Investigating communicative dissonance within relationships of adults with Asperger’s Syndrome (ASD Level 1)

Bronwyn Wilson, Edith Cowan University

Abstract

The key features of Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) include marked and lifelong impairments in social interaction. Social interaction is a fundamental component of relationships. Despite the momentum of worldwide research on ASC, there is insufficient empirical study on adults with ASC and their relationships. Therefore, numerous myths, misunderstandings and confusion exist, especially in the area of adults with ASC, and autism-based impacts on the adults with ASC themselves, their relationships, and on the people who are in relationship with them.

Relationships that involve people with an ASC are often described as neurodiverse. Neurodiverse relationships that include one person with an ASC and one person without an ASC (i.e., a person who is considered neurotypical) may encounter considerable challenges, given that individuals with ASC have social impairments that interfere with their capacity to engage in, contribute to, and persevere with, the ongoing reciprocal interaction necessary to sustain relationship health. On the other hand, people who are neurotypical (NT) tend to have instinctive social skills. Customarily, for NT individuals, the giving and receiving of emotional support through reciprocity is a fundamental component of interpersonal interaction. These different interaction capacities and requirements, when integrated in one relationship, may be an extensive source of miscommunication.

Based on a prior study, this research focused on adults with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), their close relationships, and characteristics of prompt dependency; (a behaviour that can develop due to lack of independent task initiation skills), accompanied by prompting; (a behaviour used to persuade, encourage, or remind a person to do or say something). The use of an advocacy/participatory approach, in combination with a Dynamic Systems Theory framework, allowed for an investigation of the characteristics of prompting and prompt dependency and/or prompt avoidance within a dynamic system of interpersonal communication. Utilising a concurrent, embedded, transformative mixed methods research design, through a pilot study, and an Internet-based survey complemented by case study interviews, enabled understanding to be gained about the interaction experiences within these relationships.

The main conclusions drawn from the study were that the association between different needs, expectancies, and capabilities of the participants within neurodiverse relationships were the catalyst to a requirement to prompt for interaction accompanied by the formation of prompt dependency characteristics. Findings confirmed that unresponsiveness to, and avoidance of, reciprocal interaction on the part of adults with AS and, as a consequence, an absence of emotional connection, were the dominant impetus behind each element of prompting on the part of the adults who are NT (adults who are NT – AWANT) and prompt dependency and/or prompt avoidance on the part of the adults with AS (adults with AS – AWAS). These aspects became intertwined to form a prompt dependency cycle within the interaction of the participants. Entanglement in a prompt dependency cycle was found to trigger additional discordant interaction cycles.

An expanded model illustrating the storyline of the prompt dependency cycle and interrelated interaction cycles developed in this study, detailed how entangled interaction can become when caught within the context of a prompt dependency cycle. The findings and related expanded model provide relevant implications for counsellors and therapists working with this population and their relationships. Further investigation of prompt dependency will also benefit student-teacher relationships and assist classroom educators to understand that prompt dependency has the potential to become a lifelong issue which requires extensive attention in the classroom in order to prevent its continuation into adulthood. Greater community awareness regarding the issues faced by individuals within these relationships was also found to be of particular concern.