Many autistic adults (including those with Asperger syndrome, diagnosed and undiagnosed) have partners and children. Some manage marriage, relationships and family life very well, while others may have great difficulties.
Partners often contact us to talk about relationship strategies, and ask how to find a counsellor. While everyone's experiences are different, there are common themes. Partners say that living with a person on the autism spectrum can be difficult because of the subtle nature of the disability. You cannot 'see' autism, and it can be hard to explain to friends and family that certain behaviour is not deliberate.
It may also be harder for a person on the autism spectrum to understand other people's emotions and feelings and when, for example, their partner is in need of sympathy or comfort. Some people say that it is difficult to cope with apparently hurtful behaviour, even when they know their partner did not intend to cause any hurt or upset.
Some people say they feel more like their partner's parent than their partner. This may be because people on the autism spectrum have difficulty with social interaction, and their partners can feel a heavy responsibility for them. You and your partner might find our information on social skills for adolescents and adults useful when thinking about how to behave in social situations. You may also be aware that your partner is vulnerable and could be deceived by others outside your home. This is because they may not be able to pick up on those non-verbal signals which suggest a person is not being completely honest.
You probably have to speak very clearly to your partner, and this may make you feel like you are speaking to a child. You may also have to give instructions or tell your partner how you expect them to behave in a particular situation. But these are all consequences of the condition your partner has. They are not deliberately trying to annoy or frustrate you.
It may help to find out more about autism on our what is autism and what is Asperger syndrome pages.
What partners say
"He says that he keeps his distance emotionally and remains detached so that he doesn't feel the pain of being apart… It doesn't seem to matter to him whether we are in the same room or even the same country."
"All the unwritten rules of behaviour were puzzling to him... Something which you think is obvious, is not to him...lack of perception about other people's intentions... he does not recognise the needs of others."
"We have had our ups and downs, but I love him more than anything and find him totally fascinating to be with. We make a great team. I have learned so much from him about truth, loyalty, friendship and fun. He is the most special person in my life."
"He cannot see that his children should be distressed because he does not visit them for weeks. He signed their birthday cards with his name until told they would prefer him to put 'Dad'."
"He is the most loving, kind, affectionate, thoughtful person I have ever met. I am so proud of him, not just because he has overcome prejudice ("Rain Man" was his nickname from some of the people I used to be friends with – so he stayed and they didn't!) but because he is... well, he's just lovely."
"My husband doesn't do any emotional housekeeping. However, he earns all the money and keeps me grounded. It's a trade-off. He has strengths and I have strengths."
Read more accounts by partners of autistic people in our real life stories section.
Diagnosis can make a difference; it can help you to understand your partner better and see why they face certain difficulties. It may explain apparently hurtful or indifferent behaviour. And it may give you the chance to talk to each other about relationship strategies you can use.
If your partner is not diagnosed but you suspect they are on the autism spectrum, it can be difficult to know how to talk about it with them. Read more about broaching the subject.
Once you’ve discussed it, your partner may want to try to get a diagnosis.
Causes of autism
You may be concerned about the cause of your partner’s autism and whether it could be passed on to your children. Research is still being carried out – read more about the causes of autism.
Talk to your partner about any problems you are having in the relationship and explain your feelings. Try to remember that he or she may not be able to read all the social cues which you understand without even trying. Getting emotional (even when you have every right!) may not be the best way to get through to them, while a calmer, reasoned discussion may work better. You could writing things down. Do:
- use clear language
- write about one issue at a time
- provide solutions to the problem
- ask them what they think.
If your partner prefers communicating through writing, suggest they write back to you and say when you would like a reply, for example after a few days.
Avoiding personal criticism can help; one partner suggests a more impersonal approach, for example instead of saying 'You shouldn't do that', say, 'People don't do that in social settings'.
It may be difficult to engage your partner in the sorts of discussions that relationship counsellors or family therapists use, which ask for insight into another person's thoughts and feelings.
Our Autism Helpline has a database of counsellors who work with partners and people with on the autism spectrum.
Derby Relate offers a free-of-charge relationship telephone helpline and its counsellors have autism training. The helpline is open on Tuesdays (10.30am-4.30pm) and Thursdays (1.30pm-4.30pm). Tel: 0808 178 9363 (calls are free from a landline). Derby Relate can also offer face-to-face or telephone counselling. Other Relate counsellors around the country may have had autism awareness training.
People with Asperger syndrome have difficulties interpreting non-verbal communication, such as body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. If you’ve had a bad day they may not realise that from your behaviour alone, and also may not be aware of how best to respond to help you, for example with a hug. Some of the rituals of relationships, for example regularly telling a partner you love them, may seem unnecessary to people with autism. This may be because of their lack of understanding about established social rules.
This can come across as hurtful behaviour or indifference on their part and can be difficult to cope with. Try to be frank and explicit: tell your partner what you are thinking and feeling and what you need them to do in response. Do not be ambiguous and do not assume your wishes or emotions are acknowledged and understood.
It may also be hard for you to understand your partner's needs. They may be interested in things that seem boring to you, they may find apparently normal social situations very stressful or they may be reluctant to give up routines. It helps to have a calm, reasoned discussion about any issues. You may find that writing things down is easier, as your partner will have more time to take in what you've said and respond to you. Drawing up a timetable for certain activities, such as mealtimes, can help your partner to know what is going to happen when.
You might find our information about obsessions, repetitive behaviour and routines useful.
You could also have a 'dates to remember' book for your partner, or a calendar which lists birthdays or anniversaries which you celebrate. You could add photos of the person whose birthday it is to remind your partner. This can make it easier for your partner to know that they should plan to buy a gift or card or expect a social occasion around those dates.
Being a parent might be very confusing for someone on the autism spectrum. They will not necessarily understand what being a parent means and what is expected of them. There are no rules for being a parent and you may have to be patient with your partner when they are confused or unsure how to behave. You may need to explain the role of a parent to your partner.
Children can be unpredictable and noisy and these can be difficult things for a person on the autism spectrum to tolerate. If your partner is finding these situations particularly stressful you could try to help them develop ways of coping, for example to go to a quieter room for a short time. They could also see a counsellor who could suggest strategies and relaxation techniques. Find a counsellor with autism experience.
Support for you
You may want to think about how to get support for yourself. You could talk to a counsellor on your own to have a chance to think through your feelings and decide on possible coping strategies.
Some partners also make contact with others in the same position for understanding, support and advice.
Contacts and websites
NAS Autism Helpline
The Helpline is available Monday-Thursday 10am-4pm and Friday 9am-3pm. Call 0808 800 4104 or use our online enquiry form.
Asperger Syndrome Foundation
A small charity that promotes awareness and understanding of Asperger syndrome. www.aspergerfoundation.org.uk
An American website for spouses and family members of adults diagnosed or suspected to be on the autism spectrum.
Different Together is a safe, supportive and understanding online community for the partners of people affected by Asperger syndrome.
Disability, Pregnancy and Parenthood International
A small UK charity that supports parents with disabilities, their families, and professionals; they provide information sheets, a telephone and email service.
0800 018 4730 (Tuesday and Thursday 10.30am to 3.00pm)
A discussion list which deals specifically with issues concerning the partners, family members and friends of people with Asperger syndrome.
Last reviewed 18 May 2016.
Quick link to this page:www.autism.org.uk/partners