Not just men behaving badly

A husband who is cold, distant and obsessive may be suffering from Asperger's syndrome, writes Milly Jenkins; Julia's husband wrote reports on her behaviour - `10.00 was told to be quiet, 10.35 she went into the garden. 11.00 still in garden crying'
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When Julia got married in the 1960s it was with a sense of foreboding. She had been worried by her fiance's strange behaviour, and his inability to show her any emotion. She had already called the wedding off once, but eventually, under pressure from him and their families, she relented. These were the days when living together before marriage was rare, and couples may still have been relative strangers at the altar.

On their honeymoon, he was worse than she had thought, completely ignoring her, going off on long walks and only returning to the hotel to sleep. She noticed his obsessive washing routines and when they got home the lists started. Instead of talking to her, he wrote endless lists - "not made bed properly", "no custard with pudding". He wrote reports on her behaviour - "10.00 was told to be quiet, 10.35 she went into the garden. 11.00 still in garden crying". In their 30 years together, he has hardly used her name, referring to her as "people", as in "people should do the washing up".

"Some sort of bizarre, bewildering hell" is how she describes her marriage. Yet she is still with him, and despite all his eccentricities, some aspects of their lives are normal. He is a successful engineer and they have children. It was not until last year that she heard about a form of autism called Asperger Syndrome. She immediately recognised the symptoms - difficulty in communicating emotions and in understanding other people's thoughts and feelings, a tendency to be obsessive and repetitive, and a need to live by strict routines, list-making and memorising reams of facts.

Asperger Syndrome is not uncommon. At least three people in every 1,000 suffer from it. It was first identified in 1944 in Austria, but has only recently started being diagnosed in Britain - about 200,000 cases since 1990. It is different from "classic" autism because sufferers do not have speech problems or learning difficulties. In fact, they often have higher- than-average IQs and good verbal skills, which can mask their problems. Yet it is far more common than autism, and as with all disorders in the autistic spectrum, most sufferers are male.

Women married to men with Asperger Syndrome have great difficulty explaining to people why their husband's behaviour is more than just "men behaving badly". When they tell friends that their husbands are cold, uncommunicative and obsessed with football scores, the response is often: "Well, that's just men for you." GPs and counsellors may still be ignorant of the problem and although there has been greater awareness in recent years, the focus has been on diagnosing children. Adults have slipped through the net. Part of the problem is rigid ideas about what autism is - the silent, glassy-eyed child who won't respond to social contact, but plays the piano like Mozart. Not grown men who work and marry.

But how do these men get through life, let alone marry, without anyone noticing that something is seriously wrong? Most of them were at school at a time when the syndrome was still unheard of. Even now that there is more awareness about autism, it is hard to spot children with Aspergers. They tend to be well-behaved and hard-working at school. The only indication might be their difficulty in making friends and a tendency to be bullied. It also affects people in varying degrees, so in borderline cases the signs may be almost invisible.

As they get older, they learn ways to hide their problems. "They develop coping strategies," says Francesca Happe of the Institute of Psychiatry, who is researching Asperger Syndrome. "Like memorising "scripts" of conversations in their head, which they know to use in different situations, like when to ask `how are you?' They copy what other people say, without understanding the thoughts and feelings behind their words. They know what tears are, but not why someone might be crying.

Jill's husband is a qualified doctor, although he is not practising and works in administration. Yet he cannot answer the phone. If he absolutely has to make a call, he will sit and rehearse his lines. He survives at work by making lists of everything he has to do, puts in long hours and keeps his head down. Their life together is solitary and friendships never seem to last. He cannot understand people's facial expressions and takes language literally, both typical Asperger symptoms. "If I told him I was going to knock his block off, he would be very scared," says Jill. He finds socialising so traumatic he often falls, suddenly, asleep. "It's like he's shutting down."

Brenda, whose ex-husband was diagnosed last year by the National Autistic Society, has set up a network of wives in the same situation. For many, it is the first time anyone has believed their strange stories. Most have been left to their own devices to find out what is wrong, reading up in libraries and eventually contacting the society to ask if, by any chance, it might be autism. They would like doctors and counsellors to be better informed about the syndrome, so that other women are saved the hurt of being told it is "just a difficult marriage".

Brenda's ex-husband works for one of the emergency services. She says that his complete lack of empathy was unbearable. At one point, he left her for another woman and on his return, she insisted they seek help. When the marriage guidance counsellor asked him to describe how life was with the other woman, he said: "It was nice. One day we ate fish and chips, and another time we opened a bottle of wine." Brenda says: "He seemed to have no idea that what he had done was significant to me." They separated, but she says he is essentially a kind and caring man and that, however rare, there were moments of love and affection. She would still like to get back together with him.

Like the other women in the network, Brenda is no doormat. She is talkative and outgoing, has a job and has travelled the world. Their maternal and responsible natures seem to have attracted these men like magnets, many of whom were still living with their mothers when they met. In turn, these women say they were attracted to shy men, and their fiances also seemed capable, with good jobs. Some of the couples had sex before marriage and sex is not absent from their married lives. But why do the women stay? Some say their financial dependence makes leaving impossible, others that they believe in the sanctity of marriage, despite everything they have been through. Most of the women are in their fifties. "If I were 22, I might walk away," says one.

The saddest stories come from the women whose children also have Asperger Syndrome, which has a genetic component. The exact mechanism of the genes is still unknown, but it is not inevitable that Asperger sufferers will pass it on to their children. Nearly all the women in the network say that when they look at their husbands' family histories, there are "strange" parents or grandparents who, in less knowing times, were passed off as just being "a bit eccentric".

Many of these men have tried therapy, but found it upsetting to be quizzed on emotions they do not understand. Practical counselling might be more useful, teaching them skills to cope with everyday traumas such as answering the phone or dealing with an unexpected guest at the door. They need to have other people's behaviour explained to them. "It's important to remember," says Happe, "that we are just as puzzling to them as they are to us. In their eyes, we're just not logical".

The National Autistic Society: 0171-833 2299. All names have been changed.

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