The Top 5 Things People in Neurodiverse Couples Should Know
Romantic relationships are hard enough, but what if your partner is autistic?
Posted Jan 20, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
I am autistic.
I (Sarah) learned this in my early thirties (where I still am), though it has made my whole life make so much more sense.
My husband is neurotypical, or at least more mainstream in the way he thinks and interacts than me—though nobody who has met my husband would come away thinking of him as “typical.” The word neurotypical is kind of a misnomer anyway, as there isn’t really a “typical” brain—every single brain is different—it’s just that some are more different in more ways than others.
When we met 10 years ago (almost to the day!), we only knew each other, not the diagnosis. Our relationship developed along a highly non-typical trajectory, with us moving in together after a mere three months of what could only loosely be described as “dating” (which consisted of three or four visits and a lot of long-distance chatting). Then, like any new couple would, I began to learn his traits, and he began to learn mine.
There were some rocky times in the beginning, for both of us. We went through our fair share of growing pains, perhaps more than a “typical” share, as our communication differences continued to manifest. But every moment of contention brought us closer to a truer understanding of each other.
Looking back, both of us can identify certain key things that, had we the tools, would have made it easier for us. While we would not change anything about our early years, we wanted to share these observations in case there are any neurodiverse couples who could benefit from some of the things we ironed out together over the years.
The Autistic Partner
What are the "top 5" things that I, as an autistic woman, want my neurotypical partner to know, and/or do, specifically when it relates to my autism/quirks/traits/neurodiversity?
- Always, always, always assume that I have good intentions.
- Understand that I may not advocate for myself in the same way that other people might, but don’t let that make you feel like you have to speak over me. Learn my voice, and find ways to amplify it, without smothering it.
- Remember that your words echo in my head for hours—sometimes days—after you say them, particularly if they are emotionally charged. There is little I can do to change this, other than just try to ignore the repetition.
- Know that I do have emotions, and that they are extremely acute and often prolonged, even if they rarely find their way to the visible surface.
- I love you more deeply than I can ever express and I don’t say it or show it often enough, because I assume you already know.
And what are the "bottom 5"—the things that I would never want Larry to do if he could avoid it (emergencies notwithstanding), related to my autistic traits?
- Don’t walk away from me when I am trying to find my words but taking longer to speak than one might normally expect of a non-autistic person.
- Never put me on the spot (spring something new on me in public)—anywhere, in any way, for any reason.
- Don't expect me to read subtext and then get upset when I don't—if you want me to do something you need to tell me directly, not refer to it obliquely or try to make me decide to do it myself out of guilt or duty or curiosity.
- Never, ever bring somebody over to my house (yes, in this case it is "my" and not "our" house) unannounced.
- Don’t automatically assume that an event or new activity will be too much for me or not enjoyable—ask me first before you decide to turn down potentially over-stimulating opportunities.
The Neurotypical Partner
From the other side, what are the "top 5" things that I, Larry, Sarah's husband, would want her to know, related to my being neurotypical?
- Always, always, always assume good intentions. (Sound familiar?)
- Understand that I am not being a domineering jerk—I am your advocate, I support your voice and your wants even when they aren't always mine.
- Remember that, while you might, I don’t ever dwell on or keep track of the things I say, especially the challenging words. I love you and that is what stays with me.
- Know that I share my emotions frequently and strongly, not because I’m trying to make it easier for you or to hurt you, but rather because it is part of my personality.
- I show my love by doing things and don’t expect thanks after every action.
And my "bottom 5" things that I would hope Sarah never does?
- Don’t feel bad when I take a mental health walk. Sometimes my emotions are boiling inside and I need to exhale, so let me have space. I’m not abandoning you, I am regulating my emotions the way I have to. It’s a walk because I love you.
- Never force yourself to make decisions without taking the time you need, even when it is exasperating for me.
- Don’t placate me by pretending to understand something I said—if my words are confusing, ask for clarification. I may be annoyed, but the alternative potential for miscommunication is much worse. When I speak, I do so with intention and it’s important for you to understand.
- Never be jealous of any interactions I might have with other people. Just because I’m talking to someone else right then doesn’t mean I don’t want to be with you. You are always on my mind and I am constantly on the alert for ways to bring you into the conversation so you can feel successful.
- Don’t put me on a pedestal! I am human! I’m not a robot! I make mistakes and that’s okay. Sometimes I will be contradictory or confusing—as will you—but it will pass.
How About You?
Now it's your turn!
We would love to know, from any other neurodiverse couples, or single autistics/neurotypicals looking for romance: What are the things you would want your partner to know about you? What is it about your inner world or the way you think and feel, which may not be so clear on the surface, that would be important for your partner to learn?