One of the common misconceptions about autism is that we are unable to have romantic relationships. Part of this stems from the idea that there is no way we could possibly want the contact and interaction that comes with relationships as understood by non-autistics, and another part is that we can’t engage in the kind of behavior that non-autistics consider to be crucial to the success of a relationship. None of these assumptions about autistics is necessarily true.
I’ll address the first assumption, and that is that autistic people don’t desire the contact and interaction that comes with a relationship. While it’s true that most autistic people aren’t big fans of physical contact, it isn’t always true and in some cases this can be true in degrees. The idea of physical contact isn’t an all or nothing proposition in every case. I’ll use myself as an example.
I’ve been in many relationships and the one I am currently in is amazing. We’ve been together for six years and still going strong. I’ve desired physical contact to various degrees throughout my life. It depended on how close I felt to the person at any given time and part of it was changes with me as I aged. Currently, there are occasions that I seek out physical contact, like a hug, but it depends on what is going on in my life. It is more likely to happen if I’m not stressed and I am well rested. When, I don’t desire physical contact, it doesn’t upset me for my fiance to hug me. I trust her and I am comfortable with her. It just doesn’t do anything for me emotionally when she hugs me. At best I appreciate the gesture and I realize it might be something she needs, so I am happy to do it.
If I do desire a hug, I generally prefer a tight hug and not a light casual hug. The comfort comes from the pressure being applied.
Another aspect of a relationship is the general interaction. Things like sitting in the same room even if there is no verbal and/or physical interaction doesn’t really do much for me. I may do it to watch something that interests me, but at that point it’s because I am doing something that interests me, not for the interaction. I do interact with my family and I enjoy doing so, but I schedule that time. I am far more apt to be wrapped up in my day to day activities and my special interests. The best way to spend time with me in a relationship is to engage in my special interest with me. However, I will interact with my fiance by cuddling her while watching something she likes, because I know she needs it. Often, my mind is on the things I enjoy while I do it, but she is getting what she needs which is me in the same room with her while she does something she likes.
There is also this idea that autistics are incapable of engaging in other aspects of love and relationships that are vital to their success. Such things could include helping around the house, helping with kids, engaging in romantic social cliches, etc… These aren’t necessarily true or an issue. Every relationship is different and what people need for a relationship to work is deeply personal. How people speak and behave in a relationship is something they need to work out and find the way that works best for them.
I help with things that need to get done around the house. My fiance and I may do one task more than the other person, but usually that means the other person is doing another task more. For instance my fiance does more laundry than me, though I help, but educating the kids, fixing problems with technology, and random small tasks around the house are things I do more of. It works for us and plays to our preferences and strengths. I don’t engage in romantic cliches. The idea of romance is lost on me. I’ve had people try to explain it to me and no one can give parameters that make any sense. I would go into it further, but the topic of romance is another post entirely. Sufficed to say, I do things that are romantic gestures by my own measure. My fiance has come to understand why the gesture is romantic in my eyes.
My fiance and I also have our own way of talking and interacting that work for us. We are both witty and we like to bicker a lot. Our bickering and teasing one another is all in fun. We understand that neither of us means any harm. We also say things that would normally be socially inappropriate, but we do so usually as a mockery of certain ideals we don’t agree with. We understand it’s meant as mockery, and we may role play opposite sides of the issue in the form of bickering. It’s all in fun for us and I rather enjoy the mental exercise.
That kind of interaction has opened us up to judgement on numerous occasions. Those observing don’t understand the nuance of our interaction. It may even look unhealthy to them, or like one of us is being a bully. It’s easy to judge other people’s show of love in a relationship simply because it isn’t how they would do it or what they would prefer. This gets to the heart of the misconception about love and relationships with autistic people. We are more than capable, but like non-autistics we have to find that person that matches us. Finding that person can be harder for us. It takes a person with an open mind that is willing to explore ideas that might be uncomfortable and that are willing to do a lot of introspection. As always, every autistic is different, and some may be affected by autism in such a way that they may not be able to engage in a romantic relationship, but be assured, there are many of us out there that do and are happy to have those relationships. We just have to do it our way, not the way non-autistics tell us we have to do it.