Autism & Love: Are Autistic People Capable of Loving?
A very common misconception about autism is that autistic people are not (as) capable of feeling love as neurotypical people are. In fact, one of the most Googled questions about autism and love is “Can an autistic person fall in love?”. Clearly, we have a lot of myth-busting to do!
In this post, I give 6 reasons why dating and romantic relationships can be difficult for autistic people, my personal experience with these difficulties, and I’ll of course be sharing tips on how both neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals can navigate and improve potential and existing relationships. Be sure to share this post with anyone who you think would benefit, and without further ado, let’s talk about all things autism and love!
1. Difficulty with social cues
The first reason why Autistic people may struggle with dating is because we have difficulty recognizing social cues. In any relationship, there are subtle hints and cues that someone may use to express the way they feel. This can include kind words and gestures such as giving a compliment, but also nonverbal cues such as making eye contact or leaning in…and yes, I totally did Google search “nonverbal cues that someone likes you” because as an Autistic person, I personally don’t know many besides making eye contact! In any case, Autistic people often have difficulty picking up on social cues, making it hard for us to understand what another person is trying to communicate.
My best tip in this type of situation is to really have open communication in the form of words. I know this can feel very awkward because it’s perhaps not how a relationship is “supposed” to flow, but remember there are no rules for dating or relationships! If two people are meant to be, you will find a way of mutually effective communication and understanding.
2. Eye contact
As I just mentioned, eye contact is especially difficult for Autistic people. This is why I want to elaborate and make it reason number two for why Autistic people may struggle with dating and relationships. Because let’s be real, eye contact is considered to be one of THE MAJOR nonverbal cues when it comes to signaling your attraction. So major in fact, that when I was Googling “nonverbal cues that someone likes you”, I read an article stating that “lack of eye contact is considered disrespectful and means the person is not particularly fond of you”. I mean, WHAT?! For Autistic people, this statement could not be further from the truth!
Personally, eye contact can make me feel very uncomfortable and can distract me from my own thoughts. Especially when I AM with someone I DO really like and am already overthinking all my actions around them, ALSO having to make eye contact just feels so overwhelming!
My tip here, coming from an Autistic standpoint, is again to just communicate that eye contact is difficult for you. If there is a deeper connection, lack of eye contact will NOT make any difference in the big picture. Plus, there are SO many activities you can do to get to know each other that don’t involve making eye contact. Some of my favorites are going on walks, doing a class together, seeing a movie, and those are just a few! If you have more activity suggestions, leave a comment below so we can inspire and learn from each other!
3. Difficulty expressing emotions
The third reason Autistic people may struggle in romantic relationships is because we may have difficulty expressing our emotions! A lot of Autistic people experience Alexithymia, which is the inability to identify and describe our emotions. As I explain in my post Interoception in Autism and Anorexia, Alexithymia is correlated to a lack of interoceptive awareness.
Interoception is the sense through which we monitor the inner state of our bodies, so if we have deficits in this area, of course we’ll have difficulty monitoring our emotions! If we really like someone and don’t know how to actually communicate to that person how we feel, I’m sure you can imagine that could make the relationship difficult!
Here, I want to give a tip that applies to both neurodivergent and neurotypical people, and that is simply to have patience. I think one of the hardest parts for me about dating, is the uncertainty surrounding it. Getting to know someone takes time and patience, and not knowing what the relationship will evolve into can feel incredibly unnerving!
The reality is though, that relationships cannot be rushed and simply DO take time. There’s a quote I read about patience that was “you get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it” and although this may seem like a silly example, I feel it’s so relevant to relationships too! If you try and rush things, you’ll risk smashing the relationship!
4. Sensory issues
The fourth reason relationships can be hard to navigate for autistic people is due to sensory issues. I myself am an extremely sensitive person in every SENSE of the word and even elaborate on this in my top 10 Autistic Traits video!
I can be hyper- or hypo- sensitive to certain touch, tastes, smells, sights, and sounds, and as we all know, romantic relationships really do check off ALL these boxes! Whether you’re getting touched in a certain way, going to a certain restaurant with bright lighting or strong smells or loud people (and I’m not even going to go into detail about the sexual part when it comes to sensory stimuli, but you get the idea!)…ALL different kinds of stimuli can cause sensory overload, which basically just means getting overwhelmed due to overstimulation.
Certain parts of relationships such as kissing or handholding can therefor feel really intimidating, which may be hard to understand for neurotypical people who view it as the most normal thing in the world. I know I’ve said this multiple times already, but again, OPEN COMMUNICATION is the key here! If you don’t like to be touched in a certain way, or want to take things slower than the other person is initiating, tell them. If the person truly likes you, they’ll listen and respect your needs.
Another common misconception about autism that also happens to be my fifth point, is this idea that autistic people lack empathy. Again, this seriously could not be further from the truth! Autistic people can feel just as much - if not more - empathy as neurotypical people.
However, while I was doing research on empathy, I actually discovered that there are two types of empathy: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Autistic people tend to struggle with cognitive empathy, which involves trying to determine what someone is feeling based on their body language and other nonverbal cues. But as we learned earlier, autistic people have trouble reading these subtle signs and thus, may find it difficult to feel this type of empathy.
Now before you think “see, it’s true, Autistic people don’t have empathy!” not so quick! Autistic people are known to have an incredibly deep sense of affective empathy, which is the type of empathy where we truly “feel with” someone else, almost like a connection on a deeper soul level.
I think this is also why many Autistic people can create such strong bonds with animals, because there’s no involvement of social cues. It may sound crazy, but I’ve always described “feeling” of another person’s vibes as a sixth sense, and many of the Autistic people I have spoken to “FEEL” that too! Leave a comment below if you also resonate with that!
6. Time to recharge
Speaking of sixth senses, the sixth and last reason I’m going to name for why Autistic people may struggle with relationships is because we need a lot of time to recharge. When I’ve been out and about and social, I often need DAYS to fully recover before having the energy to fully interact with someone again. I even notice that I just need extra sleep when I’ve been very social, which just goes to show that my body truly needs the rest!
I believe there are several factors that contribute to this extreme fatigue after social situations, besides just talking and doing an activity together. Dealing with all of the additional sensory stimuli as I mentioned in point 4 is draining in and of itself, and additional sensory stimuli is kinda unavoidable if you’re going to be social!
On top of that, Autistic people tend to mask when they’re around other people. I definitely want to make a whole nother post on this, but in short, Autistic masking is intentionally trying to use neurotypical behaviors to come across as more “normal”. Because you’re constantly having to put on this “mask” of your true self, social situations can be that much more draining for neurodivergent individuals.
Because of the sheer exhaustion we may feel after an extended time of social interaction, we may eventually pull away from the conversation or activity. This can come across as ignorant or rude to people that are not aware, making them perhaps question whether or not you’re interested, let alone invested in the relationship!
My tip for Autistic people here: if you are tired, simply tell the person that you’re tired and that it doesn’t mean anything more. If the person really likes you, they won’t try and look for hidden messages because another thing about Autistic people: we usually don’t have any hidden messages! That beautifully transitions into my tip for neurotypical people, which is to trust that your partner or potential partner IS just tired. Don’t look for hidden messages, because I promise you, there probably are none!
Aaand those were my 6 reasons + tips regarding autism and all things love! To wrap up this post, I want to reiterate the core message when it comes to improving and supporting relationships, and this goes for Autistic and neurotypical people:
Express your needs, be patient, and seek to understand each other.
When you have open communication, you build your relationship on a foundation of trust, which is ultimately the goal; because if you don’t have trust, you don’t have anything. Now go out there and express your love, because life is too dang short to live in fear!