Being in a relationship with an autistic partner, whether you are dating someone on the spectrum or married to them, can challenge your sense of what a love relationship is all about. Your autistic partner may have started the relationship showing every sign that they are really into you, but now they seem to want to spend a lot more time away from you. Whilst conversation may be as intellectually satisfying as ever, you may be wondering when they will start talking more about their feelings and letting you into their inner life. They may not be as interested in your friends and family as you expected or seem to know when you need emotional repair. Times such as these require an in-depth understanding of your autistic partner to avoid misinterpreting them. In this blog we list 10 things you need to know about your autistic partner to give your relationship every opportunity to thrive.
The Ten Things About Your Autistic Partner You Need to Know
1. Their need for solitude is very real
One of the most exhausting aspects of life for your autistic partner is likely to be people, and the best recovery for social overload is solitude. As one autistic woman put it, “For every hour of socialising, I need one hour of recovery time in solitude.” Even extraverted autistic people have a smaller capacity for socialising than neurotypical people do, their capacity maybe a teacup or a thimble, rather than a bucket. Generally, the more people involved in the social event, and certain people at that event, will sap energy more quickly and thoroughly. For your autistic partner, talking with you may be included in the “social time” quota for the day. Spending time with friends and family mid-week or even every weekend can lead to exhaustion and social overload. Their requirement for solitude is a coping mechanism against depression and burnout.
2. An all-encompassing interest may be their only true form of relaxation
As one autistic partner expressed, “art is not an interest to me, it is oxygen.” In other words, being able to engage for long hours in a special interest may be the most replenishing activity your autistic partner has. In a world where talking, socialising, and enjoying socialising is the norm, it may be difficult to accept their need to escape into an interest, whether it is work, model trains, art, or motorbikes. A true act of love in the autistic relationship is to accept your partners passion, and either join in, or find yours, and fully enjoy spending time on your new interest without guilt.
3. One of the character strengths of your autistic partner is honesty
In fact, it can be extremely difficult for an autistic person to lie. Whilst this is a character strength, and engenders trust in the relationship, sometimes a “white lie” is appreciated in a relationship by neurotypical partners. For example, as a partner you may wish to be complimented on a new hairstyle or outfit, or even your way of thinking and reacting. Being praised and affirmed is supportive and tends to strengthen the relationship. However, your autistic partner’s allegiance may be to the truth, and you may feel that honesty is valued more highly than relationship goals at times. Your autistic partner does not wish to undermine you or be critical. Telling you the truth is their way of being supportive and loving.
4. They may not be able to talk about feelings or an inner world
A common subclinical condition that co-occurs with autism is alexithymia, which in Greek means “a” lack of “lexi” words “thymia” emotions. Literally, a lack of words for emotions. When you ask your partner how they feel about something, not being able to tell you is more likely to be lack of ability to tell you, rather than a lack of willingness to tell you. Disclosing true thoughts and feelings is very difficult for an autistic person, possibly because of alexithymia, but also because of difficulties with self-reflection, which is a hallmark of autism. Your autistic partner’s difficulties with self-disclosure can lead you to feel at some emotional distance in the relationship, yearning for more emotional intimacy.
5. Love and affection may be felt but expressed differently
Brain scans of autistic people show that, when they express feeling love and affection for someone, different areas of the brain are activated than for neurotypicals. The empathy circuitry of the brain is also working differently. Your autistic person feels love, and feels empathy too, but may struggle to express both in ways that lead to you feeling loved or empathised with. They may show love, for example, through a practical act, and tidy up for you, or iron your shirt, rather than through a more neurotypical way of looking at you and telling you or using physical affection.
6. A different sensory processing system will affect their life in ways you may not anticipate
You may have always been aware that your autistic partner finds everyday noises, like kids playing, as too loud, and certain forms of lighting uncomfortable, but it is likely that they are not expressing how disruptive and exhausting the sensory world can be to them. They may be spending enormous amount of energy each day just trying to cope with the pain and stress of certain common sensory experiences, leading to less energy than expected for the relationship in the evening. Tactile hypo (too little) and hyper (too much) sensitivities can play out in the bedroom, where, for example, light touch can be excruciating or annoying, and only deep pressure considered enjoyable.
7. Change will be challenging, sometimes impossible
One of the diagnostic criteria of autism is having difficulties with change, even minor changes. Your autistic partner may have learned over the years to camouflage this aspect of themselves, but as you come to know your partner better, you may notice that variety is not “the spice of life” and surprises are unendurable. Repetition and certain rituals are not there to be annoying or controlling, but to soothe and relax so that your autistic partner can cope with life.
8. Social gatherings can be hell
Your autistic partner may persistently choose not to come to gatherings with friends and family and they are beginning to become offended. You may be starting to feel single again when you are out socialising. As described above, your partner is not trying to shun your family and friends but is likely not to be as motivated to socialise as often as you are, and especially with people they do not know very well or with a crowd of people, for example, at a party. For your autistic partner quality is more important than quantity when it comes to socialising, and your acceptance and support in this way will help.
9. Your partner’s neurology for understanding another person’s perspective is working differently
Being autistic is not a choice and it is certainly not an inferior way of being or a character fault. Being autistic means that an awesome brain is working slightly differently, especially for being able to read people and make inferences about what they want, expect, or need from you quickly and innately. When your autistic partner does not read your verbal or nonverbal communication accurately, they are not trying to be uncaring or obtuse, they are simply missing the cues because their neurology does not make it easy to read them. Even when you have explained your perspective fully, they may still struggle to fully understand and accept it. An autistic partner can be extraordinarily single-minded and egocentric about certain topics, and it is important to keep in mind that they are not being selfish, they are demonstrating difficulties with “theory of mind” or perspective-taking, because of their different neurology. To learn more about autistic neurology, read our blog post called What Is HFA?
10. Your partner may be camouflaging aspects of who they are and how they feel for survival
Recently there has been considerable research into a commonly used coping strategy for being autistic, that is, camouflaging. This is a fascinating topic, and we highly recommend that you read our recent blog on What is Camouflaging? here.
Camouflaging who you are can lead to exhaustion, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and not feeling in touch with the authentic self. You may wonder who they really are, and they may also be wondering who they really are. He is likely to be often tried and irritable and need more time in solitude. Camouflaging is a very intelligent strategy, but needs to be used judiciously, and your autistic partner will need to feel safe to be themselves with you, and certain others, to get back in touch with the authentic self.
Your autistic partner has some unbeatable and deeply lovable personality qualities, possibly including their honesty, commitment, loyalty, enquiring mind, creativity, and compassionate heart. However, they still can sometimes drive you crazy and leave you wondering why you are in the relationship. An autistic brain is one that works differently, and in verbal, intelligent, autistic adults this can cause confusion for their partners. Understanding and accepting your autistic partner in the ways we describe above may give your relationship the best chance to flourish.
Now that you have so much more information on your autistic partner you may be looking for more tips and ideas to nourish your relationship. Our event, Autism in Couple Relationships is available now as an online course. We encourage couples to watch together.