Loving on the Autism Spectrum

Humans are wired for connection to others. From infancy, we long to be held and comforted; we learn emotional mirroring from our caregiver’s facial expressions, and we rely on their handling of situations to learn how to do it ourselves. We expect our internal world to reflect the internal world of those around us, because we know how we would act in such a situation. We know our internal world, and through communication and empathy, we are able to navigate the internal worlds of those around us.

What happens when our internalized signals are skewed through something like autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder that impacts the perception and expression of emotional connection. If humans connect to others through social interactions, communication, and perception of intent, how do people on the autism spectrum, who struggle to express and communicate, get close to others?

I am not a doctor who specializes in autism. I am simply someone who spent years dating someone on the spectrum, another many years married to someone on the spectrum, and someone with many children (and in hindsight, many adults) in her family on the spectrum. I have read and studied and watched and cried, all trying to understand the people I love, trying to connect, trying to bridge the lonely gap between a neurotypical brain and a neurodiverse brain.

When I speak to parents with children on the spectrum, they all worry that their child will be unable to find a life partner because their child isn’t capable of interacting in a way that is reassuring and connects with someone else. TV shows like Love on the Spectrum explain that while it isn’t impossible, finding love as an autistic person is hard (yeah, okay, finding love in general is hard). In all of my research as a partner with someone on the spectrum, finding support as a neurotypical partner with a neurodiverse partner was difficult. The forums were filled with bitter and lonely significant others, with the worst displaying signs of abuse and the best displaying acceptance of a lonely defeat.

It was hard. It still is hard after the breakup, trying to navigate the kindness that I know he has, while understanding my internal world to be completely different from his world. Somewhere along the line, I realized that we probably never understood each other. No one was at fault, but it was very hard for me to explain my internal world to him, which seemed self-explanatory to people like my therapist and friends, and to understand his internal world. My efforts to connect would be denied and I would feel very alone.

There is something called Cassandra Syndrome, sometimes given to neurotypical partners of people on the spectrum (note: it is not within the DSM; it has been adopted to name the symptoms felt by NT partners; it is argued that this syndrome is ablest and attempting to get it added to the DSM would result in marginalizing autistic people. Keep this in mind). Cassandra syndrome occurs when NT partners experience extreme distress when their emotional needs are not met by their autistic partner. Research I’ve done is pretty bleak: the TLDR version is that partners get into extreme stress and confusion when they are denied connection from their autistic partner, and the autistic partner becomes overwhelmed. The relational overload of miscommunication and unintended hurt by both parties end the relationship.

The isolation experienced by neurotypical partners isn’t just within the relationship. People with Cassandra Syndrome experience isolation from their friends and family who simply do not understand why someone would continue to be with an individual who treats them as they do. NT partners feel they have to explain away and excuse the periods of shutdown, the harsh words, and the miscommunication. Friends and family are rarely understanding. When I would repeat something that was said or done to me, people would look at me in horror and I would scramble with, “but it isn’t like that, he isn’t mean, I promise.” People began to doubt my self-worth and decision making skills for staying with someone who would act so different from what was “normal”. That’s easy, I loved him and trusted he was good and kind. (note: I am not self-diagnosing with a fake syndrome; simply stating my experience)

The whole situation is heartbreaking. People on the spectrum want connection; we all do. We are a society that connects through love, community, trust, experience, and the belief that our internal worlds can be understood and accepted. With the emerging prevalence of autism in our world, it is pertinent we stop the ablest idea that autistic people need to learn how to express connection and love how neurotypicals do. We can support their desire to learn and adapt to neurotypical needs, but it needs to be their desire, not an ultimatum, not a requirement. All we can do in any relationship is state our needs and hope that someone chooses to step up to meet them. All we can do is decide if how we are getting treated is acceptable.