You are currently viewing Dating or Being in a Relationship with an Autistic Partner as a Nonautistic Person: Part 1

Dating or Being in a Relationship with an Autistic Partner as a Nonautistic Person: Part 1

By Tony Attwood and Michelle Garnett

Part of the early appeal of dating an autistic person for a person who is not autistic can be a sense that they are different, that 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, extremely loyal or different in ways that are intriguing but not yet fully apparent. Indeedthe early stages of dating may not indicate the long-term relationship issues that can occur. 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. 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 there needs to be understanding and acceptance of each person’s culture for the relationship to succeed. Certainly, this is true in all relationships, but plays out more significantly when one partner in the relationship is neurodiverse, and specifically, autistic. This two-part article describes some of the issues that can arise in such relationships. We find that understanding the reasons behind the issues goes a long way toward starting to resolve them. In Part 1 we describe five key issues that affect autistic relationships.

Theory of Mind

Some of the issues in the relationship can be due to aspects of ‘Theory of Mind’, a psychological term that describes the ability to read facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and social context to determine what someone is thinking or feeling. We have known for some decades that autism is associated with Theory of Mind difficulties, and these difficulties are included in the diagnostic criteria for autism. However, the non-autistic partner can also have difficulty ‘reading’ the inner thoughts and feelings of their autistic partner. This is described as the “double empathy problem” (Milton, 2012). The autistic partner may not express their more subtle emotions in their facial expressions, tone of voice and body language, and thus may be misread by their partner.

Additionally, the autistic partner can struggle to find the words to express their inner thoughts and feelings due to difficulties with interoception and/or alexithymia. Interoception refers to the sensory perception of the body signals that indicate emotional states such as heart rate and breathing. Alexithymia is a subclinical condition that includes interoceptive difficulties, and difficulties translating the emotions that you feel or remember into speech. Both conditions are commonly experienced by autistic individuals and, if present, will affect their ability to disclose their inner world and communicate their feelings. As the relationship progresses, the non-autistic partner will likely anticipate increasing self-disclosure as a sign of the depth of the relationship and trust. The non-autistic partner must recognise that their autistic partner has genuine difficulty perceiving and communicating their inner world.

Social engagement

Autistic adults can achieve successful social engagement by intellect rather than intuition but social occasions are mentally exhausting and energy-draining. In contrast, the non-autistic partner may find that social experiences require little mental energy and may create energy. The non-autistic partner may reluctantly agree to reduce the frequency and duration of social contact with family, friends, and colleagues for the sake of the relationship but feel deprived of experiences they enjoy, or may attend alone, but wish to share their social experiences with their partner. Different levels of need for socialising can cause much misunderstanding and strain within the relationship.

The non-autistic partner may also recognise that their autistic partner can engage socially at work but, on returning home, is exhausted and actively seeks solitude or engagement in a hobby or interest as a means of energy recovery. Although the couple lives together, the autistic partner has a diminishing need for social, conversational and leisure time together. An issue for the non-autistic partner may include feeling lonely within the relationship.


One of the consequences of difficulties with Theory of Mind abilities is misinterpreting intentions, such as determining whether a comment or action was deliberately malicious, humorous, or benign. This can lead to conflict within the relationship, with either partner potentially misunderstanding the other, and over time due to a build-up of past hurts, being quick to take offence.

Another communication issue is a tendency for the autistic partner to be perceived as overly critical and correcting and rarely providing compliments. The intention is to improve their partner’s proficiency and anticipate gratitude for their advice, being unaware of the effect on their partner’s self-esteem. There may also be a reluctance to provide compliments due to not intuitively knowing that in a relationship, the non-autistic partner’s need for regular approval and admiration using compliments and the autistic partners reluctance to give a compliment when their non-autistic partner is enjoying their achievement.

As the non-autistic partner describes their daily experiences, their autistic partner may not engage in the degree of eye contact and words, sounds, and gestures of compassion and interest that they expect to receive. The autistic partner absorbs the story but does not appear attentive and maybe eager to provide practical advice rather than non-judgemental listening and empathy. The non-autistic partner can feel they lack emotional support but experience considerable practical advice.

Expressions of love and affection

In a non-autistic relationship, regular expressions of certain types of love and affection are expected, for example, close hugs, spontaneous hugs and compliments. A metaphor for the need and capacity for expressions of love and affection can be that a non-autistic partner has a ‘bucket’ capacity for love and affection that needs to be regularly filled and replenished. In contrast, an autistic partner has an affection ‘cup’ capacity that is quickly filled. The autistic partner may be perceived as not expressing sufficient affection to meet the needs of his or her partner, who feels affection deprived and unloved, which can contribute to low self-esteem and depression.

When the autistic partner recognises the value of expressions of love and affection in the relationship, there can be the issue of the frequency, type, intensity, and duration of expressions of love and affection. As an autistic partner said: ‘We feel and show affection but not enough and at the wrong intensity’ and “I know I am not meeting her needs, but I don’t see them, will I ever be able to make my partner happy”. A non-autistic partner gradually realised that “…he can’t give me my needs because he doesn’t see them, he doesn’t perceive them and doesn’t ask about them… I often feel alone in our relationship because he’s not quite with me” (Smith et al., 2021)

Emotion repair

During personal distress, when expressions of empathy and words and gestures of affection would be expected as an emotional restorative, the autistic partner may not read the signals to elicit emotion repair (Theory of Mind difficulties) or know and have confidence in what to do. Their emotional repair mechanisms may be solitude and engaging in their interests and hobbies as a restorative and potential thought blocker. Affection may not be perceived as an emotion repair mechanism, with a hug perceived as an uncomfortable squeeze which does not automatically make them feel better. A common complaint of the non-autistic partner is that when they hug their autistic partner they do not seem to relax and enjoy the close physical proximity and touch.

Being alone is often the primary emotional repair mechanism for an autistic partner, and they may assume that is also the case for their non-autistic partner, with the thought that if I leave them alone, they will get over it quicker. They may also not know how to respond or fear making the situation worse, as in the relationship counselling session where an autistic partner sat next to his wife, who was in tears. He remained still and offered no words or gestures of affection for emotional repair. When asked if he knew his wife was upset, he replied, “Yes, but I didn’t want to do the wrong thing.”

The autistic partner can be accused of being callous, emotionally cold, and lacking empathy but this is due to a genuine difficulty reading interpersonal signals and knowing how to respond. The non-autistic partner gradually realises that they need to be very clear and direct in expressing their feelings and suggesting to their partner what they need to do or say for emotion repair.

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.  We draw on our 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 attend.


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