In the media, most autistic people you see are likely to be children, and on the rare occasion we are portrayed, it’s likely to be as an unlovable, sexless, weirdo. If you believe what you see, you probably think of us as akin to Action Man or Barbie, plasticky unemotional faces and smooth spaces where everyone else has genitals. However, many autistic adults have the same desires as allistic (non-autistic) people, loving, respectful relationships and fulfilling sex amongst them.
It’s important to note here that autistic people are not a monolith and we are just as varied and diverse in our likes and dislikes as allistic people. We can be cis and straight or LGBTQIA+, we might crave closeness and intimacy or prefer to spend time alone, polyamorous or monogamous, and we can be anywhere in between. I am writing from my own perspective as a queer autistic adult. If you’re an autistic person and you don’t relate to this then that is absolutely fine and is one of the reasons I think it’s vital we get more autistic voices out there. If you’re allistic and looking for advice on making your relationship stronger, it’s important to remember that this advice is generic and absolutely should not overwrite anything your actual individual partner said.
Here are my top tips on how to have an amazing relationship either as, or with an autistic person.
While patience is important in any relationship, it’s absolutely vital in an autistic relationship. Autistic people often take a little more time to do things, to understand ourselves, and to find the words for it. For instance, if I’m in a bad mood it can take me time to understand why, and how to rectify it. It’s really important that my partner understands that he needs to allow me time to figure things out and to articulate it. Him asking me “What’s wrong, what have I done, how can I fix it?” incessantly won’t help me – I’ll just feel stressed and under pressure, on top of what was causing the problem in the first place. Sometimes I might just be a bit overwhelmed because they put a brighter fluorescent bulb in my lecture hall today. Of course, this does require effort and deliberate introspection on my end – it’s not okay to use it as an excuse to be grumpy with people and make them worried that they are the problem. If he gently tells me, “Hey you seem really out of sorts today,” that is not a reason to lash out. It means I’m being a curmudgeon and I need to work out why.
Prioritise Open and Honest Communication
Again, super important to any relationship, but can really make or break a relationship with an autistic person. For some of us, it can be really hard to tell little white lies or to understand cues and hints. I’ve learned through a lot of trial and error that when an allistic person asks, “How do I look in this outfit?”, there’s a very high chance that they want a little confidence boost – an interaction I’ve “failed” at several times before figuring it out. On the other side of this conversation, if I want a confidence boost or am in need of a compliment (don’t try to hide it, we all want compliments sometimes), I ask my partner more directly – “Tell me I’m handsome,” or “I feel weird about myself today, say nice things about me”. This has been a learning experience for all concerned. My partner has had to learn that if he asks a question, I will directly answer that question. I’ve had to learn to ask clarifying questions – “Are you really asking me that or is there a hidden question there?” It requires a lot of trust and establishing early on that it all comes from a place of love and wanting to understand, a commitment to keep actively trying to understand each other, and for me as the autistic person to assure my partner that I’m not ever trying to cause hurt, with genuine apologies when I inevitably misunderstand something and do. I think the best way to summarise is that communication has be be an active process that everyone in the relationship is invested in practicing.
Be Aware and Understanding about Sensory Issues
This one is sort of built on top of the foundation of patience and communication, but is worth calling out. One of the most common symptoms of autism is having specific sensory needs. This might need compromises. If your autistic partner wants to keep the lights low but you want to read, maybe get a desk lamp instead of having the overhead light on. Sensory needs aren’t preferences for autistic people and ignoring them for too long can lead to really adverse consequences like meltdowns. This is really important when it comes to sex, and learning to clearly communicate your needs and expectations is very important. The autistic person in the relationship should spend the time and energy to figure out their own sensory needs, and you should make sure your lines of communication are open throughout the encounter.
Again I want to emphasise that not all autistic people are the same and really at the heart of things, you need to figure out on an individual basis what works for the specific relationship you’re in. But I promise, it will be worthwhile.
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