What’s with all the media portrayals of autistic individuals being “bad” at romantic and platonic relationships?! (For example, Sam Gardner, the main character in the TV show Atypical is a prime example…)
In this article, we break down why relationships may be hard for us, how that relates to living in a neurotypical-dominated world, and how to think about relationship compatibility from an autistic perspective.
Do autistics want to connect with others?
I (Natalie) have always been interested in having friends and a partner. Contrary to mainstream belief, this is not unusual! A recent comprehensive analysis of existing research shows that autistics and non-austistics report similar levels of interest in romantic relationships and friendships.A systematic review of romantic relationship initiation and maintenance factors in autism, Yew, 2021 Rather, it seems that the challenge is not in the wanting but in the initiating and maintaining of these relationships.A systematic review of romantic relationship initiation and maintenance factors in autism, Yew, 2021
Social interaction differences in relationships
This same study found that romantic relationship (dis)satisfaction is a result of social interaction differences, particularly between an autistic and their non-autistic partner.A systematic review of romantic relationship initiation and maintenance factors in autism (Yew, 2021) This likely stems from the outdated view that autism is a disorder. When someone views autism as a disorder, they also view the traits commonly associated with autism as being problematic/abnormal. If there are differences in social communication and interaction between two people, then the “deficits” therefore must lie exclusively within the autistic person.
The double empathy problem
Thankfully, we are moving toward the concept of autism as a diversity in neurology (called neurodiversity), rather than a disorder. With this view, social difficulties for autistics may be a result of the double empathy problem—where autistics and non-autistics find it challenging to understand each other.On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’ (Milton, 2012)Autism and the double empathy problem: Implications for development and mental health (Mitchell et al., 2021) The double empathy problem raises the point that it isn’t a problem with the autistic person in a relationship but rather that each person’s different ways of communicating may be misunderstood or even incompatible with each other.
The dialectical misattunement hypothesis
The social interaction differences across neurodiverse relationships can also be understood using the dialectical misattunement hypothesis of autism.Beyond Autism: Introducing the Dialectical Misattunement Hypothesis and a Bayesian Account of Intersubjectivity (Bolis et al., 2017) In relationships, this theory might explain how autism is not just an individual difference in social communication but an interpersonal mismatch/misattunement between how we expect people to interact vs. how we actually interact.
Since the neurotypical majority defines what is considered “normal” social behaviour in our society, others often see a mismatch in expectation vs reality as a problem with how a specific autistic individual interacts. This is because the expectation is that an autistic person should act like a non-autistic person.Communicative misalignment in Autism Spectrum Disorder (Wadge et al., 2019)Interpersonal Synchrony in Autism (McNaughton & Redcay, 2020) In contrast, two autistic people or two non-autistic people may be better attuned to each other because their predictions for how a social interaction will go will likely match the outcome.
This idea of mismatch being generated based on comparison with societal norms is depicted in a clever book called Elemental Island (2015) by Kathy Hoopmann & J.S. Kiss. It flips the narrative and looks at neurotypicality from the perspective of it being the minority. The main character, Astatine is a neurotypical born to autistics, living on an island full of autistics. She can’t find anyone to be friends with and people find her strange.
Opposites don’t attract. Likes do!
Researchers have long debunked the popular belief that ‘opposites attract’. The truth is that ‘likes attract’. Studies have shown that friends and partners are more likely to share values, traits, and hobbies.Similarity in relationships as niche construction: Choice, stability, and influence within dyads in a free choice environment (Bahns, 2017) Likewise, we are more attracted to people that have personality characteristics similar to ourselves or our ideal selves.Interpersonal attraction and personality: What is attractive–self similarity, ideal similarity, complementarity or attachment security? (Klohnen & Luo, 2003)
Think of it intuitively; opposing views generally lead to conflict, not peace. Peace happens when we can empathize with the other person’s or group’s point of view. Thus, in order for a relationship to be successful, there has to be something that brings two people together. This is often similar interests or values. Likewise, this logic extends to our autistic traits. If we share an understanding of our autistic forms of communication or support needs, it’s easier to make connections and build sustainable and meaningful relationships.
Autism Quotient (AQ) & relationships
Research has shown that the more similar people are in their autistic traits, the higher their perceived quality of friendship.Interpersonal similarity of autistic traits predicts friendship quality (Bolis, 2021) Interestingly, this isn’t only applicable to autistic individuals, it works for anyone who rates their autistic traits using the Autism Quotient (AQ) by Simon Baron-Cohen! This study also found that the closer a person’s AQ score is to another person’s, the more they felt close, accepted and supported by their friend.
Perhaps instead of asking your date about their favourite music to determine compatibility, you should ask them what their AQ score is! /joke
In all seriousness, it might be a good starting point when forming a relationship to look at whether your new friend/partner shares your autistic traits.
Natalie’s experience with relationship compatibility
It is definitely easier for me to relate, understand, and get along with another autistic person compared to another non-autistic person. For example, it is easier for me to help an autistic friend because they are direct about it. I don’t have to read between the lines or use neurotypical social norms to figure out what they are asking help with. It’s easy for me to accept them, because I understand them.
I also find that there are many benefits to having autistic friends and partners. Since they understand certain things about me, like my autistic traits, I don’t feel the need to camouflage around them. For example, autistics understand that autism is not a word or a concept, but who I am. So things like sensory issues, overwhelm, passionate interests, and cooperative overlap in speaking are automatically understood.
The bottom line is that finding and maintaining friendships and partnerships in a majority neurotypical world can be difficult. It’s important for us to be able to find people who understand our autistic ways of interacting and who share similar traits to us. We hope that the Embrace Autism Private Community may be a resource for connecting us with our autistic kin.