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Married, with ASD: Arguing

I'm about to write about a problem that happens with every single couple I've worked with. How I wrote that sentence is the problem. Hyperbolic speech (e.g., "every single") often derails arguments between couples where one person is on the spectrum, and the other is neurotypical. "You always..." or "You never..." is a common phrase used in arguments, but it is especially problematic with my clients.


Neurotypicals routinely use absolutes (e.g., every, always, never) when arguing or complaining. The purpose is not to describe how something is so much as how it feels. Hyperbolic speech (i.e., deliberate exaggeration) is used to describe the intensity of a feeling or to explain that a feeling has become more intense over time. Interestingly, the average neurotypical does not even realize they are doing this. To them, it's just how people talk.


To the average autistic person, using absolutes is a huge problem. First, this use of absolutes falls under pragmatic (non-literal) language, a common deficit for individuals on the spectrum. Second, most people on the spectrum that I know have a strong affinity for acuracy, especially in language. Most of my autistic clients tell me that they cannot concentrate on a conversation once an obvious inaccuracy is used. This tendency is a problem, especially when the argument starts with, "You always do that." Most of my clients get stuck on that initial phrase and wait for their turn in the argument to correct that inaccuracy. In the meantime, they've missed a significant amount of the diatribe up to that point. Above, I intentionally spelled a word wrong. It should be "accuracy." This is not a perfect fix, but go ahead and reread the paragraph and see if it is easier to concentrate on the meaning, knowing that I did that on purpose and then corrected it to make my point.


I used to feel in therapy like I was making no progress because clients constantly interrupted me and struggled to make my point. When I started focusing on the precision of my diction (i.e., using words more literally), I started making more progress in therapy. In the same way, when the neurotypical spouse begins focusing on the non-literal language they use to argue, they start to report better responses from their spouse to their complaints.


For my autistic clients, the information that hyperbolic speech is intentionally non-literal but still rule-bound is a big eye-opener. They can learn to decode the meaning of non-literal language, and even though it is non-preferred, they can start to understand and use it effectively. The best results happen when both spouses make concessions to use the preferred communication style of the other and let go of what they believe is fair or best.

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