Written by Stevie Lang
Relationships are the biggest challenge of my life.
I remember being fascinated as a kid with the idea of having a boyfriend. The notion of having a person in my life who understood me and was committed to me captured my imagination with the promise that maybe this might be the thing that finally made me feel like I fit somewhere.
And so, relationships became my deepest and longest lasting special interest.
Like most Autistics with a fascination, I know a lot about my interest. I have read a staggering amount of literature on relationships and communication. And yet, for the most part, this information has been useless as a guide to having relationships of my own. On a personal level, my struggles in relationships have been both devastating and confusing. When I say I have tried all the things, I say it with an earnestness that perhaps only fellow Autistics will understand. And yet, despite these efforts, I just couldn’t get my relationships to work for me, or others.
Unfortunately, looking for help, I discovered that the assumption that Autistic people are either disinterested in or incapable of relationships remains pervasive, and a lot of what is written about Autism and relationships is geared towards persuading (cisgender heterosexual) Autistic men to be more attentive partners to their “long-suffering” neurotypical wives.
There is very little information out there directed at Autistic people who want to learn to have interpersonal relationships in a way that genuinely works for their neurology.
It took an at times frustrating process of trial and error, as well as a marriage and divorce in my twenties, to find my way into the principles that would support me as an Autistic person in relationships.
A key component of this has been accepting that as an Autistic person, my relationships – which I am happy to say are now far more pleasant, comfortable and fulfilling – will look fundamentally different from those depicted in the neurotypical relationships literature I had consumed so voraciously.
Here’s some of what I have learned.
- Expect and embrace relationships that look different
Many Autistic people find that non-traditional styles of relationship suit them better than the neurotypical model of dating, monogamy, cohabitation, commitment and children.
Non-traditional relationships may include relationships that involve living separately, significant and committed platonic relationships, romantic relationships that are not sexual, single parenting or living solo as a choice, as well as relationships that feature types of non-monogamy or involve participation in particular subcultural groups like BDSM. The reasons for this may relate to Autistic people’s tendency to pursue authenticity at the expense of social norms, and also the fact that non-traditional relationship styles allow Autistic people to tailor a relationship to their needs, desires and capabilities.
For me, embracing polyamory has meant that I can find different types of connections that nourish different aspects of myself and draw on the support of a larger network in times of need. Polyamory also demands a lot of rigorous communication, which helps me, by making expectations and desires explicit and relying less on assumptions and social cues.
- It’s okay to ask for what you need
Autistic people know better than most that we can’t really know what another person is thinking or feeling.
Having relationships that are inclusive of neurodiversity means accepting that there is no one way that successful relationships look.
This means letting go of arbitrary standards like “you’re too clingy if” or “you’re not a good partner if” and replacing these ideas with functional communication about how satisfied and happy we and our partners are.
Letting go of the search for objective standards means that each person can ask for what they need. This includes asking for relational accommodations that specifically address what we need in relation to our disabilities. However, this is with the proviso that we’re willing to hear no to our requests and accept that we may not be compatible as relational partners with everyone we are in love with or attracted to.
- Good communication is whatever works for you
Autistic people don’t lack communication skills, although we often communicate in ways that are different from neurotypical people. Guidance on how to communicate that is aimed at neurotypicals might leave us feeling overwhelmed, uncomfortable or incapable. Relational accommodations around communication may be particularly necessary in relationships with Autistic people. In one of my relationships, we try to use non-verbal communication as much as possible to resolve disagreements, and we try to cap complex conversations at about 20 minutes. This might not look like good communication to a neurotypical observer, but to us, it keeps us safe and happy.
- Autistic love might look and feel different and that’s okay
When I experience the excitement of a new relationship, I find the experience overwhelming. It’s exciting. It’s anxious. It invariably seems to move too fast. In the past, I used to feel a furtive shame about this “obsessive thinking” in much the same way as I felt ashamed of my special interests.
It took me a little while to recognise that developing a new special interest and forming a new relationship are quite similar for me. The excitement, the fascination, the returning loop of thoughts, the intensity and speed, it’s roughly the same. I needed to hear that this was okay and that it’s a normal Autistic way of being.
That said, once familiarity has been achieved, my feelings are quite unshakable. I have found myself in situations where I have waited years longer than I should have to leave a painful relationship due to the intensity of my sense of loyalty. However, often this commitment isn’t even recognised as love at all in a world that prioritises neurotypical concepts of romance that are based on novelty and excitement.
While I have learned a lot, relationships remain one of the biggest challenges of my life. I feel like I am continually unlearning ableist ideas and beliefs as well as discovering more about who I am and what feels right to me. I’m much happier in the relationships I have now. The key, for me, has been to accept Autistic difference.