Can Autists Have Normal Relationships?
Romantic relationships are a tricky topic when discussing autism with neurotypical expectations involved. While I find TV shows like “Love on the Spectrum” interesting and even humanizing — to a certain degree, there is also the expectation that autistic people can never have “normal” relationships, that there will always have to be some degree of accommodation in relationship with them. I think there’s often a sense of pity that accompanies watching an autistic person in relation with a neurotypical person, even if the neurotypical person insists that they’re not getting less than anyone else.
There are certain areas of understanding and accommodation that autistic people need in any relationship, romantic or not. Sensory sensitivities are just the beginning of this, the need to navigate around the world in ways that make it possible for us to have any kind of social life. Setting boundaries and following through on what can and can’t be worked around, and dealing with the temptation to push past our own limits to “mask” and pretend we can do more than is healthy for us.
Beyond those sets of needs, having a romantic relationship with an autistic person requires a certain kind of tolerance around teasing and jokes, and also about special interests. An autistic person may be very passionate about special interests and if you don’t share that interest, you can get bored. There has to be give and take on both sides (surprise!) about how much is expected for the partner’s tendency to go on and on.
On the positive side, if you love an autistic person, I hope that you can see the delight of sharing the perspective of someone who sees the world in a completely different way. They may not laugh at “regular” jokes, but they will often make you laugh at things they see perfectly clearly that no one else has ever expressed before. Their interests may make you expand your own horizons and they may be wildly imaginative in ways you don’t realize when you first meet them and they think they’re not allowed to be themselves.
It’s also true that many autistic people are caught in bad relationships at young ages because they don’t always know what a good relationship looks like. They can be unaware of the intentions of the other person, and they don’t always have a good social structure of people who might warn them away from being taken advantage of. It’s not that we’re incapable of a good romantic relationship, but we don’t always understand what isn’t explicitly taught and we don’t guess at other people’s intentions, especially if we’re being told in literal words that it is good.