Romantic relationships can be complicated and frustrating for a lot of people, let alone those on the autistic spectrum.
One of the main reasons behind this is that those on the spectrum will most likely experience major difficulties with understanding and expressing emotions, especially romantically.
I have been diagnosed with high functioning autism, previously labelled as Asperger’s. I hate labels with a passion, so, I very rarely tell people about this diagnosis. However, in not telling people, it has caused numerous problems as others have failed to understand me properly, and I them.
Love, affection and communication can be puzzling for everyone, but for those on the spectrum it can feel impossible.
Here are a few things that I have found along the way that have helped me and will hopefully be of help to others too.
- Hugging can feel claustrophobic. You may find that hugs and cuddles are not very often forthcoming. It is not that cuddles are not welcome, it’s just, and I know this may seem insensitive, but they have to be given at a time where the person feels comfortable and at ease to give or receive them. If they are in the frame of mind to snuggle, they may never want to let you go. If not, you may notice they are tense or back away slightly.
- Communicating loving words may not feel natural. A person on the spectrum may not understand why the words have to be spoken—actions speak stronger than words. If they have told you they loved you once, they may not see the need to continually repeat it, instead thinking that, of course, you must know. They would tell you if something had changed—and they really would!
- Highly sensitive. You will probably notice very quickly they have very tender hearts. They may take things you say literally and become hurt over jokey behaviour or innocent comments. Issues surrounding breaking trust and loyalty can be deal breakers. They may be offended easily and also become upset or emotional very quickly about things that may seem trivial or not as upsetting to anyone else.
There used to be a myth surrounding autism that it meant people had no empathy. This is not true, they are more likely have much higher empathy as they feel things for others as though they were experiencing it themselves. If an animal or person is in danger, they will only be able to imagine how they would feel in that situation and not from the other person’s perception. This means they will suffer the pain similarly. Whatever the emotion, they will feel it deeply. Comforting words and gentle actions at these times will work wonders in easing the pain.
- Social situations may be deliberately avoided. You may find that any excuse will be made not to attend family, friends or work social events. You can accept this and understand that these gatherings will cause high anxiety levels, or you can take a few steps to encourage attendance by making the experience a little less stressful. I find that before I go to any outside event, I need to feel calm and in the right frame of mind to go. If any arguments or tension has arisen prior to the event (usually by me causing a little drama to prevent me from having to attend) it will be almost impossible for me to enjoy and relax and socialise naturally.
Just by understanding that socialising causes anxiety, can help the person to feel more relaxed immediately. Before my partner and I go anywhere that will involve meeting other people we have a kind of mini briefing. Discussing who will be there, a guide to dress-code (something someone on the spectrum may struggle with), suggestions of appropriate things to talk about and also outlining an approximate length of time you will be there, will all help to ease the situation. Just knowing that my partner will be keeping a loving eye on me is usually enough to give me the security I need when in these environments.
- Small talk is not a speciality. Quite the opposite. You may find that social niceties and chatter about matters that are of no particular concern to your partner are not engaged in. They will struggle. However, bring up a subject close to their heart and you will find that it is almost impossible to draw the conversation to a close. People on the spectrum can become almost obsessive about their special interests and find that talking about anything other than something close to their heart is bland and uninteresting. It can appear as a selfish trait, however, it is easier to try to accept that it will be a struggle for them to hold their concentration when discussing things that do not capture their attention.
You may find that they talk almost one-sidedly when it is something they are passionate about. Allow them to talk, but a gentle reminder that a conversation is a two-way thing will also be beneficial. Sometimes, they just need a jolt to remember that they need to listen more too. It is possible, it’s just something that does not feel natural. Facts, figures, the universe, reality—all of these things and more will capture their attention. Fictional dramas, or the latest gossip about other people’s private lives will very likely fall on deaf ears.
- Eye contact. One of the most known traits with someone with autism is that they will probably struggle to maintain eye contact. It doesn’t mean they are not concentrating, lying about something or that they just don’t want to look at you. It just means that they find eye contact quite intrusive and that they feel more at easy not looking directly into the eyes when talking. I tend to look at the person’s lips when someone’s talking or at their body language rather than focus purely on the eyes.
- Dates may not be significant. If birthdays, anniversaries or other important events are over-looked or forgotten, try not to take it personally. For someone on the spectrum they may not understand the importance placed on particular dates. If they want to buy you a gift, they will buy you one, they may not feel the need to buy or celebrate just because a date specifies that they should.
- Honesty. You will probably find that they will be brutally honest. They will most probably say what they think, exactly how they feel and be unfaltering loyal. And they will expect the same in return. Game playing and manipulation will not be their strongest points, purely, because they won’t understand them. If they have something to say, they will say it and often be entirely bewildered if they have spoken out of turn.
- Changing plans. Bewildering and confusing to someone on the spectrum. Usually they will have been thinking about and planning for an event in their mind long before it happens. Then, when things change, they may find it difficult to cope with the sudden plan change. Just break the changes gently and offer up similar options, if possible. Otherwise, just try to be patient and calm and understand that a simple plan change can feel like dramatic and major changes to someone who has autism.
- Heightened sensory perception. Lights, noises, temperatures and numerous other variables will affect the mood of someone with autism. Keep noise and lighting soft and gentle, anything harsh may cause slight anxieties. Things like the cinema, supermarkets and nightclubs can all feel traumatic to the ears and eyes and can result in tempered frustrations and irritable behaviours. If they need to leave, understand. It is not that they are being awkward, it is just these environments can feel extremely volatile and the effects on them can last for hours afterwards.
If they need to lie down and have some space when returning home, then allow them to. Do not aggravate things further by becoming angry or resentful if you feel that an occasion has been ruined. They will likely already be feeling terrible enough and will require loving and soothing actions to counteract the hostility they have felt. Sensitive reactions to outside influences are impossible to avoid, however, avoiding or reducing them wherever possible will alleviate the tensions they cause. Unfortunately, this is not something that will get easier over time, the only thing that will get easier is finding out what causes the discomfort and where possible, reducing the exposure to it.
- Meltdowns. Meltdowns, however big or small, will likely take place from time to time when in a relationship with someone on the spectrum. The way someone handles having a meltdown will differentiate person to person. Internally though, they will suffer similarly. Meltdowns usually appear after a build up of tension or frustration. They can be purely emotional or can also be anger fueled tantrums and majorly traumatic. They can accelerate quickly and can come from nowhere. The most loving thing you can do at this time is to soothe, calm and hold them. They need to know they are safe. Engaging in any kind of argument or confrontation at this time will very likely be futile.
Talk things through with your partner when things are calm and discover mutually agreeable ways of dealing with meltdowns so you can be more prepared. Find out what they need most during this time and what you can do to help. How situations like this are handled will be defining for your overall relationship. If you are supportive and caring it will bond and build trust between you both, fueling things with provocative behaviour in return will likely bring resentments.
The easiest way to love someone on the spectrum is by learning to accept them. Trying to change them will not be possible, even if they do change slightly they will be extremely unhappy on the inside and will be living a life that does not feel natural to them.
Also bear in mind, you will probably never understand how their brain ticks. My partner jokingly refers to my brain as being wired upside down. However, I think my brain works perfectly, just differently.
I see things from an entirely different perspective to him, which allows us to challenge one another and learn alternative ideas and thinking. We contrast, but then we fit perfectly together as two pieces of a jigsaw slotting into place. We intrigue one another and it keeps a certain amount of mystery alive.
We’ve found we don’t need to fully understanding the exact ticking of the other’s mind. We are happy in the knowledge that he is completely himself and I am completely myself. We were not put together to be the same as one another. Quite the opposite—where is the fun in being exactly the same?
The reason I love my partner so completely is because he loves me in the same way. He accepts me as I am, and doesn’t try to push my autistic buttons. He celebrates them, smiles at them, soothes them, comforts them, allows them and would never try to alter who I am.
The key to really loving a person on the spectrum? Feel blessed that they have come into your life to offer you an entirely different way of viewing the world. Know that they will appreciate all the tiny things that you do to offer a safe and loving space as the world around them can already seem harsh enough.
Let go of everything you thought you knew about relationships and love and relearn it all from the beginning again. Forget societies expectations and judgements. They are of no importance.
Regardless of what anyone says, most people with high-functioning autism will tell you, it’s not a disability. They feel entirely happy with their curious, analytical, creative, alert and intelligent minds. They wouldn’t change you and try to put you on the spectrum, so don’t try to change them.
Celebrate the differences and love each new thing you will both learn about each other. You have something rare and if you treat it that way you can pretty much guarantee it will last you a lifetime, it will be challenging but the rewards will most definitely weigh more.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Alex Myles
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Tele Chhe/Flickr