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Dating on the Autism Spectrum: Notes for Neurotypical Partners
August 30, 2020 by Dr. Tasha Oswald
Hello! Welcome back to my blog series: Dating on the Autism Spectrum. In my clinical experience, this is a topic that interests many of my high-functioning autistic clients. So far, I’ve shared dating tips for autistic individuals and how to handle conflict. Today I want to touch on what it’s like to be neurotypical and dating someone on the spectrum. I understand that every individual relationship is unique, but there are some common challenges that occur in this situation.
Understanding Autism and Emotions
One of the most Googled questions neurotypicals ask about dating on the autism spectrum is “can autistic people fall in love?” To be honest, this question always catches me off guard. Of course they can! They’re human! It’s a common misconception that autistic people cannot feel or express emotions. In fact, they are some of the most empathetic people I know. Some autistic people hyper-empathize to the point that they feel very intense emotions. The difference is that they may not show these emotions on their face or they may have trouble expressing them.
Sometimes, the lack of emotions displayed by an autistic partner can really anger their neurotypical partner, because they misinterpret that as not caring. Then, a cycle begins because a person with autism will often withdraw to avoid conflict and the trauma triggers it brings up. When an autistic person is faced with conflict and an upset or hostile partner, they often withdraw or leave the scene because they feel unsafe.
Relationships can be an autistic person’s special interest
Many autistic teens and adults are very passionate about a special interest. So, they invest an intense amount of time and energy into it. They can talk on and on about it. Often times, this extreme passion and interest extend to their relationship as well. Have you ever joked about a friend who recently fell in love and can’t think about or talk about anything else? Well, that’s similar to how an autistic person feels about their special interests and their love life.
Romantic relationships can be difficult to maneuver when you’re dating on the autism spectrum.
Romantic relationships are complex and confusing for neurotypical people. But, for autistic people, romantic relationships are even more complex and confusing. Many people with autism crave intimacy and love. But, they don’t know how to achieve it in a romantic relationship. They can feel blind to everyday subtle social cues from their partner. This can cause conflict and hurt feelings.
There’s an old saying: Marriage is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. And this really applies when you think about being in a relationship with an autistic partner. Most autistic adults that I work with tell me they are trying incredibly hard to be a good partner. I believe this! They are exhausted by the perplexing signs that their partners are giving them. It can feel like reading a book but you only get to see every 5th word. Your goal is now to understand the whole book, but you can’t when you miss most of the story. Sometimes you might get the gist, but you still feel confused.
As a neurotypical dating someone with autism, you may need to play the role of an interpreter
Does this mean people with autism can’t become better partners? No, that’s not the case, they can grow a lot. But, as a neurotypical partner, it’s important to acknowledge you can grow, too. Your autistic partner is spending most of their waking hours in a world biased for neurotypical people and trying to interpret your neurotypical messages. However, their brain was not wired to process neurotypical messages easily. So as a neurotypical partner, you can help by playing the role of interpreter and explain what you’re trying to tell them by saying what you mean.
Try to see the world through your partner’s eyes and understand their perspective.
When conflict occurs, try and empathize with your partner and their struggles. Then, it will be up to your partner to share with you. Usually, there was a misunderstanding and your partner was not intentionally trying to make you feel abandoned, dismissed, or insignificant. They simply did not understand what you were trying to communicate with them. Many people with autism do not readily pick up on non-verbal communication, so ask yourself: was I direct in telling them what I needed or wanted? If the answer is no, then try and understand their confusion.
Learning how to listen to your autistic partner and not make neurotypical assumptions is a hard task. But, really listening to your partner and trying to understand their pain and their perspective builds intimacy. You will get to know them probably deeper than anyone else in their life.
Self-awareness holds the key to dating on the autism spectrum
It is up to your autistic partner to also become more self-aware. If they don’t understand their own feelings, beliefs, and intentions, they won’t be able to share them with you. Individual counseling or couple’s counseling can help your autistic partner become more self-reflective and self-aware.
Self-awareness on both sides of the relationship is important. When your partner understands their feelings, beliefs, and intentions, then they can share them with you. But, as a neurotypical partner, it’s important to learn more about yourself, too. What drew you to your partner? Now, what causes you to feel unloved, insignificant, or abandoned? Is this a pattern in your relationships? If you’re both struggling with this, then consider counseling. Couples counseling with a therapist who specializes in helping neurodiverse couples can really help you both become more self-aware and understand each other’s wants and needs.
Learning about each other never stops, especially when you’re dating on the autism spectrum
Lastly, learn about your autistic partner’s unique needs and honor them. Common situations that may be challenging for your autistic partner include:
- Social settings: Many people with autism have a need for alone time and time to engage in their special interests. Crowds, family gatherings, or going out with a group of friends can feel overwhelming.
- Group conversations: Many people with autism feel more at ease in 1-on-1 interactions. In group settings, it can be draining and tedious for an autistic person to make conversation and stay engaged. Robbing the autistic person of the joy of the interaction and getting to know someone.
- Sensory sensitivities: Becoming overstimulated is common. Sometimes they don’t even know it at a conscious level, but it dramatically impacts the way they feel and behave in certain situations. Sounds, textures, smells, vibrations can overwhelm their nervous system, especially if their senses had been assaulted earlier in the day. This can wear them down and drain them.
Put yourself in their shoes for a moment
Imagine running 10 miles during the day. Then, you come home, and your partner won’t even acknowledge that you ran 10 miles. Now, how do you feel about that? It probably would hurt your feelings. Remember this analogy the next time you get upset with your partner when they say no to doing something or go along with it but become overwhelmed. They metaphorically run a marathon every day but aren’t often acknowledged for their efforts. Furthermore, they are asked to change or try harder and that can cause them to feel so sad. So, it’s important to think about what really matters to you, and be reasonable in your requests of your autistic partner. Recognize how hard they are trying every day to make you happy. It will give you the compassion and understanding to be reasonable with them while respecting your own needs too.
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Navigating romantic relationships with autism can be challenging, but we have services for you that can help. You don’t have to go through this alone. I offer a wide range of services for autism including help in romantic relationships. There are a few steps you can take to get more information.
- Contact Open Doors Therapy and schedule a free 30-minute consultation call
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Other services at Open Doors Therapy
At our autism therapy clinic located in Palo Alto, we offer other services for those with high functioning autism, Aspbergers, and undiagnosed autism characteristics. Due to the COVID- pandemic we are using online therapy. I offer services including individual counseling for teens and parents, adult counseling, and group therapy. If you’re interested I also offer a wide range of social skills groups including neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, autistic adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, autistic teens transitioning to college (summer only), teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. Contact me today for your consultation. Share on Facebook Tweet
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