedules being what they are, the plan was for my husband to take the kids to the park first, meet up with the other family, and I would join them shortly thereafter. My daughter was very excited. We’ve recently moved to the area and, because of the pandemic, haven’t had the opportunity to connect with other families all that often.
I, however, had a moment of panic.
Getting ahead of the message
My husband is an Aspie. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (now simply known as being on the autism spectrum) in late 2015, just over a year after our oldest was born. One of the biggest parts of being on the spectrum is an element of social difficulties. To say this applies to my husband is like saying “Texas is big.” He has a tendency to shut down (or melt down) in social situations he can’t control. He can’t look people in the eye for more than five seconds at a time (and has to count to five in his head to make sure he gets there). He also has trouble interpreting non-verbal cues, and has a knack for saying the wrong thing.
In short, having him be the social flag-bearer for our family could very well mean that this was potentially the first, and last, play date with that family.
But on this day, instead of panicking, I shot off a quick text to the other mom: “My husband will meet you there. He’s not a fan of talking to people, so don’t be offended if he doesn’t!”–and left it at that.
I know to some, this text might not have seemed necessary. People are understanding, right? In fact, five years ago, when he was first diagnosed, my reaction was the beautifully brief, “Ok, so?” in an attempt to not let it bother me.
But my response back then was truthfully more about exhaustion, rather than acceptance. We were new parents, and I was a working mom trying to keep my head above water. Why bother calling attention to it? Why not just live our lives as we had? After all, learning that my husband is who he is, but with a clinical name attached to it, did not help me plan my meals (ironic, given how extremely picky my husband is about food textures).
Now, however, I do accept it. His diagnosis, and putting a name to it, has become a major part of what defines us a couple, as parents, and as a family. Early in our relationship, I got used to excusing his awkward, non-social behavior by saying: “No, my husband isn’t mad at you,” or “That’s just who he is.”
Now, by getting ahead of the message, by telling people sooner rather than later that my husband is an Aspie (yes, we still use the technically outdated term), or at least to not expect much social interaction out of him, I no longer feel the need to apologize for my husband simply being who he is.
Letting people know about his non-social behavior, when appropriate, has taken the pressure to appear “normal” off both of us; it allows me the peace of mind not to worry about what he may say, or not say, and gives him freedom from the pressure to say anything at all.
And not feeling that pressure is kind of amazing.
Besides, if I couldn’t accept his Aspie status in the beginning, how could we expect others to when they didn’t even know?
Taking the risk
Granted, telling people early on, or specifically too early on, still feels like a big risk. That pressure to be normal, especially when trying to make new friends (as we are), typically means you don’t immediately air your family’s diagnoses until you at least know what type of pets they have — “Hello! Nice to meet you. So glad our kids could play together. Do you like dogs? My husband has Asperger’s.”
But it’s a risk I’ve become more comfortable taking.
Sure enough, when I got to the park that day, my husband was standing in the middle of the playground, oblivious to the other kids and parents around him. He was staring intently at our two-year-old trying to climb a rock wall, and the little Bluetooth light flashing on his earbuds indicated he was listening to his “calming” music.
And at that point, I knew there was no need to panic. The risk had paid off. The kids played, and I chatted with the other mom. She said she actually laughed when she read my text, and her husband thought it was brilliant. I was able to explain the full reasoning behind the text, and she got it. And even if she hadn’t, it would’ve been ok, because beyond the awkwardness is a man who deeply loves his family and would do anything for us.
Including being social.