Autistic romantic relationships may look different than neurotypical ones. The best way to understand how autistic individuals can create successful romantic relationships is talking and listening to autistic people who have been in them. This article offers a simple overview for parents of three fundamental principles to remember regarding autistic involvement in romantic relationships and cites additional relationship resources for further reading.
Presume humanity and competence.
Your child is a human being with natural human interests and a potential for successful romantic relationships, just like anyone else. Autistic people can and do fall in love. The myth that autistic individuals are asexual is degrading and stands in the way of promoting a healthy romantic future. The Love and Autism conference is an annual event to educate people about autism and relationships. Their website explains, “As you know, the idea that autistic individuals have no need or desire for relationship is a very dehumanizing and pervasive myth. At Love & Autism, our goal is to crush the this myth and show the world that love, dating, sex, friendship and belonging are innate human desires that apply to autistic people just as much as anyone else.”
Amy Gravino, autistic speaker and writer, also known as the “Dr. Ruth of the autistic community,” regularly speaks about love, sex, and autism. In one of her blog posts, Amy writes that the first step to achieving intimacy “starts with seeing us as people who have those desires and needs, and who are as capable of understanding and learning intimacy as anyone else.” Presuming competence is important throughout your child’s life–it offers your autistic child the dignity they deserve and helps maintain their trust throughout adolescence.
Keep them informed.
Be as straightforward as possible when answering any questions, and teach them how to stay safe in a relationship. It’s a mistake to assume that a lack of questions means naiveté or a lack of interest.
Autistic writer and clinician Madison Beresford shared an article on this site called “Why Educating Autistic Children About Sexual Safety Matters” that offered specific strategies for helping keep your autistic child safe including teaching your child to say “no,” and avoiding secrets.
Lindsey Nebeker, an autistic pianist and professional speaker on autism and relationships, suggested a framework for sexual education curriculum in her article 9 Things You Must Include in Sexuality Education for Individuals with ASD. Ranking high on her list are an emphasis on personal accounts rather than relying professionals to teach the curriculum, full inclusion, the use of clear language rather than euphemisms, safe environment, and using appropriate teaching materials for hands-on learners. She also discusses the importance of developing a framework for autistic individuals that could be customized.
Autistic romantic relationships may look different than neurotypical relationships. No judgement is necessary (or wanted). In her post on intimacy, Amy Gravino concludes that “individuals on the autism spectrum often have to take a different road to arrive at the same destination, but our journey is no less valid.” Autistic couples need to negotiate boundaries just like any other couple.
Lindsey Nebeker and Dave Hamrick have written and spoken openly about their courtship and marriage. In an article for the Washington Post, they shared that their courtship was slow. Nebeker explains they met at an autism conference and dated long distance for the first two years. “I felt safer that way,” Nebeker says, “that we could take things a little more slow.” They also talked about how they have learned to live comfortably together and accommodate for their different sensory needs. They sleep in separate bedrooms and have negotiated shared and private spaces in their home. This is a system that works for them.
Kirstin Lindsmith shared how she and her boyfriend Jacki Robison (who are both autistic) had to learn ways around their touch and texture sensitivities and preferences in an article with The New York Times. Jack prefers light touches, whereas Kirstin prefers deep pressure. Jack also doesn’t enjoy the sensation of kissing. Despite these differences, they have found comfort with each other and have maintained a loving relationship. They have also participated in speaking opportunities addressing autism and dating.
Do you have personal experience with romantic relationships on the spectrum? Feel free to comment about things you’ve learned and would like to share!
Further Reading: Autism and Love Resources
I Wanna Hold Your Hand: Getting Intimate with Autism by Amy Gravino
Navigating Love and Autism by Amy Harmon
Love on the spectrum: How autism brought one couple together by Lisa Bonos