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Navigating Romantic Relationships as an Autistic Adult

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Many parents cannot even begin to fathom their children on the autistic spectrum dating. Eventually though, every parent faces the reality that their autistic son or daughter will likely express some interest in learning how to date. Can autistic romantic relationships exist? Can they succeed?

When I was first diagnosed with autism in 1995, the condition had only just been recognized and even the psychiatrist who diagnosed me was relatively new to it as a clinical condition. What he did do was inform my parents that I would “never have any normal relationships” and they should prepare themselves for the fact that I would need lifetime care. As with many parents, they were so caught up in the day-to-day care of raising an autistic child that such thoughts were relegated to the army of never ending worries and fears that keep us all tossing and turning at night.

Fortunately we have come a long way since then, not only diagnostically, but therapeutically and there are significantly more advanced therapies available than the bare bones experimental Frankenstein programs used back in the late 90s.

By and large, autistic people have the same needs and desires as neurotypicals. Despite touch aversions and sensory restrictions, we still want the comfort of a relationship, the companionship that comes with a committed partner and we still have the same sexual needs. But the emotional and social components of a relationship can be difficult to handle. I leave behind me a string of failed relationships and a failed marriage. I could coldly chalk them up to experience and growth in the absence of resources and knowledge, but I have learned that neurotypicals generally don’t find that sort of objectivity comforting or acceptable.

I still need partnership. I don’t like to be touched, but I crave validation and acceptance that in my experience can only come from a romantic partner. Emotional entanglement makes me very uncomfortable and despite my 36 years, I still find it nearly impossible to react appropriately to externally emotional situations. I don’t feel guilt, I don’t understand many shades of emotion beyond my direct experience and while I’ve grown to emulate certain reactions I have little emotional depth beyond happy, angry or sad.

I’ve grown to understand that my own neuroses and my own compulsive need for control and routine have to develop some measure of compromise, and I’ve learned to develop my own ways of bending those needs in such a way that they are still relatively satisfied without unduly pressuring or stressing a partner. I’ve learned there are situations in which it is necessary to touch and be touched, to even welcome and draw comfort from that touch from a partner or a child.

I have loved and I do love, though not in the way many neurotypicals love. Much as I’ve tried to capture the passion and seemingly magical sensation we see on television and read about in magazines and books, I’ve not developed the capacity to replicate that sensation, I don’t understand it and I doubt I ever will. What I have done is, to me at least, far more intimate than any of those fantastical love stories. I have allowed these people into my routine, into the structure of my life, the very delicate and tender scaffolding that defines my existence and I have made them a permanent part of it. I am used to them and they are a part of my world. That is to me a far more intimate expression of feeling than roses and chocolate and dinner dates.

I have tried to express this experience to my wife, but she becomes upset because she doesn’t understand the depth behind the statement, “I am used to you.” To me it is far more intimate than “I love you” and far more passionate than any physical touch, although I provide that as often as needed because I understand that she needs it, even when I don’t.

Many autistic people build around ourselves such complex structures to define us and order a world which is beyond chaos and which all too easily overloads and overwhelms us.

I am married to a woman who has supported, understood and put up with my very neurotic and often unintentionally hurtful self for eight years. We have three beautiful, complex children and another on the way. Yes, it’s possible for autistics to find and keep relationships, but it requires work from both people and a support system that can explain the differences of each to the other.

To my children and my wife, I am used to you.

This story originally appeared on Andrew Robinson’s blog.

Originally published: April 1, 2019
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