Monday, November 02, 2009

Marriage Among Autistics, Or Why the NHS Study Obliterates CADD

In the previous post I discussed data that contradicts the common belief that autistic adults are largely unemployed.

In this post I want to discuss marriage. Marriage, again, is something that is considered very rare among autistics. It's a stereotype like any other stereotype, of course, but it's not an entirely unjustified one.

Of all the autistics Leo Kanner wrote about, I believe only one (Robert F) is known to have married. Said Kanner:
The contacts thus established led to the discovery that the boy-meets-girl issue was paramount in the talks of the companions. Again, there was a vaguely felt obligation to "conform." Those attempts were sporadic and short-lived. The "explanations" offered indicated that there was not too much displeasure with the absence of any real involvement.

Henry C. reported that he was single, that several girls "had hoped to change that" but that he had "no desire to get tied down for a good long time." Thomas G. declared categorically that girls "cost too much money." Clarence B., who "socialized" with a girl for a short time in college, stated that he "ought to get married but can't waste money on a girl who is not serious." Bernard S. was said to have approached a girl once for a date "in a very negative way" (inviting rebuff). Fred G. "experimented" once with a double date arrangement (never repeated).

George W. made things easy for himself by deciding a priori that girls were not interested in him. Sally S., the only girl in our group, once asked seriously at 23 years of age what she ought to do if ever she fell in love with someone, an experience she had never had before. She said: "I have never had the interest in boys most girls my age have." At 30 years, she dated a man for a few months but gave this up because she was "frightened by any intimacy."

(Kanner et al. 1972)

In several outcome studies we see the same pattern. Of the 16 autistic adults without intellectual disability from Szatmari et al. (1989), only one was married, even though 4 were dating regularly. Average age at follow-up was 26.1. From a recent outcome study out of Utah involving 41 autistic adults, we learn that only "a few" were married.

One problem with these findings is that adults in outcome studies are young adults. Additionally, we should not assume that diagnosed autistic adults, first identified when they were children, are representative of all autistics from the general population, known and unknown. Current understanding of autism is different to what it was in the past.

Once again, the NHS adult prevalence study proves useful in addressing these sorts of limitations in available data. The report tells us that the prevalence of ASD in three marital status groups is as follows.
Married/cohabitating: 0.5%
Single: 2.5%
Widowed/divorced/separated: 0.6%

There's also information on a "base" population that is not exactly representative of the general population, but it's probably close enough to being representative that it can be used to come up with estimated proportions of autistics and non-autistics in each of the categories.


Data for men only:

Autistic Men30%63%7%
Non-Autistic Men61%26%14%

There are some differences. Autistic people in the UK are apparently about half as likely to get married than non-autistic people. I would not say the characteristic is diagnostic, however.

I should point out once more that the study only looked for autistic adults who live in private households. The data will likely change somewhat when autistics who live in "communal establishments" are considered.

Implications For CADD

I've previously criticized the concept of Cassandra Affective Deprivation Disorder (CADD). It's a pseudo-scientific, made-up and damaging idea to the effect that autistic people make for terrible significant-others and spouses to such an extent that they can cause their partners to develop psychological problems and health issues, even cancer.

If CADD had an ounce of truth to it, you'd expect divorce to be rampant among autistics. Heck, you'd expect autistics to widow more often, if the claim about effects on health were true.

Yet, the divoced-to-married ratio for autistics is 0.29, whereas the same ratio is 0.24 for non-autistics. (It's 0.24 vs. 0.22 for men only.) That's a minor difference, not significant by any stretch of the imagination.

It's clear that the reason a lot of autistic people in the UK are single is not because they fail at relationships. It's because they are not good at starting relationships.

The claim that autistic marriages fail much more often than expected is mythical, evidently. Nevertheless, many web pages state the following: "Dutch research suggests that the divorce rate for people with Asperger syndrome is around 80 per cent." Interestingly, this exact phrasing appears throughout the web, as if it had been copy-pasted. I have tried to locate the original source of the claim, to no avail. One person says they "lost the link."

The claim appears in a book by Ashley Stanford for people whose significant-other has Asperger's: "Preliminary research performed in Holland suggests that the divorce rate for couples in which one partner has AS may be as high as 80 percent (Relate leaflet)."

The Relate leaflet in question appears to be this webpage by none other than FAAAS. FAAAS, for those who don't know, is an organization of people who moan about their "frustrations" with their adult autistic relatives. FAAAS, not surprisingly, is connected to Maxine Aston of CADD infamy.

The claim that appears in the Relate leaflet is exactly the following:
For the partner of a person with AS, their bewilderment at the puzzling behaviour of their spouse can cause deep distress and a breakdown in their health. Inevitably this means that there is a high divorce rate amongst marriages where one partner has AS. Research in Holland suggests that this is as high as 80%, and research recently done in the UK is due to be published next year.

It's entirely unsourced. I'm currently skeptical as the the existence of the famous Dutch research.


  1. Yeah, it's just as bogus as the claim that 80% of our parents' marriages fail, which also has been circulating for years and has no basis whatsoever.

    I'll take the stereotype-smashing even farther and dispute the idea that autistic people are not good at starting relationships. Some just aren't interested in relationships. Do you know if anyone has ever done a study establishing the percentage of asexual folks in the autistic population? I'd guess that it is likely to be higher than in the general population.

    And of course, when you're in a small minority group, it can be hard to find a compatible mate. I would categorize that as a lack of opportunity, rather than a lack of ability. If autistics and compatible neurotypes made up a larger percentage of the population, I expect that those of us who are interested in relationships would have a marriage rate comparable to non-autistics.

  2. Yikes! Never heard of CADD, but that seems like an outrageous line of bull just from the start.

    Stuff like this is why statistics that do not include a clear explanation of how the statistic was derived disgust me. What disgusts me more is that I used to be so gullible about such statistics.

  3. "Yeah, it's just as bogus as the claim that 80% of our parents' marriages fail, which also has been circulating for years and has no basis whatsoever."

    I was thinking the same thing. The NCHS survey didn't support that either.

  4. thanks for sharing this information!