Autism & Relationships

For the purpose of this page, “relationship” means the kind you might call “romantic”, rather than with friends, family etc.

What is a Relationship?

Relationships are hard to define because they depend so much on the people in them.  Sometimes people have expectations on what relationships should be – but that’s up to the people in the relationship to decide!  

There are lots of words (labels) you can use to describe relationships and preferences – but it’s okay if you’d rather not worry about those and love whoever and however you feel comfortable with.

Usually, relationships are a type of connection between people who love each other in a different way to the love you might have for friends.  This might mean going on dates (activities between the people in the relationship without anyone else), kissing, hugging, holding hands, etc. – but you can do those things with someone you aren’t in a relationship with, so long as they consent.

One way to think about relationships is a bond between people who agree to love, support, help, and be kind to each other – celebrating each other’s successes and caring when things are difficult.

Some people are aromantic – which means they might not typically experience romantic feelings or want to touch or interact with someone romantically. Some aromantic people still have relationships but they aren’t the same as romantic relationships or friendships; the people in them can agree on what their relationship involves.

What is Consent?

Consent is when somebody agrees to something enthusiastically because they want to do it – not because they feel like they “should” do it, have been asked over and over again and say “yes” because they’re feeling pressured or tired, or because they haven’t said “no” and let it happen.  In the UK, the legal age of consent is 16 – which means anyone younger than 16 can’t consent to any kind of sexual activity, no matter who it’s with or how they feel about each other.

It’s not okay to touch someone without consent – even hugging or holding hands with a friend.  This is also true in relationships – being in a relationship with someone isn’t an automatic agreement to let them kiss or touch you.  When in a trusting relationship, consent might not  always have to be given in words – for example, someone might open their arms to indicate they’d like a hug, or offer their hand out to be held. If you are in a new relationship, or if you are ever unsure of what someone is communicating, it is best to check with the other person whether they consent before engaging in any physical contact.

Sometimes in romance stories, characters hug and kiss without asking each other first.  That can make it feel like asking is “awkward”, but it’s important to check whether the person you’d like to touch would like that first – it won’t ruin anything, it makes things better because it helps to build trust!

If you ever find yourself in a situation with someone who doesn’t ask for your consent, you don’t feel safe,  or ignores you when you say ‘no’, it is important to remove yourself to a place of safety and seek advice from a trusted adult or Childline 0800 1111. If you ever feel like you’re in any immediate danger, then call 999.

How Does Autism Affect Relationships?

Some of the most important things in relationships are communication, trust, honesty, and openness. It’s sometimes harder for autistic people and non-autistic people to communicate with each other due to the double empathy problem.

If you’re in a relationship with a non-autistic person, it might be a good idea to tell them about the double empathy problem (you could explain it yourself, send them the page about it from this website, or find another explanation you like) and talk about how you could help each other to communicate together.

Autism can also affect relationships because of our sensory differences. It’s good to talk about what you need, like, and don’t like with someone you’re in a relationship with (or considering starting a relationship with) to make sure you understand each other’s needs.

Meltdowns can also happen in front of someone you’re in a relationship with – it’s important for them to be understanding, and be aware of how they can support you when that happens.

Overall, no matter who you’re in a relationship with, it’s important to let each other know what you need and prefer, and how best to treat you. It’s normal for people in relationships to disagree – the important bit is doing your best to understand each other, and communicating  to figure out what’s best for everyone.

Writing led by Callum Barrack, Youth Worker at Spectrum Gaming


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