Ep 31 / Kate McNulty’s Love and Asperger’s: Relationships on the Spectrum

kate mcnulty lcsw autistic therapist Today I'm talking with Kate McNulty, an autistic Certified Gottman Therapist, Certified AASECT Sex Therapist, and licensed clinical social worker. We're discussing her new book, Love and Asperger's: Practical Strategies To Help Couples Understand Each Other and Strengthen Their Connection, which came out in October 2020.

Love and Asperger's is a practical guide to maintaining a loving and communicative relationship between people with different neurotypes. Kate lays out some common problem-areas that mixed neurotype couples may face, and gives direct and clear support to work through them together.

love and aspergers

Unlike other autism-focused relationship self-help books I've read, Love and Asperger's doesn't assume that the problems in the relationship come down to the autistic person being "too" autistic. Rather, she focuses on supporting both individuals to get to know each other and their own needs better, and to communicate together to get everyone's needs met.

I've already recommended Kate's book to several of my life coaching clients, and I'm so thrilled to be able to offer this episode to you. We're discussing common relationship trouble points Kate's seen in her 20+ years of therapy practice, what's up with the word Asperger's in the title, and why self-identification is not only valid, but a necessary tool for so many folks. Enjoy!


🎧 Want to listen? This post is based off of Episode 31 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts | Spotify


Show Notes:


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Transcript of Kate McNulty's Love and Asperger's: Relationships on the Spectrum

Danielle Sullivan: Hi Kate, welcome to Neurodiverging. Thanks for being here today!

Kate McNulty: Yeah, it’s my pleasure, I appreciate you making some time to meet with me.

DS: I’m so happy that you’re here! I know that you have recently put out a book, which I definitely want to talk about it in a little bit. But…you’re a social worker, a therapist, you’re autistic, you’re now a published author, congratulations. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your background and what your current focus is in your practice.

KMcN: Sure, I have been doing therapy for many years and had a long career working in emergency rooms, curiously enough, before I went into private practice. And I just saw such a broad array of people in the emergency room setting, it fascinated me, but it was time for me to be self-employed, so I started this private practice, and quickly began getting referrals for couples, so it was apparent that there was a real need, and I decided I wanted to get serious about helping couples. So I got trained at this research-based institute in Seattle, the Gottman Institute. Curiously, quickly discovered couples’ therapists don’t think a lot about sex, which I thought was really odd, so I also pursued training as sex therapist and have been seeing all kinds of people since. When one of my children – I have grown kids, they’re in their late 20s – one of my kids started talking about autism about eight years ago, and I just dismissed it. I just thought “oh, come on, you’re not autistic, are you kidding me? I know what autistic looks like, it’s some guy like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, right?” But I just had the stereotypes in mind, and once I started reading about it, it was just so striking and explained so many things about my family background and me, I just felt compelled to learn more. I got pretty specialized in working with autistic adults. 

DS: That’s great, thank you. Yeah, I’m interested in several parts of what you said, I’m trying to figure out which to get at first. I think a lot of people that I’ve talked to who have come to their autism diagnosis a little later in life have that, you know, somebody around them brings it up and we all think of the stereotype of the, you know, sort of repetitive motion, stimming kind of white man and who’s highly intelligent maybe technology focus and then we read more about women and autism and it’s like “oh, it’s me.”  So that’s really interesting.

KMcN: Yeah, and I think it’s also so common for parents to kind of come in through the side door and it’s all because something’s going on with their child, and then you get this revelation yourself of “oh, there’s so much to learn about my life and my history that can be viewed through this lens.” 

DS: Yeah. I worry sometimes that I would have never found out if my son was not autistic that I would have never come to that in myself, because there wouldn’t have been the push to learn more about it, and to get that wider understanding of the diversity in autism and the kind of range. And, oh. It’s made such a difference in my life to know. And, you’ve written your book, is kind of a mix of your knowledge of autism and your interest there, and also obviously your relationship-therapy practice. And I’ve read it, it’s great, it’s called Love and Asperger’s. Would you tell me a little bit about – or I guess, tell the audience a little bit about what drove you to write on this topic of kind of love and autism?

KMcN: Yeah, the book is an attempt at giving people some practical guidelines about feeling connected to their partner even if your brain works very differently from theirs. And I wanted to draw from the couples’ therapy training and experiences I had, use this framework of being autistic or having an autistic partner, to write about the patterns that come up for people, and the kinds of typical complaints that people bring to my office. But to reach a broader audience. So that was the reason I wrote the book.

DS: That’s really fantastic. I have seen other books that target that sort of goal of giving practical advice to mixed neurotype couples but a lot of them are just not very practical. Or, there’s so much from the neurotypical person’s point of view of making the autistic person the quote-unquote problem in the relationship. What I really enjoyed about your book was it really did bring up both sides and give both parties, really take both of their needs into account, and both of their - what they needed out of the relationship into account, in a very kind of equivalent way, which I just really appreciated because I often read relationship books that feel like they’re trying to nicely say that the autistic person needs to change for the neurotypical person, and that can be really frustrating to read. So, I really enjoyed that.

KMcN: Yeah, I think that would be very disengaging as an autistic reader to have that message. And there are just so many misrepresentations of what we are as autistic people, and there’s such a, you know, these theories are obsolete. These ideas about like “theory of mind” and things like that, the “male brain syndrome,” these books still show those ideas. But they’ve been clearly disproven as we get more autistic people sort of ascending in academia and getting in positions to do research, we see that these concepts are just ideas that somebody made up based on the observations from the outside of an autistic person. And they do not represent the internal experience of autistics. So having couples therapists then trying to write from this gyration viewpoint of “okay, here’s what’s going on with your autistic partner,” it’s just kind of ridiculous. So I hope we’re going to be moving towards a time when there are more autistic clinicians, and more therapists can recognize that they’re autistic, or more people will get trained to be therapists, because we really have been at a disadvantage in terms of seeking services and getting a true neutrality from the therapists who are trying to work with couples. 

DS: Absolutely. I was arguing with somebody – arguing nicely – with someone on Instagram yesterday about the male brain theory because as you said, there’s so much unfortunate junk that’s been disproven, that we have evidence against but it’s still kind of floating out there. When you’re first starting to learn about autism, these are still the theories that tend to come up in the Google search, you know, if you’re coming at it from a layman’s point of view. And it’s really frustrating, especially when you’re in a relationship with a partner where you want it to be a mutually supportive kind of engaged relationship and your partner is Googling “autism” and coming up with this stuff you know, cause, and maybe their therapist is supporting them. 

KMcN: The Cassandra Syndrome. Please excuse me for even bringing it up, but oh come on. It’s this idea-- it’s often portrayed as the wife who’s married to an autistic man, she’s in this awful position of being burdened with this robot who never expresses affection, and she is making such a sacrifice to tolerate this person. So I just think…I’m sorry, but get out of here with that junk, it’s not helping anyone. It leaves us feeling the autistic person is the problem and there’s nothing to be done about it. 

DS: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think I’ve heard that name for it before, but I’ve definitely encountered that stereotype of what it must be like to be in a relationship with an autistic person. Yeah. And that’s really, like, it’s really damaging to both sides, because how is the wife in that situation supposed to overcome that stereotype for herself to really see her husband and how is the husband supposed to feel fulfilled, you know?

KMcN: Yeah. I mean, when I started doing couples’ therapy, I decided I’m going to take this very seriously because people come in to see a therapist and they’re usually on the verge of making a life-changing decision. By the time they get in your office – or on your screen nowadays – we have a responsibility to come from a stance of supporting both people equally and not biasing what’s going to happen in the therapy room for the couple.

DS: Yeah, absolutely. And I know it is not ethical for a therapist to recommend staying married or divorcing, but I feel like a lot of therapists do see a mixed-neurotype couple be like, “oh, this is a bad match, why are you with an autistic person?” And that’s really, really frustrating too. So, like you said, getting more autistic therapists trained and in practice is a really great way to offer more support to mixed neurotype couples. 

Would you be willing to talk about – you mentioned that there are recurring or issues that come up often between this kind of couple where one person is neurotypical and one person is autistic. And your book obviously goes into those in depth, so folks you should read the book! I’ll put a link in the notes below. But are there some that you’d be willing to talk about briefly, I guess, as maybe the most common or what’s the one most common you see or the two? The types of couples that come in.

KMcN: Sure. The themes of wondering “why doesn’t my partner go out and do things with me? Like, I want to go see my family for a cookout,” or “I want to go to a [unknown],” or “I want to try a new restaurant,” and so the neurotypical person is often wondering “why they were so fun when we first started dating but now they’re a stick-in-the-mud at home and I can’t budge them?” But often this is for sensory reasons, either overstimulation overwhelm, or life is going at too fast a pace, and so recognizing that the autistic person wants to be with their partner and wants to do things with them often, but their choice of venue, or the kind of recreation they prefer might be very different from the neurotypical person over time, so you have to as a couple figure out how to do we pace ourselves and not add too much and not run too many errands or  return too many things to the store, this mad dashing about that drains the autistic person. Instead, how do we map out our week so that we know that if want to go on a date Saturday night, we need to have a low-key Thursday night and then have something planned so that everybody feels ready and at their best. Because often the hesitation that the autistic person feels isn’t like “I don’t want to be with you,” or “I don’t want to do things with you,” it’s…it originates from a position of “I want to be at my best when we’re together and I know what I need and I need the downtime as a precedent for doing something that’s more noisy or puts me in a position where I have to make more decisions or has me dealing with traffic,” things like that. Or factors we have to account for.

DS: When a couple comes into your office, is it often a case of the neurotypical person needing help understanding what their autistic partner needs, or do you have also autistic people coming into your office and having trouble – is there a difference in the kind of issue that a neurotypical partner is going to bring to you, versus what an autistic partner is going to bring to you? Does that make sense?

KMcN: I think about how there’s such a wide range anyway if we’re just talking about autistic people. Some autistic people do not get the interoception, the internal signals that they need, to know whether they’re hungry or cold, or maybe have a lot of language for how they feel, aren’t so articulate about their emotions. Other autistic people are hypersensitive and have much more contact with their inner world, and can even obsess about their feelings or scrutinize their feelings quite closely and name them to somebody else. So we’re talking about such a wide array of people that it’s very difficult to generalize even when we use these terms. But I think about yeah, the position of the neurotypical person sometimes is from this more kind of pop-psychology place of  like, “hey I’ve got this person who needs to be shored up or patched together, can you fix ‘em for me?” Which I understand why that might happen, but my job is instead to call the neurotypical person’s attention to some behaviors that probably are attempts to engage or cooperate or show affection that are sailing past them because they don’t know what they’re looking for. 

DS: Yeah, and autistic people have lived in a neurotypical world for their whole lives and I think often we’re able to understand what the neurotypical person is trying to do even if it’s not something we can engage with, whereas sometimes neurotypical people don’t have the ability to see what the autistic person is trying to reach out. 

Do you work with a lot of autistic-autistic couples too, or do you mostly work with couples where one person is one kind of brain and one is another?

KMcN: Well, I mean autistic pairs of people also still have all the same sorts of problems that other couples might, so I see some of them, but the patterns are not as strong, the trends are not as evident as they are with the neurotype differences that I wrote the book about.

DS: No, that makes sense. I was just curious, thank you for indulging me. (Laughter)

What are, again obviously each couple is different, each couple is coming in with different backgrounds and different needs, but do you have any recommendations for, sort of, what’s the first thing a couple should do when they’re having a breakdown in communication or trouble that they think might be related to neurotype? Are there some go-to strategies that they can lean on?

KMcN: Well, one thing that I think people underestimate is the power of stopping. The power of just taking a break, and being able to say, “I’m too upset to talk right now,” or “I don’t think we’re having a useful conversation; can we try again in a little while?” I mean, that’s one of the therapy techniques we use, and it’s just so powerful. And it’s so, it allows the conversation to take a completely different turn, if people just take a break. But the trouble is, we’re asking our brains to do something that they’re not wired to do. You know, when we get in a compelling argument with our partner, or we’re having tension with them, because our urge is to connect, we want to push ahead and we want to keep saying it again, or saying it louder, or saying it a different way and seeing if we can be understood. So, it’s asking a lot to do, but it’s a hugely helpful behavior, to just know how to take a break. And another thing that we’ve learned from the research is that a break should be a minimum of twenty minutes, not two minutes. 

DS: Oh, that’s so helpful.

KMcN: So, people need time to compose themselves, step away from the conversation, gather their resources, and then come back fresh. We really need to give ourselves a decent chance when there’s a tense discussion going on.

DS: That twenty-minute number is remarkable, because I don’t think I’ve heard that before or seen that piece of research. That is a much longer time than I feel like people are inclined to…like when I need a break, I will take twenty minutes for sure, thirty minutes or an hour, but I feel like for neurotypical people especially who aren’t used to needing that down time. I mean, I know neurotypical people need downtime, but there’s a difference in that recharge period. Twenty minutes can feel like a really long time when you feel very possibly anxious or concerned about something that you’re having a disagreement about. 

KMcN: Yeah. And you know we also suggest that couples map out a plan about how to do this before they’re in the middle of a fight. It’s not going to be effective, and your partner’s probably going to get really annoyed, if you just say, “look, I’m walking away, I can’t talk about this anymore.” That’s not the way to do it. Have a plan of action and have some kind of mutual agreement that, “hey this is fair game for anybody to do this when we need to, and this is our shared understanding, and it’s for the purposes of having improved communication, not to abandon anyone or cut anyone off.” 

DS: That does sound really important, to have a structure in place ahead of time before the emotions get high and so that everybody’s on the same page and it’s not taken as a personal [thing]. That’s great, thank you, I’m sure that will help a lot of people who are listening. 

And then, I wanted to talk with you a little bit, can you tell us more about why you called the book what you called it, Love and Asperger’s?

KMcN: The publisher chose the title for this book - and they did it based on market research – because most people who are looking for books about adults are going to look up the term “Asperger’s,” that’s just still even though it’s not diagnostically precise anymore, it’s not accepted, it’s still just the way people talk about this trait, and people who are thinking about autism think of children.

DS: So interesting…

KMcN: So, we didn’t want to try to write a book about adult relationships with the title “autistic” yet, maybe in a few years there will be more common recognition that that’s the word most people use. But I also think a lot of people who still identify with that word, ‘Asperger’s,’ they probably were diagnosed, or came to self-diagnosis, maybe ten or fifteen years ago, and I think that there’s a lot of people sometimes have an identification with that term, even though it’s become outmoded, because it means something special to them, to belong to a group. It’s important to belong and to have some sense that there are other people like you. And so, I just think people are arriving at this understanding about language pretty recently and I…I feel sad when I see people tearing each other down about it. Of course, I don’t want to ever be identified with Nazis or anything hard like that, but some people still find this ‘Asperger’s’ word meaningful to them and I’m just figuring everyone gets to make their own choice about this, and it’s fine if they’re not ready to identify as autistic. I also think though there’s a way that, if we don’t use the word ‘autistic,’ it’s like saying, “those of us who can manage a job and who speak, are a different breed from the rest, and we’re not like the autistics,” and I don’t want to be in that position myself. I think I’m much more like other neurodivergent people than I am neurotypical people, no matter who they are.

DS: Thank you, that’s really helpful. That term, ‘Asperger’s,’ is really complex right now, in current popular culture, because obviously it is associated with Asperger himself. But it was used as a term for many autistic people for a very long time. Research on autism has kind of moved us along and how the diagnostic manual is changing every couple of years changes the identity of whole groups of people in ways that maybe the people who are writing the manuals don’t think about when they are trying to, which makes sense, but it can be hard when you take your identification from a discipline that is constantly evolving and constantly moving on the target of where we are. 

KMcN: Right.

DS: It is something I noticed because, you know, you don’t see that term [Asperger’s] so much anymore. But it is, like you said, a whole lot of people still use that. I didn’t realize there was this dynamic between people, like if they’re going to Google, of older ages are more likely to look for ‘Asperger’s’ than ‘autism.’ That’s really interesting. Just the beginning of this interview you mentioned that you were self-diagnosed after your child brought it to your attention that autism might run in the family. And, as a therapist and as somebody who has worked in this field for a long time, do you have thoughts about whether self-diagnosis is a valid approach, or why it may or may not be, against being formally diagnosed by a team?

KMcN: My opinion is that self—I guess self-identification or self-diagnosis however you ever want to term it – is completely legitimate because our professional capacity to diagnose people is so poor. We have such skewed testing instruments that we use, and they’re normed for children and white people and men, so they’re not necessarily going to ask the right questions even if you go in for formal diagnosis. And I’ve had this conversation with many psychologists who do testing for a living, so I’m not expressing isolated opinion here. I think the mental health profession has a tremendous amount to do to catch up with the population of adult autistics who are out there hollering, saying, “We want services and here are our needs!” and there’s just a kind of information gap that we have to transcend about how to help people in effective ways. And having conversations with people about diagnosis and the idea that you have to go in and pay thousands of dollars to get confirmation of something that you know darn well yourself, you know, for many of us it was like, “I’ve never felt so clear and definite about anything in my life.” I just think it’s unfortunate that people feel that they have to have the mantle of authority of a mental health professional for this. Think too, though, that if you’re concerned that you’re going to need your legal rights protected, if you need accommodations at your job, or if you are applying for disability, then those are a must-have, you need a formal diagnosis for those situations. But if you want to just look at the writings of adult autistics and figure out how much overlap there is between their life descriptions and yours, or if you want to meet with a mental health professional who knows about autism in a deep way for a time or two, a few times, just to confirm your diagnosis, I think that can be very useful. But this idea of gatekeeping seems like an unfortunate one because we’re such a small percentage of the population. We’re maybe two percent of the world from what we can tell so far. I think we’re much more powerful united than we are scrabbling about who gets to call themselves this name or not. 

DS: Yeah, I completely agree with that. And it’s hard for me to see – I wanted to ask you actually – I have heard the folks who are arguing against a self-diagnosis or self-identification being valid seem to feel like some damage could be done from folks coming in who aren’t quote-unquote actually autistic and saying they are autistic. From my perspective, the likelihood of that happening at all is just so low because for me it feels like if you’re going to claim autism you must identify [with] it, like, how many people can there be who feel like they’re autistic and then wouldn’t qualify quote-unquote from a professional? Like, if we had the right tools to diagnose, I’m saying. Obviously the tools right now are not really that functional, so from a therapist’s point of view and somebody who’s worked with autistic people for a really long time, do you have any opinion on that? Do you feel like there are neurotypical people sneaking into the autism community pretending to be autistic? Like, that’s an actual thing we have to worry about?

KMcN: I share your view that that’s highly unlikely, and I think that, if anything, there probably are people who have spent perhaps long times in the mental health system getting misdiagnosed. And, if anything, I felt sad once I started to read and understand autism better, how many clients could I have helped better, if I had had this template to apply, if I’d had this framework to share with them, and had this understanding to help them manage their lives more capably, or recognize certain limitations and work with them? If only I had known! I look back and I can think of specific clients who I wish I’d had this concept to share with them and I just didn’t know about it. So I think that in theory maybe we’re even a larger number of people than we recognize because so many of us are running around being told we have trauma, or borderline personality, or oppositional defiance, or you know…

DS: There’s such a litany!

KMcN: there’s such a number of possible directions things can go, diagnostically. I am hoping maybe in ten years we’ll have better normed tests that are more diverse and more useful. But I know that right now the testing process that we can offer people is very scant information that we’re going on.

DS: Yeah. I have met especially so many women – I’m sure that there are men who have been misdiagnosed as well, but I’ve met especially so many women autistics – who were, before they came to realize their autism, were diagnosed with panic disorders, with depression or generalized anxiety, and you know, the much more serious ones like you said. And, you know, folks who thought they had a panic disorder and then it turned out to be a sensory processing issue, and just nobody in the medical field that they were able to access knew enough about sensory processing to point that out to them. That is so frustrating, just on their behalf, to have had, for so many folks, to have to go through that experience. 

KMcN: I think there are more and more neurotypical therapists that are starting to realize they have some catching up to do, and I certainly believe there’s hope. But, as we’re talking, I think it’s a bit of a looking for a needle in a haystack to find a therapist who’s got a neurodiversity-affirmative approach, and who really is very well informed. You just have to be very motivated and tenacious and have the resources to find someone.

DS: Yeah. Do you have any suggestions for individuals who are looking for an autistic-friendly therapist or somebody who’s familiar as to how they can find that needle in the haystack?

KMcN: I think going into the autistic groups that are online, on Facebook or Twitter, I don’t know, I’m not using Instagram so much for this, but I do think just peer-referrals and asking around in your communities or on Reddit, Reddit conversations to just find mouth-to-mouth referrals is the best way to do it, because people will speak from their own experience and then you have some basis for understanding what to expect. 

DS: Thank you.

KMcN: I wish I had a better referral. I know several groups of people who are developing directories online, but it’s a substantial project.

DS: It is.

KMcN: It takes time and money, so maybe next year we’ll know more.

DS: No, that’s helpful. That’s what I usually tell folks, too, but it’s almost kind of good to know I haven’t been missing a big resource. But I hope that the ones that are developing will get there. 

KMcN: Right. Fingers crossed, we’re on our way.

DS: Yeah.

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