Research shows that over five million adults in the US have autism spectrum disorder. Unfortunately, when it comes to dating, this population may feel overlooked or even invisible. That's because people often focus on children when it comes to offering resources and support.
But dating, relationships, and intimacy can certainly bring forth new challenges. If you love someone with autism, here's what you should know.
Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism affects social communication, interactions, and interests. Individuals with ASD communicate, learn, and process information differently than neurotypical people.
The signs of autism begin in toddlerhood. Many children exhibit ASD symptoms before turning a year old, though some do not show signs until after age 2.
The autism spectrum has gained traction in recent years. However, some adults have never been diagnosed. You may be dating someone who meets the criteria for autism without either of you knowing it. High-functioning autistic adults may behave differently, causing people to miss specific symptoms.
Signs of high-functioning autism in adults include:
Experiencing high levels of anxiety over social situations
Avoiding eye contact and having awkward body language
Experiencing difficulty with social skills
Misreading social cues
Taking jokes and conversation literally
Presenting as relatively apathetic or flat (instead of with a spectrum of feelings)
Becoming hyper-focused on a select set of identified interests
Experiencing distress when a routine becomes disrupted
Being hyper-attuned to textures, smells, sights, and sensations
Largely preferring to spend time alone
Respecting the Differences Between Neurodiversity & Neurodivergency
The neurodiversity movement embraces that everyone is inherently unique. Neurotypical people exhibit standard signs of cognitive and intellectual development. They generally have strong communication skills and can function without feeling overwhelmed. But like people with autism, neurotypical people also have behaviors that exist on a vast spectrum.
Neurodivergence is a nonmedical definition for people with different types of brain development. An autistic person is considered neurodivergent, as are people with ADHD, down syndrome, sensory processing disorders, and many other mental health conditions.
Neurodivergent brains are not inferior to neurotypical ones. They are simply wired differently. Many autistic people are accomplished, successful, and happy.
What Should You Know If You're Dating Someone with Autism?
Can autistic people fall in love? Can autistic people date?
Yes and yes! Absolutely. It's a dangerous and ableist myth that autistic people can't feel or express their emotions. They can enjoy fulfilling relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners.
That said, dating can still be challenging. While someone with autism may desire love, they may struggle with the mechanics of dating. Social cues and navigating the complexity of meeting new people tend to be difficult. Likewise, discrimination remains an ongoing problem.
If you're dating someone with autism, here are some tips for making the most of your time together:
Remember That Autism Isn't a One-Size-Fits-All
It's so important to avoid limiting people to specific behaviors or categories. This is true for all individuals, and autistic people are no exception to the rule.
Your autistic partner has their own preferences, values, and desires. It's important that you remain open and curious about learning about what makes them tick. Don't just assume you know.
Learn About Their Difficulties
Many people on the spectrum experience specific sensitivities. For instance, they may have a preferred ritual they engage in. Disruptions or transitions from this routine can lead to feeling overwhelmed.
In addition, you want to be mindful of overstimulation. Everyone is susceptible to this trigger, but autistic people may have heightened responses when their emotions feel dysregulated. They might have panic attacks, meltdowns, or tantrum-like behavior.
You may not be able to entirely avoid these reactions. But you should strive to be mindful of triggers. For instance, you might identify that a large party triggers anxiety and discomfort. If that's the case, you two can problem-solve to review a coping plan. Maybe that means leaving the party early. It may also mean bringing sensory objects to offer a sense of grounding.
Be Direct When Possible
Romantic relationships can quickly become messy when you avoid sharing your needs explicitly. After all, nobody can read your mind. And if you expect your partner to always know your intentions, you are setting a foundation for disappointment.
Autistic people might struggle with sarcasm, passive aggression, or other types of covert communication. A joke that you might find funny might be confusing or offensive to someone on the spectrum.
As a result, they might be very direct when interacting with others. And they might expect reciprocal behavior from their partners.
Of course, this isn't the case for everyone. But regardless of your partner's preferences, it's still important to consider honoring the benefits of assertiveness.
So, try to embrace being direct. This avoids unnecessary guesswork and keeps you both on the same page with sharing what you want.
Accept Who They Are
All sustainable love requires a deep level of acceptance. Trying to change your partner will often backfire and cause excess heartache for both of you.
So, what does acceptance in your relationship mean? First, it means that you recognize and acknowledge them for who they are. You understand you are dating someone with autism. With that mindset, you don't try to fit your partner into some preconceived notion of anyone else.
In addition, acceptance means understanding that relationships naturally require effort and dedication. While love can be extremely satisfying, no dynamic is perfect. It's unrealistic to expect your partner to fit into some ideal mold. Having that kind of standard will only lead to resentment.
Boundaries are important in any relationship. They set limits about acceptable behavior, and they convey how you expect others to treat you.
Dating someone with autism often requires setting boundaries about touch, communication, and connection. Fortunately, an autistic person tends to respond well to literal and direct rules. In fact, if you're wishy-washy in what you want, that tends to cause excess confusion.
Respect Your Needs, Too
No matter who you love, you shouldn't neglect your priorities and emotional well-being. Your relationships should lift you up and inspire you to be the best version of yourself. So, if they leave you feeling drained, anxious, or insecure, it's time for some serious reflection.
A respectful relationship is a two-way street. You deserve to feel like your partner cares about you and values your happiness. You also deserve to be treated respectfully and compassionately.
Of course, if it comes down to it, navigating a breakup might be painful. However, most people find that ending a relationship causes far less suffering than staying in an unhappy dynamic.
Commit to Working Together
Your relationship is special, and you both need to work as a team to find solutions when you face adversity or conflict. Try to put the problem in front of you- instead of making your partner the problem.
Keep in mind that disagreements are largely inevitable. Even the healthiest and happiest couples fight from time to time. The goal isn't to try to avoid disagreements altogether. Instead, the goal should be learning how to use your joint strengths to tackle those rough moments.
It's helpful to remember the virtues of giving your partner the benefit of the doubt. When you wholeheartedly believe someone has good intentions, you tend to feel more supported in the relationship. You no longer feel such a need to prove yourself or "be right."
Finally, don't be afraid to discuss how and when you both need to compromise. Relationships require some mutual take-and-give. Neither of you should feel like things are too one-sided.
Respect Their Other Support System
Your autistic partner may be working with doctors, therapists, and family members at a given time. These individuals help support their functioning and well-being.
It's important to strive to be respectful of these external relationships. Learn about how they help your partner. If you have concerns about certain situations, get more data before making a direct accusation towards someone. Encourage them to continue participating in treatments that help them feel better.
Don't Baby or Coddle Them
It is not your job to rescue your adult partner. People with autism are not deficient- they may experience challenges in the world, and those challenges can affect how they function and cope. But it's wrong to assume that you need to act like an overinvolved parent.
A person with autism is generally capable of making good decisions and practicing autonomy. It's important to respect these basic needs in your romantic relationship.
FAQ on Dating People with Autism
You can't automatically assume you know how a person with autism will behave. Autism is incredibly unique, and you may need to spend time learning more about ASD. That said, here are some questions people often ask about autism and dating.
Are People with Autism Sexually Active?
Some are, and some aren't! It's just like anybody else. Sometimes autism coincides with sensitivity to touch, and your partner may not like certain types of touch. This is why open communication is essential. You both need to be on the same page about intimacy.
Do Autistic People Enjoy Flirting?
Flirting is often stressful. So many social cues to read. So many nonverbal behaviors to pick up on. It can be overwhelming for anyone, but a person with autism might feel like flirting is pointless and excessively chaotic. They tend to prefer more honest interactions where they don't have to put on a false self.
If An Autistic Person Prefers to Be Alone, Can They Enjoy a Relationship?
Yes. Everyone requires different amounts of downtime for recharging. Just because someone likes being alone doesn't mean they don't appreciate the benefits of romantic relationships. At times, it may seem like they don't want your company. That just means they're probably trying to unwind and regroup.
Should People with Autism Date Other People with Autism?
They can, but it doesn't need to be a set rule. It's a misconception that people on the spectrum automatically want to date others with autism. Most just want to enjoy a romantic relationship with someone they connect well with.
Romantic relationships are undoubtedly complicated. Loving someone with autism doesn't necessarily add more challenges, but you should be aware of potential obstacles. You should also be aware of how you can be supportive, respectful, and compassionate- even if you two have significant differences.
At Mental Health Transitions, we embrace an inclusive, empathic approach with our clients. We work with people from all walks of life, and we understand the wide spectrum of mental health needs. We are here for you and your loved ones.
Contact us today to learn more!