Asperger’s and divorce, Cassandra Syndrome

In the case of Asperger’s Syndrome, the now well documented Cassandra Syndrome (7) often comes into play where parties seek help. Mental health professionals often exacerbate the party’s troubles by falling into the pattern of blaming the acutely distressed neuro-typical partner for being an alarmist, for having inappropriate anxiety which feeds into problems and for having unrealistic parenting expectations of the other parent. The more the non-neurologically impaired parent is blamed for the pseudo-conflict the worse it becomes. Mental health professionals and other professionals have a role to play in not understanding Asperger’s Syndrome itself or the role of the Cassandra Phenomenon of which they are a part. Only when they understand the impact of this and other pervasive development disorders have on marriage will they be able to help parties to resolve and manage their post-separation conflict.
It is axiomatic that a problem needs to be identified before it can be resolved. In the classic couple with Asperger’s Syndrome the neuro-typical partner has anxiety and is usually the party who winds up being investigated as being the source of the conflict.(8) This is more than ironic. It places children at risk and it places the neuro-typical parent at-risk of depression or despair.

Separation With a Significant Communication Disorder: The separating high functioning parent on the autistic spectrum and their partner separate with significant discordance, frustration and difficulty. There may be threats and bizarre behaviours. There are commonly stalking-like behaviours.(9)
One AS individual was found by his former wife two years after they had separated in her living room when she came home from shopping. The ex-wife noticed that her computer was humming and she knew it had not shut down properly. The AS partners explanation was without guile “I want to know what you are saying about me to other people.” Two years earlier, this same individual had hacked into her AOL account and confessed later with an apology. He explained, again without guile, that “I wanted to know how you were feeling.” The wife felt violated but she also knew that there had been no intention what so ever to violate. This has also been documented in the literature. (10) Post-separation conflict profile with Asperger’s Syndrome manifests as something that looks like high conflict, but, as noted with the stalking example above, is inherently different in certain key areas.
Where children feature in the conflict and where the non-neurologically disabled (or neuro-typical) party has legitimate concerns about child welfare, the children are necessarily caught up in the discordance in the post-separation period. (11)
We refer to this kind of post separation conflict organic conflict (12) in order to differentiate it from conflict derived from psychodynamics between the parties in the garden-variety acrimonious separation where there is no disability. (13) With Asperger’s Syndrome in the post separation picture, dynamics are not the root of problems that the apart-family is having, the Asperger’s Syndrome perceptions and lack of executive functioning and other problems that create havoc are the root of the problems. In the post separation period with Asperger’s Syndrome the neuro-typical ex-partner is often seen to continue to accommodate the AS partner for years.

Esoteric as Asperger’s Syndrome (14) may sound, there are many parents suffering with neurological disorders of various kinds. One in two-hundred and fifty people has Asperger’s Syndrome. This means that most divorce lawyers and family mediators will, at one time or another, have a client either with Asperger’s Syndrome or have a client separating from someone with the disorder. (15)
Unless the matrimonial lawyer or mediator understand what they are dealing with, they will slot these parties, like so many round pegs, into the round hole called “high conflict divorce”. Once this is done, the parties cannot be helped. The neuro-typical partner is bending back-wards to accommodate the other party already and this is neither seen nor acknowledged. The result of the high-conflict intervention will alienate neuro-typical partners in the intervention or mediation process.
Subsequent interventions (such as discussions around feelings of grief, lost hopes and dreams as well as anger) will be inappropriate and will fail to assist the parties who are struggling with tangible issues, many of which come out of a communication disorder in the case of Asperger’s Syndrome, that make moving on for either party near impossible. One woman described her post-separation period to her Asperger’s Syndrome affected ex-husband as being “The Hotel California”. A place, she said, where you could check out, but you could never leave.
Nowhere in the literature on high conflict separation is there a discussion as to whether certain parties are actually cognitively capable of “getting along” or “moving on” (as in having the ability to co-parent long after divorce) either after separation or before it. The literature assumes that they are capable, if only they could drop their emotional baggage. Neurological baggage cannot be dropped. It is pervasive and it is for life.
Parties engaged in higher post-separation conflict are seen and treated as errant children who need to be in behavioural class so that they can re-learn how to manage their feelings around separation and divorce. “Feelings” are a red herring in the cases I refer to here. It is not helpful to focus parties on feeling where they need solutions to real problems that arise with great frequency in co-parenting.


Divorce with disability (as with most areas around disability) is something that has been largely ignored by the helping professions.
There is very little in the literature of what it means to separate and divorce from someone with a significant cognitive disorder (as opposed to mental illness). This is true, even as we make great strides in our knowledge in the vast area of neuroscience.
Mental health professionals give a nod of acknowledgement that where there is alcoholism, mental health issues (like a delusional party or one with a personality disorder) or where one party is in and out of the correctional system, that the dysfunctional party’s problems may be driving force in the conflict. Otherwise, partner-disorder is not seen to play a role in high conflict in the post separation period. This is unfortunate for the children in these unions.
There are times then when divorce professionals know intrinsically that there are cases where one party has a significant dysfunction and that that dysfunction has a role to play in post separation adjustment. Even so, they behave as if there is a relationship dynamic (and may refer to party-co-dependence).Again, the old adage that it takes two to tango is the underlying premise as to the cause of ongoing conflict. There is simply no way for a party to disengage from the overwhelming morass of problems that neurological disorder wreaks upon, for example, a relatively straight forward parenting plan.
“High conflict cases can arise when parents, attorneys or mental health professionals become invested in the conflict, or when parents are in a dysfunctional relationship, have mental disorders, are engaged in criminal or quasi-criminal conduct, substance abuse or there are allegations of domestic violence, or child abuse or neglect.”
We advocate here that where there are allegations of child neglect or substance abuse, divorce professionals start to screen out for the presence of Asperger’s Syndrome. Some individuals with neurological problems are in fact (not simply in allegation) at-risk of harming themselves and their children. Many separating parents feel and accuse the other party of being an inadequate parent and this fact makes it tough to spot the cases where there may be real parenting issues related to neurological disability.

Disability Masquerading as Conflict:
High conflict separations are often the effects of disability masquerading as conflict. The party with the disability may not be intentionally driving the conflict but rather, be unable to properly fill the co-parenting role. Their disability creates severe chaos around time sharing and hence discord around co-parenting arrangements. There is rarely an added “dynamic”. Systems theory does not assist in assessment of the situation.
Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome create endless problems unintentionally for the children and the neuro-typical co-parent eventually eroding the patience and understanding of the co-parent who struggles constantly to move on, but who remains entrenched in old problems. It is both infuriating and anxiety provoking for the non-disabled party and for the children to be caught in this nexus of unaddressed disability.
The neurological disability will have had the same impact on the marriage that it has on post-separation period and the neuro-typical co-parent may feel that he or she is simply caught or trapped by the presence of what may feel like a third party presence, that of autistic spectrum disorder. It is no surprise to learn that that it is estimated that persons with Asperger’s Syndrome divorce at very high rates and spouses are frequently depressed. It is a surprise to learn that this is true and that there is no dynamic creating this fact situation.
Missing Pieces and Co-Parenting: Successful co-parenting requires good communication (whether written or verbal) dependability, flexibility, accountability, solid planning, follow through, ability to respond to situations as they arise and co-operation. Parenting Plans set out schedules. This is of no help to a party who does not live according to one. The macro and the micro aspect of a parent plan run counter to the way of being of the average parent with Asperger’s Syndrome. Executive Function skills are a missing piece. There is no passive aggressive behaviour. Father is always late just because he is. An additional problem for parties is that often (autism being a hereditary genetic disorder) a child in the family will also be on the spectrum, a fact that heightens the overall stress in these families in the post separation period.
In the Asperger’s Separation, the non-Asperger’s Party is put in a continually impossible situation. The neuro-typical party tries to negotiate with an ex-partner who is incapable of negotiation, he or she tries to make plans with a co-parent who is often incapable of making or keeping to plans, he or she must arrange to meet someone or have some collect children at a set time -- who has no sense of time, who is always late and who continually forgets the where or the when they agreed to meet. The website FAAAS.ORG (Families of Adults Afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome) offers an abundance of information on this unique disorder and how it impacts on family life. It is one neurological disorder, among many, that mediators ought to be familiar with now that it is better understood by the mental health community.

From: Journal of a Gentleman Satyr