All relationships can get complex at times. Dating someone with Asperger’s is no exception, and it brings its own joys and opportunities.
If your partner is on the autism spectrum and you aren’t, it’s natural and not uncommon for both of you to wonder about each other’s reactions or behaviors.
You might find yourselves searching for ways to address your concerns and tips on how to strengthen your bond.
Learning more about autism and Asperger’s can help you navigate some of the situations that may arise. This, in turn, might become the first step toward a stronger relationship.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term for a number of conditions, some of which were previously diagnosed separately.
Asperger syndrome, also referred to as Asperger’s, is one of these conditions.
In this article, we’ll be referring to dating someone who has previously received an Asperger’s diagnosis or who identifies with this term.
According to Eva Mendes, LMHC, NCC, a diagnosis of Asperger’s is defined mainly by differences in social communication and emotional regulation reciprocity.
“The communication challenges can be verbal or nonverbal,” Mendes, a psychotherapist who works with adults with Asperger’s, told Psych Central. “Sometimes they can also have rigid behavior patterns and routines.”
“They also tend to have sensory sensitivities,” she added. “That can cause issues with relationships because sometimes they have trouble with touch and sound, and sight and smell and taste.”
These differences in how someone with Asperger’s communicates, perceives touch, and reacts to your emotional expressions might be confusing at first.
Despite the potential challenges, though, it’s possible for a neurotypical person — one who is not on the autism spectrum — to develop a fulfilling long-term relationship with someone with Asperger’s.
In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) removed Asperger’s as a standalone diagnosis and made it part of one umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
However, some people who were previously diagnosed with Asperger’s still self-identify with the term.
In this article, we use Asperger’s to refer to those people who received the diagnosis or who still identify with it.
In the past, it was believed that a diagnosis of Asperger’s or autism was incompatible with love and relationships. But love is an emotion that can be fully experienced by nearly anyone, despite differences in perception, social interaction patterns, or emotional expression.
In other words, someone with Asperger’s is capable of falling in love. There are, however, some potential challenges both of you could experience along the way. But, isn’t this the case for most relationships?
Some of the challenges might come, in part, from what researcher Damian Milton has called the “double empathy problem.”
The concept refers to the potential difficulty both neurodivergent and neurotypical people may have when attempting to understand each other.
This is not “a problem” someone in the relationship has. Instead, it’s a common occurrence when two people with different outlooks and experiences relate to each other.
According to Milton, autistic people don’t lack empathy, as some people may inaccurately believe.
Neurodivergent people express emotions differently, mostly based on their particular way of experiencing the world.
This might make it difficult for nonautistic people to understand and sometimes empathize with an autistic person.
The same can be said for autistic people understanding nonautistic individuals. It’s a bidirectional experience.
The major challenge comes from assuming that the nonautistic way is the correct and only way.
This might lead to assuming that the autistic partner must make a greater effort to understand and comply with the feelings and needs of the neurotypical partner.
A good starting point, then, for strengthening your bond with someone with Asperger’s might be considering that they shouldn’t always have to come all the way to you.
In other words, it may be important to understand that there’s no one way of “doing relationships,” and that the correct way to relate to others isn’t simply the neurotypical way.
You can meet the other person halfway, and sometimes, you can meet them all the way.
The same way a neurotypical person may be used to certain relationship patterns, a person with Asperger’s may relate to others from their experience, too.
This presents with unique opportunities to learn to relate in different ways. Here are some of the ways someone with Asperger’s may relate to you that may be surprising at first.
Flirting is perceived differently
A person with Asperger’s may not notice your subtle hints when flirting. You may be using your best “moves,” and they could go unnoticed.
“Sometimes, they don’t know when someone is interested in them or flirting with them unless someone is very explicit,” Mendes explained.
This doesn’t mean they aren’t interested. Instead, they could not be reading or interpreting your cues correctly. You may need to be more direct if you’re interested in some romance.
Taking initiative may be up to you
Making the first move, or organizing a date, may be a difficult task for your partner with Asperger’s. This, again, is not necessarily lack of interest. Instead, it may be linked to potential challenges in executive functioning.
Executive functions are cognitive processes that have a direct impact on behavior. They’re what makes you formulate a plan when you set a goal, for example.
“Sometimes there is lack of initiation; [someone with Asperger’s] might hesitate to ask their partner out on a date,” said Mendes. “Executive functioning is planning and organizing tasks […], and a lot of them do struggle [in that aspect].”
Apparent lack of support
When you’re dating someone with Asperger’s, there might be times when you feel a lack of emotional support or understanding from them.
For example, your partner might not notice when you’re feeling sad or not know how to respond when you tell them you are. This doesn’t mean they don’t care.
“They may miss cues about how their partner is feeling [and] there might be a lack of emotional reciprocity,” Mendes said.
In the same way, it might be possible for you to miss cues about how your neurodivergent partner is feeling because they express these feelings in a different way. This might make them believe you’re not being supportive.
When dating a person with Asperger’s, you may find you’re on the receiving end of some blunt comments. Experts say it’s important to remember that your partner may not have meant to upset you. It might be just a matter of differing communication styles.
In the same way that someone with Asperger’s might not realize you’re flirting with them until you clearly state your interest, they may be inclined to tell you what they feel or think directly without subtleties.
“Sometimes, a lot of people on the spectrum don’t have a filter,” Mendes explained.
This means they might say things without realizing the content or tone they’re using. This could lead to some friction unless you understand there’s no intention to upset you.
Verbally expressing love
You may find your partner with Asperger’s doesn’t say “I love you,” or express their emotions, as often as you need them to.
Mendes says this may be because, to your partner, the love between you two has already been established. They might see no need to vocalize emotions any further.
“If their partner says ‘I love you,’ they may say it once and then they feel like ‘I don’t need to say it again because it hasn’t changed,” Mendes explained.
A mismatched libido
Sometimes, people with Asperger’s might have a significantly lower or higher sex drive than some people not living on the spectrum.
As with any romantic relationship, a mismatched sex drive could potentially lead to some difficulties.
“Sometimes, people on the spectrum might have a low sex drive, so that can be a little mismatched. Although that’s not true for everyone,” said Mendes.
Mendes says there are many ways to address the differences and challenges you may experience when dating a person with Asperger’s.
It’s important to remember that “your way” is not necessarily “the way” to a successful relationship. This applies both ways, and compromises are required from both parties.
Communication is everything
Mendes suggests that all couples schedule time each day to talk about how each partner is feeling. This could also be an opportunity to air any grievances.
Scheduling this time, she says, is particularly important when dating a person with Asperger’s.
“Sometimes when you have a partner on the spectrum, those random conversations or points of connection aren’t happening, so one has to be deliberate about it,” she said.
Saving time to communicate about your feelings and expectations can help you both understand where the other person is coming from.
When having these moments, it’s important to make a conscious decision that whatever is said will not end up in a fight. Your partner might have different needs or different perceptions about your needs.
Clear and straightforward communication is an opportunity to learn about these perceptions and clarify any misconceptions.
Be clear about intimacy needs
“In terms of intimacy issues in the bedroom, you want to be very explicit in communication,” Mendes explained.
“I have one couple where the spouse might say to their partner, ‘Hey! Tonight I think it’ll be good to have sexy time,’ and the partner is like, ‘OK, I’ll be ready!’” Mendes said. “They can get themselves mentally prepared and ration their energies if that’s going to happen.”
Mendes says this approach may feel unromantic to some people but argues it’s important to be explicit and not assume physical or emotional intimacy is going to happen spontaneously.
You might also come up with additional ways to express your emotional and physical intimacy needs to your partner.
For example, you could set alarms for them to call you at specific times of the day just to check in. Or you could remind them you enjoy it when they say “I love you” before leaving the house.
Understanding the need to be more explicit with your partner in order to get what you need can help avoid feelings of rejection.
It’s also important to ask your partner with Asperger’s if they’d like you to do or avoid certain things so they feel your love.
Learning more about Asperger’s may help you better understand your partner.
Mendes uses the example of a couple she works with where one partner has sensory differences.
In that case, the partner with Asperger’s didn’t like being touched on the shoulders. Whenever their partner would initiate touch in that area, they would flinch. Then, their partner would feel rejected by this reaction.
Reading more about sensory differences in people on the spectrum helped the neurotypical partner understand this reaction. They were then able to work together to find other zones that were better for touch.
Learning more about Asperger’s but also asking your partner about their preferences could help you bond in new ways.
Let them know how you feel
Communication is key in any relationship, particularly one where differences may be more evident.
Mendes says it’s important, for example, to let your partner know when the language they’re using feels hurtful or upsetting to you.
“There’s a lot of misunderstandings with how people on the spectrum phrase things. They can be very blunt; they can have no filter,” Mendes explained.
Understanding that this is how they communicate is important. Similarly, you may be communicating in a way that makes your partner feel misunderstood or challenged.
It may be a good idea to let them know how you feel and ask them how they feel.
It’s also important not to assume verbal communication is the best approach for your partner with Asperger’s. They might prefer other communication outlets when feeling overwhelmed, such as sensory input.
Build your support network
If you believe your partner with Asperger’s may not provide all of the emotional support you need, consider seeking help outside the relationship.
Mendes advises practicing self-care and seeking emotional support through other avenues.
Reaching out to your friends or family can help. You may also consider getting a pet, she says.
It’s not uncommon to feel guilty for investing time and effort in you and your needs outside of your relationship. However, when dating someone with Asperger’s, doing this could take the pressure off your partner and help you meet some of your needs.
In the same way, your partner may also feel the need to reach out for support in other spaces. Support groups or therapy can be a great alternative for both of you.
Reaching out for professional help can facilitate strengthening any relationship.
If you and your partner are trying to work on your challenges and establish better communication, couples counseling could help.
Seeking someone who specializes in supporting autistic people is highly recommended.
“If you feel like there are some recurring things, and you talk about it a few times and you’re just not getting any traction, sometimes it’s just helpful to have a neutral third person there,” says Mendes.
“All of a sudden, hearing it from another perspective will open your mind a bit and make you feel lighter. You might even realize, ‘Wow! I’m actually happier in this relationship than I thought I was!’”
Being in a romantic relationship with someone with Asperger’s might bring its own opportunities.
Whether you just started dating a person with Asperger’s or you’ve been married to them for a while, there are a few practical ways to strengthen your bond.
Learning more about Asperger’s, becoming aware of the opportunities, and seeking professional help are some of the ways you could work together.
“With hard work, awareness, and the right counselor that specializes in this […] you can create a good relationship,” Mendes concluded.