We got married… then I found out he had aspergers
Here, Hannah Bushell-walsh explains why her husband is the perfect partner and father – because of his condition, not in spite of it
It’s late Saturday afternoon and the four of us are happily decorating the cups and vases we have just made in our family pottery class. well, Hector isn’t doing much decoration, but my one-year-old is having a lot of fun dipping his little hands into the pots of brightly coloured poster paint.
We’ve already been here for a couple of hours, but nobody seems in any hurry to usher us out. How lucky, I muse aloud. And then, in a flash, the calm is gone. ‘There are no rules here!’ cries my husband, as if from nowhere, his face a mixture of exasperation and fury.
Shock ripples through me. I know Steve likes things to be organised and predictable, but his outburst feels ridiculous, his reaction wholly inappropriate.
That scene took place two years ago – and a couple of weeks before my husband was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological disorder on the mild end of the autism spectrum.
Aspies, as they’re affectionately known, often have above-average IQS and vocabularies, but find it difficult to interact in large groups and have trouble picking up on body language, humour and sarcasm. They thrive on rules and a strict routine.
This certainly describes my husband. Steve and I met eight years before we married, on a double date as plus-ones. I was 28 and Steve was 23.
I liked him immediately. He was clearly a genuine person who didn’t have a controlling bone in his body. But he also seemed very shy. In the months before we became a couple, we hung out with other twenty-somethings, sitting around
campfires in the Norfolk countryside after work and socialising in pubs.
While Steve was liked by the group, he also somehow seemed on its edge. Soon, I realised there was a dichotomy between Steve’s public and private selves. He was confident in an intimate setting, particularly when chatting one-to-one, but when he was in a loud and busy place, such as a restaurant, he’d retreat.
I used to think it was a confidence issue, but I now know those with Asperger’s can often struggle with sounds, including music, footsteps and people talking. Even now, when we go out to a restaurant as a family, it’s always me who walks in first, who asks for a table, orders and pays. Steve will sit there, his head down. At times, it feels like I’m responsible for everyone and that can get tiring.
When we were dating, I sometimes found his behaviour hilarious. I’ll never forget the party where Steve was cornered by a drunk woman who was clearly attracted to him. For an hour at least, he just stood there, listening and nodding, entirely oblivious to her advances.
My husband is the kindest, gentlest and most dependable of men. He’s moral, sensible and brilliant at one-to-one communication. We have been married for four years and, when I see him, my heart still jumps.
His wonderful traits are because of, not in spite of, his autism. I work as a digital manager for a multinational technology company and Steve, until recently, worked in insurance. He left his job so he could look after our children – Belle, six, and Hector, three.
My working days were getting longer and our family life was beginning to suffer. We needed one of us to be at home.
The kids are lucky it’s their father who has that job. Yes, I have to plan and diarise his days with them down to the smallest detail, and yes, it’s onerous. Steve has to know what he’s doing and where, and at what precise time: anything unplanned, beyond an impromptu light ‘hello’ at the school gate, can be distressing for him.
But the reward is enormous. Science and facts are the lens through which Steve sees the world. He spends hours taking Belle and Hector on nature walks, teaching them the Latin words for flora and fauna, explaining the life cycle of the caterpillar or woodlouse they’ve spotted. He shows them the world in a way I have neither the patience nor knowledge to do.
Steve and I balance each other out perfectly. I’m gregarious and emotional, and he anchors my extremes.
Last month, we were looking to buy a new car, and I got so absorbed in the design and colour of the vehicles that I lost sight of the practical reasons we needed new wheels. Steve produced a list of the criteria we needed to consider – cost, fuel economy and whether we could comfortably fit the kids in the back.
Of course, it’s not always possible to remove feelings from a situation.
Because Steve finds it hard to read facial expressions and body language, whenever I’m annoyed by something, he immediately presumes it’s because of something he’s done.
His instinctive reaction to tension is to remove himself from the situation and me. More than once, he has said, ‘I’m just scared of everything, Hannah.’ I can only imagine how scared he was on our wedding day. For him, being the centre of attention and having to publicly declare your love pretty much defines terror.
He coped brilliantly. His wedding speech was short, but he made a couple of jokes, thanked everyone and referred to me as his wife. While he may not have literally uttered the words ‘I love you’, his love shone through his nervous body language and the several funny anecdotes he relayed.
I hadn’t expected him to say those three words, in any case. In our 12-year relationship, Steve has said he loves me, but I could probably count the times on one hand.
In everyday life, he expresses his feelings through actions, often by doing something sweet, such as buying flowers. Straightforward romance is hard for him. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, it was me who first asked him out all those years ago.
The idea he might be on the spectrum first came from Steve, as did the search for a diagnosis.
Early on in our relationship, I used to say to him in a jokey way, ‘There’s something going on with you, isn’t there?’ But I didn’t suspect autism. That came from Steve, who, ever the scientist, was keen to understand the reasons for the on-off depression from which he, and countless other Aspies, suffer.
And there was another impetus for his investigations, too. I was pregnant with Belle at the time, and Steve was concerned about the inheritance factor.
It’s too early to say whether Belle is also on the spectrum. Like her clever dad, she loves systemising things and has his kind, gentle personality.
But do I care that my husband is autistic? Do I ever wish I was with someone more easy-going? No and no. Steve is all you could ever want from a husband, and I love him for every aspect of who he is.
‘WE BALANCE EACH OTHER OUT PERFECTLY’
Steve and Hannah have been together for 12 years