In Part I of our AuDHD & relationship series, we explored how combining typical ADHD and autistic traits may impact our relationships. In Part II, we talk about how fellow AuDHDers and their partners navigate relationships. Here, some of us at Embrace Autism share our AuDHD relationship experiences.
Our AuDHD experiences in relationship
Q: Do you notice your AuDHD traits in your relationship with your partner? If so, what’s an example of when/how this comes up?
Debra: “Both my partner and I are AuDHD. One situation where I notice our AuDHD traits is when we are both participating in a shared conversation with neurotypicals. Since we both struggle in these situations, we often debrief together to share any social cues we may have missed and to try and decode and understand the interaction. If we were masking/camouflaging in the conversation, I also find it funny when we both “evaluate how well we did.” Spoiler alert: I almost always “give myself away” when I interrupt the other person because I have (what I think is) useful information but then lose track of what the original conversation was about!”
Eva:“The main thing I notice is having pronounced issues with executive challenges such as organization and planning, so I rely quite heavily on my partner to help me with that. I am very prompt-dependent, meaning I do well when I have been given tasks to work on, and I’m less efficient when having to initiate tasks myself. I also have challenges calling and emailing, so I often rely on my partner to establish first contact with a new therapist for example, or making appointments that are non-routine. By this I mean that I’m fine planning the next appointment with my therapist or other routine endeavors (I always insist on the same time and day), but I show a lot of avoidance and postponing when having to make a dentist appointment for instance. On the upside, I’m pretty good at lateral and associative thinking and synthesizing information, so I can quite easily come up with ideas or look at an article or research paper my partner tells me to look at and find limitations and biases, or other avenues to explore further.”
Kendall: “Unless someone points out AuDHD traits to me, I don’t notice them. Due to my autism perseverance and single-track mind, I often interrupt people. When I catch myself doing it, I tell myself to stop, but I can’t because of my ADHD impulsivity. The realization that I have been speaking for too long takes a long time to come for me. Even though I notice the other person dislikes it, I cannot stop doing it. It’s the same with interrupting—I recognize that I do it, but as much as I try to control it, I can’t stop. As a result, I mentally beat myself up a lot.”
Q: Is there an aspect of your relationship that you struggle with or that leads to friction in relation to your AuDHD traits?
Debra: “Sometimes, my partner and I have the same needs and therefore cannot support each other adequately. One example is when we have to do mundane and confusing administrative tasks like taxes. Because of our ADHD traits, it’s tough for us to initiate doing a task we are not interested in. Combining that with how we find most administrative systems convoluted and ambiguous, a common autistic trait, it becomes very difficult for us to get such tasks done. Because it affects both of us, we can find ourselves in situations with very little support.”
Eva: “I wish I were more independent, so my partner wouldn’t have to bear the pressure of organizational tasks. My partner becomes overwhelmed by doing most tasks on her own. For example, this week she had to deal with a broken dishwasher, washing machine, and water heater, all of which required meeting with people. She also had to order medications, manage appointments, and provide direction to others, like providing prompts and directions to other people with AuDHD in the company so they don’t become overwhelmed. I’m looking for solutions to bear more responsibilities so there is more equity in our dynamics.”
Kendall: “I go into deep details on many different subjects because I enjoy knowledge. When I was married to a neurotypical spouse, I would mention something interesting to me, and she would suggest I was making up that fact. I said, “No, I am not.” My ex-wife suggested that no one could possibly know that, but when she got home, she looked it up, and it was always true. After that happened many times, she became annoyed, and told me it was very irritating to hear these pieces of information. There is a saying: “Knowledge is power”. For my neurotypical partner, the saying would be, “Knowledge is annoying”. I perceived her social information the way she perceived my knowledge: useless and boring.
My current partner, who is autistic, likes my broad and deep knowledge. What I understand is that neurotypicals very quickly find listening to such knowledge uninteresting, whereas they remain interested in other social interactions, like gossiping. So while my neurotypical ex felt that the pieces of knowledge were boring or irritating, I found her interests to be boring to me. The Bees article, written by Dr. Engelbrecht ND RP, speaks about this.”
Q: What is one way that your AuDHD traits bring you joy/positively enhance an experience in your relationship?
Debra: “I love the conversations my partner and I have! Our autistic traits allow us to be hyper-focused and detail-oriented. This means that we often discuss topics in great depth. And because our ADHD allows us to think in divergent ways, our conversations are ever-evolving, leading to new insight and innovation. It’s definitely one of the aspects of our shared AuDHD experience that I cherish.”
Eva: “As I mentioned, I’m pretty good at coming up with new ideas and things to explore further, so in collaborative pursuits I can have a lot of fun and can be productive with my partner in whatever we work on together. I am excellent at critical review and asking questions that solve problems, like when reading a research paper. I also have a different, fun, and quirky sense of humor.”
Kendall: “In addition to my deep knowledge base and the ability to solve problems, I am highly compassionate and loyal. I’m deeply dependable for detail-oriented tasks and recognizing the best way to present information so that it can be understood—it’s easy for me to detect where problems will be, even before they happen. As well, my knowledge can be entertaining and exciting to autistics and autistics with ADHD.”
Our (autistic) relationship experiences with AuDHD partners
Q: Do you notice your partner’s AuDHD traits in your relationship? If so, what’s an example of when/how this comes up?
Natalie: “The answer is yes. I am close to a lot of people who have AuDHD. It is manifested by impulsivity and difficulties prioritizing tasks. In addition, they are late-night people. Each has a passion for something, whether chess, philosophy, music, typography, graphic design or autism. They all are highly passionate about their passions and deeply knowledgeable. They are also all gifted. I love their lateral thinking, which brings up new and creative ways to view information.
Another factor is that I need to remember not to ask for more than one task at a time, and make sure I don’t add anything until the first task is completed. If I do, those with AuDHD become overwhelmed. Also, if I’m not specific enough about time, they tend to panic and think I mean immediately.”
Hailey: “The traits most notable to me are the differences in my partner’s working memory. Before I go to bed, I might ask my partner to complete some tasks, like setting up the coffee for the next morning or tidying the living room. He is wonderful and happy to fulfill those requests; however, if I request too many things, I know he might forget. I have found that three extraneous tasks are the limit—beyond that, a step or task is likely to be missed. For example, if I’ve asked too many things, he might put water in our coffee pot but forget to add the beans. That tells me that I’ve asked for too much in a row, so I make sure that I consider that when asking for his help.”
Q: Is there an aspect of your relationship that you struggle with or that leads to friction due to the mismatch between your autistic traits and your partner’s AuDHD traits?
Natalie: “As a partner, parent, or colleague, you may need to act as their frontal lobe. When your world is already overwhelming, that can be a lot to handle. I also have to deal with lots of AuDHD “upsetness” about them feeling inadequate—this is particularly difficult as I have empathic attunement and feel other people’s stress and emotions in a magnified way. So I can try to fix things or take on more than I can handle to avoid feeling overwhelmed by their emotions. The more inadequate they feel, the more they avoid, which results in less getting done.”
Hailey: “There are certainly areas where we have different needs, especially regarding our sensory differences. For my partner, sound can improve his focus; he always listens to a podcast or music while working on other things, which prevents him from focusing on ambient noises. He has three computer monitors on his desk and manages to use all of them simultaneously. It’s amazing! For me, I need absolute silence to focus. I often have challenges holding a conversation with him or struggle to complete my tasks because of the show or music he is listening to. Conversely, there are times when he is frustrated by my need for silence because that’s very uncomfortable for him.
My partner’s ability to pay attention to more than one thing is extremely interesting. I’ll often read a book in our living room while he is watching a video, and he will say something like, “Wow! Did you hear that?” I inevitably respond with, “No, I was reading.” These interactions can be perplexing for him, as he cannot avoid paying attention to everything happening around him. However, this can also create other challenges, such as if I’m watching a video while he’s trying to read. He can’t help but pay attention to both things, which can be taxing and frustrating, especially when he is not interested in my video.”
Q: What is one aspect of your partner’s AuDHD traits that brings you joy or that positively enhances an aspect of your relationship?
Natalie: “I love knowledge and deep exploration of ideas. AuDHDers are exceptional at looking at something I have written and asking many more questions that open my mind to what else I want to include in the article. In addition, I appreciate how they can see all sides of the discussion as they filter even less information than autistics do.”
Hailey: “My partner can be more spontaneous than I am as long as that spontaneity is of his own accord. Because of that, he helps us branch out and do new things. While I would happily remain in our house for the rest of my life eating the same four meals, he might encourage us to try something new or change our routine. We are compatible because he is also happy to eat the same meal every day for a week (and thankfully, we have the same taste in food!) Still, I love that his periodic desire for novelty helps us grow—regardless of how resistant I might be when he first suggests it.
I also love that we can divide tasks based on our specific strengths. I’m great at keeping track of appointments, managing our schedules, and remembering to put the garbage out weekly. My partner is great at putting on some loud music and doing a deep clean of our home, dealing with all the tasks that are so sporadic I forget about them. He gets incredible bursts of energy and uses that to deal with the things I procrastinate. Meanwhile, I steadily work on recurring tasks. All in all, we make a perfect team and balance each other well.”
Upon reading our experiences, it is clear that the way AuDHD impacts our relationships is varied—we experience our combination of ADHD and autistic traits in different ways. But at the centre of it all is how being in a compatible relationship is key. We need people who can understand our brains, can empathize with our needs, and who can support us. For some of us, it’s really important that our relationship is supportive of our needs for planning, routine, and administrative tasks. Compatibility also relates to joy and experiencing joy in neurodivergent ways! For us, this comes up around having meaningful conversation, a love for learning, and even trying new things (in a very autistically controlled way!).
How about you? If you are AuDHD or in a relationship with an AuDHDer, what comes up for you around relationships?