So, a topic that has always interested me is autistic people and their romantic relationships. I really want to hear about other autistic peoples’ personal experiences and what they have learnt because ultimately relationships are a challenge. Here, I’m just going to be talking about my experiences because of course I know that one best. Talking about my experiences is in no way the only experience or erasure of yours. If you feel comfortable, I’d be very interested to hear about your experiences too.
To Note: I am asexual and bisexual, but this post won’t be about my sexuality and only the romantic relationships I’ve had with people. This excludes sexual relationships, or sexual romantic relationships. I’m currently in a relationship with someone and have been since October.
First of I, at least, have always been a person easy to gaslight, take advantage of and emotionally/physically/mentally/sexually abuse. I strongly believe that a big part of the reason why is the way autistic people have been raised.
As an example, we struggle a lot with what is socially the norm and what isn’t. A lot of us are taught to repress our autistic behaviors quite young and we are also taught to “pass” as a neurotypical. This makes us quite vulnerable to being mistreated when we are told “you’re supposed to like this”, “this is the way relationships are supposed to work”, etc.
I don’t watch to touch on this too much today as I do want to write a separate post on the vulnerability of some autistic people in the future and in a lot more detail but the first thing to note about how relationships have always worked for me is that I tend to be the more submissive one who easily gets hurt by other people. I have a lack of friends and I often don’t understand what was wrong with the relationship, and why it made me feel a negative way, until I speak about their behaviors to someone else and they say “Lorna, that’s wrong”.
Another point I wanted to talk about was how we have communication difficulties and considering a lot of relationships need communication as the skeleton of their relationship, both romantic and friendship, this obviously causes quite a lot of problems.
With me, my boyfriend can say something and then I can completely misunderstand this and be mad/upset. Communication about how I feel, especially concerning him, are also really difficult because first of all understanding what I am feeling and why on a strong enough level that I can explain it can be near impossible sometimes. Another reason why this can be difficult is not picking up on his reactions, and not being able to predict his reaction, which can cause anxiety sometimes to more extreme levels (To Note: I have severe anxiety).
Although I have way too much empathy, I have difficulty putting myself into other peoples’ shoes so when my partner speaks about something that is bothering him or his feelings or tries to communicate really any issue with me I have difficulty understanding it or knowing ways to help him. I’m uncomfortable with physical affection. It’s hard to work out what thing to do in a certain situation that fits and would work.
It’s kind of like I know what is wrong/right with me, I know what I am feeling, but turning that thought into the appropriate words can often be half impossible. I have always had difficulty with speech and language and did not receive speech and language therapy when I was diagnosed.
I also tend to process information really slowly depending on how high a specific emotion is, especially anger/anxiety etc. I can only really process it at a decent speed when I’m calm. During arguments, specifically, this can be quite a big problem because I am not understanding what they are saying and this only raises my anger due to frustration. It can also cause me to say things that I don’t mean, but I think everyone who is angry can do that sometimes.
Sometimes, arguments result in me having a meltdown because I am less in control of my emotions. If the other person in the relationship doesn’t understand what my meltdowns are like or what to do in that situation, I can imagine it can be quite scary for them, but all I really want is to be left alone until I calm down. It usually involves self-harming (like picking skin and pulling out hair), aggression towards things like walls and doors, but because I was brought up and taught to repress being autistic it most often comes out in anger (shouting at people to stop talking, walking out, waiting until I am alone to act the way I naturally would if I wasn’t repressing myself). This can be made worse if my partner feels the need to touch me in order to calm me down. A nice gesture, but harmful.
When I say social battery, I am referring to how I am only given a certain amount of energy per day (which can fluctuate depending on all sorts of things like how bad my anxiety is that day or how much energy did I use yesterday). Sometimes, this means I can’t be there for my partner when they need me because my battery has died. It can also mean I want to spend some time alone from them, and my current partner occasionally gets upset hearing this because of his struggles with self-esteem. It means that activities, like days out, are reduced and I have to take extra precautions like having a paid phone to get in contact with someone if I need out of that situation, bringing earphones/earplugs and sunglasses, etc.
I can also appear very distant and “spaced-out”, which neurotypical people often mistake for being sad or upset when actually my battery is either dead or drained and I just need some space to recharge. This can take from as little as an hour to a few days, it depends on why my social battery is dead/drained. It can be difficult to explain this to a partner as I don’t have the energy to convert my feelings into a constructed sentence.
Having Strong Emotions
Having strong emotion doesn’t really sound like a bad thing, and it isn’t, but the other person in the relationship may have difficulty understanding why I had such a reaction to something that they personally couldn’t understand. All my relationships have had this issue in them.
I think a good example here would be when I hear someone else has been hurt in the news. My empathy will kick in and I’ll sometimes get empathy overload, I’ll feel like this has happened to me, and it can really strongly affect me. Often, I may need comforted (usually comforted by myself) and my partner will have difficulty understanding why an article on the internet upset me to this extent instead of what a neurotypical person may do, feel a bit sad and say “Oh, how awful!” and five minutes later feel fine.
This can sometimes form barriers between us temporarily because, during these levels of high emotion, I’m made to be even more upset that they didn’t instantly understand the reaction. I have a really nice boyfriend who will comfort me whether he understands why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling or not, but during moments of high emotion, I find it really upsetting that they don’t get it because it can make me feel isolated.
Making Time for Them
This I believe is a stereotype of autism but for me it’s true, where schedules are important and keeping track of things and making sure everything stays on that track can reduce anxiety a lot and it’s important. When they’re late or early, that can cause anxiety.
It’s really difficult, mostly, because planning ahead when you have a social battery and mental illnesses is a challenge. You have absolutely no idea how you’ll be feeling then. I can’t just say “No, I don’t want to go anymore” because bringing back to the communication difficulties but also because it changes the schedule, and I can’t be spontaneous because I need to plan ahead first. Most plans would therefore have to be made the day before or about a week before, preferably, and this can cause problems because we won’t really spend too much quality time together. We’ll mostly stay inside because planning ahead can be too much of a hassle. Long trips like weekends together, even if finances were fine, would be almost out of the question. Mostly on their part it can reduce their enjoyment from the relationship because they can’t do things with me and emotionally can be quite a strain on me.
This isn’t something I currently struggle with, my partner is nice and understanding, but with previous relationships this can be a bit of a battle
I think this ties in with how autistic people generally are brought up to be submissive and to listen to other peoples’ rules (although it’s not often I come across a fellow submissive autie), I always want the partner to make the decisions. I’m also very anxious about things and worry far too much about what is wrong and what is right socially as I spend a lot of time trying to “pass” as a neurotypical. I don’t want to pick this in case it’s the wrong decision type of thing. This is obviously a problem because it puts pressure on them and can cause me/him/both of us to be unhappy with what decisions are being made, not just for/in our relationship but things like “what bed covers shall we buy”. I don’t want to buy the Rugrats bedsheets incase that’s not a neurotypical thing to do.
Again, my boyfriend is nice, generally doesn’t judge me at all and lets me be me and that’s such a rare and hard thing to find among neurotypical people and I personally am not used to neurotypical people not complaining when I show autistic behaviors. With previous relationships, though, this is certainly a problem.
I think adapting is something that most people in most relationships will have to do at some point. Adapting to a new hobby they have or don’t have, the change in their job hours/the change in job, the changes in what they eat, the changes in their routine, etc. Some bigger things someone might have to do is move to a new area for any reason, compromises that are being made in the relationship and having to adapt to those…it’s really hard for me, personally, to adapt because I’m so used to things not changing and I love rules and routine and I’m very set in that. I like to be around something that’s comforting, something that I know and am used to. Changes in anything are hard for me and, when you’re closely involved with someone else (especially when that someone else isn’t autistic), you have to adapt/change more than you are used to and sometimes these are unpredictable.
It can cause a lot of anxiety (and therefore attacks/meltdowns) and put a strain on the relationship. I don’t have this problem with my current boyfriend as his behaviors are very predictable and we don’t live together but this has been a massive problem in previous relationships where their behaviors were often unpredictable and certainly ties in to how autistic people can be vulnerable and easily abused where we think we have to adapt to everything and that certain, unpredictable behaviors in them were normal.
There’s also how, when a relationship is new, there’s a lot of trying to get used to and get familiar with how they function and what kind of routines they do. After a while, which can take a few weeks, we start to understand “Okay, this time is when they get breakfast roughly on a Monday but on weekends they don’t have to get up early so this is the time they get breakfast roughly on these days”. Not understanding things and not having predictability in relationships does, in myself, cause heaaaaps of anxiety.
In previous relationships, they’ll surprise me by saying “Oh we’re going to the beach today get dressed, we’re leaving in thirty minutes” which can stress me out rather than excite me because I had planned to finish the movie and then go do something and now my schedule for that morning had been tampered with and even when I’m out there it’ll be hard to have a good time because I’m thinking of what I was supposed to be doing and can make me feel really on edge.
It’s a problem because I have absolutely no idea when someone is flirting with me and when they’re just being nice or if they’re even being nice at all, what if they’re just being sarcastic and poking fun at me? What if I don’t respond in the appropriate way? What even is the appropriate way?
This problem is solved in my current relationship as we don’t flirt and, as it turns out, he’s also not good at picking up social ques on what flirting is or isn’t so we just don’t. In my relationship before this one, we didn’t either, but in ‘flings’ more than relationships that I’ve had with other girls online have been very flirty and I found that really difficult to deal with has it increased my anxiety a mile. I was so worried that I was going to say something wrong or misunderstand what they were saying that I never enjoyed flirting with them really, it was just stressful. Nobody gives you guidebooks on these things!
This one is a hard one for me because I have massive difficulties showing affection and it can make the person I’m with feel unloved or unwanted in the relationship. I don’t like hugs, or holding hands, or playing with each others’ hair. I’m not in need of lovey dovey paragraphs sent to me at night, I don’t send it to them, I don’t write cute statuses on Facebook….I am terrible at that. I’ve met autistic people on the complete opposite end who are way too affectionate (if you can be too affectionate) and shower them in adorable love. I’ve met autistic people who are a perfect balance of the two.
My boyfriend used to struggle a lot with this and still does, sometimes, but he’s come to an understanding when I was finally able to communicate this (thank you, autistic friends on Twitter, for sharing your expertise) and say “Hey, it’s not because I don’t want or love you, it’s because affection can make me really uncomfortable and I can be affectionate sometimes but I can’t show it all the time” (slightly re-worded, of course) and it really helped him especially but also me because I no longer feel awful for upsetting him and I don’t feel any pressure to be someone I’m not (which I already enforce on myself a lot to “pass” as a neurotypical).
I haven’t really done any dating. My previous boyfriends have all been developed online and only one of them made it to physical life, but we first met after we broke up. My current boyfriend I met through college and developed a relationship out of a friendship. I’ve never really ‘dated’ anyone.
However, meeting people for the first time (online or offline) is…difficult. Neurotypical people will create small talk to get a feel for the other person. Subconsciously, they will pick up on their body language and tone of voice, how they react to certain words and topics, and that is how they find their ground to know which kind of social interaction would be okay to use here. It works the same in dating.
Autistic people, at least this autistic person (hi), can’t do that. I spend too much time processing my own body language/tone of voice etc. that I can’t process theirs quick enough to make effective small talk. Finding the ground isn’t easy. Knowing what social ques fit where and when is difficult and, to an outsider (who perhaps may not be understanding), this can be offputting.
I’ve also never told a potential boyfriend/girlfriend before we developed a friendship that I’m autistic through fear that they would be ignorant and rude (or worse). Some see this as an act of distrust in them, some see it as ‘lying’ to them.
But, because of my lack of experience in dating, I don’t really have anything to add here.
I know that, as soon as I post this, there will be things that I would have missed (especially as this is going up before the #autchat on Twitter about relationships and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot about other experiences from that) and it’s going to really bug me but I’d love to hear about your experiences in relationships as a person on the autistic spectrum. I plan to do more posts in the future regarding autism and relationships because, like I said, it does really interest me and as we get to more specific topics I will go into more detail. This was a very brief overview of how relationships have felt and worked out for me so far.