Have you ever thought about dating a neurodivergent person? Or are you someone who wants to date someone neurodivergent but doesn’t know how? Here are some tips!
1. Recognize that neurodivergence can be fluid.
While many people think of autism as a binary – either they have it, or they don’t – there are actually many different forms of autism. This means that if you’re looking for an autistic partner, the odds aren’t necessarily stacked against you because your desired form of neurodiversity is rare. You might be surprised at how many people actually fit what you’re looking for. However, this also means that if you go into dating expecting every single person to be the same, you’ll be sorely mistaken and might give up quickly.
2. Be willing to check your preconceptions at the door.
Neurodivergence isn’t just about autism – it encompasses a wide range of issues that can manifest themselves in different ways depending on the person and their environment. For example, someone may actually be neurodivergent but not aware of it because their symptoms are mild or because they’ve been so heavily medicated, or misdiagnosed with another disorder, that their symptoms have been artificially suppressed. Or maybe they’re emotionally unstable without knowing why. The point is: don’t expect anyone to “look” neurodivergent if they aren’t aware of their own issues and/or haven’t been diagnosed.
3. Don’t expect everything to be smooth sailing.
Neurodivergence isn’t something that can be easily medicated away, nor is medication always an option. This means there are certain things you’re going to have to deal with throughout your relationship that other neurotypical people wouldn’t have to deal with – or might not even believe exists in the first place! So call them out if they make misinformed statements about mental illness without knowing any better, and try not to take it personally if they lash out at you. Remember, this is their way of expressing themselves, not a personal attack on you or anything you’ve said/done!
4. If nothing else works, remember: it’s not your fault.
Neurodivergence is a very touchy subject because it’s still so misunderstood and taboo in society – even amongst neurotypical people! I know, from personal experience, that dating someone with autism can be difficult, but remember: if they’ve opened themselves up to you like this, then they must see something positive in you. It’s okay for relationships to end – especially if one person doesn’t feel like their needs/interests are being met. You may simply not be the right match, and that has nothing to do with anything wrong with either of you. As long as everyone treats each other respectfully and works towards a better understanding of neurodiversity (for both yourself and others), there will come a time when you’ll be able to date safely and respectfully.
Neurodivergence is a fundamental part of who we are – whether we’re aware of it or not, and whether we like it or not. We all deserve love and respect for exactly who we are, neurodivergent or otherwise. If that’s really what you want, then go ahead! Date us! As long as both people in the relationship are willing to work through their issues together, anything is possible. I believe in you.
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Dating on the Autism Spectrum: Notes for Neurotypical Partners
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.
Begin Autism Therapy in California:
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.
I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (Asperger’s Syndrome) in 2020. My specific diagnosis is high-functioning autism, “classic” autism, or atypical autism – which are all the same thing. Before I got my diagnosis, I did not know that I was Neurodivergent. After a failed suicide attempt and ending up in a psychiatric hospital, my life changed.
The biggest area of difficulty for me seems to be recognizing social cues and understanding gestures, verbal tones of voice, facial expressions, etc., along with body language.
I was formally diagnosed when I was 41 years old – but these things have been the norm for me since childhood… because I am a classic example of someone who is ” high-functioning .” Like many people with autism, I had no idea that anything was wrong with me. Autism isn’t a disease or a disorder – it’s a neurological variant. A disability, sure – but not an illness.
When I went looking for information about how to manage the challenges of my Asperger’s Syndrome as a partner, I found zilch. And by zilch, I mean almost nothing even close to any kind of practical advice that might help me handle dating and relationships.
So then what happened? Well, I decided that if there weren’t other guys like me out there talking about their experiences regarding this topic (finding dates, relationships), then maybe I should write about them.
I’ve had my share of dating, and I’ve seen things go well – and badly. I’m not married, but I have had two, one for less than two years. My last relationship was broken off by the other person because of reasons I do not share to still be respectful of their honor. Also, she is the mother of my child.
If you are thinking about dating someone who is high-functioning on the Autism spectrum, here are some points to consider:
They won’t do well if you’re looking for a quick hookup or something purely casual where there’s no emotional involvement involved. They need love and affection as everyone else does – it just takes them longer to recognize when they’re feeling that way.
They might not be able to read your non-verbal cues or gestures, so it’s important for you to use their language (autistic symptoms/traits) in order for them to understand what you mean. For example, if it makes you uncomfortable when someone stands too close, then let the person know by saying something like: “Hey, I feel uncomfortable when people stand this close… please give me some space.” And vice versa – if you want more affection and physical contact, tell them directly: “Hey, I really enjoy this… can we do __?” If it’s OK with them, then great! If not, then at least you tried.
They can have trouble expressing their needs and desires… so it’s important for you to learn the things that matter most to them. What does a particular topic or activity mean to them? A lot of times, they’ll get upset if you don’t understand what one thing means to them. It’s important for you to realize that their issues shouldn’t be ignored or discounted. Their problems are real, even though they might look like yours. Their feelings are real.
Be willing to work with them on their issues. Set a goal for yourself of being a lifelong student about Asperger’s Syndrome and autism in general. It will help you understand your significant other, and it will help them feel more accepted if they have someone who is trying to learn from them.
Not everyone with autism is the same. The best way I can describe this is that there are many points on an “autism spectrum” – just like how “tall” or “short” represent two ends of a physical spectrum…. while height is only one aspect of a person. Someone might be short, but they could also be intelligent, athletic, funny, etc… it goes beyond height.
Everyone is unique and will react to things differently. Just because one thing works for me does not mean it’ll work for everyone on the spectrum. With this in mind, you shouldn’t assume that all people with autism think and feel exactly like you do (and vice versa). Be willing to be patient. It takes time for them to learn how to function in different situations, and it won’t happen overnight – especially if they’ve never had anyone teach them how.
Take things one step at a time. Don’t expect to learn everything all at once. Just because you know a few things about autism doesn’t mean that you can take care of your significant other all on your own – this is a team effort. It’s important for them to have friends and family members who are willing to help out from time to time, so don’t try and do everything yourself.
Keep an open mind. Keep in mind that “autistic” doesn’t mean less human or inferior in any way. In fact, I’m proud to be autistic because it makes me uniquely me. There’s nothing wrong with being different – it just takes some people longer than others to realize this!
Remember that there might be things that are important to them, but you might not understand. For example, some people on the spectrum have an intense obsession with a particular TV show or character. While this might seem silly or trivial to you, it’s an aspect of who they are and must be respected regardless of whether you understand it or not.
Be willing to get creative when trying to communicate needs. My fiance once wrote out her preferences in pictures because she has a hard time reading emotions that aren’t explicitly written down (for example, if someone is smiling while they’re talking, then she’ll often assume whatever they’re saying is positive even if it isn’t). It took me forever to figure out what she meant by “I want __” – in fact, I didn’t figure out what she wanted until after she let me read her journal about it! So I surprise her with my creativity every now and then.
If you’re patient, willing to learn, open-minded, willing to get creative (and honestly, that should be the bare minimum), then your relationship will flourish. If you both constantly try to bend over backwards for each other, then things will go much better than if one of you is constantly trying to “fix” the other person because they don’t understand where their significant other is coming from… or worse yet – constantly criticizing them instead of offering suggestions for how they can improve themselves.
I am far from an expert and still figuring it out, but what I do know is that we allow each other to be ourselves unless when it is detrimental to the other person or our relationship. Also, don’t believe everything you think…