'Best Practices': Learning To Live With Asperger's

Feb 3, 2012
Originally published on February 3, 2012 6:54 pm

When he was 30 years old, David Finch's wife, Kristen, sat him down and asked him a series of odd questions:

"Do you notice patterns in things all the time?"

"Do people comment on your unusual mannerisms and habits?

"Do you feel tortured by clothes tags, clothes that are too tight or made in the 'wrong material'?"

"Do you sometimes have an urge to jump over things?"

David's answers to all of these questions — and more than 100 others — was an emphatic yes.

Kristen Finch had just given her unsuspecting husband a self-quiz to evaluate for Asperger's syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. Her own score was 8 out of a possible 200. David's was 155.

"It was very cathartic. It was this unbelievable moment of self-recognition," David Finch tells NPR's Melissa Block. "It gave me such insight into who I am, how my mind works and why certain things have been such a challenge."

In his new book, The Journal of Best Practices, David Finch describes how he and Kristen worked to overcome his compulsions and sometimes anti-social behavior.

Kristen shared David's relief at the diagnosis — but she wondered how she had missed the symptoms for so long, given that she had been trained to work with children with Asperger's and on the autism spectrum.

Some of David's behaviors — his insistence that groceries had to be bought from a certain store two towns away, his inability to read the newspaper because he was too distracted by its texture — she'd chalked up to him being "quirky."

"He was always quirky, since high school when we were friends," she says. "He's always just done things a little bit differently, and it's one of the things that I loved the most about him ... I knew that he didn't love to go out, I knew that he didn't love barbecues and things like that. But I had no idea before the quiz that it wasn't that he didn't enjoy it, it was that he found it very difficult to do these things."

David had also learned to be a skilled mimic of "normal" behavior — but he couldn't rely on his social personae at home. His inability to support Kristen, who was struggling to raise their two small children, looked like selfishness.

In order to become more responsive and fluent in social cues, David started jotting down notes to himself — on napkins or the backs of envelopes — a series of "best practices," small ways he could manage his Asperger's: "Don't change the radio station when Kristen's singing along." "Let Kristen shower in the morning without crowding her." "Give the kids vitamins without asking Kristen a million steps and directions on how to do that."

But some of the notes had nothing to do with Asperger's, they were about how to be a better partner, on learning to listen and communicate. They were reminders to "use [his] words" and confide in his wife when troubled.

He even kept notes on how to how to be a better father. But one of his "best practices" — "Allow the children to participate in your daily routines" — proved heartrending.

One morning, he invited his 6-year-old daughter, Emily, to help make breakfast, only to discover bright, observant Emily had the routine down pat — compulsions included.

"When it was time to fill up the pot for hard-boiled eggs — she closed the faucet, opened it, closed it, opened it, closed it, tapped her forehead, opened it and closed it the same way that I do. And she's like, 'Like that, Daddy?' And I was like, 'No, sweetie.' "

"It's kind of a good lesson," Kristen adds. "That's just how Daddy does things. We don't have to do it that way, everyone doesn't do it that way, but that's the way Daddy does things."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

When he was 30 years old, David Finch's wife, Kristen, sat him down and asked him a series of questions. Do you notice patterns in things all the time? Do people comment on your unusual mannerisms and habits? Do you feel tortured by clothes tags; clothes that are too tight, or made in the wrong material? Do you sometimes have an urge to jump over things?

Well, David's answers to all of these questions - and more than a hundred others - was an emphatic, yes.

Kristen Finch had just given her unsuspecting husband a self-quiz to evaluate for Asperger's syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. Her own score was 8 out of a possible 200. David's was 155. When they confronted the results, she told him: That's a whole lot of Asperger's. And it helped to explain why their marriage of five years was falling apart.

Now, David Finch has written a book about how he and Kristen worked to overcome his compulsions and sometimes anti-social behavior. It's titled "The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger's Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband."

David and Kristen Finch join me from Chicago. Thanks to you both for coming in.

DAVID FINCH: Thank you.

KRISTEN FINCH: Thank you.

BLOCK: I'd love to hear from both of you, your reaction to that moment when you realized what you were dealing with - that David likely had Asperger's. What went through your mind?

DAVID FINCH: Well, you know, I think a lot of people ask me, gee, that must have been shocking or unsettling. And it really wasn't like that. For me, it was very cathartic. It was this unbelievable moment of self-recognition. It gave me such insight into who I am, how my mind works, and why certain things have been such a challenge.

BLOCK: Kristen, did you have that same sense of relief that David's describing?

KRISTEN FINCH: I did. Definitely, my first thought was - of course - how could I have missed it for so long; how could I have missed all these signs? I mean, I'm trained in working with children on the autism spectrum and Asperger's, and now, you know, here I am living with this for years and years, and it was right there in front of me. And it just made sense, all of a sudden. Everything came together. And all of the things that were starting to ruin our marriage, everything kind of had a reason now.

BLOCK: Hmm. And Kristen - I mean, you mentioned your bewilderment: How could I have missed that? Some of the things that David describes of his patterns and habits - that, you know, groceries had to be bought from a certain store two towns away; that he couldn't read the newspaper, ever; he was too distracted by the texture of the paper itself - how did you account for that? What was your explanation to yourself before you knew that this was Asperger's?

KRISTEN FINCH: I knew for sure, looking back, that there was some obsessive-compulsive pieces to him. And I knew he was quirky - he was always quirky. Since high school when we were friends, he's always just done things a little bit different, and it's one of the things that I loved the most about him. I think I was able to deal with it because usually, the things that he did were hidden from me - you know, the social pieces.

I knew that he didn't love to go out; I knew that he didn't love barbecues and things like that. But I had no idea before the quiz that it wasn't that he didn't enjoy it, it was that he found it very difficult to do these things.

DAVID FINCH: Yeah, and that was something that was frustrating for me, too. You know, the nature of Asperger's is such that it can reveal itself to you, yourself, and to the people around you very slowly. I was always able to maintain these characters, these great versions of myself that I knew would fit any social environment.

KRISTEN FINCH: Right.

DAVID FINCH: You know, for as much difficulty as I have sometimes understanding where someone's mind is at, I do a remarkably good job of analyzing people and observing them, and then mimicking those behaviors like a chameleon - you know, socially. The problem is now, we're married, and we're living together all the time. And then we had kids, and Kristen was struggling as a first-time mom. And now she can see. She realizes, oh, my gosh, OK, my husband has no idea how to help me right now, or support me.

And so I think the disorder revealed itself to both of us slowly, over time. But since we didn't know what it was, it just looked like I was becoming more and more selfish, less and less tuned in and responsive to her needs.

BLOCK: Well, David, as you confront this realization that you have Asperger's, you start writing things down that you need to do to change. You call it your "Journal of Best Practices." And it's things like, don't change the radio station when she's singing along.

It sounds like notes were piling up all over the place, on anything - a napkin, a Post-it note.

DAVID FINCH: So what I started doing was, I started really paying attention, and I started just writing things - I had to write it down; otherwise, I would forget. What the "Journal of Best Practices" was, essentially, was a collection of these notes that I would scribble down frantically, on the backs of envelopes and Post-it notes.

The sort of things I was writing down were like: Let Kristen shower in the morning without crowding her; give the kids vitamins without asking Kristen a million steps and directions on how to do that.

Then there were other things that had, really, nothing to do with Asperger's, that were just being a better husband - encouraging her interests; using my words - which was, essentially, Kristen's speech-therapist way of telling me: You have to talk. You have to come and talk to me when things are bothering you.

So, you know, there was some overlap. Some things were just general best practices as a husband. And other things were things that I can do to manage the Asperger behaviors better.

BLOCK: David, how do you think the kids are going to be processing your behavior? You describe yourself in the book of putting on swim goggles and a bathing suit just to give them a bath - because you have sensory issues, right, with water?

DAVID FINCH: Right. I hate being splashed, quite frankly. I hate unsolicited wetness.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVID FINCH: Right now, the kids think it's the greatest. They've got this dad that is kooky and makes them laugh. Emily is 6 - our daughter, Emily, is 6; our son, Parker, is 4. Parker really couldn't care less what's happening around him, as long as he's got a truck to play with.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVID FINCH: He is happily oblivious. Emily is tuned in, and she's paying attention. And so one of my best practices was: Allow the children to participate in your daily routines. This was very difficult for me because it's always a disaster when the kids get involved. And so, I invited her to help me make eggs one morning. And I noticed that she had my sequence down pat: Open the door, get the eggs out - she lined it up perfectly, exactly on the edge of the counter, where I always put the carton of eggs.

And here's where I started getting freaked out, was when she started filling up the water. When it was time to fill up the pot for hard-boiled eggs, she closed the faucet, opened it, closed it, opened it, closed it, tapped her forehead, opened it, and closed it - the same way that I do.

BLOCK: Oh, wow.

DAVID FINCH: And she's like, like that, Daddy? And I was like no, sweetie. No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You don't have to do that.

DAVID FINCH: No. Please, don't do that.

BLOCK: What do you think, Kristen?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Is there going to be some explaining to do?

KRISTEN FINCH: I think there may be some explaining to do. But I think it's kind of a good lesson - I guess - in that, you know, that's just how Daddy does things. We don't have to do it that way. Everyone doesn't do it that way. But that's the way, you know, that's the way Daddy does things.

BLOCK: Well, David and Kristen Finch, it's great to talk to you. Thank you so much for coming in.

DAVID FINCH: Thank you, it's our pleasure.

KRISTEN FINCH: Thank you.

BLOCK: David and Kristen Finch. David's book is "The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger's Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.