Are You in a Relationship with Someone who's Autistic?
Updated: Nov 7
As we grow up, we learn about love from people around us, fairy tales and books, and the media. Many people learn that love comes rushing in without any warning and that you will “just know” when the right person comes along. It is not necessarily that easy or that obvious to find and maintain love for anyone, whether you are neurodivergent or neurotypical.
If you’re autistic, you may feel perplexed by the seemingly convoluted ways your loved one communicates. If your loved one is autistic, you might be frustrated by their rigid habits or your feelings have been hurt by their very direct remarks. In such a relationship, it’s not uncommon for both people to wonder if things will last. Whether you are dating someone on the spectrum or you are on the spectrum yourself, communication is key. In that sense it is like every other relationship but with a few mindful exceptions…
Challenges of Romantic Relationships on the Spectrum
Everyone on the spectrum without exception has the capacity to love deeply and wants to be loved in return. Sometimes this desire is not always well understood or demonstrated for several reasons:
1) Sensory Issues
Maybe your love language includes giving big bear hugs or showing physical displays of affection? If your autistic partner doesn’t initiate close contact, it does not necessarily indicate how they feel about you. They could be experiencing sensory overload.
2) Verbal/Non-Verbal Communication and Working Memory
You haven’t heard your autistic partner say the L word for a while, or yet. What does this mean? Difficulty with communication can be a sign of poor self-regulation and working memory. People on the spectrum can also struggle with verbal and non-verbal communication, which can make it difficult to express their feelings.
3) Misunderstanding Social Cues
If you tell your autistic partner after an argument that you’re fine, they may take it literally and truly believe you. It can be helpful to avoid mind reading or expecting your autistic partner to “just know” how you feel or what you need.
4) Executive Functioning
The decision to move in together or get married should be a time for celebration, right? For an autistic partner the emotional regulation, planning and preparation for change may be an exhausting and intimidating endeavor. Planning ahead can help avoid stress.
5) Fixed Interests
That month of hyperfocus on their new favorite project might look like they forgot you existed. If it’s any consolation, they may have forgotten other important things as well like eating and drinking. Interests can be very important and even all consuming to people on the spectrum. It doesn’t mean you’re not important. Try to learn about it and maybe it can be something you can do together.
6) Perspective Taking
Your partner may struggle to understand your perspective, or your side of things. It is not because they don’t care, or do not want to understand. In fact, they may really want to or try to understand but genuinely struggle to. It is important to understand that the challenge to understand another’s perspective in autism is not the person’s fault or due to lack of effort, or desire.
7) Desire for consistency. Is your idea of romance being spontaneous and getting surprises but your autistic partner feels anxious and upset when schedules and plans change? Their need for consistency might come into conflict with your sense of spontaneity.
8) Anxiety. It’s not uncommon for autistic people to experience high levels of stress and anxiety. Your partner might spend hours worrying about social situations or situations at work. Anxiety can also lead to difficulty sleeping, which can then result in irritability and mood swings.
Improving a Relationship on the Spectrum
The good news is that there is potential for improving a relationship by learning to understand one another. If you are in a relationship with someone on the spectrum there are certainly some helpful hints to help love flourish and grow:
1. There is no such thing as too much clarification. You can often depend on an autistic person to tell you exactly what they think. Try to be clear and concise in your communication as well. It is helpful to practice being clear and direct about feelings and intentions. It is not always romantic, but it can maintain the longevity of a healthy relationship. Why beat around the bush? Try not to play any guessing games.
2. Use positivity in your interactions. Believe it or not, small acts of love can shift your dynamic. For example, giving your partner unexpected gifts that make their life easier. Offering words of encouragement when they’re trying to accomplish something challenging. Telling them that you appreciate their efforts. This can foster a sense of security, trust, and acceptance.
3. Respect mutual boundaries. Give each other space and a safe place to retreat if necessary. Your autistic partner may have a lot of trouble communicating until they have had some time to process their feelings.
4. Learn from each other. Where you are weak, they might be strong. Play to each other’s strengths.
5. Build mutual understanding. Find common ground and shared interests together. This will help develop understanding and connection. However, on the flip side, understand that the two of you likely interpret the world and your interactions in different ways. The way you respond to situations may also differ. Learning to accept your differences can go a long way.
6. Learn about autism. Every autistic person is unique and different. However, learning about common traits and experiences may help educate and empower both of you. If you’re autistic or think you might be, you might feel relieved to hear about other people who are dealing with similar issues. If your partner is autistic, you can learn ways to support them and gain insight into the neurodivergent perspective.
An important point to note is that this list is not a ‘how to’ guide for dating and relationships with someone on the spectrum. The above are some examples that may be true for some people, but it is best to get to know your partner, what their needs are, and who they are as a person. If you are the spouse of someone on the spectrum or are on the spectrum yourself and would like to work on relationship skills, contact me for a free consultation!