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How to Maintain a Relationship When You're on the Autism Spectrum

Not every aspect of having autism is a downside in a relationship.

I won't mince words–maintaining a healthy relationship when you're on the autism spectrum is very hard work. But it's not impossible.

Before we jump in, I want to make one thing very clear: Autism is a spectrum, and people on the autism spectrum can––and often do––have vastly different experiences from one another. As such, it's important to note that my experience might not be relevant to you even if you're also on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. There's no one-size-fits-all guide for relationships in the first place, let alone for people with complex neurological roadblocks to work around. That being said, my hope is that you can find something helpful here to take with you.

So first things first, a bit about me: I'm a 28-year-old writer with high-functioning autism, and I've been in a committed relationship with a neurotypical partner for over eight years. I wasn't officially diagnosed with autism until my mid-20s, so my partner didn't know I had autism when we started dating––she just chalked up a lot of my behaviors to peculiarities that made me unique.

Despite what some people might think, not every aspect of having autism is a downside in a relationship.

If you're lucky enough to find someone interested in the same hobbies you're interested in (or even someone willing to give your hobbies a try), the intense excitability and passion that goes hand-in-hand with autism can help immerse your partner in those experiences, too. Similarly, if you take an interest in the things your partner is interested in, the intensity with which you approach new subjects might lead them to discover elements of their hobbies that they never considered before.

People on the autism spectrum also tend to have distinct senses of humor and different outlooks on the world. Both of these traits can be very beneficial to a healthy relationship. Humor is a core part of flirting, and while flirting probably seems very foreign to you (it certainly does to me!), witty banter often does the job just as well. Moreover, just because you're in a relationship doesn't mean you don't need to flirt anymore––if anything, flirting with your partner throughout your relationship lets them know you're still interested in them over time. Your unique outlook on life can be an advantage, too, as you'll have a constant means of sparking conversation.

Of course, there are some downsides. The biggest hurdle I've had in my relationship has been figuring out proper communication. I'm relatively perceptive to facial expressions, but I have an especially hard time discerning tone and body language. This goes both ways––on top of being generally unable to properly interpret other people's tones and body language, I'm not very good at controlling my own. As a result, I tend to sound condescending when I'm annoyed, even if I'm trying to sound calm, or resentful when I'm angry about something but trying not to show it. Even worse, I tend to (unintentionally) yell when I get particularly frustrated or stressed. I also sit on my legs in restaurant-inappropriate ways, but that's neither here nor there.

For a good chunk of our relationship, my partner and I would have the same fight over and over again. I would get upset about something and start speaking in a tone I didn't intend to use, or sometimes I'd even start yelling. She would tell me that it's not okay to do that, and I would try to explain to her that I wasn't trying to, but I don't know how to stop it when I don't always know when I'm doing it in the first place. Of course, she was right––yelling at your partner is never okay, even if it's not intentional, and autism isn't an excuse for harmful behavior towards others.

So we worked together to make a plan.

I told her that I wanted to nip a lot of these behaviors in the bud, so when I got upset and started talking in a tone she didn't like or yelling, we decided it would be best for her to tell me immediately. After all, the way I was acting in my head was sometimes different from the way I was acting in reality. Then, during periods when I was stressed or upset and she told me I was acting a certain way, I could take a step back and self-assess. I could apologize, let her know that I was yelling in general (usually due to outside stress or frustration) without intending it to be directed at her, and calm down. Or sometimes I'd decide I really wasn't in the right headspace to be around someone else at that moment, so I'd make it clear that I needed some time to myself.

If you have autism, chances are there are certain aspects of adult life that you might need some help with. Maybe it's motivating yourself to start important tasks. Maybe it's handling finances. Maybe it's being social. Regardless, it's important to remember two things: One, as unfair as it may seem, like it or not, these issues are your responsibility and nobody else's. And two, in the context of a relationship, it's okay to ask for help when you need it. That doesn't mean your partner is obligated to say yes, but I've found that the best course of action is radical honesty. When you practice self-awareness and do your best to be upfront about your issues and problems as they arise, you and your partner are more likely to successfully solve problems before they become too big to handle.

Finally––and this goes for any relationship, autism or not––you need to learn to both establish boundaries and to listen to your partner. For many people with autism, adult relationships might feel new and scary. Depending on what your individual needs are, social, sexual, or otherwise, you'll probably face things that make you uncomfortable. Similarly, you might do things that make your partner uncomfortable. Don't keep these things bottled up. Talk about them, and express them openly. If you don't like to be touched at certain times, let your partner know. And if your partner tells you that something you do is bothering them, listen to them intently. Keep in mind that you and your partner are a team, and teams do best when they work together.

(Oh, and don't forget to keep up personal hygiene––shower, brush, shave, and work out if you have the energy and capacity to do so!)

Relationships are hard, but that's true for everyone. Own the things that make you unique. You can find love and happiness, not just in spite of your autism but because of it. Be proud of who you are.