- Widespread stereotypes suggest that people with autism are incapable of feeling romantic love.
- In reality, people with autism can experience romantic love and often attach considerable value to their close relationships.
- Difficulties in these relationships tend to involve an attachment to routines, social interaction challenges, and communication issues.
- Relationship management strategies can help autistic people and their partners have fulfilling, loving relationships.
Can people with autism fall in love?
To me, the answer to this question is fairly obvious: Yes. Autistic people fall in love all the time, and many have long-term relationships and/or decide to get married. However, it’s a question that is asked a lot and that can worry some people who are beginning to explore whether they themselves might be autistic.
The worry that people with autism will find it difficult to either love someone or sustain a long-term relationship is usually based on the following reasons:
- empathy issues
- social issues
- routines and rigid thinking
- communication issues.
While these issues may apply to all types of autism, this particular discussion is aimed at those who have Level 1 or high-functioning autism (those who might previously have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome). Other factors might be more significant in people with other levels of autism.
1. Empathy issues
One of the great misunderstandings about autistic people is that they lack empathy. In fact, people with autism tend to only struggle with one type of empathy: cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy involves trying to determine what someone is feeling, based on their body language and other means of expression, and trying to work out what you would feel in a similar situation.
Affective empathy, by contrast, is where we “feel with” someone else. It’s a deep sense of connection and emotional response. Imagine you’re with someone you love who is deeply upset and crying. You may feel yourself becoming deeply upset, too. Or you may feel deeply moved by the plight of an animal and feel as if you’re feeling their distress.
Those are examples of affective empathy, and, far from lacking in it, people with autism are often overwhelmed by the depth of their experiences. People with autism can, therefore, connect deeply with other people at an empathic level.
2. Social issues
People with autism often have difficulties with social interaction. No matter what level of autism they have, they likely have difficulties with social cues and reading other people, in addition to finding it hard to pick up conversational subtext. They also tend to experience social overwhelm and burnout and may have to spend time on their own—all of which can add up to problems meeting, dating, and forming long-term relationships with others.
But just because you might have difficulty dealing with more than one person at a time, it doesn’t mean that you can’t form a deep relationship with someone you care about. In fact, people with autism often become deeply focused on—even, at times, obsessed—with another person during the early stages of a relationship; for women with autism, it's common for an intense focus on other people to be one of the “special interests” that is a symptom of autism. And despite finding groups of people difficult to navigate, many people with autism express a desire for one or two close relationships and deeply value those relationships.
My client Cheryl, for example, described her relationship with her husband as, “Being all I need. I feel like I should have more friends, but I’m not interested in putting in the effort. I’m so close to my husband that I don’t feel I need anyone else, really.”
Grace told me, “I have been with my partner since college. Up to meeting him, I had a best friend—who I’m still friends with—but I’ve never had many friends. I fell for him straight away and we’ve been inseparable ever since. I feel like we have a very intense relationship even though we’ve been together 20 years and have two kids.”
3. Routines and rigid thinking
When someone with autism does find someone they want to be with, however, they might find it hard to be in a relationship–and their partner might find it difficult to accommodate some of their needs.
People with autism tend to have a strong attachment to particular ways of doing and thinking about things, and it can be difficult for them to compromise or change their ways. Close relationships tend to be all about compromise—which makes it hard for both parties when one has autism.
Petra described the problems she faced when she and her girlfriend moved in together. “I loved her to bits but I absolutely hated living with her for the first year or so. She drove me mad by moving my stuff and bringing stuff that I hated into the house. I resented how she mucked up my routines. I was so agitated and overwhelmed all the time, I didn’t think we’d make it.”
Sheila told me, “I sometimes think my partner’s a bit of a saint. I’ve had several meltdowns when he’s annoyed me, usually about something which, on reflection, isn’t a big deal at all. I also need someone who can put up with me getting so into my work that I barely notice him for days. That’s been a real problem for me in previous relationships.”
People with autism tend to have difficulties communicating their emotional needs, which can cause problems in close relationships. They may find it hard to communicate an initial interest in someone, express their needs within a relationship, or declare their love for someone else.
Ellie told me, “I’ve been in relationships with people in the past who really thought I wasn’t that interested in them. I’ve been called 'cold' and accused of being an 'ice queen.' Underneath, there was this passionate person. I’d feel like there was a volcano inside of me, but I just didn’t know how to let any of that out. My current partner is also on the spectrum and he understands my communication issues.”
Another client, Marianne, described her problems with meeting people. “To say I can’t flirt is an understatement. I like people so, so much that the thought of letting them know I’m attracted to them makes me sick. Even when people make it really obvious they like me, I find it hard to reciprocate.”
Olivia said, “As much as I’d love to be in a close relationship again, I just find it too hard. When there’s anything that needs to be said, any conflict or whatever, I just shut off. I always end up putting up with so much stuff I’m not happy with until, one day, I just clear off and block the person. Relationships are too stressful for me.”
Finding the Right Person
Relationships tend to be hard for most people. When autism is added into the mix, they can be even tougher.
But many of the relationship issues my clients face can be managed with improved communication and understanding from both parties. Educating a partner about your autism can foster a better understanding of your needs. You, for your part, can learn ways of communicating that feel safer and more manageable.
It's not always easy. But for those autistic people who want to be in a loving relationship—and not all of them do or should—they certainly have the ability to love and to be loved.
In my book Women with Autism: Accepting and Embracing Life With Autism Spectrum Disorder, I discuss some of the issues women face in forming and maintaining relationships.