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When an ASD Partner Ruminates on Past Conversations: Three Strategies to Implement Today

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In this article, Dr. Regan reviews information about conversational stickiness in autism relationships. This occurs when an ASD partner grabs onto a topic that the neurotypical partner is ready to release. The reader will receive three practical ideas to avoid getting stuck in this common roadblock. 


One of the core characteristics of autism is inflexibility of thought and behavior. This quality may appear as "persistence" in some situations. However, the feature may easily extend into rigidity, stubbornness, and rumination. 


The success of long-term relationships often demands flexibility ~ a give-and-take of each individual's preferences. 

Winn et al. (2016) reported that 28% of conflict events studied among couples that included an ASD partner were triggered by "over-persistence in conversation and demands." An example included the ASD partner's insistence on repeatedly talking about a topic that had already been discussed.


The success of these suggestions requires an agreement within the couple that reducing conversational persistence is essential.

Appealing to reason (i.e., explaining why the conversation should end) is often the go-to approach for many couples. However, logic often does not break the neurologic "stickiness" of the conversational thoughts for the ASD individual.  

Try these alternatives:

1. Agree on a Code Word

A common pitfall when attempting to reduce conversational rumination is to become mired in multiple discussions about what not to discuss.

To avoid having discussions about not having discussions, you may wish to choose a code word. Consider the following example:

Josh and Greta struggled with communication in their marriage. Although not uncommon in long-term relationships, the difficulty was compounded by Greta's problem letting a topic rest. "I want to make sure I get my point across. I never feel confident I said it clearly, and I feel like I want to say it one more time just in case. I keep thinking about it, and then I say it out loud again." 

One of the strategies that helped them reduce this tension-building pattern involved using a code word. The code word they chose was 'guacamole.' Josh would say "guacamole" when he was ready to let a topic rest. The use of a code word helped reduce long discussions about the long discussions. When Greta heard 'guacamole,' she knew Josh needed to stop.

2. Agree to Limit the Number of Times the Topic can be Raised

The goal is to contain the amount of "space" in the relationship the topic is allowed to fill. One way to create this boundary is to decide how often the issue can be raised (e.g., per day, per week, forever). Adding a concrete representation of the number chosen is also critical. 

Josh and Greta chose three times as the limit, and Greta used ribbons to represent the amount.

Greta chose ribbons as the object representing her opportunities to raise the topic. She gave Josh a ribbon each time she used a remaining turn. Using the three ribbons offered Greta a simple, visual cue that helped her contain her thoughts and use her turns wisely. 

3. Limit the Length of Time the Topic can be Discussed

Limiting the time allowed for discussion was also an essential element for Josh and Greta. Each time Greta used a ribbon, she had twelve minutes to emphasize her thoughts. 

Another time-based strategy that Greta used with success was scheduling time alone for rumination and journaling. She planned 30 minutes in the morning and again in the evening. She used the time to think more about the topic and journal her thoughts, concerns, and ideas without speaking to Josh. 

Applying a schedule enabled her to process the original problem without allowing it to "leak" into the whole day. If she started to ruminate during the day, she would remind herself, "I can think about this -- but not now. I can journal these ideas at 5:00." 

When partners agree on communication goals and show a willingness to utilize new strategies, progress can be made toward improved balance over the long term.

Winn, Beverley, Gameiro, Sofia, Shelton, Katherine Helen, and Leekam, Susan R. 2016. Conflict management in couple relationships: the experiences of individuals with Asperger syndrome and their partners. Good Autism Practice 17 (2), pp. 72-80.

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