Q: I recently met and married a great woman with an 11-year-old son who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. He is very high-functioning and polite, intelligent, etc. The problem is he is EXTREMELY messy and absent-minded. He leaves for school 10 minutes after we leave for work and he leaves every single light on. One day we came home, the refrigerator door was wide open and all the food was spoiled. Another time, he left the front door wide open all day – luckily, nothing was stolen. I know what you’re thinking, why is this 11-year-old being left to go to school by himself? Because he is high-functioning, and his mother trusts him.
I know this is harsh, but if I would have known, I would not have taken all this on. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: There’s so much here I really don’t know where to start, but the most obvious is you said, “If I would have known ...” My first question to you is: Why didn’t you know? You didn’t mention how long you dated this woman, but I can’t imagine she kept her son or his diagnosis a secret. It sounds as if you met this woman, married her and oh yeah, there’s this sort of quirky kid who comes along with the package. Whoops. That’s not the way it works.
For the record, Asperger’s syndrome used to be singled out as a higher-functioning form of autism, but in 2013, the DSM-5 replaced it all with the umbrella diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder.” Children with Asperger’s have a difficult time picking up on social cues, may lack common social skills and dislike any changes in routine – just to name some of the more common characteristics. Even if your wife’s son didn’t have an Asperger’s diagnosis, you have to have a strategy for integrating family members when combining families. Check out the BEFORE exercise on bonusfamilies.com/before. Keyword: before. Then you move in and get married. Not the other way around.
I’m not just calling you out – Mom more than you understood the trials and the rewards associated with raising a special needs child. That she trusts her son to be home by himself is concerning. I’m not so sure I would leave an 11-year-old without such a diagnosis alone to get himself off to school. That her son has left the front door and refrigerator open proves securing the house and getting to school is too much responsibility at this point in his life. By not creating a safer environment, Mom is setting him up for failure. (Not to mention what it’s doing to your relationship.) He may need more stringent boundaries for him to be successful. Don’t take over (Good ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 4, “Parents make the rules, bonusparents uphold them.”), but don’t be afraid to offer some well-researched suggestions.
It sounds like you and Mom need to contact a therapist for two reasons: One, to get direction about dealing with a child with Asperger’s from a professional well-versed in the diagnosis. Two, marital counseling to help you better communicate about your expectations for your relationship. Don’t put it off. Get help. That’s good ex-etiquette.