There are many qualities associated with autism that are appealing to a prospective partner. The person can be attentive, knowledgeable, creative, kind, endearingly immature, physically attractive, quiet, and inexperienced in romantic relationships. There can be compassion for their naive social abilities and having been teased and bullied at school. The prospective autistic partner is often appreciated for being predictable, honest, and confident in their opinions, perhaps with shared interests and an admired career. They may have similar characteristics to one of the parents of the neurotypical partner, such that they are fluent in the language and culture of autism.
In the early stages of the relationship, the depth of the characteristics of autism may be suppressed such that the neurotypical partner is not fully aware of their partner’s autism, anticipating a conventional and fulfilling relationship. If autism is recognised or disclosed, there may be the assumption that love will provide the mutual understanding and accommodations within the relationship.
Clinical experience and research have identified that both autistic males and females may develop a compensatory mechanism of camouflaging social and interpersonal difficulties in the early, romantic stage of the relationship. They may have acquired what appears to be expertise in being an ideal partner from watching romantic films which have provided a script and a role that is successful in captivating their partner. This ability to act neurotypical, to camouflage autism and use a variety of scripts and roles can also be used successfully at work and social settings with friends, becoming a ‘chameleon’. However, when living together in the privacy of home, their partner experiences the real person behind the mask
The autistic person may be attracted to someone who has exceptional social expertise and empathy for their social difficulties, understanding their confusion and being overwhelmed in social situations and the subsequent exhaustion and need for solitude. The autistic partner may recognise that they need and actively seek a partner who can be a social mentor and ‘translator’ of the autistic perspective to friends and family, and does not criticise their partner for being social naïve or ‘clumsy’. They may realise that they are continuing many of the social and emotional support functions previously provided by a parent.
After several years of living together, the couple may find that the relationship is not developing as they originally anticipated. There may be a sense of grieving for the elusive conventional and reciprocal partnership they once hoped for. For the neurotypical partner, autistic characteristics that were endearing at the start of the relationship, such as an being an avid collector of model trains, subsequently becomes a source of conflict regarding the amount of time and money devoted to the interest.
The initial optimism that their partner will gradually change and become more emotionally supportive and socially skilled can dissolve into despair; social skills appear to be static due to limited motivation to be more sociable, or require constant prompting from their partner.
The autistic partner needs periods of social isolation at home to recover from the social aspects of work, and joint social contact with friends and family can slowly diminish. Gradually, the neurotypical partner reluctantly agrees to reduce the frequency and duration of social contact for the sake of their partner, and slowly absorbs the characteristics of autism into their own personality and lifestyle.
A significant problem for the neurotypical partner can be a sense of loneliness within the relationship. In contrast, the autistic partner can be content with their own company for long periods of time – alone, but not lonely. Conversations from the perspective of the neurotypical partner can be infrequent and superficial, but from the perspective of the autistic partner, are satisfying, and primarily an exchange of information, rather than an enjoyment of each other’s company and sharing experiences.
There is an expectation in a relationship of regular expressions of love, affection, and emotional support. What may be missing in the autistic/neurotypical relationship are those daily words and gestures of affection, compassion and compliments and emotional support. The absence of these aspects of a relationship can be a contributory factor to low self-esteem and clinical depression for the neurotypical partner who feels caged within the relationship. Due to having autism, the autistic partner may not be able to recognise and know intuitively how to respond to the subtle non-verbal communication of emotional and practical needs, and can feel that whatever they say or do is never enough to make their partner feel happy. They unintentionally keep getting it wrong and feel excessively and unjustifiably criticized and rejected.
The ability to read subtle, non-verbal communication and contextual cues to determine what someone is thinking and feeling, Theory of Mind, is impaired for autistic children and adults. However, the neurotypical partner can have an impaired Theory of an Autistic Mind. That is, they have difficulty perceiving or determining what the autistic person is thinking and feeling by reading their facial expression and body language; this is because autistic adults often have a limited ‘vocabulary’ of facial expressions, gestures, and prosody. Another characteristic of autism is alexithymia, that is, having considerable difficulty converting thoughts and emotions into conversational speech, which inhibits the disclosure of thoughts and feelings in the relationship. Thus, there is a breakdown in communicating and understanding each other’s inner world for both partners.
The dynamics and stress within the relationship will inevitably change with the arrival of children, presenting new responsibilities and sources of conflict, such as different parenting styles. The relationship may reach breaking point. The autistic partner will have less access to their stress management strategies, such as solitude or their special interest, which is a source of pleasure, relaxation, and an effective thought blocker. The relationship could be deteriorating, with expressions of despair and anger for both partners who are unaware of what to do to support and repair the relationship.
Over several decades Michelle Garnett and Tony Attwood have provided therapy for couples where one or both partners have the characteristics of autism. The over-riding theme of their therapeutic approach is a cultural exchange programme, where each partner learns to recognise the neurotypical or autistic approach of their partner, and how to adapt their own approach and expectations to assist the relationship. On the 20th of February 2021 they will present a whole day web cast on strategies to strengthen the relationship with modules on the:
- Qualities of the relationship in the early stages and currently
- Signs that the relationship is not as anticipated for both partners
- Expressions of love and support within the relationship
- The communication of thoughts and emotions
- Managing stress, anxiety, and anger
- Verbal, emotional, and physical intimacy
- Working as a team and family responsibilities
- The future together
The webcast will also include a description of ‘The Relationship Minefield’ programme designed and used by Michelle and Tony and colleagues. The web cast will be of interest for couples, relationship counsellors and psychologists. For further information, please go to https://attwoodandgarnettevents.com/product/live-webcast-autism-in-couple-relationships-20-february-2021/