Being careful not to show her sadness and distress over the loss of her cousin to her kids, Lilly sat wearily down on the sofa. She did not want to burden him with her grief.
Her five year old, non verbal, autistic son, Jonas, came into the room.
Not making eye contact with her, Jonas gently laid the blanket from his bed on her lap. “Awww she thought, “he is so sweet not wanting me to be cold.” He left the room without a sound but returned in a moment with another blanket, then another, then another, until all the blankets he could find in the house were piled on top of her.
That’s when she knew that he knew that she was struggling. Him covering her in blankets was the only way he knew in that moment to express his love for her.
In this article I would like to discuss some of the unique ways someone with autism might express their love, and how we can build relationships effectively by celebrating those differences. From family relationships to romantic relationships and those in between.
An autistic person may struggle with things that a neurotypical person may not. This can present a confusing problem for both parties. Though each person with autism is different, there are some things that can affect their ability to communicate affection in a way that properly translates to the other person.
Autistic people may struggle with social situations and relationships for the following reasons:
- struggles with making or maintaining eye contact
- not wanting to discuss things besides their special interests, and not enjoying small talk
- not wanting to spend time doing things they find unnecessary or boring but are extremely important to others
- not enjoying physical touch
- the inability to handle big emotions in a healthy way
- thinking concretely, not wanting to break out of a set routine to be spontaneous
- trouble allowing others into their personal space or interact with their special possessions or creations
- difficulty expressing their own needs
- misunderstanding body language
- misunderstanding personal boundaries concerning space, order, or preferences of others
Learning with intention
One point I would like to make is that some of these things are only problems if you don’t know or understand them. If your idea of showing love is gazing into each other’s eyes, an autistic partner who is uncomfortable with doing that could be misunderstood as not loving you. However, with understanding, you can know that it isn’t personal, and begin to recognize when they show affection in other ways.
Let’s explore the complications that can manifest in a person with autism while expressing love. Autism spectrum disorder is not something that needs to be fixed. It is something that needs to be understood.
In a study called, Autism and Adult Sex Education: A Literature Review using the Information-Motivation-Behavioral Skills Framework we learn: was found that, “Currently, the literature suggests that adults on the autism spectrum acquire knowledge about sex and romantic relationships from different sources than their peers without autism. Adults on the spectrum were less likely to report learning about sexually transmitted diseases, contraceptives, and sexual behaviors from social sources, such as parents, teachers, and peers, as would be expected for non-ASD individuals”
This could be attributed to parents and caregivers being overwhelmed, nervous, or ignorant about how to discuss sexual topics with their kids. It could also be that kids with autism’s social interactions may be limited, isolating them from their peers, and causing them to miss out on opportunities to learn about sex from friends or sexual education classes. sexual
In the aforementioned study we also learn: “Despite an emerging literature which demonstrates that people on the autism spectrum are motivated to engage in romantic relationships and sex, they struggle with expressing and interpreting the intentions of others. These difficulties are consistent with the features of autism.”
The dangers of a lack of ability to interpret the intentions of others lies in the reality that there are people who will prey on others. Social cues play a big part in the grooming process employed by many predators. If your child is oblivious to the nuances of body language and personal boundaries, or is limited in their verbal communication, they can become targets.
On the other hand, if they themselves mistake another person’s kindness for love, they may cross social boundaries that can end in hurt feelings. Social skills can be taught. Teach your child to identify social cues, encourage communication, and help keep your child safe by having the awkward conversations about sex that you may otherwise want to avoid.
Some people with autism may have the ability to sense emotional needs in someone else, even if they are not outwardly visible. In such cases, they may show love by doing something, rather than saying something, in unique ways.
Unique shows of affection
People with autism may show their love by:
- sharing their special interest
- allowing someone into their space
- using alternative forms of communication
- giving presents
- being close without touching
Often, the autistic mind sees things in a different way. This can give people with autism the ability to sense, understand, and value things that many people overlook.
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Seeing things differently
Like Jonas, the unique ability to sense emotional needs is a gift of his. The challenges his autism brought, prevented him from speaking most of the time, but he found a different way to communicate his love without words.
Solutions for those with autism and the people they love can be complex. They come in all shapes and sizes, and can be as unique as each individual. Let’s talk about a few of them here.
Respect and support
Autistic people who have not been taught the skills they lack socially, have had their own personal boundaries crossed too many times, or have not had the support they need struggle more than those that do. They will develop their own coping skills that may or may not be healthy or in their best interest.
In the example above about physical touch we can glean some insight. A child who has had their needs respected and met concerning physical touch will have had the experience be rewarding.
They will know as they get older how to allow others to touch them appropriately, and in a way that is comfortable to them. This is a gateway to physical touch in romantic relationships, which we will talk about later.
In contrast, a child who has been forced to accept hugs or other physical affection such as tickling, snuggling, or being carried, may decide at some point that all physical touch is uncomfortable. That child may grow up lacking the ability to know and let others know what is comfortable for them, and miss out on opportunities to connect with others physically.
Friend or foe?
Teaching kids about friendship is obviously important. Equally important is teaching kids they don’t have to be friends with everybody. They are going to interact with all kinds of people throughout their lifetime, not all of them will be nice.
This can be tough for kids with autism. They tend to take things very literally. This can cause them to either engage with the wrong people, or refuse to engage out of fear.
Rules of engagement
Teaching our kids about the rules of engagement can be helpful. Rules involving:
- setting boundaries
- respecting others’ boundaries
- knowing the difference between light-hearted teasing and bullying
- how to start a conversation, or join one
- how to get help with conflict
These things will help them build loving relationships with their friends, and help them gain skills for future relationships. Helping their friends to understand the way they communicate love can also go a long way.
If your child’s friend knows that they do not enjoy hugs, but love to give gifts, or play games together, they will be able to maintain the boundaries and feel loved by your child. Special interests can be a great way to identify a potential friendship as well.
A common misconception about people with autism is that they are doomed to a life without romance. People with autism have a great capacity to love and be loved. Success in a romantic relationship is found in the same aspects as those without autism.
The autistic partner understands many things on a deeper level than the non autistic partner. They may miss certain social aspects, or find things unimportant that are important to the other person, but they may never forget an important anniversary, never be late for a date, and find ways to express their love that are totally out of the box and amazing.
Intimacy in relationships is built through mutual expression of thoughts and feelings, trust, and commitment. It is less about whether or not people with autism can have an intimate relationship, and more about whether or not a person is willing to receive and communicate love from an autistic partner’s point of view or style.
A close relationship, a loving relationship, is possible with autistic people. Neurotypical people can enjoy romantic love with an autistic partner, it just takes practice, compassion, a willingness to listen and learn, and the determination to succeed. The same is true of every romantic relationship.
Learning to show affection back to our loved one with autism may need to look differently as well. If our loved one does not enjoy hugs and snuggles, doing those things does not show our love to them. It is all about learning from each other through paying attention to small details, loving unconditionally, and making an effort of better understanding.
Let’s take the physical aspects of relationships as an example. Physical touch can present complications for an autistic person. They may abhor all types of physical interaction, they may crave certain kinds of physical contact, or different intensities in certain situations.
Knowing your loved one is key. If they do not like certain types of physical affection such as rubbing a back, holding hands, and snuggles, alternatives could be tight hugs, a weighted blanket, or using words of affirmation instead.
The bottom line is, learn what they do like and do it. Learn what they don’t like and don’t do it. Also, work together to find compromises so that mutual physical love can be shown that works for both of you.
This brief study about autism-related expressions of love is far from exhaustive. Just as my nephew did, autistic people show love in unique ways sometimes. Understanding and celebrating those differences is key.
I would like to recommend Amazing Skills. The founder, Michael Clark, and his company teach kids social skills. He is a speaker in the upcoming Autism Parenting Summit.
I would also like to recommend My Best Social Life whose founder, Jeremy Hamburgh, is also speaking on how he teaches people with autism how to meet people and build long lasting romantic relationships.
Solomon, D., Pantalone, D. W., & Faja, S. (2019). Autism and Adult Sex Education: A Literature Review using the Information-Motivation-Behavioral Skills Framework. Sexuality and disability, 37(3), 339–351. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11195-019-09591-6
Gökçen, E., Petrides, K. V., Hudry, K., Frederickson, N., & Smillie, L. D. (2014). Sub-threshold autism traits: the role of trait emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility. British journal of psychology (London, England : 1953), 105(2), 187–199. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12033