Many Autistic people want to find a sexual/romantic partner, just like many neurotypicals. Our needs are the same as everyone else’s, including the need for love and belonging. People who are in loving, committed relationships tend to live happier and longer lives, on average, and everyone deserves a chance for this kind of happiness. For autistic people, this can come with some challenges.
Think about your current or most recent romantic relationship and the last conflict you had. Now imagine that same conflict with each of you is speaking a different language, but you both think you are speaking the same language. Your partner assumes you understand what they are saying and vice versa. Imagine the challenges that would create! It is not ideal, especially when trying to resolve a conflict.
Relationships can be difficult for everyone, but they can be even more challenging when you are autistic. Communication differences create a whole extra layer of challenges for an autistic person trying to navigate relationships. I hear this all the time… “It’s like I speak a different language!” or “I feel like I must be from another planet!”
Autistic people tend to interpret things literally. If you are angry at your autistic partner because they wait too long to do the dishes, you might say, “Boy, it sure would be nice if I could find a clean dish in this house!” The intention is to let them know you are upset that they didn’t get the dishes done. But you didn’t tell them that, so they may think, “That’s true, it would be nice!” and go about their day. What typically happens then, is you get even more upset since your partner appears to be ignoring your needs and feelings. From your autistic partner’s perspective, however, there is no problem because you haven’t told them you are angry or upset.
We express our emotions differently than neurotypicals, including different facial expressions and body language. Others tend to not understand our behaviors and even find them strange. For example, most of us have stims (self-stimulating activities) that help us regulate our emotions and prevent overload or meltdowns. This can be rocking or flapping, but may also be rubbing certain types of fabric, playing with stim toys, humming, bouncing, and many other soothing activities.
On top of all that, many of us are also conflict averse because of sensory sensitivities, which can make it difficult for us to engage in conflict resolution without getting overloaded.
Autistic people are typically hypersensitive or hyposensitive to sensory stimuli. The specific sensitivities vary from person to person and can include touch seeking or avoidance. In these cases, it’s best if the couple has similar needs for touch. Even if a couple is well matched in terms of touch needs, there may still be challenges.
If your partner is touch seeking, you may need to develop boundaries. You may need to explain that you enjoy being intimate with them, but there are times when you prefer not to be touched. You can create some rules around touch that may be specific to a certain context, such as when you have a migraine, or when you are busy with work on your laptop. You will need to communicate and enforce the boundaries for them to be effective. For example, if you don’t like to be touched when you have a migraine, have a discussion with your partner and create the boundary. When you have a migraine, tell your partner, and remind them of the boundary. You may need to remind them multiple times. The autistic partner may have a stuffed animal or other object that they can touch for comfort at these times, although that doesn’t work for everyone.
If your partner is touch avoidant, they have the same right to establish and enforce boundaries. It may be that your partner does want to be intimate with you but needs to take things really slowly. Don’t get discouraged or impatient if things aren’t moving as quickly as you want them to. Talk to your partner about their expectations in the relationship to make sure you are on the same page. If your partner never wants to be sexually intimate or wants way less intimacy than you do, it is probably not a good match. But if they just need to take their time, you can make decisions together about the next step. It may be as small as holding hands for five minutes longer than you did last time.
But there are also many positives to being in a relationship with an autistic person, such as…
Honest. Autistic people are notoriously candid, and this can be a great thing for relationships. Although we may seem blunt or even hurtful sometimes, honesty is definitely a trait you want in a romantic partner.
Reliable. You can count on an autistic person to do what they say they are going to do. If we say we will pick you up at 7:00, we will be there at 7:00. We are rule followers and can be trusted to follow through with agreements and responsibilities.
Loyal. Autistic people don’t like change. If we find a job or living situation we like, we will keep it. The same is true for relationships. If we are in a loving, committed relationship, we will stay there and not look for other options. Even if another option presents itself unexpectedly, we are not likely to pursue it.
These are generalizations and there are caveats to them. For example, some autistic people struggle with time management and may struggle to be on time for that reason. But these three things – honest, reliable, loyal – are generally true of most autistic people.
Starting to Date:
There are already many things to think about when anyone starts dating – what’s my type? How do I know if someone is using me? What kind of intimacy am I comfortable with? How will I know if I’m in love? And that’s just to name a few! Many autistic people wonder if it is even possible to date someone who isn’t autistic and whether they should limit their options in this way.
If a person decides they would like to date neurotypicals, there will be communication challenges since one of you speaks “autistic” and the other speaks “neurotypical”. My peers commonly have their comments taken the wrong way by a partner despite saying exactly what they mean. Because they may speak in a more monotone voice or their tone doesn’t match what a neurotypical expects (they sound like they are joking when they are being serious, for example), they are often interpreted as sarcastic, critical, or condescending when they are actually being genuine and kind.
We also have to think about when to disclose our autism. If we disclose too early, people tend to give up on the relationship, assuming it will eventually get too difficult. This is not based on anything they know about the individual, but on stereotypes and societal stigma about autism. If we wait, people sometimes feel tricked. This isn’t fair because no one is obligated to disclose personal details about their life until they feel comfortable, but it is a common risk when navigating relationships for autistic people.
Our partners will need to be comfortable with us stimming in public. Some partners are embarrassed and want their autistic partner to stop stimming, but this is an important self-regulation tool for us. It can prevent an even more embarrassing and traumatic meltdown and a partner will need to accept and support that.
When we have a conflict that needs to be resolved, if we get too overwhelmed, some of us struggle even more to process verbal communication. We may need a partner either to wait to communicate with us or to communicate in a different way, such as text or passing notes back and forth. Some of us can even lose the ability to speak when severely overwhelmed. If we shut down, we can look as if we don’t care about resolving the conflict and that can make a neurotypical partner angry. If we aren’t communicating verbally or responding to verbal communication from others, it doesn’t mean we don’t care. It means we can’t have the conversation right now and need to wait until we are calm and able to communicate.
There are additional safety concerns, too. Autistic people may not have an opportunity to learn about sexuality and self-advocacy. Some are even trained to be compliant. Some interventions teach autistic people to not speak up for their needs, to just accept if they are uncomfortable, and to always do what they are told. This creates challenges for the person when they want to start dating. It leaves a person more vulnerable to being used, scammed, manipulated, or otherwise taken advantage of. And it makes a person more likely to be emotionally, physically, or sexually abused.
How can sexuality educators support someone who is autistic in dating others?
As sexuality educators we have to work towards compromise. We can’t expect autistic people to become fluent in the neurotypical language or neurotypicals to be fluent is the autistic language, but the more we understand each other, the better we are. Just like other aspects of a relationship, this requires effort from both partners. We can explain how neurotypicals see certain behavior and talk to the autistic individual about whether and how they want to try to change their behavior. If it isn’t possible to change the behavior, the autistic partner can choose to advocate for themselves by explaining the purpose of the behavior.
Eye contact is a good example. For many autistic people, making eye contact makes it difficult to listen to what someone is saying. For some it may be extremely uncomfortable, or even painful. In our culture, eye contact is a signal that we are listening and can also be a sign of respect. We can explain this to the autistic students, so they understand how they are likely to be perceived if they don’t make eye contact. Then we can ask them if they would like to work on changing the behavior or advocating for their needs. If they want to work on behavior change, we can coach them on what is considered appropriate eye contact in our culture. We can provide strategies like looking at the bridge of the nose, or somewhere else on the face near the eyes, to imply eye contact. If they choose to advocate for their needs, they may need coaching on how to explain in their own words why they make little or no eye contact.
Some autistic people struggle with perspective taking. When teaching consent, it may be helpful to do role plays where you have the individual take multiple perspectives. For most people, it is relatively easy to understand that if we don’t want someone to touch our body, we have a right to say no. It can be more difficult to understand that others have a right to tell us not to touch them. If the autistic individual doesn’t have a problem with the touch, they may assume everyone else won’t have a problem with it, either. It can be helpful for them to see both scenarios role played one after the other to see the similarities between themselves saying no to someone else and someone else saying no to them.
Always reflect on whether you are making autistic people change and be more like neurotypicals. Not everyone is able to change certain behaviors and many of our behaviors serve important purposes, like emotional regulation. Again, this is a compromise. Autistic people can make efforts to learn neurotypical, but neurotypicals can also accept that there are other ways to communicate that are different, but not inferior. They can meet us in the middle.
Knowledge is Power:
Some people use these arguments as a reason why autistic people shouldn’t date. They are too vulnerable and speak a different language so it is too dangerous. Rather, it is a reason why it is so important to reach the autism community with sexuality education. It also requires that we educate society about what it means to be autistic. When people understand our communication differences and the purpose for our seemingly strange behaviors, then we can start breaking down the stigma against us. Only then will we have true acceptance and inclusion.
Photo: Katie Oswald