Autism and relationships
While most autistics have fulfilling and happy relationships of whatever form we choose, few write about our specific struggles and strategies.
Self-acceptance and relationships:
My slow journey to self-acceptance allowed me to ask for what I needed, especially when it doesn’t fit societal norms. I have been in a relationship that ultimately ended due to communication difficulties, where my inability to identify my needs and ask for support was largely due to seeing my autism as a self-denied difficulty. The best intentions cannot override constant masking and a lack of self-advocacy.
Identify the supports you need, then ask for them, and be prepared to make reasonable compromises. Unmasking is crucial to a healthy relationship, but to rewrite entrenched behaviours takes time and practice. Stay patient and compassionate with yourself and the other person – how can they foresee your needs, if you are unable to identify and express them?
While it can be easy for autistics to be manipulated or taken advantage of, there are key green flags to look for. Notably, they fully accept you as being autistic in both their words and actions. It is one thing to be verbally accepted, and another to be asked what they can give to you in light of it – especially as you may ask for your happiness and comfort to be prioritised over social norms. My partner offers me his headphones and makes sure I get regular breaks if we have an outing with his family, much as I’m sure this has led to raised eyebrows behind my back.
While relationships often occur between autistics, it is likely that the other person is allistic and must therefore be as willing as you to compromise and make your different communication styles work together. Communication breakdown between neurotypes is generally more pronounced than between two allistics or two autistics, termed the double empathy problem (Milton, 2012). Sheer compatibility plays a role as well. It is unrealistic to imagine all allistic relationships as free from personality type-driven communication issues, and equally some autistic communication failures are due to or exacerbated by incompatible personality matches.
Undiagnosed and self-diagnosed experiences:
In retrospect, a formal diagnosis would have given me the advantage of knowing my brain was fundamentally different, and that I needed to adjust and address relationship issues differently to how they are portrayed in the media. Of course, self-diagnosis or informal psychological opinions are not necessarily inferior to a formal diagnosis, but I made mistakes at seventeen that I could have avoided with the right psychological supports.
Navigating any relationship with compassion and fairness is complex. Navigating close relationships while autistic is further compounded by difficulties. Trying to maintain close relationships with the sense that you are ‘other’, or broken, or not quite right – that is harder still. Allow yourself the space to grow into your self-acceptance, and talk to those you love about what being autistic means for you. Allow them and yourself time to adjust to the strangeness of it all. Learn what you need and how to ask for it – it will take time. You will make mistakes. And you will be happier for it.