By Professor Tony Attwood and Dr. Michelle Garnett
We have considerable literature on relationship support when the male in the relationship is autistic, but only two books when the autistic partner is a woman (Simone, 2012; Rowe, 2014). The lack of discussion and information about autistic women’s couple relationships reflect the under-recognition of how autism presents in adult women, and hence less research and knowledge generally about autistic women’s experiences. In this blog we discuss aspects of being in a relationship as an autistic woman, including findings from current research and our own experience as clinical psychologists with combined experience of over 80 years.
Foundations for relationship skills
The foundations for relationship skills are created from friendship experiences throughout childhood. The skills include trust, loyalty, compromise, and emotional support. Autistic women may have had fewer but more intense friendships than non-autistic women during childhood and adolescence (Sedgewick et al., 2019). A series of single best friends can become the sole focus of their friendship experiences, and the intensity and difficulty of understanding and managing conflict can result in friends disengaging. There can subsequently be a tendency for the autistic adolescent to self-blame and assume the friendship cannot be rescued.
A friendship characteristic of autistic girls is to have social anxiety before and during time with a friend; as in the following quotation, I get anxious because I have to behave neurotypically to do the right thing. Engaging with a friend can be mentally exhausting, even if the time together is mutually enjoyable (Crompton et al., 2020). Another friendship feature described in the same study is knowing what other people want in a friend, which is the basis of knowing what a partner seeks in a long-term relationship. Autistic adolescents may also have experienced relational bullying, such as gossip, being deliberately excluded, teasing, humiliation, and peer rejection which will affect the ability to trust a friend or potential partner.
During adolescence, there is often limited sexual knowledge from peers, but an autistic adolescent or young adult may perceive engagement in sexual behaviour as a means of facilitating relationships and attaining social approval from peers (Pecora et al., 2022).
They may seek a relationship but may not realise they are being taken advantage of and misinterpret the sexual intentions of others. Recent research suggests that many autistic women have been victims of sexual assault and rape, usually in early adulthood or at university. (Sedgewick et al., 2019). A recent study of several hundred autistic adults found that 46.5% of autistic women reported experiencing sexual violence. Autistic women were also less likely than non-autistic women to have confided in anyone about such experiences (Gibbs et al., 2021).
An autistic partner
A common choice of partner for an autistic woman is an autistic rather than a non-autistic partner. Research indicates that one in ten autistic men and one in three autistic women report having a partner who is also autistic (Dwinter et al., 2017). Adjusting and adapting to differences in autistic and non autistic verbal and non-verbal communication styles requires considerable mental energy and can be the source of relationship conflict. When both partners are autistic, there is less need to mask or suppress autism, hence each partner can be their authentic selves, with considerable mental health benefits (Crompton et al., 2020). When both partners are autistic, there can be mutual feelings of comfort and ease with similar communication styles and the ability to cope with social engagement.
There will be similar abilities, past experiences, and shared interests, such as animal welfare, opera, art or a career such as entomology or medicine. Both need and enjoy periods of solitude and can collude together in avoiding social commitments. Autistic individuals whose partners are also autistic report greater relationship satisfaction than those whose partner is not autistic (Ying Yew et al., 2021).
Another choice of partner is a nonautistic person who genuinely falls deeply in love with an autistic woman, seeks to make her happy and fulfilled and provides social, emotional, and practical support. This may be someone who is socially motivated, talented, and gregarious and can understand and accept autistic characteristics in their partner. They may provide guidance in social situations, help moderate emotional reactions, and makes accommodations for aspects of autism such as sensory sensitivity. The autistic woman feels safe and supported.
Alice Rowe (2014) writes that an autistic woman may be loved because she is very honest and direct, has a strong sense of social justice, is creative and has a deep empathic connection with animals. She may love her non-autistic partner’s ability to guide and reassure her in social situations, explain her autistic features to herself and others, and moderate her intense emotions. Her partner can also help her cope with the unexpected and uncertainty, painful sensory experiences, and the proximity of too many people. There can also be guidance when making small talk and on what to wear for a specific event. A non-autistic partner may also tolerate and show compassion for her distress and agitation over what their partner perceives as a trivial event, such as a missing the apostrophe in a shop sign and the pharmacy opening at 9:04, not at 9:00. There is also the acceptance that she has limited social motivation and social energy, is reluctant to try new experiences, finds it hard to perceive her partner’s point of view and may tend to be critical and correcting (Rowe, 2014).
Our clinical experience and research on such a relationship indicate that both partners report low satisfaction with emotional communication, amount of leisure time together and intimacy (Ying Yew et al., 2021). The non-autistic partner will be confused when conventional emotional repair mechanisms they use are not effective and may be perceived by their autistic partner as aversive, as in the following thought dialogue from Alis Rowe when a non-autistic partner puts his arm around his sad autistic partner:
It makes me feel better hugging her when she is sad. I enjoy the physical closeness.
It’s too much. I feel overwhelmed being touched when I’m sad. I don’t want to be hugged right now.
What did I do wrong? She’s pushing me away.
His touch right now is unpleasant and physically painful.
I’m upset she doesn’t want me to hug her. It’s what couples do. I feel rejected.
Both partners may benefit from relationship counselling to explore each other’s perspectives, improve communication and enhance the relationship. There is a range of books on relationships where one partner is autistic published by www.jkp.com.
An abusive partner
The relationship naivety, vulnerability and gullibility of young autistic women increase the risk of being in an abusive relationship. The abusive partner is attracted to their childlike innocence, lack of assertiveness and limited friendship and relationship experience. She may not have a network of friends to give relationship guidance or advice.
Our clinical experience and research indicate that autistic women are likely to stay in abusive relationships for several reasons (Sedgewick et al., 2019). Low self-esteem contributes to not perceiving that they are worthy of a conventional relationship; as illustrated in the following quotation, I set my expectations very low and, as a result, gravitated towards abusive people. There is also the reason of not having the intuitive relationship ‘radar’ to identify someone with malevolent intentions. There can be a tendency to take someone ‘at face value’ and believe what someone says rather than perceiving their covert intentions and risky situations. Even with an effective radar, there can be a reluctance to judge their abusive partner, as in the following quotation: Sometimes, we have good radar but talk ourselves out of it. We think we have to give them a chance, not make rash judgements, and we don’t want to treat people badly. We give them the benefit of the doubt. A relationship partner may take advantage of an autistic woman’s benevolent attitude.
Some autistic women are likely to stay in an abusive relationship because it is easier than finding a new one (Sedgewick et al., 2019), and we would add they may not have the self-confidence to end the relationship. However, we have found that confirmation of a diagnosis of autism while in an abusive relationship can lead to greater assertiveness and determination to end the abuse.
Where to from here?
Our online course Autism in Couple Relationships aims to equip participants with knowledge and strategies for increasing relationship satisfaction where one or both partners are autistic. Tony and Michelle draw on their extensive experience in autism and couples counselling and present strategies commonly found to help improve neurodiverse relationships.
Who will benefit?
The webcast was created for couples where one or both partners are autistic and relationship counsellors, psychologists, and social workers. We highly recommend that both partners view this webcast.
Crompton et al. (2020) Autism 24
Dwinter et al. (2017) Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 57
Gibbs et al. (2021) Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 89
Pecora et al. (2022) Autism 26
Rowe A. (2014). Asperger’s Syndrome for the Neurotypical Partner: Helping long-term relationships when the woman has ASD Lonely Mind Books, London
Sedgewick et al. (2019). Autism in Adulthood 1
Simone R. (2012) 22 Things a Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome wants her partner to know Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.
Ying Yew et al. (2021). Personal Relationships