[Yes, I know that I just wrote a post expressing concern about the use of “autistic” as an umbrella term…but this is how the word is used by most of society at the time that I’m writing this, and I don’t have any better ideas at the moment, so this is what I’m rolling with for the time being.]
So, you’re in a relationship (or are interested in being in a relationship) with a person who has (or who you suspect to have) a condition-state that falls under what we currently call the “autism spectrum,” eh?
Lucky you. Congrats on such an awesome catch. 🙂
You’ve probably heard a lot about autistics and their struggles and challenges in romantic relationships, about how their “social disability” presents with “challenges with emotional responsiveness” or whatnot.
But the fact that you are here reading this post suggests that you want to hear more, perhaps something…else?
Now, I am not an expert on romantic relationships or dating/marriage, nor do I technically have the qualifications to be an “expert” on autism. I am, however, a spectrumite who is in a romantic relationship and has been for several years now. I also know other spectrumites who are or have been in romantic relationships. I have some lived experience with this stuff.
Here’s my pecan-flavored tips on dating the aut-crossed lover of your dreams.
1. First and foremost, autistic people are people, and people tend to vary vastly in their specific arrangement of personality traits, dispositions, interests, tendencies, likes, dislikes, and attitudes. Because of this, there is no one “Autistic Partner” (TM). The individual that you are dating is, well, an individual, and, thus, how you date them must be individualized. Not all people on the spectrum are asocial introverts, for example–some are, but some desire a wide social circle and/or frequent social contacts and will actively seek out such. Not all autistic people operate under a strict schedule or even particularly like schedules all that much: some do, but some prefer to have as few guidelines and impositions as possible.
Thus, it’s probably best that you don’t operate under an assumption of “because autistic people X, and my partner is autistic, then X applies to them.” Learning about autism is really cool of you and is probably important to understanding your partner, to a degree, but learning your specific partner is the more important part. Much of what anyone (this post included) says about autism applies to many or even most autistic people, but probably not all of them, and maybe not your partner specifically.
2. Outside of “if you’ve met one autistic…” axiom, I subjectively believe that the most important thing that a person dating an autistic person needs to keep in mind is autistic intensity.
People on the spectrum have a tendency to have a strong pointedness of thoughts and feelings. When many of us have a thought or feeling that reaches our conscious awareness, it often burns itself into our minds at the utmost highest opaqueness, if not outright consumes us. Sometimes so much so that there isn’t much room in our conscious attention for much else.
This often presents itself in very strongly wanting what is wanted, perhaps to a point that one might call “selfishness.” It may look like strongly insisting that you have your dinner date tonight at a specific restaurant; it may look like them “hogging the radio”; it may look like engaging in an interest or hobby at the expense of all else; sometimes, it may look like them interrupting whatever you’re doing to pay mind to said interest or hobby. It may look like having to have their way at all times.
This may also present itself as strong emotionality: meltdowns, yelling, shutdowns, brooding, panic, ruminating, and, on the other end, tight hugs and squeals of ecstasy and jumping with joy.
(This all said, though, facial expressions and tone of voice may not always reflect this intensity too well. We may have a relatively static expression as we tell you that we’re infuriated with how your jackass boss treats you or that you’re the light and love of our existence. Emotional affectivity can be odd in those on the spectrum. To quote from Tara Kelly’s Harmonic Feedback (great novel, by the way):
“Don’t assume my thoughts by the look on my face. Don’t try and read between my words. At least ask me what I’m thinking or feeling first. It may take me some time, but I will answer you.”
It’s not that we’re trying to be “difficult.” In fact, many on the spectrum deal with immense guilt over these things.
But many people with autism experience the traits of their autism intensely, and this will often manifest in the people around them also being exposed to this intensity.
This all being said,
3. Most people on the spectrum dont’t except or even want you to put all of your own desires and interests aside for the sake of our comfort.
Yes, we have a tendency to be intense people, and, yes, we may well get upset when things don’t go our way.
At 21 years old, I might self-injure, pout, sigh, cold-shoulder, storm off, or even cry when my will is contradicted (and I’m considered passive for an autistic person…and a person in general).
But I do care about you and your feelings, and I do want you to be happy (as do most people in general, autistic or otherwise). Let me have my moment. Let your autistic partner process their upset. It won’t last forever (even if it feels like it in the moment sometimes).
Because if you’re constantly giving in, you run the risk of feeling burned out and resentful. You find yourself pushing yourself aside, which wears you out. You might even start to feel like a caretaker or a parent, and that doesn’t benefit either party.
Now, there are some things that aren’t very compromisable. I’ve never going to be able to tolerate loud environments for long periods of time or stay up very late on a regular basis, no matter how much I love the person. Stims are probably going to (and need to) happen. Those who need their “alone time” to recharge will always need it. A person can’t will themselves out of the symptoms of their neurology.
But some things can be bent or adjusted, and many partners are willing to try to make that adjustment if we know what we need to adjust and why.
So…how do you about with that “making your own desires understood” thing?
4. Be direct and explicit, even when it seems like you “shouldn’t have to be.”
People on the spectrum vary in what specific social skills they’ve acquired and what cues they do or do not pick up on. But in general, most autistic people (and, hell, most people) benefit from you being straight-to-the-point, especially with the stuff that is of high importance to you. If you want (or don’t want) something, say it.
Being subtle isn’t going to work. Body language and gestures may or may not, but until you know for absolute certain that it does, I wouldn’t risk it as your sole method of communication.
To quote a saying often attributed to “things that women should know about men” (but really things that people should know about other people):
“Subtle hints do not work. Strong hints do not work. Obvious hints do not work. Just say it!”
There seems to be a “body of knowledge” that people in a society seem to have almost automatically about what other people “should” do in certain situations without being explicitly told (like kissing your partner on the forehead after a long day of work or offering to make dinner once every X intervals). A part of what the whole autism thing entails for many on the spectrum is that a few (or a lot) of the entries in this body of knowledge are missing. These “entries” come from cues and examples from the media and from models in our own family and peer groups. But with spectrumites, our focus may often find itself elsewhere from these sources, so the entries don’t get put in.
This also means that we may well not “know what we did wrong” and won’t be able to “think about it” and reach a conclusion. If a person on the spectrum (or off it) does something to upset, annoy, or displease you, SAY SO. Let us know exactly how we messed up and exactly WHY doing/not doing said thing is displeasing to you. We may get upset for a bit, but we need to know so that we don’t keep making the same mistakes.
Many people on the spectrum struggle with recognizing our own internal states, let alone recognizing the unspoken internal states of others.
But most of us do care, and we do want to know how we can help to make you happy.
Finally, because this seems to be a topic of much curiosity: what about autism and physical intimacy?
5. Intimacy depends on the person (and even then on mood, well-being, and other internal states).
Some on the spectrum are completely intolerant to just about any physical contact and will be reluctant to show any form of physical affection.
Some on the spectrum are completely addicted to tactile input and will try to hug, kiss, nuzzle, snuggle, caress, squeeze, hold, and touch at every given opportunity.
Most on the spectrum are somewhere in between these two extremes; additionally, most may be closer to one end with certain types of intimacy and closer to the other with other types.
But, of course, a lot of this applies to people not on the spectrum, too.
[It gets really interesting when a touch-adverse person dates a touch-craving person. Compromises are often made on both ends. Things are learned about the self and the partner. The touch-adverse learns the touches that they are the slightest bit comfortable with; the touch-craving learns how to feel closeness in ways other than the physical.
This being said, though, it is generally good practice to not touch a person, autistic or not (but especially if autistic), if they do not want to be touched. Sensory issues are no light matter and can easily lead to overwhelm.]
Additionally, the level of physical intimacy that a person may be willing to give will vary with their levels of exhaustion, comfort, and external activities. A person on the spectrum (and, heck, off of it) will often have moments where they are more willing to cuddle and touch and other moments where they need to pull away for a bit (how long of a bit depends on the person and the circumstance).
Again, direct communication is crucial. If you want to be intimate, say so. If you need a bit of space, say so. Maybe you will get what you want, maybe you won’t, but you have a better chance by being clear and open about what you need in any given moment.
I could ramble on forever about sensory issues and how to best accommodate them, how to cope with meltdowns and shutdowns and burnout and how these things are nothing that you, personally, did wrong, how co-morbid conditions like anxiety or depression or ADHD may affect your loved one, how issues like parenting or employment come into play…but you have dates to plan and memories to be made. Go out there and love and be loved.