Lilly sat on the sofa watching her favorite TV program when her 5-year-old autistic son, Jonas, gently laid a blanket from his bed on her lap. And then another. And another. Lilly soon realized it was his way of showing love, and she wondered about the connection between autism and expressing love.
This article will explore autism and expressing love and how autistic individuals often have unique ways of showing affection.
The Challenges of Autism and Expressing Love
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, some things 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 the 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
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Learning with Intention
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 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 someone with autism while expressing love. Autism spectrum disorder is not something that needs to be fixed. It is something that needs to be understood.
Lack of Information and Misunderstanding
In a study called “Autism and Adult Sex Education: A Literature Review,” using the Information-Motivation-Behavioral Skills Framework, we learn, “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.
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 lie 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 verbal communication, they can become targets.
On the other hand, if they 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 awkward conversations about sex that you may otherwise want to avoid.
The Strengths of Autism and Expressing Love
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.
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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 differently. This can give people with autism the ability to sense, understand, and value things that many overlook.
The Solutions for Love Challenges in Autism
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 boundaries crossed too many times, or have not had the support they need struggle more than those who do. They will develop coping skills that may or may not be healthy or in their best interest.
A child with their needs respected and met concerning physical touch will have had a rewarding experience. As they age, They will know 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 discuss later.
In contrast, a child forced to accept hugs or other physical affection, such as tickling, snuggling, or being carried, may decide 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 important. Equally important is teaching kids they don’t have to be friends with everybody. They will interact with various people throughout their lifetime; not all will be nice.
This can be tough for kids with autism. They tend to take things very literally. This can cause them to 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 understand how they communicate love can go a long way.
If your child’s friend knows they do not enjoy hugs but love to give gifts or play games together, they can maintain the boundaries and feel loved by your child. Special interests can also be a great way to identify a potential friendship.
Learn How to Return Affection
Learning to show affection to our loved ones with autism may also need to look different. 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 trying to understand better.
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 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 snuggling, 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.
Romantic Relationships and Autism
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 deeper than the non-autistic partner. They may miss certain social aspects or find unimportant things important to the other person. Still, they may never forget an important anniversary and dates, never be late for a romantic dinner and find ways to express their love that are totally out of the box and amazing.
Intimate Relationships and Autism
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.
Autism expresses love in countless beautiful ways. From sensory experiences to authentic self-expression, individuals on the spectrum show us the profound depth of love that transcends conventional boundaries. Understanding this love enriches our lives and brings us closer to embracing the true diversity of human relationships.
Q: How do individuals with autism express love through their special interests?
A: Autistic individuals often show affection by sharing their special interests with others. This could include explaining their passions in great detail and inviting loved ones to engage in these activities.
Q: Can individuals with autism form romantic relationships?
A: Many individuals with autism can and do form romantic relationships. They may approach relationships differently, but their capacity for love and companionship is just as genuine.
Q: Do individuals with autism experience empathy?
A: Individuals with autism can experience empathy, although it may be expressed differently. It usually involves offering practical help or comfort in times of distress.
Q: What are some common misconceptions about autism and love?
A: Common misconceptions include the belief that individuals with autism cannot experience love or that their expressions of love are not genuine. These misconceptions are not true.