Relationships that involve people with an Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) are often described as neurodiverse. Neurodiverse relationships can include either, both people who have an ASC, or else one person with an ASC and one person without an ASC (i.e., a person who is considered neurotypical). Neurodiverse relationships that include one person with an ASC and one person who is neurotypical (NT) may encounter considerable challenges, given that autism is a condition that impacts on an individual’s communication and social abilities, whereas people who are NT tend to have instinctive social skills. The giving and receiving of emotional support through reciprocity is a fundamental component of interpersonal interaction for NT individuals in their relationships. However, the opposite is usually the case for autistic people. They can experience a great deal of stress and anxiety when faced with the conventional expectancies of engaging in social interaction and reciprocity in close relationships. Thus, the different interaction capacities and requirements between autistic and NT individuals, when integrated in one relationship, may be an extensive source of miscommunication.
Although a common misconception is that adults on the autism spectrum do not want romantic relationships (Moreno, Wheeler, & Parkinson, 2012), many autistic adults are usually as interested in such relationships as NT adults. Consequently, many adults with ASC initiate romantic interest, form romantic attachments, progress along the relationship continuum, and enter into long-term relationships (Henault, 2006; Moreno et al., 2012). Not only are the higher functioning adults with ASC likely to have partners and children, but they are often proficient at hiding their symptoms (Attwood, 2007, 2015). By using their intellect to mask deficiencies in public, the coping skills of these adults can contribute to the hidden quality of many adults with ASC (Attwood, 2007, 2015).
While forming healthy, loving relationships is cultivated through the ability to give and receive healthy reciprocal interaction, individuals with ASC have difficulties with the social aspects of life, such as social interaction abilities and social functioning. Therefore, they have social impairments that can interfere with their capacity to engage in, contribute to, and persevere with, the ongoing reciprocal interaction necessary to sustain relationship health. The day-to-day reality of living with high skills in certain areas coupled with low skills in others may cause unseen turmoil behind closed doors. Edwards (2008) reports that, “all people with ASD have problems with communication…[often] giving a false impression of their comprehension” (p. 52). Consequently, many extremely able autistic adults may commonly struggle with day-to-day life skills (Edwards, 2008). Given that adults with ASC can often feel most comfortable within the intimate relationships of a family, they may exhibit more of their ASC characteristics in private. An outcome of this unseen aspect is that, others outside the confines of the home regularly do not observe the resulting struggles that they, and their families confront. At the same time, their special abilities, talents, and interests can help them to rise to the top of their field (Howlin, 2000). While this often means that they do well in their vocational pursuits, their struggles within the home environment with seemingly simple instructions, and their inabilities to perform what is generally viewed as straightforward mundane tasks, can perpetuate the hidden quality of ASC (Bresnahan, Li, & Susser, 2009; Edwards, 2008; Elichaoff, 2015; Howlin, 2000). The result is a divide between the public and private manifestations of neurodiverse relationships, with the healthy reciprocal interaction that NT adults usually expect, challenging to achieve in these relationships.
Dr. Bronwyn Wilson
Attwood, T. (2007). The complete guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Attwood, T. (2015). The complete guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (Revised ed.). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Bresnahan, M., Li, G., & Susser, E. (2009). Hidden in plain sight. International Journal of Epidemiology, 38(5), 1172-1174. doi:10.1093/ije/dyp293
Edwards, D. (2008). Providing practical support for people with autism spectrum disorder: supported living in the community [1 online resource (192 pages) : illustrations]. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ECU/detail.action?docID=350373
Elichaoff, F. (2015). What’s it like being you? Growing old(er) with Autism Spectrum Conditions – A Scoping Study. The European Journal of Social & Behavioural Sciences, 13(2), 1851-1864. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.ecu.edu.au/docview/1682443834?OpenUrlRefId=info:xri/sid:summon&accountid=10675
Henault, I. (2006). Asperger’s Syndrome and sexuality. From adolescence through adulthood. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Howlin, P. (2000). Outcome in adult life for more able individuals with autism or Asperger syndrome. Autism, 4(1), 63-79. doi:10.1177/1362361300004001005
Moreno, S. J., Wheeler, M., & Parkinson, K. (2012). The partner’s guide to Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley.