Contrary to popular belief, many autistic adults have very successful relationships, partners and children. Some of us, like me, do manage marriage, long relationships, children and family life very well indeed, while others may have varying degrees of difficulties in these areas. It can be challenging for NTs who are in a relationship with a person with Autism, though, and I’m going to look at this side of things now..
And it seems like an excellent time to introduce a co-host for this particular subject. I’m very happy that I’ve persuaded my wife, Mrs Bob, to do a guest spot with me here tonight and impart some of the knowledge she’s accumulated about Autistic partners during the years of our relationship.
I’m going to look at a few areas regarding relationships, including partners experiences, diagnosis, counselling and other forms of support, to having children with an autistic partner.
While everyone’s experiences are going to be different, there are some very common themes: Autism is a mostly invisible disability, meaning that it can be very hard to explain to your NT friends and family why your autistic partner might behave in a certain way.
It may be harder for an autistic person to understand other people’s emotions and/or feelings
It can be very difficult to live with an autistic partner’s sometimes unintended, hurtful behaviour and their apparent emotional distance.
Mrs Bob – It can be difficult for an NT to be in love with a person with Autism, though it does depend on the person. You have to realise that an Autistic partner might display some of the normal indicators that an NT might show to hint that they’re losing interest, but they don’t mean the same thing. It can just mean that your partner is engrossed in something, or that they think that it’s obvious that they love you and so they don’t need to express it.
That can be so hard for an NT, even when you know that’s the case. But here, communication is the key. Learning that you have to say “I’m feeling that you’re a bit distant lately, is everything ok?” Or “Can I have a hug? I’m feeling a bit vulnerable” is the key. It’s not easy to do, especially to start with, and if the partner with Autism can try to understand that, it helps. I’m very lucky that you express your feelings and love very openly and you are starting to understand that it isn’t always obvious that you love me and that I need to hear it more than you think.
Having an autistic partner may mean having to help them with social interaction, particularly around those pesky unwritten social rules. Not understanding these rules can make your partner more vulnerable
Mrs Bob, I think that it’s helpful for the NT partner to mention to friends and relations before they meet their partner with Autism that their partner doesn’t like physical contact, like hugs, before they meet. It’s not always possible to do that, but I’ve found it does help, because hugs from anyone except me or the children do make you feel very uncomfortable. I will do anything I can to make social interactions easier for you, especially first meetings with people I already know. I’ve occasionally mentioned in passing that you have Asperger’s to those who have a lot of knowledge or experience of the condition, because that will help everyone involved when you meet.
Although having a relationship with an autistic person can be just as rewarding as any other relationship, there might be adjustments that you both need to make, such as thinking about the way you communicate with each other.
Mrs Bob – We are lucky that we communicate pretty well about a lot of things (sometimes by talking, other times by text, which can take a lot of the pressure off for you). We also have an imaginary sarcasm sign that we can both hold up if we need to make it clear we are being sarky. You use sarcasm occasionally now, but you are still learning about how to use it.
I am often struck by how you can read something much more definite than I intended into something I’ve said. A general, fictional example is that I might say that “I think I’d prefer peaches to apricots today”, and you might take from that that I hate apricots and would never eat them. But that’s not the case at all. I think that means that the neurotypical in the relationship needs to think a lot harder about how they say things than they would if they were with another NT. That’s not always possible or reasonable to expect, though, especially if the NT is feeling emotional, and rationality goes out the window!
As an NT, you may have the additional responsibility of helping your partner with Autism to manage their money, and finding employment, if they are able to work. You might need to support them by advocating, or helping them to have the confidence to stand up for themselves. These days, there is so much game-playing in social interactions, and things like office politics, which NT people aren’t always aware they’re doing. These are things that people with autism don’t easily understand, if at all. Often, we assume that whatever is being said is the straight up truth, and this can cause real difficulty and confusion for us.
It’s not all bad though! ,A quote i found online from an NT partner of a person with Autism says “We have had our ups and downs, but I love him more than anything and find him totally facinating to be with. We make a great team. I have learned so much from about him truth, loyalty friendship and fun. He’s the most special person in my life”
No that wasn’t from Mrs Bob!
Mrs Bob – But that is so true, though! I love how many interesting facts your head can hold. You have one for just about every eventuality and it’s always fascinating to hear you talk. I love that when you’re comfortable with a subject you can talk endlessly about it. It isn’t all unicorns, tinsel and fluffy bunnies, the same as any other relationship, but we do make a fantastic team. We support, respect and love each other so much that we deal with problems (both small and huge) as a team as much as possible. If we do argue, which isn’t often, we always make up quickly and apologise to each other. I think it’s a healthy environment – more healthy than other relationships I’ve had with NTs. Most importantly, we really love each other and that makes everything easier to deal with.
BEHAVIOUR AND RELATIONSHIP STRATEGY
Your autistic partner may have difficulties interpreting non-verbal communication, such as your body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. They may not be able to tell from your behaviour alone that you need support or reassurance. This might be hurtful, because it can come across as indifference. It’s not very romantic to have to spell things out if you want something for a birthday or Valentine’s Day, or if you’re feeling low, ignored and really want your partner to notice, and maybe do something to reassure you. (I’m not talking about offering a hot beverage here either, people!) This is only likely to be achieved if you you try to be explicit with your partner, telling them what you’re thinking, how you’re feeling, and what you need from them. They are not likely to pick up hints, even the really unsubtle ones, trust me.
Mrs Bob – Yes, this can be hard in the beginning, but once you realise that if you need something from your partner you just have to say so, and not wait and expect them to know, it gets easier. Hinting and hoping for something to happen is a form of game-playing that just about everyone does and it does hurt if you have given some subtle (or pretty unsubtle!) clues that you’d like something, but they have been seemingly ignored. But that can be the case with some NT men too. It’s quite an adjustment to make, to just say what you’d like, or what you need emotionally, but once you start, it’s easier the more you do it.
Your partner may be anxious about certain things that seem silly to you. Maybe they have routines and patterns they need to follow when doing certain tasks like showering or making a hot drink, even down to following certain seemingly strange routes when travelling. They might have problems with organising and prioritising their time, or be very inflexible about certain things, which can seem strange and cause friction.
Mrs Bob – It can be frustrating to have to stick to routines and have lots of notice about any changes, if you’re a spontaneous type, but some NTs, like me, quite like routines too. It is hard to understand some routines, such as always turning off a road and taking a much longer detour to a destination, jinstead of going straight. But unless you’re late for something, and the detour is going to make you even later, it doesn’t really matter, and you just get used to it.
It can help if you talk to your partner about any problems you are having in your relationship with them, especially I f you’re able to explain your feelings in a calm and reasoned way. You might not be feeling calm and reasonable, but it will help if you are able to pick a time when you’re feeling relatively calm to talk to them about it. Your partner may well prefer to discuss things in writing as it gives them more time to process what you were saying and this could be done using clear language in an email or text. It can be really frustrating to have to manage relationship in this way but it will ultimately help both of you if you were able to discuss it clearly.
That is the best way to do it, but it’s not always possible, or reasonable, for an NT to be calm and rational when discussions start. It can be very frustrating having to always live by countless rules and routines and that can spill over sometimes. But it’s how you both, as a partnership, handle the arguments that will happen, and how you resolve them. We are lucky that is we do argue, we always both apologise and neither of us sulk, or hold grudges. We just say what we have to, clear the air, sometimes loudly (!) and then make up!! It’s a very healthy way to do it, I think.
Getting a diagnosis can help you understand your partner with Autism better, and see why they may face some difficulties. It can also help your partner to make sense of their life experiences and begin to identify with other autistic people. If your partner isn’t diagnosed but you suspect they autistic can be difficult to know how to talk about it with them. I’ve mentioned the IQ test before on another podcast but the simple online test might be a way to introduce that difficult subject to them. After that, you can discuss it with your GP, and they might make a referral if they agree with you.
Getting a diagnosis can also help them to alleviate some of the stresses and problems your NT partner might have if they can see that you’re not just being awkward, difficult, or in some cases downright weird. It will help them see that there is actually a reason behind your behaviours and if they’re interested, it can help to give them an insight into how the autistic brain works, and be aware of the changes that they might need to make to the relationship or to how you communicate with each other.
HAVING CHILDREN WITH AN AUTISTIC PARTNER
You might be concerned about the cause of your partner’s autism and whether it could be passed on to any children you have. At the moment, research is still being carried out to establish whether Autism is hereditary or not. I had already had children prior to finding out that I was autistic, so that decision was taken away from me, but it may be something that would weigh on other people’s minds. If I had known that I had Autism before I had my two, I would have been very unsure about having children.
If you’re concerned, the best thing to do would be to sit and discuss this with your partner before making plans to start family. There are a few things that could cause issues later, such as dealing with the change to plans and routines with an unpredictable baby and also the possibility of having an autistic child and the challenges that that would raise.