By Professor Tony Attwood and Dr. Michelle Garnett
There are many attractive qualities to an autistic partner, for example, a sense that they are different in an exciting and unique way, they have a mind that can grasp astonishing complexity, they are wonderfully attentive, have deep compassion, are fair-minded, are very talented in their field or different in ways that are intriguing but not yet fully apparent. The early stages of dating may not indicate any long-term relationship issues, and certainly there are many happy couples where one or both partners are autistic. For other couples though, just as in all relationships, issues can arise. On both sides there can be expectations of how a long-term relationship “should” be, each informed by their own culture or way of thinking, and we have learned through our vast clinical experience that approaching relationships between autistic and non autistic individuals can be likened to a cultural exchange programme, where, for the relationship to succeed, there needs to be understanding and acceptance of each person’s culture. This is the second in a two-part series on some of the issues that can appear in such relationships. Part 1 was published on our website on 16th June, 2023.
There may be issues associated with verbal, emotional and physical intimacy. The effects of alexithymia (difficulties sensing and expressing emotions) will inhibit verbal and emotional intimacy, that is, converting thoughts and feelings into speech. However, an autistic partner may be able to express their thoughts and feelings indirectly using music, poetry, a scene from a movie, a passage in a book or typing rather than speaking their thoughts and feelings.
Sensory sensitivity may affect physical intimacy, leading to confusion, distress, and frustration with sexual experiences for an autistic partner (Gray et al., 2021). Autism is associated with a low or high threshold for sensory experiences, especially tactile experiences. A low threshold can lead to experiencing discomfort or pain when lightly touched during moments of intimacy. A high threshold can lead to requiring greater physical stimulation, as in the comment from the Gray et al. research paper, “I am not particularly sensitive, so I need more friction to achieve orgasm”. There may also be the issue of the use of alcohol, as in another comment from the same research study. Only when I am drunk do I feel comfortable being touched or touching others.
There can be issues with the frequency and quality of physical intimacy, which influences sexual satisfaction (Boling, 2016). Sex can become an intellectual interest for an autistic partner in acquiring information on sexual diversity and activities, often from pornography, and sex may function as a means of self-calming and emotion regulation. This was described by one of the participants in the Gray et al. (2021) study “I went through this highly sexualised phase because I just loved the way orgasms made me feel and connected me to myself and centred me. It was like the best self-regulation strategy I had found” The desire for and frequency of sexual activities and experiences may not be reciprocated by the non-autistic partner.
However, from our extensive clinical experience, the non-autistic partner is more likely to be concerned about the lack of sexual desire rather than an excess. The autistic partner may become asexual once the couple have children. In a relationship counselling session, the partner of an autistic man was visibly distressed when announcing that she and her husband had not had sex for over a year. Her autistic husband appeared confused and asked, “Why would you want sex when we have enough children?”
In modern Western society, we have replaced the word husband or wife with the word partner. This reflects changing attitudes towards long-term relationships. There is an expectation of sharing the workload at home, for domestic chores and caring for the children, and being each other’s best friend regarding the disclosure of thoughts and feelings, reciprocal conversation, sharing experiences and emotional support. Taking on the role of a best friend may not be easy for an autistic partner to achieve due to having lifelong difficulties making and maintaining friendships.
For those autistic adults who have problems with executive function, that is, organisational and time management abilities, distractibility and prioritisation, procrastination and completing tasks, the non-autistic partner often takes responsibility for the family finances, ensuring jobs are completed and resolving the organisational and interpersonal problems that have developed in their partner’s work situation. The non-autistic partner takes on the executive secretary/ mother role, frequently prompting their partner on what to do (Wilson et al., 2014). This aspect of the relationship adds to the stress and responsibility of the non-autistic partner and can be a source of conflict in the relationship.
In any relationship, there will inevitably be areas of disagreement and conflict, such as having different parenting styles. Unfortunately, autism is associated with a developmental history of limited ability to manage conflict successfully (Attwood 2006). The autistic partner may not be skilled in negotiation, accepting alternative perspectives, agreeing to compromise, and the art of apology and may tend to ruminate over grudges. This can be due to difficulty with understanding the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of others and limited experiences of childhood and adolescent friendships where these abilities are practised. Effectiveness in resolving conflict is a factor in relationship satisfaction for both the autistic and non-autistic partner (Bolling, 2016).
Autism is associated with experiencing strong emotions, especially anxiety, anger and despair and difficulty coping with stress at work and home. (Attwood 2006). There may be issues in the relationship regarding anxiety because the autistic partner can be very controlling, and life for the whole family is based on rigid routines and predictable events. There may be concerns regarding anger management and the risk of physical and psychological abuse (Arad et al., 2022), and both partners may be vulnerable to being depressed (Arad et al., 2022; Gotham et al., 2015). The relationship may benefit from assessing specific mood disorders in either or both partners and appropriate treatment and professional support.
Mental and physical health
Most of the research on the mental and physical health of neurodiverse couples focuses on couples where the male partner is autistic, and the female partner is not autistic. For example, Aston (2003) found that most autistic male partners considered that their mental and physical health had significantly improved due to the relationship. They stated they felt less stressed and would prefer to be in the relationship than alone. In contrast, their non-autistic partners stated that their mental health had significantly deteriorated due to the relationship. They felt emotionally exhausted and neglected, and many reported signs of clinical depression (Lewis, 2017; Millar-Powell & Warburton, 2020). A sense of grief may be associated with losing the hoped-for relationship, as illustrated by the comment, “It’s not only what I’ve lost, it’s what I’ve never had and indeed will never have (Millar-Powell & Warburton, 2020). Most non-autistic survey respondents also stated that the stress associated with the relationship had contributed to a deterioration in physical health.
Due to the female profile of autism being comparatively recently discovered, there is less research on couples where the autistic partner is female or both partners are autistic. There is research to suggest that autistic women are more vulnerable to violence in the relationship (Sedgewick et al 2019 ) and that autistic women are more likely to choose an autistic partner than autistic men (Dwinter et al 2017 ). It is possible that being in a relationship where both partners are autistic leads to less relationship distress due to like-mindedness. There is research to show that autistic individuals read and understand other autistic individuals better than non-autistic individuals do, which could lead to a greater sense of connection and less communication problems within the relationship (Crompton et al 2020 ). Certainly, in our own clinical experience we have been referred many more distressed couples where one partner is autistic than couples where both are.
We increasingly recognise the potential benefits of couples engaging in relationship support and counselling, which focuses on assisting their clients in identifying each other’s needs and how best to meet them (Yew et al., 2023).
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.
Arad, Schectman and Attwood (2022). Journal of Psychology and Psychotherapy 12
Aston (2003) Asperger’s in Love: Couple Relationships and Family Affairs London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Attwood, T. (2006). The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Bolling (2026) Asperger’s Syndrome/Autism Spectrum Disorder and marital satisfaction: a quantitative study Antioch University, New England.
Crompton et al (2020) Autism 24
Dwinter et al (2017) Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 47
Gotham, Unruh and Lord (2015). Autism 19
Gray, Kirby & Holmes (2021). Autism in Adulthood 3
Lewis (2017) Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 43
Millar-Powell and Warburton (2020). Journal of Relationship Research 11
Milton, D. (2012.) Disability and Society 27
Sedgewick et al (2019) Autism in Adulthood 1
Smith et al., (2021) Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 51
Wilson, Beamish, Hay & Attwood (2014). Journal of Relationship Research 5
Yew, Hooley & Stokes (2023). Autism in press.