It is my opinion that because I have autism and anxiety, I am going to process my emotions, feelings, and environment in a way that a non-autistic person may not. Personally, I like to think of autistic vs. not-autistic people in the same way I think of Apple Mac’s vs. Microsoft’s personal computers (PC’s). They both operate in different ways, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they are both computers. Likewise, an autistic human is still a human; they just operate a little differently than most. (I wish this simple fact was understood by the majority of the population!)
Likewise, I think it’s absolutely necessary to emphasize the fact that autistic individuals feel emotions. To put it bluntly, we aren’t robots! The emotions we feel are big, powerful, and often overwhelming. It can even cause panic attacks.
Relationships, like any other form of bonded socialization ─ I.E., friendships ─ take a bit more work for us sometimes. That said, I would argue that any good relationship ─ neurotypical or autistic, romantic or platonic ─ requires some serious dedication for that matter.
While every autistic individual’s experience is completely unique due to autism’s mighty diversity, I want to take some time to address common experiences mixed with some very personal examples to create a helpful ─ but in no way “exhaustive” ─ guide for any non-Autistic person out there. My next blog post will be for the autistic person: how we can return our partner’s care and meet their needs as they ought to meet our’s. (Relationships, after all, are about “give and take.”)
1) Your autistic partner may need constant reassurance. Please give it to them!
There have been several times in a single, five-minute moment where I will sit there and ask my partner, “how are you feeling?” This is usually followed up by questions like, “am I doing this task correctly?” Or, “Are you thirsty? Can I get you a bite to eat?” Of course, most folks will often get annoyed at the fact that the autistic partner is asking too many questions, or the same question repeatedly. This is not our intention! In my experience, I want my boyfriend to be happy and cared for. In fact, “I care for you,” is something we have been saying in lieu of “the L-word” due to the fact that its far too early to say “I love you” ─ plus, “I care for you” is much more personable.
2) Autistic people often have special interests ─ topics or subjects that they are super passionate about. Respect those passions!
Perhaps the healthiest thing you can do for your autistic partner is to listen. I know for a fact that my jeans-and-a-shirt boyfriend doesn’t share my love and passion for fashion in the slightest. Where I see fashion as a means of feeling confident ─ a silent statement, a means of feeling confident ─ my boyfriend sees vanity. If he’s getting a compliment on his shirt, it’s likely because of the anime character embalmed on it.
Having said that, he meets me in the middle, and for that I am thankful. Daniel will engage in this passion of mine by helping me scour the racks for things I may like. He suggests I should shop practically instead of impulsively. I completely doubt this is his idea of a universally fun outing, but he takes the time to care.
My Mama always said that Dad seldom buys her flowers. Instead, he gives my Mama the gift of changing the oil in the car, mowing the lawn, working hard for our family, and making a pretty sweet creek in our backyard. Likewise, Daniel’s way of caring for me is by taking the time to make sure I have cute clothes to wear. He sits there and lets me play my favorite love songs to him, as, I hope, he knows that I’m quite the soppy romantic. Everyone will tell you “I care for you” in different ways. My boyfriend displays it by taking the time to let me vent, let me go shopping (on a budget), and let me be Morgan.
3) Sensory overload is a real thing.
Respect us when we say that we are physically, mentally, and/or emotionally overstimulated. We aren’t “snowflakes” ─ and I’m tired of that ableist term being thrown around in politics. As I said previously, we are humans with big emotions. We can often feel things to a point where it starts to become painful and confusing.
Early on in the relationship, I told Daniel that loud noises trigger me to a point where the anxiety attacks feel like heart attacks. Triggers include screaming children, balloons, and fireworks. I have gotten better about learning to calm myself down whenever I see or hear a trigger of mine, but it still doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a trigger.
Daniel owns a Soda Stream, a device that allows you to make your own soda at home. The device uses CO2 canisters to carbonate water for the soda. One time, Daniel let out some of the CO2 gas for a few seconds, creating a triggering hissing sound. In response, my heartbeat escalated and anger seeped out of my voice. “Can you please never do that again? My autism doesn’t like that!” I snapped. Daniel abruptly apologized at the sight of a distraught Morgan, vowing never to do it again. He also gave me a hug, my way of signifying that I am sorry or that I have forgiven someone.
Similarly, it can be all too easy for an autistic person ─ or any neurodiverse individual ─ to have sudden panic attacks. These can be traced from obvious sources, such as a busy party, or a grocery store with industrial lighting, too many noisy shoppers, and a million colorful objects for sale on the shelves. Other times, panic attacks are random; they just happen. I have had moments where my environment was completely calm and collected, and all of a sudden my mind starts to race and my heartbeat picks up. Finally, even the smallest things can be overwhelming to us. Having to do a chore or take a shower may seem like a basic part of being an adult human being, but to those who have executive functioning struggles, these “simple” tasks can be damning. Whatever the source or whatever situation your partner may have a panic attack over, it should be in your best interest to be their supporter during that stressful time. I personally suggest you take a moment to “TALK” to them:
T ─ Talk in a calm, soothing manner.
A ─ Ask them what is wrong and how you can help them.
L ─ Listen to what they need. Talk only to confirm what they need. (“Do you want a glass of water or your stimming toy?”)(
K ─ Know their needs. We all have different ways of reacting to stress. Perhaps your autistic partner has a favorite plush toy they take with them everywhere? Maybe they want someone to hold their hand or give them a hug?
By knowing your partner’s preferred way of destressing, you are able to help get them to a calmer state of mind, and a happier them.
4) Sarcasm or teasing can often go “over our heads,” being misunderstood as something to be taken literally.
If you are going to say something you think is sarcastic, witty, or in good humor, make sure to clarify that you’re being funny or sarcastic.
On this very night, I told Daniel that the two large mugs of coffee I had made me feel “pleasantly warm and buzzed.” My boyfriend, translating this statement to equal drunkenness, asked if I added a bit of Bailey’s to my coffee. I insisted I did no such thing. My boyfriend cracked a joke that was in reference to a video game we both loved, called Among Us. “Ur acting kinda sus,” he replied to me over Messenger. When I took him literally, Daniel made sure that I knew he was just having fun ─ and using the opportunity to make the perfect Among Us joke. While I was about 75% sure he was just teasing me, it took all of three seconds for him to type, “I’m just joking, I trust you.”
(To explain the joke, in the game, the “crewmates” ask each other a series of questions to find out who the two “imposters” are. “Ur acting kinda sus” essentially translates to “you are acting suspiciously.”)
Again, its the little things that help the autistic partner out so much!
5) “Don’t let the elephant sit in the room for too long” ─ Daniel
(Translation: Don’t let your burning questions go unanswered!)
I am very happy to be in a serious relationship with a man who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. If there is something I need to work on, Daniel always addresses it. Likewise, when I have a serious question, I am able to ask Daniel without it being “awkward” or without feeling like I have asked a ridiculous question. Already in our three months of dating, we have talked about a wide range of subjects. These include finances and money, me moving in with him, what our plans are for the upcoming holiday season, and what chores we both need to work on during Daniel’s weekends. Sometimes the conversations are easy; other times it feels like you’re, well, asking an awkward question. No matter what, communication is key. If you’re in a steady, healthy relationship, you should be able to have those difficult conversations without fear of retaliation or awkwardness.
I know I just threw a lot of information at you, so allow me to recap some of the main points.
- Constant reassurance will ease any anxiety your autistic partner has.
- Respect their special interests and passions.
- Acknowledge an autistic person’s sensory processing issues — especially if they have a panic attack. TALK to them.
- Sarcasm and “playful jokes” do not always sound like sarcasm and playful jokes to an autistic person.
- Don’t be afraid to address the tough subjects and ask controversial questions!