Help me deal with boyfriend's autism
May 2, 2021 5:25 AM   Subscribe

I've been seeing a man I love very much for 8 months. We want a future together. But there are snags caused by miscommunications and difficulties understanding eachother - including one major misunderstanding last week where I got super angry and upset him a lot before realising, this week, that there is a clear explanation for the way he behaved (which at the time seemed super shady) -- and it is that he has autism. I would like other people's perspectives on this - from any place in the spectrum, and also help dealing with some of the emotional fallout. He's disappeared into his cave today, I suspect due to stress from our conflict last week and a conversation yesterday about his potential autism, and I feel a little insecure, guilty and sad about the whole thing. I also have, in reading up about it, realised that I think a high proportion of the guys I've been out with have been autistic to varying degrees. Why is this?

He's super distressed he can't 'make the connections' between what I need and his own behaviour, and he has been really beating himself up. I also feel terribly guilty for getting so angry last weekend, which is out of character for me too (I don't want to go into the incident as don't think the details matter).

I really love this man. He's kind, gentle, intelligent, so very genuine and, when he's not distressed, super solid and reliable. Not to mention good looking and we share lots of interests. Even though there are these occasional emotional disconnects, I feel strangely understood and safe when I'm around him a lot of the time. I want it to work, but I'm worried at the moment I'm doing him damage by simply having emotional needs and also by him feeling so misunderstood.

I had been suspecting autism for a long while but this week, after he explained his thought processes and confusion around how to act and respond to my emotions, and also shared more about his childhood (which was very troubled as he had violent stimming episodes banging his head etc and no one understood what was going on), and after properly reading up about it, I'm so so sure he has autism.

I know it is not okay to armchair diagnose, but in this situation it seems like a really helpful explanation for me when times are rough like today - when we were supposed to meet up, but he has cancelled due to waking up in hives and in a cold sweat and not feeling well (he gets ill a lot, and our argument last weekend really shook him). This then triggers feelings of disappointment and abandoment in me, as he wont talk on the phone and generally wants to disappear. I feel really sad and guilty about the argument, even though he has said it is understandable and he wants to move on.

As an example of just some of the things that lead me to think he may be autistic, he:

- Talks endlessly about the same thing over and over (his home renovation), to the point where people have to tell him to stop as he doesn't get social cues
- Is a highly successful engineer but had learning difficulties and real behavioural problems growing up - I don't think people knew what was wrong, so they gave him sedatives to calm him down
- Finds empathy very difficult, or at least expressing it. i have tried to introduce the idea of emotional validation, as the lack of it is sometimes quite painful to experience, with not much success
- If plans change, or if he's very stressed, he just shutdowns and disappears for a day - wont' answer the phone or text (has happened four times now, and it's not great for my anxious attachment style)
- My emotion scares him
- Doesn't really get jokes
- Has tinnitus, hearing issues, and is extremely sensitive to sound - he has an ongoing dispute with his neighbour upstairs who has now accussed him of harrassment as he just simply can't stand the quiet buzzing of a fan she runs at night; he can't take the buzzing of my fridge several doors down in my apartment etc
- Violent stimming behaviours as a child
- I think he has been taken advantage of by previous girlfriends as he is very generous and I guess, vulnerable (there have only been 2 though in his 42 years - despite him being drop dead gorgeous and Oxbridge educated)
- Autistic brother, and probably father also

I didn't realise this week just how hard he is working to try to 'understand me' and how he feels his brain is just not making the right connections., until he shared this with me in great detail. It confirmed those nagging feelings that there had been disconnect, and I then did an internet sleuth and everything sort of fitted.

I have said to him that it's okay for me to ask what I need, and for him to not anticipate my needs, but he believes he should know and he keeps asking 'what's wrong with him' which is breaking my heart.

Yesterday, when he was talking about the fact that he had designed an educational programme for autistic children whilst at university, he bought up his various stimming behaviours as a child, and the fact that his brother had been on ritalin and he thinks he should have been too.

I thought that it was a gentle invitation to bring up that I had been thinking about potential autism this week as an explanation for some of our disconnects and that it would perhaps explain some of the many things that are bothering him at the moment as well as help us have a framework for dealing with things going forward. He was quite understandably defensive, and said he'd get a test 'for me' but that he didn't want to be seen through that lens. I said that I didn't want him to get a test for me but for himself, given his distress lately at a number of related issues, but I'm not sure he really heard this.

I tried really hard to reassure him that no matter what the case is I love him and don't just see him as a person with autism. I think he heard that, but it does seem he also knows there is something up but feels deeply ashamed of the label autism. He later texted me an article to Indigo Children (which seemed very woo) and said that he had been told at an early age that he was one of them, and that he related to the 'purple label' and 8 out of 13 qualities in the article (they were things like knowing you had a higher spiritual purpose than others etc, and some quite outlandish things). He said he could sometimes predict things as a boy, and had telepathic powers (!). I think he likes the feeling of being special rather than defective which is fair enough, and I don't know whether to push the diagnosis thing if it's just going to make him feel worse.

I realise this is rambling. I guess I'd just appreciate others' perspectives. At the moment we are not making eachother happy, but I'm not ready to throw in the towel. Is this silly? Should it be this hard? Has anyone else been able to successfully build a partnership with an autistic partner? He seems very dedicated, but these disappearances throw me and make me feel insecure. Feeling really at a loss.
posted by starstarstar to Human Relations (33 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There's a load to unpack here, but as someone with intimate familiarity with autistic behaviour, I can assure you that when you say "I'm worried at the moment I'm doing him damage by simply having emotional needs", you are not.

Autistic people, whether they know they are autistic or not, are not damaged by other people having emotional needs. They are often damaged by their own inability to express emotional needs, and often damaged by other people not understanding that the autistic person has emotional needs, and very commonly get frustrated and upset about not understanding the emotional needs of other people, especially people they care about. But you having emotional needs is not, in and of itself, a problem.

FWIW, you sound like a wonderfully caring and compassionate person. Autistic people can struggle to feel safe with people because frankly other people are often strange, unpredictable, irrational, and mystifying and yet whilst you may be flagging up some things which upset him, he wouldn't have opened up to you about any of this if he didn't feel safe with you. (I'm assuming he is on the spectrum, and based on your description of his behaviours, my educated-amateur -armchair opinion is that you're right).

So you're clearly doing a lot of things right, if by "right" you mean "building trust and a genuine emotional connection with him". He may struggle to verbalise that emotional connection, and he may struggle to predict emotional reactions, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have emotions, nor does it mean he doesn't want an emotional connection with you.

Other people will no doubt have good practical ideas for you, but my advice would be to take plenty of time, go slowly, and give him the space he needs to rationally work through this. No-one likes being judged - and clearly you're not doing that - but I have no doubt the word "autistic" has been mentioned to him before, and even you said "I think he likes the feeling of being special rather than defective". You need him to realise you see his autism as part of what makes him special, not something that you think makes him defective.

But however you go ahead, he's lucky to have met someone with your compassion and willingness to do the hard yards. I wish you both lots of good luck in your journey together.
posted by underclocked at 6:16 AM on May 2, 2021 [13 favorites]

I suggest you let go of it as a label because he doesn't want it at this point. So where does that leave you? Yes, you'll understand that he's clearly not neurotypical, but that's who he IS, and if you love him, you embrace, not just excuse, the specific ways of his brain/emotional being-- not just see them as a diagnosis but as part of the complex person he is. You say he talks on and on about a topic you obviously don't find interesting: but are you ever delighted and amazed by his knowledge about things? Does his way of approaching things in a way that's not like yours give you joy? Something about the way he is attracts you. If it's just that he's handsome and Oxford educated that attracts you, and you experience the deep stuff of his neurological self as problems you'll put up with because of those more typical measures of attractiveness, then he won't feel loved or accepted. He seems to be telling you he wants to be seen in his entirety as a unique, wonderful human being and I think that's just what any of us want. And if you can't really connect in a way that works for you, then it doesn't matter what his diagnosis is, does it? In any case you know he's not doing anything out of a choice to make you unhappy; it might be a mismatch between your neurology and his, between your needs and his, and that is ok. (By the way, I don't know anything about his brother of course but ritalin is most commonly prescribed for ADHD.)
posted by nantucket at 6:22 AM on May 2, 2021 [13 favorites]

My husband is diagnosed as an adult with autism. I don't think there's any point in listing out the behaviours of your partner that make you think he is an adult with autism because those behaviours are who he is. He's not going to magically develop better emotional intelligence either. There's no "treatment" for autism although occupational therapy can help. Speaking of therapists, it seems like your partner would benefit from a therapist to help him process his frustrations and feelings of failure -- that is not your job, do not do it. Autism or no, he is a grown ass man responsible for dealing with his own shit.

In my experience, if you want to be in a long-term partnership with people like this, you have to be able to explicitly state what you want without resenting that you have to say it. You will need to accept that no adult can fill all of the emotional needs of another adult, and make your close friendships a priority so you can get those needs met with others.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:22 AM on May 2, 2021 [33 favorites]

I really think he should be evaluated by a professional. I’ve noticed that a lot of people have started to explain non social behavior under armchair diagnoses. He sounds lovely on many fronts. But doing things like ignoring you for an entire day just because a plan changed is also really harmful.

Are *you* ok with that behavior, autistic or not?
posted by pando11 at 6:24 AM on May 2, 2021 [11 favorites]

I think that a label like autism is, in this kind of situation where your partner isn't keen, mostly helpful if it gives you ideas and strategies that might work for you both regardless of whether the label actually applies or not. Things that might help you, are realising that change is likely to be difficult and that it's helpful for it to be acknowledged, planned and/or discussed. Similarly that his withdrawal is not aimed 'at you' or necessarily needs to be changed - you might need to have a coping mechanism for it (like meeting up with someone else).

I think you will need to change your responses and actions more than he will. Firstly, that's because you can only control how you yourself act. But also, it seems clear from your description that, regardless of any label, he is already using coping mechanisms and adapting his actions from what he might ideally prefer (whether those are successful or not). He may not have more he can reasonably do unless you do things differently first.

I know one person with an adult autism diagnosis. The way the situation was explained to me was that they had depression and were on sick leave from work. In the process of treating their depression their therapist suggested that they might have autism, and that this would explain some other features of their life but also difficulties that contributed to their depression. In their case, it appears that having an explanation, plus suggestions for situations to try to avoid or to alter (and how) rather than struggle through has been very helpful. They have a good relationship with their partner, who sees their autism as a fundamental part of what makes them the person they fell in love with - not some kind of flaw in the relationship that needs fixing. (And on preview, the partner does absolutely get some of their emotional needs filled by strong friendships as well.)

Note that there is nothing wrong with walking away from a relationship that doesn't make you happy or happy enough. You can both be good people, who are simply not compatible, where the best solution is to split up so you can each find partners who suit you better.
posted by plonkee at 6:25 AM on May 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

I think you should not push the diagnosis. If it's something he eventually decides to pursue for his own reasons, awesome, it might help him to contextualize some things about himself or to find some additional ways to improve any aspects of his life that are bothering him, but that's for him to decide. For you, I think it's probably enough to know that whatever the actual label, he's likely neurodivergent in some way that at least presents in some ways like autism.

Lots of people have built partnerships with autistic people. I'm one of them, though I'm not neurotypical myself for other reasons, and he was diagnosed many years into our relationship. We've had our relationship challenges, of course, but they've rarely been about anything related to autism. I don't consider it to be a part of the relationship that we've had to work through or work particularly hard at - it's just part of who he is, a source of many things about him that I love and admire, and at most it gives a specific name to things we both already knew about him in a way that makes it easy to shorthand for other people.

Yes, he hyperfocuses and monologues about specific niche interests - mostly that's cool and interesting to me, and if for some reason I can't deal with it just then or we're out with other people and I can sense that it's getting to be Too Much, I nudge him gently off that track and it's fine. Yes, he has problems with unexpected change - I do too, so we live a fairly predictable life with a lot of routines that we both find comforting, and over the years we've developed good ways individually and as a couple to deal with change-induced distress when it does happen. Yes, conversations about emotions have never been super easy. Over the years, with therapy and time, he's become more open and expressive about his own emotions as he's understood them better, and I've learned better how to be clear about what I really need at any given moment rather than expecting him to intuit what sort of responses I need. We've both also learned that we need to have strong support systems and other ways of getting emotional validation outside our relationship, which I think has been extremely healthy and good for both of us. We both tend toward needing some time to go off on our own and process hurts before we can talk through them, so the disappearing behavior you're talking about hasn't been an issue for us - but we have both gotten better about making that really explicit. "I love you, I'm not angry, but I'm feeling overwhelmed and sad and I'm going to be a bit of a hermit this weekend and nap it off" or whatever works fine for us, and then we make a point of doing something nice together to reconnect a bit after we're on a more even keel.

I see all of that as just the process of any two people learning to be in a relationship together. If we hadn't had to learn to make these adjustments for each other because of our respective neurodivergences, I assume there would have been something else we'd have had to negotiate and adjust to over time together.

There's nothing wrong with you having emotional needs, and I can't agree strongly enough that you are not damaging him in some way by having them. But I think right now you need to step away from thinking about a potential label/diagnosis, and just think about the way he behaves. You understand now that he's working very hard in a way you didn't before, and now you can decide how you want to meet that work that he's doing. Do you want to work harder yourself too, understanding you may have to meet him 3/4 of the way instead of halfway to get to where he is on the specific emotional issues that are coming up? Instead of "it's okay for him to ask me what I need," how would you feel about moving further toward "it's okay for me to tell him up front what I need without being asked?" Talking explicitly in a calm and relaxed moment about the kinds of things that make you feel good and loved, and how he can do them for you? Or does that all make you think "oh, no, I absolutely do not want to do that, I need a relationship that is not hard for me in this specific way?" Neither response makes you a bad person; you get to have the needs and wants that you have. But only you can answer those questions.
posted by Stacey at 6:59 AM on May 2, 2021 [13 favorites]

The biggest help for me, in living with a best friend with autism: letting go of the idea that my expectations and ways of doing things are the "right way" for things to be handled and done.

Understanding that the reason we have problems sometimes is not because my best friend has autism, but because we are different people with different ways of thinking and feeling things.

It is a small but absolutely vital shift of perspective that you need to make, if you are going to have the best possible relationship with this person.
posted by WaywardPlane at 7:04 AM on May 2, 2021 [16 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks @stacey and others, lots of really good insights here. Just to reply that yes I AM willing to do the work to try and meet him halfway, or 3/4s, as much as I can. All of the things that @stacey listed as things they've learned together are similar to the things we have been learning (or need to learn). So it's really helpful to hear hopeful stories. The internet is full of horrible horror stories about how it's impossible to be happy in a neurodivergent relationship, but I don't want to believe it because I love him very much and think he's wonderful. The label isn't the thing that matters to me really, it's just - it's useful to have a framework for understanding some of the things that are more difficult. And I really hadn't realised the scale at which HE had been trying to adjust and understand me until this week. That, for me, is more than enough - that's love, right? Putting someone first. And I really hadn't seen how much he does, until I realised how much it didn't come naturally to him, and how much he was trying to learn. He struggles with communicating this, and it has not been obvious that he is having to adjust. But now I know, I want to do the work and meet him halfway, because I love him.
posted by starstarstar at 7:07 AM on May 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

A warning: Love is not always enough. If he doesn't seek his own professional help, the things that are not-cool now will likely be unbearable if drawn out over years.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 7:09 AM on May 2, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I've been the almost-certainly-autistic person in a relationship (I mean, I guess I always am). I haven't really read much about the whole love languages thing, but I wonder if it might be relevant here. Taking the current situation as an example, obviously, your boyfriend woke up feeling rubbish if he's woken up with hives, and it's totally understandable that he cancelled your plans, and I think you understand that on an objective level, but that doesn't mean that him not wanting to talk hurts you. I imagine there's some tension between you wanting to show you care for him while he's ill and him wanting to get off the phone. So what if you (not now, but later) ask him to tell you explicitly when he's needing to go hide/take time by himself? The two of you seem to have conflicting needs but haven't found a way to meet in the middle, and I expect you can, though you may need to shoulder the burden of pointing out the situation to him.

There's a whole laundry list of stuff that it won't necessarily occur to me to do that a partner may want or need me to do, or just would be pleased if I did, even if it's okay that I don't. I remember once my ex made a comment about knowing that I would never buy him flowers, which is true. It's never going to occur to me to buy anyone flowers. It did make me feel kind of bad, like a "normal" partner would know to do such a thing, but he made it clear that he knew ways that I do express affection and I filed away the fact that maybe I should buy him flowers sometime.

On preview--I really like what WaywardPlane has written. Autism might be a way for you and/or him to understand how some of his particular traits fit together, but, at the end of the day, I think this is about navigating the same sort of relationship challenges two neurotypical people might have, you might just end up with different solutions.
posted by hoyland at 7:10 AM on May 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm not really in a position to offer more than I have but I came back to suggest you watch the Amy Schumer Netflix special Growing. It features a lot of her relationship with her husband Chris, who is also an adult with autism.

And a pro tip: if you are looking for support groups on the Internet, avoid anything that uses puzzle pieces as a logo or posts puzzle piece memes. Those groups are universally toxic and infantilising.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:22 AM on May 2, 2021 [5 favorites]

I think you are trying to explain away the behaviors he exhibits and justify putting your own emotional needs last because of some accommodation you've decided to make for him.

First of all, if he was diagnosed by a professional, it would be his responsibility to work with a therapist to get the tools he needs and to ask you for reasonable accommodations. You're not his caretaker, you're his girlfriend.

You dont really need to fully understand one another's emotional needs in order to be good to one another, but you do have to know what they are and respect them. Honestly you are both exhibiting extremely controlling behaviors from what I see in this post: he is punishing you for having an emotion he didn't like and you are diagnosing him with a disorder he may not have.

A healthy relationship requires that you respect each others needs but also honor your own. That can be tough and you seem (to me) to both be trying to avoid the compromise required.

If he is autistic (and sure it sounds possible from your list) he may need to make some changes in his life to accommodate your needs. And you will need to make some too. If you don't feel that's possible you may not be compatible for a long term relationship. :(
posted by pazazygeek at 7:28 AM on May 2, 2021 [9 favorites]

I mostly wanted to offer support for what you are doing as you are definitely on the right track, but here's my advice as someone with about half those symptoms:

He's probably very worried about acting "normal" because he's had to work very hard to act in a socially acceptable way for years. I interpret a lot of his defensiveness as being related to that, so I would try to avoid talking about generic expectations at all.

Instead, focus on describing what you, specifically, need/want from him. He can absolutely learn to understand how you work and it sounds like you can learn to work together. Love can't solve the incompatibilities, but it can motivate you to have the patience needed to see if it will work out.

Also autism diagnosis has changed a lot in 42 years, so he has his internal concept that is pretty out of date. It is very hard in general to change the self image of 42-year olds so I would not bother trying. I would definitely not push a diagnosis, and instead talk about the specific symptom clusters. So when talking about sensory issues just say sensory issues. He knows what you mean
posted by JZig at 7:34 AM on May 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am an autistic adult, late-diagnosed.

The first thing I would do is read up on neurodiversity. If your husband is autistic, there is nothing wrong with him. The way autistic people interact with the world is not inherently inferior. The way he communicates, and needs you to communicate, is different from the norm but there is nothing wrong with it. Community experience and research have shown that it's not that autistic people have social skills "deficits," it's that the mismatch between autistic and neurotypical experiences causes a double empathy problem.

Now, does this mean that a neurotypical (which you seem to identify as, from your description) and autistic person can't have a relationship? No. But it requires a lot of work from both parties. It sounds like he is already doing a lot of work, and you want to start putting in your share. I think that's great and I really appreciate your insight into realizing that's what's best for both of you.

I strongly disagree with the above statement that it's his responsibility "go to therapy to get tools to ask for accommodations." This statement is only valid if we also expect the same thing of neurotypicals. Neurotypicals are not superior and do not get to demand everyone else work to figure out what they need and conform to it unless you've asked special permission ("asking for accommodations"). Therapy could be great for working out what he needs and how to communicate it--but it is not his "responsibility" to do so any more than it's yours. It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking autistic people need to be "accommodated" for our "inferior" social skills. But often it is neurotypical people who need to be accommodated by autistic people. Typically we're already doing this all the time. And you've already said he is doing this. So the fact that you're willing to shoulder some of this work is really great.

That said, I agree with others that if you find it to be too much, it's okay to decide you aren't compatible. But I think a large part of this is that you don't know what he needs out of communication, what his sensory needs are, etc. He has been spending a long time thinking about and trying to accommodate what you need, but you have not been doing the same because you didn't know. Which is okay! He didn't have the words to tell you, and you weren't able to pick up on the fact that something was wrong. But now that you do know, you can start trying to figure out what he needs and how that fits in with what you need. You may find that once you do, things become much easier. It's not your emotional needs that are the problem, at all. It's just the way you two communicate about them isn't working.

Part of the problem, of course, is that he's not willing to tell you what he needs because of the deep shame he has about it, reinforced like statements above that imply it is something to be fixed or "accommodated" rather than simply a valid way of experiencing the world. I think he could really benefit from interacting with the autistic community (whether or not he's "actually" autistic), but it sounds like he's pushing back against that. Does he like to read at all? I think Neurotribes by Steven Silberman would be a gentle introduction that would align with his need to describe it as something special, without dumping him in the deep end of neurodiversity and autistic pride. I don't know if he'd be willing to read it, though. Hannah Gadsby is a comedian who often talks/jokes about her experiences as an autistic adult, and that could be another way to expose him to the idea that autism is not a deficit, failure, or something to be ashamed of.

One immediate thing you can do, regardless of any of the rest of this, is just start telling him what you need. You say that you tell him he can always ask--but think about neurotypical interaction. Do you typically ask people, randomly, what they need? Or do you ask it when you notice something is wrong? It's likely he doesn't always notice when something is wrong. I don't read expressions or tone very well, so I rarely notice when someone is upset. I've developed the skill of asking periodically throughout the day anyway--but that's something that he probably wouldn't be able to do until he's come to terms with having experiences different from the privileged majority. So what you can do is not wait for him to ask--just tell him. Tell him how you're feeling, what you need from him, why you did x or y or z. Tell him in the moment if you can; if not, take some time to calm down, and then tell him. Don't just say "in general, I need this" because he still will need to notice you're in a place where you need that. If this is difficult, consider doing it over text. My partner and I have a messenger app that we use to talk about our feelings or needs when it's too hard to do so face to face, even though we're in the same room (often it'll transition to face-to-face, though).

You might read up on sensory sensitivities, flexibility, and meltdowns. Autistic people are easily overwhelmed, and then will shut down. It sounds like that might be what happened with the hives incident--lots of bad sensory stuff, plans changed, and he probably felt bad about how it was going to make you feel, and worse about "what's wrong with him" thoughts. This would be enough to make me shut down. Luckily, autistic shutdowns/meltdowns are fairly predictable. Once you can figure out what is causing them, you can both make adjustments to keep them from happening. I suspect there's a lot going on in his life right now that's very exhausting and overwhelming, but he's just powering through it because he thinks he should, and it's making it so that even seemingly small things can put him over the edge. My meltdowns dropped drastically once I left a noisy, chaotic household that frequently changed plans and didn't give me time to adjust (not saying you're doing this, just that the environment plays a big role).

MeMail me if you'd like to talk more. I've spent a very long time figuring out what I need, and working with my partner to make it happen. If you'd like to bounce ideas off me, I'm happy to help.
posted by brook horse at 8:33 AM on May 2, 2021 [42 favorites]

Do you typically ask people, randomly, what they need?

Most neurotypical people I know who are in good healthy relationships start with a "what are you up to? Can I help?"

Honestly - if those 8 words be internalized and utilized by a brilliant and loving and possibly autistic grown man I think it's a good start.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 8:47 AM on May 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

The label may or may not be something he ever identifies with or gets diagnosed with. But on some level it doesn’t matter— there are techniques that can help you interact better (some of which have already been discussed above). And both of you are allowed to use techniques which people with autism find useful, regardless of if there is a formal diagnosis. And you’re also allowed to ignore any advice that doesn’t work for you as individuals (especially given some of the weird “autistic people should somehow just change and be neurotypical” crap that you might find on the internet).

Regarding advice that may help in general— can you dig up the old thread on Mefi about Ask vs Guess culture? He might find it useful to read. As someone raised Guess who just can’t survive that way, I’ve found it really useful.

If your partner was raised in a Guess family or broader culture, then he may have internalized that he is not allowed to ask and must somehow magically intuit what other people need. But there’s another way to be, available to people of any neurological persuasion— Ask. In Ask, it’s ok to ask for what you want, which has to make it ok for the other person to say no or to negotiate.

Ask isn’t “right” and Guess isn’t “wrong”, nor vice versa. But if your family of origin is one, and you find it difficult to fit that mold, then you can end up with a bunch of shame (or, well, I did anyhow). That might be where his “I should magically know what you need” idea is coming from. It isn’t a universally held idea even among neurotypicals.
posted by nat at 9:01 AM on May 2, 2021 [4 favorites]

I think that no matter what his specific configuration of neuro workflows he has, all partners neurodivergent or not have an obligation to try to pursue insight and clarity that gives them relief and clarity in their lives and lets them bring a less fraught self to the people they care about. (I realize access is incredibly uneven, which is what the "try" is for.)

Particularly in the case of adults with autism (diagnosed since childhood or not! Some educational systems STILL use damaging abusive techniques for divergent kids, and parenting is a crapshoot) who may be carrying around extensive trauma from their childhood and adulthood encounters with cruelty, lack of support, and confusion/insecurity/fear. It's honestly the trauma that's more urgent than "doing anything" about the autism, but treatment from someone without (modern, good) training if not specialization in neurodivergence is required for any kind of success in addressing those particular kinds of traumas.

I think that what you're bumping up against in trying to talk about this is the trauma and shame way ahead of some difficulties with emotional communication. This might be a good time to regroup and reassure him in really clear words without metaphor how much you care about him and that's why you care about all of this stuff. If you do want to try talking about this again, you might be really direct about that: "I'd like to put together some resources for you to look at, some things I think might resonate with you. I think you have experienced trauma in your past and present when people have not been very understanding or unkind or unhelpful with you, and I don't know if you know that there's a ton of science and academia that you can take advantage of now to process that and feel better and have more tools for emotional relating and communicating. Of course it's in my best interest if you don't feel so bad and retreat so strongly when we run up against this stuff, but also I like you and I don't like when you're distressed and I think this can help us both."

A very recent phenomenon that has been incredibly useful and reassuring and informative to a lot of people has been TikTok. Autism TikTok and ADHD TikTok are amazing, and most importantly, they are predominantly Own Voices: these are adults (and a number of the really big accounts are, like, trained professionals and academics in education or psychology) with autism and AD(H)D, speaking from their training and experience and also sometimes dancing about it. (And while the TT platform is absolutely flawed in all the boring usual ways, there is room there for people who are not just cis white straight men and I think that's important because those guys usually get all the oxygen.) I think both streams are good for anybody with neurodivergence, because ADHD tiktok tends to talk a lot about specific behaviors and those have so much overlap with many people's day-to-day experience they can either be helpful or not-relatable personally but useful in understanding that there's no One True Way to be neurodivergent.

That might be one way to introduce discussion of both neurodivergence and trauma (Therapist TikTok is also a thing) in an accessible bite-size way. (If you want a list of recommendations to seed a feed with so more good stuff shows up, MeMail me and I'll put together my Top 10.)
posted by Lyn Never at 9:13 AM on May 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

Check your MeMail.
posted by kimberussell at 9:23 AM on May 2, 2021

I think you need to exercise some care here. It is absolutely true that some people make these kinds of relationships work in a healthy way. It is certainly possible that you can make this one work, too. He sounds like he has some lovely qualities. But I always worry when I hear women talking about suppressing their own needs for a man partner, especially early on in the relationship before there's been time for a track record of mutual support to be established. You've known this guy eight months! So, I defer to the specific advice of autistic folks on this post about ways you can try to work towards mutual accommodation (with you both trying to figure out how you can meet each other's needs). But you should maybe slow down a little, and be careful that you don't just bend yourself out of shape to meet his needs. And if it turns out you can't make it work, it doesn't make either of you bad people. Just incompatible.
posted by praemunire at 10:04 AM on May 2, 2021 [23 favorites]

All I know is that as somebody who most people seem to think is autistic (although my doctors have never agreed), it's deeply painful when a partner talks about me like I am a pet to be managed or like maybe I'm just not lovable/can't be in a romantic relationship because my brain doesn't work like everyone else's. The few who have told me point blank that they think I have autism? Those conversations were bad. I have medical professionals who actually know about me and about autism that I work with on a regular basis. It always came off like my partner just wanted me to be a different person. Autistic people are loving and lovable and we shouldn't have to stop talking about our special interests "too much" or being super-pressed when plans change in order to be loved. Yes: we need to learn to manage these things on our own without putting them on our partners, but that is not our partners job to teach us. It sets up a power imbalance in the relationship. Since you mentioned that it seems like most people you've dated have been autistic, you may want to explore with yourself or in therapy why you keep being attracted to people who you think need this kind of caretaking.

I know that you mean well, and that my partners meant well, but romantic relationships should not turn into opportunities for armchair diagnostics. It's boundary blurring. Your partner isn't a problem to be managed. It's an easy thing to try to take on, but it's not your role and it sets up an unbalanced relationship dynamic that can't really be repaired. At 8 months in, you both should be finding yourself pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to work out challenges between the two of you. Gently, it doesn't really sound like you two are a great fit.
posted by twelve cent archie at 10:27 AM on May 2, 2021 [16 favorites]

Best answer: but that he didn't want to be seen through that lens.

being willing and able to respect this every bit as much as you are willing and able to respect what you identify as his autistic traits is essential to a serious future with him, and if you don't think you can both understand him and see him as he wants to be seen, that is a real problem whether you're right or wrong. He may change his mind about his own qualities and what he wants to do with them, but that doesn't mean he'll change his sensitivity to being thought of or dealt with as a representative of a type.

If his behavior distresses you to the point where you can only convince yourself to tolerate it if you believe he's got an unalterable neurological condition, that's a bigger problem. particularly if the suggested condition is one he doesn't want to have, but even if he agreed. particularly if you need him to agree, or need official confirmation. there's only so much re-framing you can do if the picture is not one you like to look at.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:50 AM on May 2, 2021 [9 favorites]

I feel strangely understood and safe when I'm around him a lot of the time. [...] I also have, in reading up about it, realised that I think a high proportion of the guys I've been out with have been autistic to varying degrees. Why is this?

Maybe you are also neurodivergent? :)

Regardless of that, here's a 20-minute video describing some of the (common) unifying experiences of autistic people "from the inside". I also suggest trawling through that channel and picking out things that seem to resonate; e.g. there are a number of videos about the experience of one's energy dropping off a cliff due to overwhelm (including sensory).
posted by heatherlogan at 12:26 PM on May 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

I can't really help with the immediate situation, but do be aware that with time and some effort he can learn to be more emotionally validating when that's what you need. You'll have to explicitly tell him that is what you need when you need it, certainly at first and possibly forever, but it is almost certainly possible for him to do it. It takes effort and might even be unpleasant for him, but those are sacrifices we're willing to make for people we love.
posted by wierdo at 12:29 PM on May 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

A suggestion that may help you to ask him for what you want, is to frame it as an engineering problem to be solved. My autistic brain works on logistics problem solving just fine. If I know which observations are needed to make a plan of action, I can respond with the desired behavioral result. Hint: hints wont work. If you wait for him to pick up cues he can't recognize as cues, nothing will change. Explicitly present your desired action and let him work out the process to achieve the goal.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 1:06 PM on May 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

I tend to date autistic men and gel better with them than with allistic men (by a lot). However, someone who has the issues you described seems incompatible with someone who needs consistent communication to feel secure.

Also, someone who has been accused of harassment because he can't tolerate noises is going to be a massive pain in the ass to live with.

Bluntly -- this won't work because you're not compatible. Knowing that he's autistic (partly) explains why you're not compatible but it doesn't change that fact.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:39 PM on May 2, 2021 [6 favorites]

Also, if you want a child, someone who can't handle noise or stress without checking out will not be a helpful hands-on co-parent. At least in my experience, this kind of sensory issue 100% does not change and it's really actually quite terrible to expose someone to a sensory aversion, even if they are able to tolerate it.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:42 PM on May 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm the person that friends and partners and even my therapist have just...decided is on the spectrum. I have PTSD and an auditory processing disorder, which manifest similarly enough to autism, and quirks that look like ADHD, and a tendency to be attracted (platonically or otherwise) to neurodivergent folk. My therapist and I aren't pursuing a diagnosis because I'm already in therapy, medical interventions are already in place (medication for the PTSD also functions to lessen anxiety and the obsessive loops), and to a certain extent, it's just about accepting myself.

In relationships it is hard. Really hard. My therapist really drummed into me the concept of secondary or 'dirty' distress where I am having a reaction (triggers, sensory, whatever) and I add to my misery and exhaustion with a lot of self-loathing internal talk. And that becomes the focus vs actually caring for myself. I actually had a discussion about this with my boyfriend (ADHD diagnosed) last night: I was anxious because I realised he had seen me switch masks, to borrow the concept firm autism that describes it best, and previously I have had numerous people be very upset about it. Accusing me of being deceptive, or uncaring, of being false and misleading because I smile and laugh in a social situation and don't always feel the corresponding emotion, or that I'm not on like that at all times, that when I'm in a safe place I drop it. He was appalled that people treated me like that, and understood exactly what was going on (I'm *exhausted* after playing the role and it is one that is socially expected!) and reassured me. He doesn't require me to always be On like that and accepts I will hit a social wall, or be weirdly robotic about emotions sometimes, and all of that.

And yes, understands that I hibernate sometimes - we have an agreement to let him know what's going on if it's a long bout, or I'm needing to be alone while he visits, but it's not super compatible with anxious attachment. The sensory requirements of an anxiously attached partner are overwhelming at times, even if it is just a message or two. Because it's not that, it's that you've usually pushed yourself to the brink of exhaustion already.

My auditory and sensory stuff absolutely make parenting difficult. I'm socialised female so there is a lot of enduring it going on but it exhausts me a lot and I feel bad about it a lot. As my kid has gotten older it has gotten easier but...there's a reason I only have one.

(Also I got some ear plugs and those things are amazing)
posted by geek anachronism at 3:41 PM on May 2, 2021 [4 favorites]

Without additional details, the ongoing dispute with the neighbor sounds like it is harassment. Running a fan is completely normal use of her home and it's not ok for him to continue to bother her about it beyond asking once and accepting her decision to keep running it.

So he's a person who cannot or will not step outside his own perspective enough to stop harassing his neighbor in this situation. And that's a pretty straightforward and impersonal issue compared to the ones in a romantic relationship. Regardless of whether he is autistic or not, being in a relationship with him sounds exhausting and thankless. You seem like a kind and caring person. I hope that you don't prioritize his feelings and needs at too great a cost to your own.

( I can relate to his suffering from the fan; I have misophonia and it can be a significant burden in life.)
posted by dogwalker3 at 6:00 PM on May 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

Nooo you need to separate autism from masculinity. My wife is autistic, she has very similar issues but she kind and considerate and she is not threatened by me having needs. She thinks logically and she treats emotions logically, i.e. this thing happened, you are sad, you need a hug here is a hug His behavior of shutting you out and not being available to you emotionally is classic masculinity with autism as an excuse. Be very very very careful here
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:29 AM on May 3, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I’m curious about the argument you had- you say you don’t think it’s important, but you’re both suffering severely from the fallout a week later, and it seems to be the basis/confirmation of your belief that your boyfriend is autistic.

You give a lot of examples of behaviour that you think might be evidence of autism, but no details about an argument that only makes sense if he’s autistic. Is it possible that his behaviour was indeed super shady, whether or not he happens to be autistic, but autism is the only way you can excuse and live with it? And you suspect that sharing the details of the argument might have elicited a very different response here?

A couple more thoughts:

You say you’ve told him it’s ok for you to have needs, and express them, and for him not to magically intuit what they are. But you’re wracked with guilt because you were hurt by behaviour you now think is evidence of autism, even though he didn’t tell you he was autistic (or about the thought processes that lead you to believe he is autistic) and in fact rejects the label of autism. So he feels guilty for not anticipating your needs, which breaks your heart, but you feel guilty for failing to give him a diagnosis he doesn’t want, earlier? How are you supposed to accommodate his thought processes and meet his needs when he hasn’t told you what they are? Why is he allowed to not be able to read your mind, but you feel guilty for not reading his?

- If your boyfriend never gets a diagnosis or outside support and never changes, would you be alright with that? Because change is difficult. You can’t keep the bits you love (kind, clever, gorgeous), and leave the bits you don’t (shady behaviour, difficulty meeting your needs, propensity to harass neighbours over reasonable noise). He’s a complete package. Would you be happy in a relationship with him as he is now, without the idea of his potential/what you’d like him to be keeping you going?

- You mentioned you believe that love is about putting the other person first. In context, that sounds to me like you’ll be happy to set yourself on fire to keep him warm. Love isn’t about denying your needs or making yourself small to accommodate someone else. It’s important to follow your instincts and protect your precious self. Whatever is going on with your boyfriend, you deserve your own standards, needs and boundaries. Don’t lose sight of the life and relationship you want because you feel bad your boyfriend is struggling. If certain behaviours or traits make you unhappy, it doesn’t matter where they come from- if he’s eg emotionally unavailable, the effect on you will be much the same if he’s like that because he’s neurodivergent, or because he’s a jerk, or because you’re just incompatible.

- There’s a long tradition of men of all neurological varieties failing to take responsibility for their mental health, and outsourcing their difficulties and the emotional labour of managing their wellbeing to their female partners. He’s having trouble functioning- he’s been accused of harassment (which I would find extremely alarming if I were you), he’s asking “what’s wrong with me”, and he breaks out in hives if he’s stressed. That sounds like someone who needs help coping, despite his efforts to figure things out alone, and he should seek help. Not put it all on his girlfriend. (I’m not suggesting he should go to therapy to learn to meet your needs or “stop being autistic”, I’m suggesting it because he seems to be really struggling to function and would benefit from the emotional support and learning some coping tools from a good therapist.)

- His only two previous girlfriends both took advantage of him? Where is that coming from? Is that your guess, or information from him? It’s possible that he was really unlucky, or that he has attachment/childhood issues that drew him to two manipulative women, but it’s also possible that he was a challenging boyfriend and his exes interpreted his behaviour as super shady, and reacted accordingly.

Blaming awful exes for current bad behaviour is a red flag for abuse- I’m not sure if that’s what’s going on here, but I wanted to flag it, because a possible interpretation of all this is that he behaved in a way that hurt you, made that into a story about how awful it was for him, and now you’re feeling guilty and responsible, and are here to learn how to tolerate any future hurtful behaviour from him. And you can’t express your needs to him either, because he feels so devastated when he doesn’t anticipate them. And he’s scared of your emotions. So you’re not allowed to be hurt, and you’re not allowed to have needs, and you’re not allowed to show emotion, and you need to treat him and accommodate him as if he has autism, even though he doesn’t want to be diagnosed or get help for autism, so the relationship becomes about you serving him while making yourself and your needs and feelings as small as possible.

Basically, it’s possible he has autism, but it’s also possible he’s a manipulative douchebag. Or both. Or neither. No one here can say. So continue to be kind and compassionate, not just to your boyfriend but also to yourself.
posted by Dwardles at 8:52 AM on May 3, 2021 [7 favorites]

It just occurred to me that if he “likes the feeling of being special rather than defective”, and he’s open to exploring this subject at all one day, he might enjoy Simon Baron Cohen’s work on autism.

Simon Baron Cohen is probably the leading authority on autism in the UK, and believes that autistic people are responsible for much of the innovation and progress in human history. I’m not a fan because of SBC’s approach to gender and autism, but an autistic friend of mine (male, brilliant scientist, 40s) has gained a lot of insight, acceptance and pride from reading him- most recent book here.
posted by Dwardles at 9:14 AM on May 3, 2021

Best answer: I also wanted to add: love is NOT about putting someone else first and it will always ruin you to do so with someone who doesn't put that energy into you too. He is, for whatever reason, incapable of that.

Harassing his neighbour over noise is a red flag. A really really big one. His inability to create coping tools for himself is a problem and you cannot be the source for those. Like I said, I have a therapist to help me work on those things.

Needing to be special vs however he is thinking about any diagnosis illustrates a LOT of internalised (or not) ableism that also does not bode well for coping mechanisms. Refusal to use coping tools and outsourcing that onto (usually female) people is always going to be extremely imbalanced and consistently tumultuous.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:43 PM on May 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

I agree with everybody who says you need to figure out what you want and need here and make sure there's a way forward to getting it if you want to try to stay in this relationship.

But also, came here to ask if you've considered that you might also be on the autism spectrum. If you're female, it's worth being aware that a lot of autistic women are undiagnosed because our typical traits aren't exactly the same as the most common stereotypes. And, like somebody else mentioned, autistic people often feel more comfortable with (and better understood by) other autistic people. People are into all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons, but it might be worth considering that one if you haven't yet. And, of course, if this is a possibility that's a whole other angle into this conversation.

I'm also a little surprised that more people haven't suggested couples' therapy. Yes, you're only eight months into this relationship, but autism aside it's possible that there are some simple-ish communication things that a therapist might be able to help the two of you figure out that could save you a lot of trouble.
posted by lgyre at 8:09 AM on May 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

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