I am not neurotypical, but I do not have asperger's or autism. I am simply gifted, not twice exceptional. I am married to a gifted husband with asperger's/autism. We are raising four neurodiverse kids together. One of whom is also an aspie/autist. I recently read an article that really frustrated me about marriages and long term relationships between neurotypical people and their asd spouses. It asserted, in short, that an NT person, or allist (one without an autism diagnosis) and an asd person cannot enjoy a happy marriage. It listed several stumbling blocks that NT and ASD couples face. And, it isn't entirely wrong. In fact, there were some great points. But it was very dark rather than uplifting. There was a lot of negative language that intoned the success of ASD/NT marriages being impossible. I cannot speak from an NT perspective, but I can from that of an Allist and aspiring psychologist. So here is my list of 16 things to be aware of in a relationship with someone with ASD.
1. Be clear
One common trait of those with autism is literalness. Often people find this bluntness rude, but autists are simply saying what they mean and what they need. We, as their partners, can return the favor and stop beating around the bush. We can easily be clear with expectations rather than allude to what we need. If I say, "I need an hour to write, please handle kids", my husband says, "ok, I got the kids." I was clear with my needs and expectations. He reciprocated with acknowledging that need.
Clarity in our speech is helpful to all communication patterns. Our partners might not be wholly in touch with their internal feelings or ours, so we need to be clear.
2. Therapy CAN work
Couples therapy and individual therapies are effective IF you have the right therapist. Someone well versed in autism is critical. Beyond that, someone who clicks with you and your partner. Generally speaking, men and those with autism are reluctant to engage with therapy. However, as therapies become more normal and mainstream, we are seeing an uptick in their success. Sometimes, it isn't that therapy doesn't or won't work, but that someone isn't engaging in the process.
It can be very difficult for those with autism to engage with their inner feelings and express them. Much more so to communicate them openly. We assume that autists are not in touch with their feelings or don't have them, but that is untrue. They are generally very aware of their emotions, but they are different from ours. When we disassociate our own interpretations of situations and feelings from what our partners experience, we can gain a window into their lives. A therapist who understands that autists don't have typical emotional responses but that they DO have emotions is critical to the process.
3. Understand the emotional toll
My husband describes his decision about whether to express emotion as a battle between whether the expense is worth the return. He likened it to a full bucket that he could spend from and that could be refilled with comfortable or alone time, but that once it was empty, he was empty. We often see the "fill your bucket" and "you can't pour from an empty cup" mantras regarding self care. This concept is true for everyone. Including autists. But while many things fill my cup, few fill my husband's. Many with autism choose when and to whom to show emotion because of the energy it takes to do so. It's hard to identify and demonstrate deep feelings. They have to be conservative to ensure they still have a bucket to reach into when they really need it. Beyond that, their anxiety means they feel they need to conserve more because there is something coming around the bend that they aren't ready for. They always have to be ready for anything.
4. Understand the shut downs
Shut downs as a result of overwhelm are common among autists. These are not tantrums. These are meltdowns. They are uncontrollable. Once an autist hits the wall, they can no longer control their reactions. My son clenches his fists and curls into a ball on the floor. My husband goes completely silent. I worked with a child who ran to a space he felt safe. And another who singularly focused on the issue and continued repeating the same word until resolution. There are as many reactions to overwhelm as there are autists. We cannot determine how any one will react until we have observed that specific person in stressful situations.
From experience, I know that I can reach neither my husband nor my son when they are in the midst of their shut downs. I must patiently wait until they come to me ready to talk again. I can avoid shut downs sometimes, but I cannot stop them once they start. This is important to understand as the partner of an autist.
The silence my husband responds with used to trigger me and cause me personal offense. I address this specifically here. I had to learn that he wasn't responding to ME. But to his intense feelings. He was unable to communicate and needed to process. I could adjust to this with my son more easily than with my husband, but I got there. I had to decide he and our relationship were more important then my slighted feelings at the time.
5. Allow them time
We all need time for ourselves. The balance of alone time, relationship building time, family time can be difficult to attain for autists. We can work together with our partners to find the balance that works for our lives. In our house, that looks like family dinners, semi-frequent family outings planned a week or so in advance, one-on-one time for each kid with their father, game night for him, and date nights for he and I. These things all go in a calendar and are planned in advance.
6. Take you time
As in any relationship, we are our own people. We have our own needs and wants. Even extroverts need down time to be alone and pursue things that are life giving to them. Introverts more so. It must be ok to take time for yourself. Never feel guilty about that whether you're in a relationship with an autist or not. But tell your partner what you need, when, why, and how.
7. Talk to people who walk the life
Find someone who is doing this relationship trope too. Share war stories. Cry on each other's shoulders. Exchange successes and disappointments. Talk about strategies. Don't go it alone. There are plenty of successful allist/autist relationships out there. We live in a virtual world now where we can access people from hundreds and thousands of miles away. Use it. Facebook, twitter, Instagram, etc. Blogs like this one too. I created a private (only those in the group can see members and content) FB group for spouses/partners of those with asperger's/autism. You can find it here.
8. Embrace that your marriage/partnership will never look exactly like your friends'
We know no two relationships are alike. But that between an allist and an autist is even more different. You will likely have to point out mundane, every day things to your partner because it is unlikely they even see them. You may sometimes feel like your partner's parent because of this. Other times, your partner will point out things to you that you didn't think mattered, but to their brains, they do. If you want a job done, ask specifically for that to be accomplished by a specific time and date. You may need to be specific about how you want the job done too. If you need specific personal care such as a back rub, you will have to ask for it. And give an expectation of timing.
While autists can be quite routine oriented, they can also surprise you. Sometimes, they will remember something from months prior and repeat it without warning or request. It is important to remember in these situations that their hearts are in a good place and they are not trying to trick you. They will remember most things, but especially those you felt inconsequential. For instance, if you get upset about where they put the remote, they will not forget how you spoke to them about it even if that is really no big deal in the grand scheme of life.
While some autists struggle with body language and tone of voice, others are very in tune to them and take notes. They may not demonstrate their own feelings using tone and body language, but they notice ours. While they may struggle with expressing their emotions the way we would understand, they still have feelings. They may even be able to learn how to express them in their own ways.
The perceived demands autists place on relationships can seem insurmountable. One that will always stick with my is my husband's demand to know where I am, whom I am with, and what we are doing. This seems controlling and overbearing and at first, I thought it was. When he was finally able to explain his need to know those details, I understood it was from a place of concern for mine and others' safety and well-being. Now, I don't hesitate (sometimes I forget) to text him when I arrive at places and if plans change on the fly.
Dinner parties and birthday celebrations may need to be toned down quite a bit. Your partner may not contribute to the guest list and will likely need time to prepare mentally and recover from said party. Introverts gain stamina and health from alone time where extroverts do so from gatherings. Autists are not always introverts, but due to their social anxieties, they often are. Or they are choosy about whom they surround themselves with.
There will likely be other ways in which your relationship will differ from those around you. Embrace the unique qualities in the person you've chosen. And work together to make your lives work for you.
9. Engage in conversations
Because social cues can be difficult to interpret, autists tend not to be the greatest conversationalists. They often talk excitedly about things they are interested in and don't know when to stop. It is ok to tell them when you have had enough of that topic. It is ok to ask them to listen to and engage with what interests you as well. You do so for them and they will return the favor.
When you have a relationship problem, like most people, autists respond well to "I" statements. "You" statements can be seen as attacks on them personally. By saying, "I feel frustrated when I have to wash all the dishes, will you please help me", we shift away from blaming anyone. We ask for contribution. Saying, "I need more connected time with you because it helps ME feel secure in our relationship" communicates that there is a personal need rather than attacking something the other person is doing or not doing.
Why and how are perfectly fine questions to discuss with your autist partner. But don't decide what their why or how is. Let them tell you. They are generally quite analytical, but they are absolutely capable of discussing whys and hows.
10. Household and Kids CAN be shared
I have seen several instances of allistic partners feeling they bear the brunt of household and child raising responsibilities. Again, autists are perfectly capable of raising children and helping care for a home. They even tend to make wonderful parents and teachers. While the emotional side of parenting might not hit them frequently, the practical parts are often simple. Kids need food, clothes, shelter, and love. Autists are great providers. They are often invested in working in their fields and do well as providers.
I did have to teach my husband to pay attention for diaper changes, feeding times, nap/bed times, and some of the more nebulous bits of parenting young children. Once he knew the routine, he was wonderful. He continues to be wonderful. He helps the kids iron out conflicts, listens to our teen rage about her life, and spends time with each kid doing something they have cultivated as shared passion. He did have to watch me interact with our kids and learn how to intercede and help them, but he accomplished it. So can your partner.
Household chores and responsibilities can also be shared. I might have to ask for help and give timelines, but my husband helps. If there is something big you want to accomplish, be prepared for your autistic partner to want to do exhaustive research into it. Also, be prepared to hear them say it won't or can't work. You might have to work on them a bit to get them to see the possibility unless they are a more creative person too. If they do not share your desire to accomplish a particular project, they might drag their feet and be disengaged, but if you are specific about your needs, it will get done.
Be prepared too to reign them in when they want to do a project or see more possibility with the one you want. They have a tendency to take an idea and run. Don't be scared to say "no" and mean it. They might get huffy with you and you might feel guilty (20 years in and I still do), but try to get past that. They will get over it rather quickly even if you don't feel over it.
11. Work together with finances
I have seen it said that autistic people struggle to manage a budget and are impulsive purchasers. This is true. However, they CAN work within an agreed upon, specific, budget. Large purchases can be discussed and saved for. Small purchases can have a dollar amount that is acceptable to spend without communicating prior. A household budget for necessary items and expenses can be made and stuck to.
Autists are capable of learning how to quell the inner voice that tells them to make every purchase they want. They are able to wait and ignore the immediate gratification bug that bites them. Patience with establishing budgets and spending needs and desires is crucial. This is a process that takes time. You cannot expect your autistic partner to simply agree and go along or accept simplicity.
12. Find things to do together that you both love
My husband loves video games. Truly loves them. Drove six hours one way to pick up a PS5 love. I do not. I loathe them in fact. This is not something we do together.
I love crocheting and writing. My husband has three left hands. Computer wiring is no issue, but forget crochet. Also not things we do together.
We both love certain TV shows and movies. We both enjoy hiking. We really love sushi too. These are things we do together. Explore. Try new things (once your partner agrees). You do something they love and ask for reciprocity. They can understand and reciprocate even when it isn't their first choice.
13. Try to avoid spontaneity
No six words strike anxiety into my husband's heart quite like, "Let's go to the ____ today". He struggles with spontaneity. He CAN do it. But it is hard. He needs time to prepare mentally. If I tell him on Tuesday that I would like to do something over the weekend, he can plan and prepare and be fine with it. If I want to take the kids somewhere, he is fine as long as he doesn't need to be involved. I try to avoid springing things on him because I know it sends him into a tizzy. Even if he has a few hours to prepare, he does far better.
The need to plan, have times, places, bathroom stops, food, and water decided on before leaving the house is deep. Many autistis are planners because they know what to expect and surprises are taxing on their emotions. They are analytical, so thinking on their feet takes more times and effort. Planning ahead also allows their needed time to process and prepare and know when they will be able to be in their safe recovery space.
14. Change and growth ARE possible
Read that again. Autists can ABSOLUTELY change and grow. The process will be slow and different from what a neurotypical person might need, but it is possible. Blaming their diagnosis for their actions is not helpful. Sometimes, we explain my husband's or my son's actions by saying they're autistic so "x thing" is challenging. But we try not to use their diagnoses as excuses for them not engaging in certain things. They can learn. My son can learn to think about other people's feelings when he is experiencing territorial fight or flight situations. My husband can learn to better put off his intrinsic desires for splurging on what he wants now.
This process will take longer for an autist than for an allist, but that doesn't make it impossible. You might need outside help to identify and work through what you perceive to be problematic. Your partner may not readily recognize an issue and might resent you bringing it up. If a professional trained in helping those with autism joins the conversation, a lot more can be accomplished. Again here, "I" statements work far better than "you" ones. We don't ever want to attack our loved ones, but help them overcome struggles. When we can access their ways of thinking and speak to that interpretation, we will be successful far more quickly.
15. ASD is permanent
ASD is a permanent neurological disability. Simply put, differently wired brains. For some with autism, this may mean never being verbal or independent. For others, it means a different way of interpreting the world and people around them. Every single autistic person is different. They have different triggers, strengths, and weaknesses. They can learn new things and are all wonderful people who are meaningful to our world. When we stop separating the autism from the person and embrace that autism makes them who they are, we can begin to see the beauty in their personhood.
Autists are worthwhile. They are deserving. They are wonderful. When they act in ways we perceive in opposition to this, there is a reason. They might not feel valued or heard. They might be in fight or flight mode. They might be overwhelmed. If we allists can step back and really listen to what is beyond their words, we can join a glorious world of fascination. I promise it is worth it to learn how to see the world from your partner's point of view. It might not be easy, but you will never regret taking that step into their side of life.