By Dr Michelle Garnett & Prof Tony Attwood
You may not have planned to marry or partner an autistic person, or, if you are autistic, a neurotypical person, but here you are, and the relationship landscape may differ from your initial expectations. Welcome to a brand-new world! The first thing to expect with autism is the unexpected. Autism represents a difference in human neurology, not a disability or a defect, but a difference. What you are experiencing in your partner may be different to what you expected. We wrote this article for people who have fallen in love, autism is in the mix, and who are struggling in the relationship and wish to make it work. We will describe why autistic relationships can differ from neurotypical ones, and a common trajectory of the relationship. We outline a plan for how to be the best partner you can be based on our over 80 years combined experience of working with autistic couples. This article will be helpful to both partners in the relationship.
Your aspiration to be the best partner you can be is one we wish to affirm and endorse. You cannot change the core characteristics of your partner, though sometimes you may want to!! There are, however, things you can do differently in the relationship which will give your relationship the best chance to thrive and increase both your satisfaction with the relationship and your partner’s.
What is autism and why do autistic relationships differ from neurotypical relationships?
To further understand autism, look at our previous blog: What is HFA? You know that autism brings many talents and positive personality characteristics, many of which are likely good reasons that you feel in love with your autistic partner in the first place. These qualities are very relationship enhancing, for example, loyalty, commitment, and kindness. You will also be aware that autism brings challenges. Almost always the two biggest challenges in autism are understanding and relating to people and understanding and managing emotions, even positive emotions, like love. It is easy to see how these challenges can play out in a love relationship.
A Common Trajectory in Autistic Couple Relationships
All human beings, whether autistic or not, need to feel connected to at least one other human. We seek connection with other people in many ways, and the most intense way we seek connection is in a love relationship.
When the relationship begins, there can be no greater euphoria than being in love, and this seems to be enhanced when the love relationship is with an autistic person. This maybe because at the start of the relationship you represent the most important part of their lives, also called the ‘special interest,’ or even ‘the obsession.’ It can feel wonderful to be so adored and at the centre of someone else’s universe. An autistic person often has many talents that are deeply admired by their partner, for example, their ability to understand systems, their creativity, musicality, attention to detail, philosophical mind and the sheer capacity of their intellect can be stunning and incredibly attractive. If you have fallen in love with a neurotypical, you may have fallen in love with their mind, their deep sense of empathy, their ability to understand you or their ability to help you understand yourself and especially other people. Either way, the feeling can be intoxicating and euphoric.
However, as with all relationships, the honeymoon can end, and doubt and uncertainty can appear. Your autistic partner may not want to talk about emotions very much, may not wish to meet or spend time with your friends or family, seems to want to spend an inordinate amount of time alone, does not seem to read subtle signs of communication, or may not seem to understand your emotional needs very much. They may not respond to your overtures and expressions of love, and certainly do not seem to understand what you need to feel loved. If you are autistic, your neurotypical partner may not seem to understand you and make demands on you that seem unreasonable or perplexing. They may be too emotional or talkative or social, and do not seem to understand your need for solitude or less affection than your partner anticipates. Many of the wonderful aspects of the relationship may still be present, for example, the long intellectual discussions, the shared joy of cooking or working together on a project, or the great sex, but you may be starting to feel lonely, or misunderstood, and wondering why.
Love and Autism
We know from research that the neurology of an autistic person differs from the neurology of a neurotypical person. The areas of the brain that work differently in autism govern the person’s sense of self, understanding of other people, and their experience and expression of emotions.
We find Temple Grandin’s words quite illuminating, especially in the context of love relationships:
“My brain scan shows that some emotional circuits between the frontal cortex and the amygdala just aren’t hooked up– sections that affect my emotions and are tied up in my ability to feel love. I experience the emotion of love, but it’s not the same way that most neurotypical people do. Does this mean my love is less valuable than what other people feel?” (Grandin & Barron, 2005).
Over the years we have collected many examples of the definition of love from autistic partners we have met, here is a sample:
Helping and doing things for your lover.
An attempt to connect to the other person’s feelings and emotions.
Companionship, someone to depend on to help you in the right direction.
I have no idea what is involved.
Tolerance, loyal, allows space.
Four aspects of love: everybody, friends, family, erotica.
Love cannot be observed.
Love is yet to be felt and experienced by myself.
What is Love? I don’t know the correct answer.
A euphoric feeling without logic.
Obviously, there is no right or wrong about these definitions. An individual’s definition of love is deeply personal and depends both on life experience and neurology.
Interestingly, we have often found that the experience of love for an autistic person, whilst being extremely positive, can also be extremely confusing and sometimes overwhelming. We find that an autistic person often expresses their love to their partner in their loyalty and commitment, and often by practical deed. The experience of love may be felt as a sense of appreciation for being understood and assisted.
When love is no longer expressed, or felt, in the relationship, due to confusion, feeling overwhelmed, different love languages or any other reason, there can be relationship breakdown. Long periods of silence or increased tension can lead to meltdowns and arguments. Resentment, blame, guilt, stress, and anxiety can become part of the daily experience of the relationship, with neither partner knowing quite how to address such strong emotions.
How To Be The Best Partner You Can Be
Based on our combined experience of over eighty years exploring autism we have designed a relationship program for both partners that comprises 12 processes. The overall goal of this program is for each partner to be the best partner they can be. Being in a relationship is not about changing our partner, even though we may like to change aspects of them sometimes. Actually, we can’t change people anyway. However, happily, there are things that we can change. For example, we can change our level of knowledge about autism or neurotypicality, our degree of acceptance for aspects of our partner, and we can increase our relationship skill-set. We can alter our relationship with ourselves, and we can change our perspective and expectations.
Looking After Yourself – Six Individual Processes
The first six processes for being the best partner are individual processes. We are talking about how you look after yourself. These include:
- Self-awareness – knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, knowing your own neurology.
- Self-soothing – understanding when you need to self soothe and knowing the best processes that you can use to feel safe and calm. Using these processes on a daily or even moment-by-moment basis.
- Relaxation – knowing how you can replenish yourself so you have more energy. Scheduling in your relaxation processes on a daily basis.
- Perceptions – being able to challenge any unhelpful thoughts that you have about yourself, and your partner, and the world.
- Nurturing your body – being able to nourish your body with good food and physical activity to optimise health and energy.
- Facing your demons – addressing any addictions, obsessions and trauma through your own personal therapy and healing practices, for example, yoga or meditation.
Sometimes it is best to manage the individual processes for a while first, before addressing the couple processes. For other couples both can be managed at the same time. It can be helpful to engage a couple’s therapist who has knowledge of autism to assist with the couple’s processes, especially if there has been dissatisfaction within the relationship for a long time.
Looking After Your Relationship – Six Couple Processes
If you feel you have to look after your partner, but do not feel looked after in the relationship yourself, resentment can build. We have found it more helpful to think about looking after your relationship. We have found six processes that couples can use to look after their relationship, and increase their own and their couple’s satisfaction.
- Understanding your partner’s perspective, neurology, communication style and ways of interpreting and expressing emotions.
- Understanding the expressions of verbal and physical affection that are most enjoyed by each partner.
- Understanding both your own and your partner’s expressions of love or love language.
- Knowing how to have safe, repairing, and reciprocal conversations.
- Learning each other’s verbal, physical and emotional intimacy needs, and how to fulfil these.
- Discovering how to work as a team and regularly reflecting together on the positive aspects of the relationship
Being the best partner that you can be to an autistic or neurotypical person means knowing yourself, and your partner, to be able to utilise successful couple processes. It means addressing difficult issues within yourself and learning new skills. Much of the work can seem daunting, but working on what you can change, rather than fighting against what you can’t change, is far more successful, empowering and ultimately rewarding for both partners.
Where to next?
Over our decades of working with couples and autism we have developed a relationship programme for couples where one or both are autistic. In our upcoming course, Autism and Couple Relationships we describe and explain the programme. Many couples and couple counselors have found the course extremely useful.
Grandin T. and Barron S. (2005). Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships. Future Horizons, Arlington, Texas, page 40.