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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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5.3 Relationships

The lives of autistic adults can follow a neurotypical pattern such as gaining employment, getting married and having children. Some may make great efforts to behave in a way that means that, at most, they are considered a bit eccentric. There is growing evidence that females, in particular, may seek ways to mask their autism in order to fit in. Perhaps only their close family sees their struggles and the impact of maintaining this façade.

Autistic adults may find relationships difficult, on many different levels, and many do not enter into intimate relationships. In his account of Temple Grandin, the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote that Temple had never dated or been in a relationship:

She found such interactions completely baffling, and too complex to deal with. ‘Have you cared for somebody else?’ I asked her. She hesitated for a moment before answering, ‘I think lots of times there are things that are missing from my life’.

(Sacks, 1995, p. 122)

Many feel lonely and would dearly like to have an intimate relationship with another adult, but lack the social skills or social understanding to know how to even start the process, or to know when it is appropriate to take things to a deeper level from ‘friendship’. If a relationship does blossom, the partner/spouse can sometimes find life frustrating because of the autistic person’s lack of understanding of their emotions:

Occasionally things do go wrong. Having explained carefully, calmly and rationally why I feel upset, I will check that Chris has understood and when he replies ‘Not really’, there is the old temptation to find something expendable in the kitchen.

(Slater-Walker and Slater-Walker, 2002, p. 72)

Activity 2 Thinking about relationships

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

What aspects of autism might pose challenges in relationships? Think of this in relation to parents’ relationships with their adult offspring, or couples where one or both is autistic. Use the space below to answer the following prompts:

  1. Draw on what you have learned so far to suggest three challenges.
  2. Note two autistic characteristics that could be beneficial in a relationship .
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  1. You may have thought of some or all of the following:
    • Parents may find it frustrating or wearing to provide support for tasks that most neurotypical adults can cope with, such as completing forms or applying for jobs.
    • Some attributes, such as literal understanding and speaking, or fixations on spinning objects or Thomas the Tank Engine, which may be endearing or amusing in a child, may be harder to tolerate or understand in an adult.
    • The autistic person may be unaware of the stress that caring for them can cause – often alongside other stressors, such as caring for elderly parents, grandchildren or a spouse/partner.
    • Social situations like parties or family get-togethers may be difficult. The autistic person may come across as odd or rude in social settings, leading to feelings of awkwardness in their parents or partner.
    • Autistic people may find it very hard to deal effectively with the usual conflicts and disagreements that crop up in a relationship. Social communication difficulties and a lack of emotional insight may impede resolving even small problems and may affect the relationship more than they should.
    • An autistic partner who can’t anticipate their loved one’s thoughts, interests and motivations may feel bemused or even annoyed by their actions.
  2. The positive qualities that autistic people may bring to relationships include their loyalty, commitment and honesty. Close attention to detail could be trying in some circumstances, but could be helpful, for example, in planning a holiday or sticking to a budget. It is important not to think exclusively in terms of challenges.