A person who identifies as having Asperger’s has unique preferences and priorities when it comes to relationships. Autism may affect some of these preferences and how someone relates to others.
Asperger’s used to be a type of autism diagnosis. Today, all forms of autism come under the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), although some people still identify as “aspies.”
Read on to learn more about Asperger’s and adult relationships, including the potential challenges, signs a person in a relationship might be autistic, relationship skills to practice, and what to avoid.
Autism can directly and indirectly affect relationships in a variety of ways. It may affect communication, shared interests, intimacy, and how people get on living together. However, it can also bring strengths, such as commitment, honesty, and strong passions or hobbies.
The exact challenges or strengths that autism adds to relationships will depend on the individual ways it affects a person. For example, it may mean someone bonds very well with people who share the same interests as them, but in other cases, a person might:
- experience anxiety about meeting people
- have difficulty communicating
- not have the same level of education on safe and healthy relationships as neurotypical peers
This last point can be a consequence of ableism, which refers to prejudice or discrimination against those with disabilities.
Some people wrongly assume that those with disabilities do not need or want close relationships or sex, meaning they can have gaps in their knowledge that may make them vulnerable to risks.
Autistic people, particularly women, may also be more vulnerable to victimization in relationships, according to a 2020 expert review.
The authors say that autistic women can be at higher risk of experiencing inappropriate sexual behavior in relationships than both autistic men and neurotypical women. Education about safe relationships may help protect against this.
Yes, similarly to other people, autistic people can have happy relationships.
A 2020 analysis found that both autistic and nonautistic individuals value similar things when it comes to intimacy, including:
- sharing and similarities
However, in relationships comprising autistic and nonautistic people, there may be significant differences in how each person sees the world. This can result in what sociologists call the “double empathy problem,” which is when people with very different experiences have difficulty empathizing with each other.
This does not mean it is impossible for autistic and nonautistic individuals to have healthy, satisfying relationships. However, it may take more learning and open-mindedness for the nonautistic person to understand their partner.
Autism symptoms vary greatly from person to person. Some that might present in relationships include the below.
Differences in executive functioning
Executive functioning is the ability to plan and coordinate a person’s life. Autistic people often have differences in executive functioning in comparison to nonautistic individuals. These differences can include:
- a need to stick with a familiar routine
- a tendency to want to plan ahead
- less flexibility in response to change or new ideas
When something disrupts a person’s routine, they may become anxious or frustrated.
- spend large amounts of time on them, neglecting daily tasks
- talk about them very frequently or in detail
- become frustrated or anxious when they cannot pursue their interests
- feel unsure of what to say in conversations about other topics
Different communication styles
Autistic people sometimes use fewer facial expressions, changes in body language, or voice intonation when they are communicating. This can mean that others do not know how they are feeling.
Similarly, those without autism can use facial expressions, tones of voice, and figures of speech that an autistic person does not understand. They may miss these social cues or find them confusing.
Some autistic people also have difficulty understanding speech that is not literal, such as sarcasm or jokes.
Difficulty understanding others
In addition to the differences in communication style, autistic people can also sometimes
This may make other peoples’ actions confusing or cause a person to feel they often do not understand their partner.
Sensory issues and sexuality
Autistic people can find certain sensations, such as a noise or smell, very uncomfortable. This can affect where they feel comfortable on dates or their home environment. It can also affect sex. Additionally, the person may strongly like or dislike certain forms of touch or find too much physical sensation overwhelming.
One of the most important skills in any relationship is clear communication. This can be especially useful in relationships where one or both people are neurodivergent, as it can help individuals understand each other.
For example, communicating things that seem obvious, such as how a person currently feels and why or what aspects of relationships or social interactions they find easy or hard, can help avoid misunderstandings.
Some people may need to learn more about autism and about themselves for them to be able to explain their experiences to others accurately.
Other skills that may help with relationships include:
- active listening
- approaching differences with curiosity rather than judgment
- building a mutual understanding of autism
- being willing to adapt communication styles, home spaces, and routines in a way that benefits all partners
- recognizing a partner’s agency in making their own decisions
- maximizing and praising each person’s strengths
- being accountable for a person’s own behavior and seeking help for it if necessary
In relationships, both autistic and nonautistic people need to avoid:
- viewing one way of experiencing the world as inherently better or more logical
- trying to change a partner’s behavior against their will
- expecting a partner to know what a person is exactly thinking or feeling without needing to tell them
- getting into a parent-child relationship dynamic, where one person is always rescuing or looking after the other
- attributing all harmful behaviors to autism — autism does not cause a person to be abusive in relationships
Autistic support groups may be a helpful resource for adults looking to learn about having relationships. Other autistic people and their partners may have useful insights to share on how they communicate and resolve problems in their relationships.
Listening to stories from people can also provide a source of hope and role models for what a healthy and happy relationship can look like.
For people who are having difficulty in their relationships, individual therapy or relationship counseling with a health expert specializing in neurodivergence may help. There are also coaches who specifically work with autistic people to help them learn skills and achieve personal goals.
Asperger’s, which is now part of the ASD diagnosis, can bring unique strengths and challenges to relationships.
Autistic people can be deeply committed partners who value honesty and reliability and who are passionate about their interests. However, they may also communicate and experience the world differently from nonautistic people.
Clear communication, active listening, a shared understanding of autism, and an ongoing exploration of what each partner needs or prefers in their relationship can help make the relationship more rewarding.