relationships on the spectrum

Social Involvement with Someone in the Spectrum

What This Is

- This one is for people in Relationships with people on The Spectrum! The purpose of this article is to describe what to expect.

This is a different version of Welcome to Holland.

(Welcome to Holland is an essay describing parents dealing with an autistic child. The idea is they thought they had booked a holiday in Italy but found themselves in Holland instead, which is also a nice place to visit.)

There's an important distinction in adult relationships. In terms of an intimate relationship, it's highly unlikely that you got involved without knowing your partner's basic personality type going in. Taking the "Holland" analogy, you elected to go to Holland.

Rephrased, as you learn more details, the circumstances of the relationship become a lot less complicated.
"The Spectrum" generally means the autism Spectrum, including Asperger's syndrome, HFA, PDD, Kanner's autism, and other autism spectrum conditions. Many of us are comfortable with the generic reference of "autistic".
If this looks like a "how to read labels" article, it's because that model seems ideally suited to the autistic approach to things -- if it's logical and there's enough information, the rest will follow.
There are also a number of people who seek relationships with people on The Spectrum. This is either a personal inclination or by deliberate decision. Reasons vary. Some people like the straightforward nature of a person on The Spectrum. Others find that the relationship more meaningful in an abstract way.

What to Expect

First, the adage that people don't change is significant here. While people do change in some respects, a person's basic personality does not. That may not be entirely true, but in the case of people on The Spectrum, there's a good chance that person was on The Spectrum when you met that person. (People are born that way, and their personality develops within the first 5 years.)

So the person hadn't "changed". What may change is both of yourselves understanding autism.

For one thing, you probably already know that people on The Spectrum have feelings. People on The Spectrum do not read facial body language well, so are likely not to have an inherent knowledge when something is wrong. For the same reason, they may not react as spontaneously to an emotional event.

Most significantly, you should expect what you see. The diagnosis (usually self discovery in the case of adults) does not change the person. The diagnosis is an explanation.

The diagnosis explains (attempts to explain) the reasons behind some things. If you were attracted to that person or enjoyed that person's company, the diagnosis is merely a description of that person.

Most of the issue described occur in relationships between people on The Spectrum. With awareness, relationships between people on The Spectrum are far easier. Such awareness and self-awareness helps people better appreciate each others' personalities.

The Effect of Being on The Spectrum

Since autism is an inherent part of someone's personality, the answer of what that person would be like without autism is simple -- they'd be a completely different person. That's what personality is!

There are individual things that you may wish were different. If you could change these things, you would be either changing a small aspect of their personality, or more likely the person would be adapting.

It's one thing to wish to change something that is incidental; but quite another to evaluate the person on the basis of those things. In one sense, it's not just a matter of not liking the person the way he/she is; it's a matter of not liking that person.

Things That are Different

There is a joke of,
  "Do I look fat in this?"
  "If you have to ask..."
This strikes home with people on The Spectrum because that person, when asked a question, is naturally inclined to give a direct answer. If the answer is either disingenuous or impolitic, then the autistic's first inclination is to try to make the direct answer less impolitic. In other words, the question is basically rude.

Expect less apparent empathy. Someone on The Spectrum will not see many emotions expressed in facial body language. On the other hand, that person will have learned to recognize the equivalent from circumstance. In that sense a person on The Spectrum may show more "empathy".

This is appearing in the NT world, incident to on-line technology. One of the US political candidates (2008 primary elections) was repeatedly exposed by having the video and audio portions of her speeches separately presented. The result is that the candidate is made to look insincere (in video or audio) or presented as talking in gibberish (in audio). In the case of political figures, we expect directness. Expect the same thing on a personal level.

The Meaning of Love

This is a little bit "tongue-in-cheek" because nobody really understands the meaning of love any more than they understand the meaning of life.

Many of us on The Spectrum question whether we really love a person. I believe this is a matter of interpretation of representations of love, rather than the further analysis of how that applies to one's relationship. The analysis does not resolve to a stereotype of "love", and therefore one concludes that one is not in love.

One can apply that sort of logic to:

  1. car repair;
  2. computer programming; and
  3. love.
Well, obviously that sort of analysis doesn't work very well for love. But we insist on using it because it works for other things.

The images we have of love, and what we try to integrate into love include:

The above is not intended as a researched list. (I made it up in 5 minutes.) It's just a way of explaining multiple images of love. It's easy to make the mistake that the above are a composite of love. They are not, and in some cases the items can mitigate against love.

One Definition (but certainly not the only definition) is that one either cares about what happens to that person, or would do things for that person; this in combination with something that could be called a personal interest. In the case of romantic love, the "personal interest" is sexual interest or romantic intimacy.

The purpose of the definition is not to attempt to define love; rather it is to explain that the absence of infactuation or obsession is not an indicator of lack of love, nor is it an indicator of lack of romantic interest or romantic love. (One may say that lack of infactuation is a sign of not being a teenager.)

It may be that lack of an aspect of sexual attraction suggests that romantic love doesn't exist, but that is much more specific that presuming that an Autistic doesn't love someone.


People on The Spectrum are often sensitive to particular sounds, tastes, odor.
Use that to your benefit because you likely will benefit from this. Usually the result of observing these sensitivities is an improvement in the quality of your food, environment, etc.

An obvious place where this had an effect on public policy is the use of smoke free areas, promoted to a large extent by people on The Spectrum. (Besides, who else would make it a political point to complain about a socially accepted custom?)

Environmental Sensitivities
These can range from noise to some forms of pollution. Your partner will express needs in this area.

Common items include:
Fragrances and scents
Typically cheap perfumes. Some Spectrumites will seek out "no fragrance" products.

This can be something as simple as dried garlic. Artificial flavors of course can be a problem area, since they typically have aftertastes and unpleasant attributes.

Each person is different, but such things as fluorescent light flicker (certain fluorescent lights) can bother some people.

As with everybody, different people object to different categories of noise.

Crowded environments
A crowded commercial establishment emphasising the social excitement of a crowd would almost certainly be overwhelming in short order. For one thing, someone on The Spectrum would not experience the social excitement the crowded environment is intended to convey, so the environment tends to be unfriendly. The crowd itself is also a source of unpleasantness and can be oppressive.

Physical sensitivities
These are fairly easy to deal with. Typical sensitivities include some food additives, fragrances and fabrics. As with sensitivities which are more common in the general population (e.g., cigarette smoke), the sensitivity can be a combination of physiological reaction and psychological reaction. The fact that a sensitivity is not clear-cut (e.g., contact dermatitis from a poison plant) does not mean it doesn't exist.

It is likely that people on the Spectrum are naturally more sensitive to some items, although there isn't a lot of data on this one.

Food Sensitivities
As is the case with NTs (NeuroTypical people or non-autistics), obesity and food-related health problems are an issue with us. As a further complication, people on the Spectrum may be particularly sensitive to certain food additives.

Things to Do Differently

I'll start with the "caveats" and "don't dos" first..
Avoid "put down" criticism (denigrating criticism).
This will be generally interpreted as a direct attack. If criticism often develops into an argument, it's very likely that your partner has grown to expect such comments as a form of maliciousness on your part.

Especially avoid "put down" criticism of your partner expressed to others.
This is sometimes euphemistically called "venting", but is much more specific. It is an attack on one's partner disguised as "venting".

In addition to the obvious hostile intent of such scoffing, it is likely that people listening will interpret the criticism from their own viewpoint of an NT-NT relationship. So something that seems insignificant to you will be interpreted by your listeners as offensive behaviour.

This habit of speaking of one's partner in derogatory terms is common in some circles (yeah, I know -- lack of culture), but is particularly a problem when complaints denigrate an essential part of the partner's personality. That's the very nature of such scoffing, sometimes called Lashon Hara.

So if you are unhappy with your partner's personality, you shouldn't be partners. You really aren't.
More on "venting" is found in Joel Stone's This Way of Life pages, under Venting or Hate Speech
Explain but don't make excuses.
"He's not being rude." is better than "He's not being rude because he's overwhelmed," and far better than "He's not being rude because he's sensitive to a combination of the noise, the noise from the tee vee, the general chatter, and bla bla."

In many cases, situational stress is not understood because culture only trains us to recognize situational stress associated with NTs (NeuroTypical people or non-autistics).
EXAMPLE: One would know how long one can go shoe shopping with a male NT partner. If you exceed that 30 seconds, you will have to go look for him in the hardware section of Sears. This is a known characteristic of most men and not considered rude. In the case of a male on The Spectrum, that wouldn't be a problem because he probably wouldn't be in the mall shops in the first place.

Use direct or logical approaches to conflict resolution.
The use of obtuse statements ("hints"), when understood, will be interpreted as excessively snarky. If the request needs interpretation, it is probably indirect.

An effective way to deal with this issue is through a "negotiated conflict resolution" approach to personal relationships (sometimes called "active listening approach to conflict resolution"). There are better sources for information on this, but briefly:
  1. The initiating person requests time to discuss an issue.
  2. The initiating person states the issue. This is preferably stated in first person language ("I" statements).
  3. The other person acknowledges the initiator's issue. (This can be a restatement of the issue as expressed by the initiating person.)
  4. The other person responds.
  5. The parties discuss. This can take the form of a negotiation.

As can be seen, this is a very stylized approach, best explained by those knowledgeable in such approaches.

Avoid direct questions that have indirect answers.
The above example of "Do I look fat in this?" is a good example. You'll get a combination of an undesired direct answer and/or anxiety on the part of your partner. (If you are on The Spectrum, it's easy enough to point out the problem of the particular question.)

Know when "making excuses" is appropriate.
If your partner has a particular like or dislike, one would "support" that person and not "make excuses". "Supporting" your partner in something does not mean you must believe in the item; only that you believe in your partner. If someone were agoraphobic, one wouldn't "make excuses" for that person. One would simply tell others, "___ doesn't like crowded places," and leave it at that.

One would "make excuses" when someone confides a particular want or issue. The way to identify circumstances calling for "excuses" is by asking yourself, "Did my partner want me to make excuses for him/her?"

A (real life) example:
I was feeling slightly sick at a flea market, when a friend recognized a couple of friends of hers there. I told her, "I'm not feeling that well. Please make excuses for me [for not being social with her friends]."

This is a fairly common adaptation, and probably is fairly common in NT-NT relationships. If one's partner needs a respite from something, the best approach is to help the partner. Doing so gives a favourable impression about both partners.

Not everything is an affect of being on The Spectrum.
I used to keep a glass Mason jar in the car as a coffee mug. (I now keep a coffee mug in the car as a coffee mug, but those are now a bit more common.) It could be considered over-affected, but I've been amused to find others doing precisely the same thing. With Mason jars! So not everything that seems odd or affected is unique to people on the Spectrum.

Most people on The Spectrum aren't at the level of Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson or Vincent VanGogh.
But do expect some small examples of better skill, knowledge or other ability.

Expect loyalty.

If you have a habit of vocally complaining, your partner will take you seriously.
That can be good or harmful. Without further explanation, your partner will consider your complaining an indication of your bad nature. As a result, your partner will either dismiss your concerns as unworthy of attention and best ignored, or will react to your expressed concerns.

This can be turned into a kind of trust and support provided that you explain yourself to your partner. Your partner will then be able to understand the nature of your expression, and will know how to respond. More significantly, your partner will be less likely to think you expressing hostility to your partner.

If your partner is the one who vocally complains a lot, test it by attempting to console your partner. If that works, then it's a simple matter of asking your partner to either not express him/herself that way.

Expect to find concern by your partner in the form of action rather than words.
Don't be surprised if response to a request for help is not immediate. Once your partner realizes the need and sorts things out, your partner will be there for you and do what is necessary to help.

Expect to feel safe even if your partner "growls" a lot.
It is un-Autistic-like to be violent or vindictive. On the other hand, it is common for autistics to "blow off steam". Know the difference.

Expect social miscues.

Expect your partner to distinguish between style and fashion.
"Fashion" will probably have the priority of social small talk; that is very little priority.

Concepts of "everybody's doing it" will make sense only if that suggests knowledge through collective experience. A common response is, "If everyone is doing it, why would I want to?"

Because of difficulties in "reading" body language and cues, people on the Spectrum have a difficult time in negotiating the complex art of social interaction. This isn't an impossible thing, and most of us have learned to do this, but we have to learn it. NTs have to learn the same things, but the additional difficulties that autistics have make it more difficult for us to "get started".

The Prospects

I have seen reports that fewer than 10% of autistics are successful in their ability to achieve good relationships. I don't believe that is really the case because:
  1. That conclusion was made before autism was commonly diagnosed. Diagnosis is important to self-understanding.
  2. There are a significant number of autistics who have done very well at relationships.
  3. The assessment was probably based on a determination that marriage is the only valid form of a successful relationship.
  4. There are a large number of anecdotal reports of good relationships involving autistics.

If you divide autistics according to whether they have crossed the "dating" threshold, the likelihood of success in relationships increases significantly for those who have started to date. Then take into account the effect of diagnosis, which is significant with autism -- instead of being "weird" the person understands he/she is autistic. With knowledge of autism comes a much greater tendency to engage people who enjoy the company of someone with autism characteristics.

These changes make it easy to approach the NT level of 50% marriage success rate. If one considers non-marriage relationships, it is likely that autistics will start to have the same degree of success in life relationships as everybody else.

On a more basic level, once an autistic crosses the threshold of dating, he/she will improve their knowledge and ability in handling relationships. Often they become particularly social.

Other Stuff

On Being Single

Society gives us the message that being single and dating are transitional stages, and marriage should be the person's goal. Face it, not everyone is suited for marriage! NTs have a 50% divorce rate, and they're supposed to be the ones who do well with relationships. Being single can be a good thing.

Okay, if you get married or want to get married, fine. Just do it for the right reasons. Let the NTs get married because "they're supposed to" or for the sake of the ceremony.

In addition to dating, there are other alternatives, some discussed by the Alternatives To Marriage Project (ATMP

As to the religious morality of living without marriage, is it right to get married when marriage is not suitable to you? Marriage is a union (or sacrament or commandment) which is designed around NTs and has evolved in an NT world. People do not "choose" to be on the Spectrum; it's the way they are (or the way they're created). Under Western dogma, the first command in the bible is, "Be fruitful and multiply"; not "Go get married."

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First written 19 Jun 02; first posted 9 Aug 02. Last revised 03 Apr 10.

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