Dating someone with Asperger’s wasn’t something I had planned for my life. In fact, I was only a little familiar with the condition. After the last few years, I’m convinced I could easily write a book on how to navigate a mixed relationship. By mixed, I mean one between an Aspie and an NT. These mixed NT/Asperger’s relationships pose lots of challenges, with communication being primary. That is my opinion at least, based on personal experience.
“Aspie” is the endearing term used to refer to people with Asperger’s Syndrome, and NT (neurotypical) refers to someone who is not on the autistic spectrum. From my own relationship experience and from the forums I have read, I’ve come to realize these types of mixed relationships are very difficult to navigate.
“Asperger Syndrome” is actually an outdated term, but it is still commonly used. Nowadays someone who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s would be considered to have high-functioning autism.
Let me clarify something before proceeding. We are not sure my boyfriend, Alan, has Asperger’s, as he has never sought a formal diagnosis. In order to qualify for a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum, you must be evaluated by a mental health professional through a combination of interviews and testing.
In spite of having no formal label, as far as Alan and I are concerned, he has enough traits to warrant assuming it’s true. He was not always on board, though. Initially, he was very resistant to discuss or entertain the possibility.
Autism Diagnostic Criteria
For those who aren’t very familiar with traits that are common to people on the autistic spectrum, I’ve listed some of the commonalities below. They are adapted (in layman-friendly terminology) from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) , which is the manual that mental health professionals use for diagnosing mental health conditions.
As you read them, please realize that not every person on the spectrum has all of these characteristics. In addition, they vary in severity between individuals.
• Deficits in social interactions, for example in managing back-and-forth conversations
• Difficulty with non-verbal communication, for example in reading another person’s facial expressions. This may include an avoidance of eye contact and inability to use gestures to express themselves clearly
• Challenges with developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, for example adjusting one’s behavior to fit varying social situations
• Repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities (“creature of habit”)
• Repetitive movements, behavior, and/or speech, like hand-flapping
• Insistence on sameness, for example routine-oriented
• Intense interest in something and an unusual intensity of focus on that interest, such as an almost constant fixation on researching a particular subject
• Over- or under-sensitivity to sensory stimuli, for example being bothered by the feeling of a certain type of fabric
Meeting Someone with Asperger’s
Our first “meet” was a week before my 35th birthday. He made sure to correct me when I referred to our meeting as a “date”.
“I don’t consider this a date. It’s more like a ‘meet’,” he responded. Bristling at the comment, I felt as though he assumed I was being presumptuous about the status of our non-relationship.
Truth is, I simply misunderstood the intent of his comment. This has been a repetitive theme throughout our relationship. At the time, I didn’t realize that Alan feels the need to correct things he sees as inaccurate.
My first impression of Alan is he had a boyish charm and winning smile. He was a great conversationalist, clearly intelligent; and his many interests and hobbies intrigued me, some of which we shared. In spite of his innocent appearance, Alan had a bit of an edge, perhaps a cynical one. That was actually good for me because I am no Pollyanna!
He had taken cooking classes and proved to be quite adept at the role of chef. Flying lessons and photography were two other unique interests of his. We discovered one passion we had in common – traveling and experiencing faraway lands.
As a perceptive person, I am hypersensitive to people’s energy, behavior and mood. When I initially met Alan, there were a few things that gave me pause.
The first was his correcting me on the “meet” versus “date” thing. Then when it came time to pay the bill, he kind of tossed his credit card to the bartender in a mildly disrespectful gesture. I took note of it, filing it away to ponder later.
I can tell you that, after having dated online for a number of years, Alan was unlike anyone I had met. He was attentive, texting often. If he made plans, he stuck to them- not like most of the flaky guys who would ghost you in a second. This was a refreshing change from my earlier experiences.
Therapy and Asperger’s
Dating anxiety had already brought me into the therapist’s office- so I was already working on some things when Alan and I met.
Early on, I noticed my new friend was not very expressive. Compliments didn’t easily leave his lips. I was used to neurotypical men who were generous with affirmations and reassurances.
I hoped Alan was attracted to me, but I could not really be sure because he never said anything out loud that would suggest that’s how he felt. When I shared this observation with my therapist, he pointed out that people like Alan who work in the IT sector tended to be more introverted. “Kind of Asperger-y,” he added.
He also suggested that, while Alan did not have the natural inclination to tell me how he felt about me, I learned that when he looked at me as certain way that intimacy was on his mind. My therapist mentioned it in this way because I had done some work in mental health and had some knowledge about the condition.
After our therapy session, I went on a research binge, consuming any and all information I could find on Asperger’s; and I began to pay close attention to how Alan acted and how he interacted with me and with others.
It was not as though I was looking for something pathological in him. I could sense something a bit different, but could not put my finger on exactly what it was.
Figuring out Asperger’s
Alan had recently divorced (actually, he was separated at the time we met). When I asked him about his marriage and other details about his history, his responses just did not jibe.
The actors from his past and their behaviors and motives did not fit what I knew of human nature. I do not remember enough detail to describe it well here. Suffice it to say, things just did not add up. I couldn’t piece together a picture of his past.
In spite of the apparent inconsistencies in his stories, I could tell without a doubt that he was no liar. I was intrigued; but more than that, I was perplexed.
It was much later into our relationship, I realized the disconnect probably came from a difference in perception. His Asperger’s brain likely interpreted past events differently from how a neurotypical would perceive them; hence, his recounting of stories made no sense to me.
The more I learned about Asperger’s, the more I was convinced that Alan had it. One might ask why I was so fixated on determining what could be construed as nothing more than a label; but it was much more serious than that. Some of my boyfriend’s behaviors and my reactions to them were taking a serious toll on our relationship.
I awoke to this truth alone because Alan was hesitant to hear anything about it, let alone embrace it. On the few occasions, when I tried to raise the possibility with him, he became extremely defensive and avoidant. Then I would back off.
I felt like a one-woman show, trying to save our relationship by developing solutions, solutions to address our differences; however, that is nearly impossible to do alone; and the relationship suffered a lot because of it.
Trying to Work It Out
Alan was still a player in this, albeit, a somewhat clueless one; and his disengaged involvement was not doing much to help the situation.
Human beings need validation to feel understood. Validation makes us feel worthy and connected to others. Alan’s skills in this department were dismal. I tried to explain the concept to him in a way I thought he might understand.
I did silly things as reminders- like hanging pictures and lists on the refrigerator. I didn’t think he ever noticed those until he recently said, “remember those pictures about affirmation that you hung on the fridge?” So, he actually does pay attention (sometimes)!
Our problem was not simply a lack of him making me feel affirmed. It went further than that. He went to the point of nitpicking tiny details. This came across as being dismissive of my opinions and thoughts. For example, if I said something that wasn’t literally true, he would contest it.
I remember it being about 50 degrees one day during our temperate Florida winter, and I exclaimed, “Brrr, it’s freezing outside”. Alan promptly corrected me, saying it was not actually freezing outside.
I would interpret these types of responses as attempts to gain the upper hand or to control me. I later learned that his mind thinks very literally. Since he has come to accept some of his unique traits, he has explained to me that it’s very difficult for him to not correct what he sees as errors or inaccuracies.
I understand that now, but at the time, I felt criticized and as though everything I said was dismissed and discounted. Those experiences served to drive us further apart. At least on my end, they caused me to feel very disconnected from him, not to mention resentful.
It took a ton of work for him to finally get why that behavior was infuriating – infuriating to the point of anger I had never experienced before, and I’m not proud to say ended up in a few screaming matches.
He says it is very hard for him to restrain from calling out a detail that is out of place or an obvious error; but with only a few exceptions, he has stuck to his commitment to temper this tendency.
When he does falter, it’s usually because he’s tired and cranky. Nevertheless, we all have those moments where we aren’t at our best.
Our intimate life was a little different from what I was used to. It seemed he wasn’t too keen on open- mouthed kissing and when he did come close to my face he clearly tried to avoid my gaze, instead shooting a glance to the side. Discomfort making eye contact is a common characteristic of people with Asperger’s.
Before he was willing to look at his own path and behavior, my options were limited. I felt the only things I could do were 1) try to accept we had differences and 2) do things to take care of myself so that I didn’t get overly involved and focused on him. Admittedly, I didn’t always succeed at the second.
Asperger’s and My Family
Because my family is very important to me, I care a lot about their opinion of my partner. That is not to say I allow them to run my romantic life, but I want my partner to share and enjoy time with my friends and family. A few incidents that started us off on the wrong footing. The first big meeting with the family did not go so well.
We were hanging around the campsite at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground. My brother-in-law was working intently on a new website he had created for a hunting product he had developed. Alan, who has worked in IT almost his entire adult life, had taught himself a lot about building websites and getting traffic to his sites.
He asked my brother-in-law what he was trying to accomplish with the hunting site. Alan explained he was curious and just wanted more information. However, it was the tone and the words he used that set my brother-in-law off. He asked things like “why are you doing that?” and “why don’t you do that instead?”
I later had to explain to Alan the reasons his questions come across as critical and condescending. Alan was surprised that my brother-in-law had construed the interaction this way because he was only interested and trying to gather information. Alan had had no intention whatsoever of offending my brother-in-law.
Then there was meeting my dad. My brother and his family, my daughter, Alan and I went up for the weekend to see my dad and stepmother. Dad and Sara were arriving back home from an overseas trip. With the exception of Alan, we were all chilling on the back porch. He was relaxing on the couch, reading Time magazine.
When Dad and Sara came into the house, Alan did not budge. He did not get up to greet them. He muttered a “hello” while he stayed planted on the couch. Luckily, my father is super easygoing, so no harm done; but these are just a couple of examples where social interaction issues stressed me out.
I struggled with wanting to correct him sometimes, but I never want another person to feel as though they are not accepted just the way they are. Now I understand that giving feedback does not mean that you don’t accept and value the person.
In addition to wanting to accept Alan as he was, I did not want to take on parent role where I was correcting him as if he were a child. I wouldn’t want anyone to patronize me and treat me that way. Looking back now, I should not have been so hesitant to give him feedback. It would have actually been the kinder thing to do, the more considerate thing to do – to let him know.
Trying to Work It Out (Alone)
I spent hours reading books on Asperger’s. I worked hard on making sure I was interpreting his behaviors and introverted ways, not making assumptions based on my own way of being.
One book I found invaluable, and probably underappreciated, was Troubleshooting Relationships on the Autism Spectrum: A User’s Guide to Resolving Relationship Problems by Ashley Stanford. Ms. Stanford is a self-described neurotypical who is married to a man with autism. She developed a unique process for tackling relationship problems by breaking them down step-by-step, and troubleshooting them in a logical way.
The material is presented in a way that makes sense for the partner on the spectrum as well as the neurotypical. It’s a must-read for any mixed relationship.
I had begun my research in earnest – reading books and articles, watching YouTube videos, and visiting forums. I devoured any bit of information I could find. One book I found particularly helpful, in addition to entertaining, was The Journal of Best Practices by David Finch.
Finch related his own journey to an Asperger’s diagnosis. After discovering he had the condition, Finch set out on a mission to salvage his wounded marriage. His detailed and heart-warming account of well-meaning antics kept me chuckling throughout.
Psychologist Tony Attwood’s book, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, was chock-full of research-based information. His lectures are definitely worth checking out. Here’s a link to my favorite. He is both passionate and well-informed on the subject, having spent his professional life researching Asperger’s and working with individuals on the spectrum.
Finally, the Asperger’s and Autism Forum helped me immensely. Members are generous with their observations, feedback, and advice. We could not have made so much progress without these members’ kind support.
My Efforts to Understand
One might ask why I put so much effort into understanding Alan and trying to make our relationship. The simple answer is he is one of a kind. It is not often you come across a man who is so reliable and loyal; but I am not going to lie, it was exhausting. It wasn’t all bad because I became fascinated by the autistic spectrum and found it a rewarding experience to figure things out and put solutions into action.
Of course, I failed often because the simple fact is I think differently. I see the world differently and it wasn’t always easy to decipher what was happening in our communication (or lack of!)
Our challenges led to a few break-ups; primarily because Alan was not willing, or possibly able, to be an active participant. It is virtually impossible to improve a relationship when only one half of the partnership is engaged in finding solutions.
Still, I can’t be too harsh on Alan. He did make efforts, and he’s said it really does take effort to change. He stopped doing what I considered criticizing and I know that wasn’t an easy task. As I mentioned before, illogical or inaccurate concepts seem to cause a kind of brain abrasion and it was tough for him not to correct what he perceived as inaccuracies.
Because my efforts at understanding and interpreting him mainly took place in my own mind, Alan didn’t appreciate the work I was doing to save us by learning more about Asperger’s. He felt as though I was asking him to make changes, but that I wasn’t putting in my fair share.
I later explained that it took a lot of mental energy and time researching the condition. As someone who considers herself pretty well-versed in social interactions, I took on the task of searching for solutions. Frankly, it got exhausting at times.
Again, we broke up a few times because I wondered if I really wanted to put this much effort into a relationship. Is a relationship really supposed to be this hard?
His Acceptance of Asperger’s
I continued to tentatively address Alan’s traits with him over time, being careful to not bring it up when he was focused on one of his projects. Little by little he started to admit that the description of Asperger’s seemed to fit him. He finally got to the point where he started referring to himself as an Aspie.
Still, he didn’t show any curiosity about his condition or getting to know himself better. It would have been important for him to gain insight, so that we could work as a team to tackle our communication challenges.
I had met people on my favorite Asperger’s forum who seemed to really understand themselves and the difficulty in relationships that the condition had caused. I received responses from NT spouses that outlined the difficulties they had experiences and the actions they had taken to ameliorate problems in their marriages. Because these forum members had the drive to really work on their relationships, I couldn’t comprehend why Alan didn’t have the same interest.
The (Almost) End
This lack of engagement led to a final blow up, but it had built for quite a while. I interpreted his quiet way as his being angry and withdrawn, when in reality he was just extremely focused on his work (he works from home). My usual ability to read people misfired. I made assumptions about what was going on with him. Almost without fail, my interpretation of his inner state was incorrect.
I began to avoid being in his presence, instead opting to sit alone on the porch while he sat intently working away on the couch. I spent hours on social media, becoming more angry little by little. In the meantime, he was feeling neglected. Even though he wasn’t able to directly engage with me because of his work, he enjoyed having me close. He simply liked my presence.
All of this came down to a lack of communication. Part of the trouble was that he still could get defensive when I raised reasonable things to discuss. I later learned that he took my approach as a criticism- that I was saying he could never make me happy. He also felt he was the only one expected to change his behavior, not realizing the energy and effort I was making to solve our communication issues. In retrospect, I realize I should have included him more! He does constitute 50% of the relationship, after all!
The final moment where I kicked him out of the house was an incident where I felt he lacked empathy for my feelings and past experiences. When I told him something was bothering me from my past, he questioned why I had acted in a certain way. It was the proverbial straw. In fact, I made a fool of myself by beginning to sob in the restaurant. The frustration had reached an intolerable level.
We stayed apart for a year, more or less. We dated other people, but we always seemed to reconnect. He was my best friend and I suppose I was his. He wanted to remain friends because “I enjoy spending time with you”, sharing that I was the first person to understand him and helped him learn things about himself.
We tried to be friends, but inevitably, when he started to go on dates with other women, I would lose it. I couldn’t handle it because I still loved him and I could not bear the thought of him being intimate with other women. We played this game about five times until my therapist asked, “So, are you really done with Alan?” The therapist said he wasn’t trying to pressure me into any decision, but pointed out all of Alan’s good qualities. He was a good friend, reliable, loyal, dedicated, financially secure, and he hadn’t given up on me for a year!
I truly would have done anything to make it work- to give it another try; but I had run out of emotional and practical resources. With no tricks up my sleeve, I was out of ideas. Alan hadn’t been much help in the problem solving department.
After much thought, I decided that Alan was too good a person to throw everything away. I had noticed during the year apart, when we would reconnect and talk, that he seemed to have more insight into his behaviors and how they affected his relationships with people. A deeper level of insight seemed to have taken hold in him.
When I broached certain issues with him, he was less defensive and more open to talk about them; including that we could talk about them in the context of Asperger’s and neurotypical differences. One of the big determining factors for me to give it one more try is that his love for me had been undying. He had always said the words, “I love you”; but sometimes I didn’t “feel” it, not in the way you feel it with an NT. It’s as if there was often a chasm between us – that he was unreachable in some way.
Ultimately, we decided to give it one more committed try. This included going to therapy together. Through the process of therapy and much introspection on my part, I came to the realization I needed to do the following things.
Take care of myself
I have learned to focus on my own needs and be less concerned about his mood and state of mind. Because I had become so fixated on what I thought were his faults, I lost sight of my own. You could consider it codependency. I lost part of myself in the relationship and neglected my own interests and needs.
Avoid making assumptions
This was probably the biggest killer of our original relationship. I was almost always wrong when I assumed that I knew what Alan was thinking. Either I incorrectly assumed he was moody, when he was simply intently focused on a task; or I took things personally. Another was assuming he wasn’t attracted to me because he never verbalized it, or rarely did.
When he did try to meet my needs by acknowledging my appearance, he’d say something like, “You look nice” in his monotone voice. Well, I figured that’s something you might say to your grandmother when you visit her in the nursing home.
This is a perfect example of something that needed translation from my language to his, understanding that by saying “you look nice”, he really meant “you look beautiful” (I had usually really made an effort, and I do think I look pretty good when I try!) I had to take into account that Alan was making an effort to do something I had asked for, which is a way to show sincere care.
Develop mutual interests
Almost as soon as we got back together, we started to work on projects together and to plan a trip. Having a common goal and working on it together creates a natural sense of camaraderie. That had been sorely missing in our relationship before, where I perceived him as the enemy at times.
I have enjoyed learning about his hobby and I’m starting to get into something similar. We have started biking more often, exploring all the cute towns and parks in our area. We now some common goals and can converse about these newly shared interests.
After taking a step back and seeing our relationship from a more objective point of view, I could better see patterns, those of which I contributed to. For example, I had pre-existing depression. In spite of regular treatment, my mood vacillates. On days when I’m feeling down, I have a lower tolerance for what I perceive as Alan’s lack of engagement. I also have a lower tolerance for his Asperger’s quirks.
Before our break up, I spent too much time in my head instead of talking to the guy who laid next to me in bed every night. I’ve never been the best at communicating, so that was a barrier from day one. Given that he isn’t a pro either, we have really had a challenge on our hands.
Now, instead of making assumptions about his thoughts and feelings, I just come right out and ask. Sometimes I will literally ask for a compliment because saying them spontaneously does not occur to him. Though it felt a little weird at first, as though I was needy, I’ve gotten used to it. In fact, one thing I know for sure. If Alan says something, he means it. So whatever his response, I know it’s honest.
This practice has worked well because he comes up with the kindest, most complimentary things to say- things that really touch my heart, like that I’m compassionate and care a lot about others.
While dating someone on the autistic spectrum has posed challenges for me that I had never before encountered in a relationship, it has not been a one way street. Alan has had to deal with my own mental health issues. Because of my own struggle with depression, he’s had to make accommodations. He has always done so with patience and understanding.
Today we work together as a team to overcome whatever difficulties come our way.
“Dating Someone with Asperger’s” is published with the author’s permission, as a “My Story” contribution.