David and Kristen Finch had been best friends since high school when they married in 2003. By 2008 their marriage was all but over until Kristen connected the dots and recognized her husband’s lack of social graces, his meltdowns, and his obsessive compulsions as symptoms of Asperger syndrome.
Rather than cause for alarm, the diagnosis was a relief for the couple. Over the years David had perfected a coping mechanism that involved viewing his daily interactions as acting roles in which he would “assume characters – versions of myself that are optimized for the social environment at hand.’’ That worked when Kristen and he were casually dating. It worked by day when he was playing “the businessman’’ with an impressive client base. Then at night he’d come home and fall apart.
The Asperger diagnosis also provided the Finches with a common vocabulary to communicate better. It gave them information and insight into David’s mindblindness – a condition in which people can’t read social cues or understand another person’s feelings.
Armed with new self-awareness, David Finch set out to reset his brain with the goal of becoming the empathic husband Kristen deserved and the loving father his young daughter and son needed. He meticulously recorded his efforts with grace and humor in a self-styled manual, which eventually evolved into a memoir.
“The Journal of Best Practices’’ began as a growing pile of notes to self – reminders that became something bigger as Finch attempted to challenge his behavior one obsession, tantrum, and social faux pas at a time. His self-education began with basics like showing respect for others or refraining from changing the radio station if Kristen was singing along. His approach serves as an organizing principle for the book, its chapters bearing titles such as “Use your words,’’ “Just listen,’’ and “Give Kristen time to shower without crowding her.’’
Finch’s book represents a milestone, arriving just as the first generation of diagnosed Aspergians has come of age. Just last month The New York Times published an extensive front page piece about the obstacles an Asperger couple faced as they struggled with love and sex and setting up house together. Among the trials these young adults faced was translating the hard-won skills they had successfully acquired to enroll in college or get a job, and use them in romantic relationships.
Finch’s brutally honest and very funny book takes the volatile mix of Asperger syndrome and relationships a step further by highlighting the emotional land mines waiting to be set off in “neurologically mixed marriages.’’
Kristen is no saint in the book, but she comes close. She’s a working mother with two small children and a husband whom she often has to coax to express himself in words. But Finch is a more insightful writer than to leave us with the impression that he’s the third toddler in the house. He conveys the complexities of his marriage as clearly as he does the obvious frustrations. He writes:
“Not only were we dealing with issues common to every marriage, we were also forced to deal with extremely bizarre challenges that plague relationships for people on the autism spectrum: my daily routines, my obsessive tendencies, my unwillingness to participate in social events.’’
That meant he had to figure out how to give his kids a bath even though he couldn’t stand the sensation of wet clothing against his skin. He eventually accommodates by donning swim trunks. He also had to find a way to control his temper when events – holidays, vacations, traffic patterns – didn’t unfold according to his preconceived plans.
After several months of jotting down behavioral dos and don’ts on scraps of paper and Post-It notes, Finch felt that he was dangerously close to adding another obsessive compulsion to his repertoire. In his final note to self, he warned: “Don’t Make Everything a Best Practice.’’ He heeded his own advice and transformed his ad-hoc journal into a poignant, self-effacing memoir about the power of love.
This review first appeared in the January 16, 2012 edition of the Boston Globe