Relationships and Autism: A Not-at-all-Expert Guide

Let’s start with a disclaimer. I’m not an expert on relationships (or autism). I’m just an autistic person who has studied communication and psychology a bit in college, who has also been in a romantic partnership for almost 6 years now. As much as my friends think I am a relationship expert because of this, I am not.

But I do know quite a bit about the minefield that is being in a relationship as an autistic person. In all honesty, I don’t think dating an autistic person is any harder than dating a non-autistic person. We all have our baggage; some people are bipolar, some have borderline personality disorder, some people are just socially anxious, some have temper issues. Autism just carries a lot of baggage specific to many of the common traits and symptoms/expressions (whatever you wanna call them) of our autism.

Miscommunication. I find that miscommunication is a huge part of all my relationships, romantic or not. It starts with simple Sensory Processing Disorder. As a part of my autism, I have sensory processing issues. It begins with sometimes, when a person says something, I don’t get it for just a second. I may even say, “What?” before I get it. Sometimes, I literally think I hear the wrong thing. And other times, I just don’t get the meaning of what’s being said. Autistic people frequently have difficulty with this kind of misinterpretation, so it can lead to miscommunication. I also sometimes say things that sound rude to other people when I didn’t mean them rudely, or I seem sad/angry/upset when I’m not (often, this is because I’m not very verbal at the time, going through autistic burnout or dealing with executive dysfunction) and other people are convinced I’m just “saying” I’m okay.

Some tips for autistic people in this situation:

  • Tell your romantic partner about traits of your autism that can lead you two to a miscommunication. This won’t stop a miscommunication from happening, but it will help your partner understand it, and then you two can discuss it and sort out how it happened. For example, I’ve told my partner that I have a problem saying rude things that I don’t mean as rude, and I’ve asked her to tell me when I say something rude and then explain why it was hurtful, and to also give me the benefit of the doubt that I didn’t mean it that way.
  • Let your romantic partner be mad about miscommunication. It seems like a silly thing to fight over, since it’s not actually a “big deal” (like cheating or betrayal would be), but fights that are healthy are not bad for a relationship. The fight may need to happen for some sort of resolution to work itself out; there’s nothing wrong with their reaction to a miscommunication, just like there’s nothing wrong with you for saying something hurtful, not being able to speak, or not getting what they have said to you.

Some tips for the non-autistic partner:

  • Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. If he or she says, “I sometimes just can’t talk when I’m going through autistic burnout; it isn’t because I don’t want to,” then this is probably true. If he or she tells you that today is one of those days, they probably aren’t ignoring you, but just trying to take good self-care. Try to either leave them alone if they request it, or engage in activities that don’t require a lot of talking together, like watching a nice movie on Netflix or giving one another back massages. (I don’t know about you guys, but back massages are amazing for me when I’m going through autistic burnout. Just the right amount of pressure to get my brain to function in coherent thoughts again, even if I can’t articulate them.)
  • Give your partner some space to process communication or to explain something they’ve said or done that was unintentionally hurtful. A lot of the time, it’s not our fault that we didn’t understand something or we said something ‘wrong,’ and we start to feel guilty when people become frustrated by it. There’s nothing like feeling like it’s your fault just because you can’t control how your brain functions.

Relationship “rules.” It’s pretty well-known that many autistic people just don’t get social rules. I’m one of those people. I have to remind myself not to do what’s natural to me because it has a tendency to alienate potential friends in a social setting, all because of invisible social rules that I don’t understand. Some rules do make more sense to me than others, like I can pick up on cues when someone wants me to leave them alone or not be close with me. But other rules, like when it’s appropriate to give someone your phone number that you know from class or work, or what conversation topics are okay at a restaurant, are just absolutely foreign to me. This goes for relationships as well. There seems to be many unspoken rules about how to ask someone out, how to act on a first date, when to propose to someone, etc. etc. that I just don’t instinctively know. Because of that, I’m always learning what’s okay and what’s not.

Some tips for the autistic person in the relationship:

  • What “rules” are important actually just depends on the relationship. Some people are strictly monogamous while others choose to date more than one person. It’s not a steadfast rule that goes across all couples. When in doubt, say to your partner, “Hey, I’m sorry if this seems obvious, but I’m not very good with social rules, so I want to make sure we’re on the same page. Is it appropriate for me to text my ex-boyfriend? Would it upset you if I dance with other guys at nightclubs? Just let me know.”
  • Be honest about your own opinions of what is important, too. If you and your partner differ on what is considered cheating, that’s okay, as long as you both know what is and is not okay within your relationship. Make sure your partner knows how you feel about different situations, because I know for me, since I don’t do well with social rules, it’s always the weird, obscure things in a relationship that I actually don’t find okay.
  • Tell your partner when you need further clarification. Nothing can get a miscommunication started faster than if you lie and say you get what they mean and you actually don’t. Ask for more. If someone says, “You can’t keep in touch with any of your exes,” but you dated your best friend one time in fifth grade for a week, you should probably ask if he counts too.

Some tips for the non-autistic partner:

  • Try to make it really clear what is and isn’t acceptable to you in the relationship and don’t just assume we know. Autistic people aren’t devoid of empathy and the ability to understand others (as the media would have you believe), but we don’t always pick up on tiny subtle cues or basic social rules, so we might not get why you’re getting flustered and jealous when a hot guy flirts with us at the bar. Just give us a very clear, point-blank heads up about your feelings and what is okay.
  • Be understanding about the fact that we have a hard time with social rules. Don’t get fed up just because we don’t know whether it’s cool to text you 50 times a day or whether or not a public love letter is acceptable to you. If you don’t tell us, don’t assume we just ‘get it.’ If we don’t seem like we get it, chances are, we probably don’t. I know it’s awkward to explain to someone that something they’re doing isn’t acceptable, so I would say this only goes for established relationships. If you’re establishing a new relationship with an autistic person who’s admitted they have trouble with social rules and they call you too much and always expect you to answer right away, you should tell them straight up that doesn’t work for you. If you’re in a situation where there’s no established relationship, it’s fine to just say, “I don’t want to keep in contact with you” or “What you’re doing makes me uncomfortable.”

Intimacy. For a lot of autistic people, physical intimacy of any kind is an absolute no. That comes as no surprise to me because we’re almost always a mess sensory-wise. Physical touch can be confusing, just like any other sensory experience. And intimacy is one of those times that we – as a society and culture – have been trained NOT to say what we want, not to be 100% clear about consent, and not to openly discuss whether something is or isn’t working. Unfortunately, that kind of socialization doesn’t go well with autistic people, because a lot of the time, something sensory can be so bothersome to us that it’s actually physically painful. I will preface my tips by saying that it is possible to have physical intimacy as an autistic person, but you should use your own discretion and ask yourself what level of intimacy you’re comfortable with. Be aware of confirmed, enthusiastic consent and that all parties are 100% okay with everything that’s happening. People with disabilities, including autism, are at a higher risk for sexual assault and rape and therefore it’s important to be sure not to pressure someone into anything.

Some tips for the autistic person:

  • Tell your partner what is okay, and whenever what is okay changes, let them know. For example, if one day, you are okay with being shirtless, but another day, that just doesn’t work for you, it is okay not to feel the same way you did the other day. You should always be open with your partner at all times about what is acceptable.
  • If possible, tell your partner what he or she can do to improve the experience sensory-wise. If it’s because they have really annoying fluorescent lights on their ceiling that you can’t get into it, it’s fine to ask that those be turned off, so that you can be turned on.

Some tips for the non-autistic person:

  • Ask your partner what is okay on any given day, and listen to them without pressuring them.
  • Tell your partner what is okay with you as well, and make sure there isn’t any miscommunication from their side, and that they understand your limits as well.

Some tips for both:

  • In general, just continuously get enthusiastic consent. It would probably be a turn off to constantly stop kissing someone to ask, “Do I have your consent?” so the two of you can find a cuter, sexier, more fun way to make sure consent exists, like saying, “I’m really into this right now.”
  • Talk about general likes and dislikes, paying attention to what is working and trying to eliminate anything that doesn’t work for at least one of you.

In general, relationships are all about communication. This can seem daunting to an autistic person, because many of us struggle in that department, but it’s all about knowing how you can communicate, and making sure that your partner has some way of knowing what works for you on any given day–are you so burned out that you can’t even talk that day, or is it the perfect day to have a long ramble about a special interest you have that they also share? The key to any relationship is not being 100% in agreement all the time or being exactly the same, it’s about understanding and accepting your differences and communicating them to the best of your ability.


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