Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that can affect many aspects of someone’s life, including the way they think, learn, and behave. People on the spectrum often struggle with social and communication skills, which can make it difficult for them to form and maintain relationships in adulthood.
Autistic people can and do have happy, healthy romantic relationships – with neurotypical and neurodivergent partners – but there can be some unique challenges.
Keep reading to learn more about how ASD can impact relationships and how you can manage these issues in your own life.
Asperger’s syndrome was once classified as a unique condition separate from autism but within the same family of neurodevelopmental conditions.
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association eliminated Asperger’s as a diagnosis in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).” It classified it under the umbrella term “autism spectrum disorder (ASD)” instead.
Asperger’s joined several other conditions, including Rett syndrome, as a part of ASD.
ASD is not common. Experts believe around
Older autistic adults may not have been screened for the condition when they were younger despite showing signs of it. And
People with Asperger’s often need minimal support compared with some other autistic people.
For example, some autistic people have higher impairment in social and communication skills and high engagement in repetitive or restrictive behaviors.
Asperger’s can also cause these effects, but to a lesser degree.
ASD causes a diverse set of signs and symptoms. The most common signs of Asperger’s in adults are:
- formal speech patterns
- average to above average vocabulary
- average to above average intelligence
- focused interest in one particular subject
- ability to talk for long periods of time about their interest, often in a one-sided conversation
- strict routines or rituals
- difficulty acclimating to changes in routine
- needing long periods of alone time
- peculiarities in speech and language
- inability to engage socially with peers
- disinterest in social interactions because of difficulties with small talk
- problems with nonspeaking communications
- uncoordinated movements that may seem clumsy
- sensory issues, such as sensitivity to light, smell, or touch
Many autistic adults are able to successfully hold jobs and live independent lives with minimal support. They can also develop close personal relationships that lead to marriages and families.
It’s entirely possible for autistic people to have intimate relationships, whether they’re platonic or romantic. But ASD may present particular challenges for couples and friends.
Autistic people may face social and communication differences throughout the continuum of relationships, from acquaintances to intimate partners. Because of this, they may have less experience forming close relationships.
This can make each stage of a relationship a new challenge, but it doesn’t mean autistic people won’t succeed.
Here is a look at the particular ways ASD might affect relationships.
Autistic people can experience several types of communication differences. They may have difficulties understanding what other people are thinking or the meaning behind their words. Autistic people may not read nonspeaking cues well. This includes facial expressions and vocal intonations.
Verbally expressing themselves may be difficult, too. For example, an autistic person may say something unintentionally hurtful and have trouble understanding why someone would react negatively.
But communication issues go two ways. In fact, in one
Taken together, these issues can make communication hard. It may mean both people feel shut out of understanding what the other is thinking or doing. This can slow or stop the development of close relationships.
If not addressed, it can make important relationship aspects, like empathy and trust, difficult to build and maintain.
Autistic people often develop focused interests. They may turn to this interest as a way to cope with challenges or issues at home, work, or school. For their partner, they may consider this as avoidance behavior, and it can be difficult for them to navigate.
It can also be difficult for a partner or friends and family to understand their loved one’s focused interest.
Autistic adults may have difficulty understanding and reciprocating signs of affection. These expressions of love may be confusing and overwhelming to them if they do not naturally think to initiate them.
Some autistic people are also asexual or aromantic and seek partners with similar preferences.
Touch avoidance commonly occurs in ASD. Autistic people can have sensitivities to touch, which can make something like hugs or kisses unappealing to them. Unwanted affection may make them uncomfortable, or even angry.
However, autistic people can also be on the other end of the affection continuum. They may show great intensity with affection. Some potential partners may feel overwhelmed by this, especially if they don’t understand it.
As a happy medium, a couple can work together to find expressions of affection that fulfill what each partner wants and needs.
On dating apps, some autistic people choose to include that they’re asexual or aromantic in their bios to inform potential partners of their preferences.
The spectrum of interest in sexual activity varies broadly for autistic people, just like it does among the general population.
Some autistic adults have sensory issues that make the physical aspects of sex uncomfortable. Others may not experience the emotional connections that make sex a cornerstone of many romantic relationships. Therefore, they may struggle to gauge their partner’s interests and needs.
Other people on the spectrum experience higher than average levels of sexual desire and activity. Research on “high-functioning” autistic people found that autistic males spent
Personal relationships of all kinds may be challenging for autistic people. Small talk may be unappealing to them, and conversations may cause a lot of anxiety. This can make it hard to make friends and start a romantic relationship.
Many autistic people enjoy solitude over socializing. However, this can prevent them from establishing and practicing social and communication skills.
Autistic parents can have great relationships with their children. For example, they may engage with them on a creative level and encourage them to explore their interests.
Some autistic parents may encounter difficulties with certain aspects of parenting. This can include discipline and empathy.
Other autistic parents may not be able to provide the emotional element of parenting. They may struggle with signs of affection like hugs and have difficulty comforting a child.
It’s possible for autistic people to have healthy and happy relationships, just like any other person.
All relationships take work and effort. Relationships between neurodiverse and neurotypical people, or relationships between two neurodiverse people, are no different.
Consider these strategies for managing any issues in a neurodiverse partnership:
- Be intentional: For neurotypical couples, communication exists in many forms: verbal, written, emotional, nonspeaking, etc. Autistic people may not be able to interpret or use all of these. Instead, both partners can aim to be as direct and clear in their communications as possible. Leave nothing as a hint or suggestion.
- Set clear rules: This is especially important for parenting, where you both need to present a united front. You can also discuss each other’s strengths and opportunities, and divide tasks based on them. For example, perhaps the nonautistic parent takes charge of disciplining your children.
- Consider therapy: Individual therapy can be helpful for both partners. You can consider couples therapy, too. While therapy is not an immediate “fix,” it’s a wonderful opportunity for people to learn ways to communicate and cope with challenges in their relationships.
It can be a challenge for autistic people to cope with their nonautistic partner’s expectations and demands. It can be just as challenging for a nonautistic person to cope with their neurodiverse partner’s expectations and demands, too.
Here are a few tips for nonautistic partners:
- Learn about ASD: ASD is a neurodevelopmental condition. That means it fundamentally affects the way a person perceives, engages with, and responds to the people and world around them. Understanding how ASD impacts a person’s thoughts and behaviors can help you better navigate daily life.
- Delegate tasks: Autistic people may have a hard time with executive functions like planning and organizing. This leaves these important tasks up to the nonautistic partner. But it’s possible for the autistic partner to take on certain tasks in other areas of the home, such as homework with kids or walking and caring for pets.
- Seek support: Whether you’re newly in a relationship with a neurodiverse person or you’ve been married for several years, it’s a good idea to seek knowledgeable professionals and individuals in similar situations. This can include working with a therapist who has experience in neurodiverse couples or turning to online support groups.
- Find outside fulfillment: It’s possible to find personal fulfillment outside your relationship with your partner. In fact, it can be healthy. Consider ways to connect with friends and your community. Look into classes for things that interest you, or practice some self-care.
- Remember the positives: You likely fell in love with your partner for very specific reasons. And despite the challenges, remembering the things you love about your partner and about the two of you together can help boost your self-esteem and reengage your dedication to the relationship.
It’s definitely possible for autistic people to have healthy, fulfilling relationships. These can be personal friendships as well as romantic partnerships.
As with any relationship, neurodiverse couples will likely face issues. Communication is a big area of concern that often requires work and patience.
Other issues may arise with elements of intimacy, socializing, and parenting. ASD creates a set of unique challenges for people in relationships. But with effort and attention, they can be overcome.