My partner and I met in quite an unusual way. He had temporarily been living at home with his parents, who were my next-door neighbours. At the time, I was 35 and a single mom to an 8-year-old and he was 31.
One very hot summer night, he turned up at 3:00 a.m. and told me that some drunk guys had been hanging about around my car. I thanked him and went to put my car round the back. Half an hour later he turned up again, knocked on the door and told me he fancied me. I invited him in for what ended up being the first in an illicit string of meetings in the middle of the night. No phone calls or meals out. No dates or meeting parents. It was the perfect start to a relationship for me (13 years on and we have a fairly standard relationship).
At the time, though, my friends wondered what on earth I was getting out of it. Some were shocked that I’d let a (slightly drunk) man into my house in the middle of the night, on the basis that “he fancied me.”
What they didn’t realise was that this was the ideal way for me to start a relationship, doing away with the need for small talk, dates, or the subtlety of courtship. When you have ASD, it’s incredibly hard to read other people’s signals, including the signals of people who might find you attractive. I’ve had male friends who I’ve been desperately in love with who I discovered, years later, really liked me but felt as if they received no positive response from me. After a conference once, where I hooked up with someone who made his intentions very obvious, a few weeks later the man who I really liked told me he’d spent all evening trying to get my attention by chatting to me and buying me drinks. “I didn’t know what else to do except drop my trousers,” he told me. This lack of ability to read signals of attraction, which makes it hard for a relationship to even get off the ground, is characteristic of many women with ASD (1).
As well as the extreme bluntness of my next-door neighbour (the story he made up about the drunk guys hanging around my car was a complete fabrication providing an excuse to come to my door—I don’t pick up on lies and manipulation), I loved the fact that we didn’t have to go out together. The anxiety of getting ready for a date, the excruciating agony of making small talk and the discomfort of wearing anything other than a dressing gown after 6:00 p.m. were horrors I’d experienced often enough. Being able to have deep conversation, a glass of wine, and sex with someone I liked without the hassle of leaving the house was, in my mind, fantastic.
As well as making it harder to recognise potentially attracted partners, women with ASD tend to experience other relationship problems including becoming obsessed with their romantic interest to the exclusivity of everything else. Unlike men with ASD, who often become intensely focused on objects, women’s attention is often focused on people. My crushes well into adulthood would become all-consuming for me. I never understood how my friends could be in a room and find a few men attractive as I would hone in on one and become obsessed instantaneously. The first time I was dumped by a boyfriend (who I’d only been with for a few months) it took me three years to recover, during which time I regularly sobbed over the “Dear John” letter he’d written me.
Another common relationship problem faced by women with ASD is in the expectation of being able to fulfill socially-expected gendered roles of being nurturing, caring, and available, given the need for women with ASD to have time for interests, hobbies, work, and time alone. My own clients, and those interviewed by Sarah Hendrickx, often report settling for anyone who was willing to be with them, partly due to the negativity they had experienced in previous relationships as a result of communication issues, sensory issues, intense behaviour, and low self-esteem stemming from problems due to ASD.
My previous relationships have felt “wrong” and have been plagued with problems from the start. One of the things which is different about my current relationship is recognising that I can’t do things in a particular way just because that’s the “normal” way of doing things. As well as our middle-of-the-night escapades, my partner and I spent the first seven years of our relationship living mainly apart (despite having a baby). If we’d forced ourselves to continue living together, we wouldn’t be together now. Our current living arrangement consists of separate bedrooms. We have as close a relationship as you can imagine, but I need complete silence and space at night, as do many of my clients. I sometimes need to eat alone to recharge and can’t always manage family parties and my partner is accepting and understanding of my needs.
It’s easy to put yourself down when you have ASD and are in a relationship because your needs don’t conform to the norms, but it’s vital to recognise your needs as completely valid and ensure that these are met within your personal relationships. Finding a supportive partner and constantly working on healthy communication is vital for women with ASD within personal relationships.
Hendrickx, S. (2015) Women and girls with autism spectrum disorder: understanding life experiences from early childhood to old age. Jessica Kingsley Publishers