By Bonnie Miller Rubin, Chicago Tribune reporter
January 25, 2012
David Finch was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a mild autism spectrum disorder, in 2008, at age 30. At that time, he said, his three-year marriage was in a downward spiral because of his odd habits and rigid adherence to routines.
Instead of throwing in the towel, Finch, of McHenry, started taking notes on his unusual behavior — specifically, how he could win back his wife, Kristen Finch.
Those notes ultimately became "The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband," just published by Scribner. It has already attracted national attention.
Finch, an audio engineer and father of two young children, reflected on how he learned what other people seem to know intuitively — and the lessons for all of us on becoming more fully engaged.
Q. You always had all these odd behaviors, such as checking light switches and getting upset if someone sat in your favorite seat. When you realized this had a name, how did it make you feel?
A. Relieved. It explained a lot … about how Kristen could be married to a baffling man-child who melted down when his schedule changes.
Q. Did she not see these quirks while you were dating? I mean, didn't you have to leave work to boil your glasses after they had fallen from your shirt pocket in a men's room stall?
A. Yes. Nothing voids a lens and frame warranty faster than admitting this to the manufacturer. ... As for not seeing the quirks, it's easier to keep up a facade while you're dating. Those eccentricities are more endearing when you don't have to live with them.
Q. So, Kristen, a speech pathologist, walked you through an online evaluation and you scored 150 out of 200 questions positively for Asperger's, results that were later confirmed by a doctor. How were you able to thrive in school and in your career when you had so many weird behaviors?
A. Because there's a spectrum, I was able to rein in things through willpower, but not everyone can do that. I also had a constant supply of love and support … from my parents and then from my wife. And, remember, while I was successful in my career, my marriage and relationships were utterly failing.
Q. What's your trick for reining in things?
A. Humor. If I could get kids to laugh, I might not get a wedgie. That became my goal: to get through life with as few wedgies as possible.
Later, writing helped because it was like free therapy. It gave me insight into things I was so blind to before. I'd wake up Kristen at 2 a.m. and say: "I get it. That's why you're so annoyed with me."
Q. Is there any value in getting a diagnosis? So many parents chafe at their kids having a label.
A. Well, for some individuals, a diagnosis allows them to have access to services they need. I think that's vitally important. As an adult, a diagnosis might help your spouse understand: "He's not necessarily an ass. It's not that he won't act a certain way. … It's that he can't or doesn't know how. Once I knew it was Asperger's, I always felt that the onus was on me to make things better. I could either use the diagnosis as a crutch or as a manual to repair my relationship with my wife and to be a better dad. I chose the latter.
Q. So, you became a diligent student of social interaction, writing down such wisdom as "Be her friend, first and always" and "Use Your Words" and "Laundry: Better to fold and put away than to take only what you need from the dryer." Then, you'd check with Kristen on how you were doing?
A. Right. I would ask "How am I doing as husband who doesn't use up all the orange juice?" It got so the process of repairing our relationship was interfering with our relationship. So the final best practice was don't make everything a best practice.
Q. Any advice for people who are in neurologically mixed relationships?
A. If you're the parent, love and accept the child. If you're the spouse, do the same. Everyone has limitations. That's not just for people on the autism spectrum but every child and every husband. Just do your best to nurture the assets and manage the limitations.
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