Love, Romance, Relationship: On the Spectrum

Healthy romantic relationships yield physical and mental health benefits important to improved quality of life, yet many with ASC do not experience successful romantic relationships.

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May 14, 2019

Tiimo member

May 14, 2019
Charlotte Egeskov
Content Manager & Science Researcher

Individuals on the spectrum can face challenges in relationships, especially in the romantic kind. The challenges is of both establishing a romantic relationship as well as maintaining it. In a survey only 7% had no desire to be in a romantic relationship, indicating that individuals with ASC are interested in romantic relationships. However, there is remarkably little research examining this aspect of ASC or strategies to facilitate successful relationships.

Feeling emotions?

Yes. People on the spectrum do feel love and have the ability to fall in love. Further, they can feel emotions just as neurotypical can. The misunderstanding that individuals on the spectrum can’t feel emotions is derived from lots of places, from incorrect TV shows, movies and prejudice, most likely originated from the report published in 1995, by an autism expert who theorised that autistic people may have a form of ‘mindblindness’, which impaired their ability to put themselves in other peoples’ shoes (2).

However, this isn’t true, as many on the spectrum can feel emotion and empathy for others, more often than not, they just have difficulty identifying them (3).

External factors such as reading faces can be troublesome for people with ASC as they often avoid eye contact (all about autism). Many are non-verbal, making confirmation or expression of feelings more difficult, and experience the world in a different way, why their responses may also be different. Lastly, it is estimated that half of people with autism also have alexithymia, which is a condition where individuals have difficulties expressing emotions and moods and understanding them. In comparison, 10% of neurotypicals also have alexithymia (4).

Love and affection

Individuals on the spectrum often experience difficulties understanding and expressing emotion. Especially emotions as confusing as love.

Often will individuals on the spectrum, due to their lack of social skills, have limited interpersonal skills and few experiences of social relationships. Troublesome news, as reports show that adults with romantic relationship reportedly have higher levels of life satisfaction and longer life span compared to their single counterparts (4).

Neurotypical individuals will often express and enjoy both giving and receiving expressions of love and affection. But individuals with ASC may not seek the same depth or frequency of love expressions. Often they are bewildered over the love expressed by the neurotypicals and, may perceive expressions of love and affection as uncomfortable. A hug may, for example, be perceived as uncomfortable as it restricts movement and may feel more like a squeeze than a warm embracement.

Relationship and Autism

Initiating and maintaining a romantic relationship, and many other social relationships require the ability to interact socially, have good communications skills as well as having the ability to take the perspective of others - areas of which individuals on the spectrum often struggle with (1). “Difficulties in decision making, lack of flexibility, self-absorption, emotional dysregulation, and sensory sensitivities further impede ASD individuals’ attempts to establish romantic relationships” (1).

Nevertheless, social relationships are an essential factor of quality of life for people with as well as without a diagnosis.

Studies have looked into romantic relationships and ASC, figuring out the benefits as well as looking into the challenges relationships pose to individuals on the spectrum.

One study used a relationship enhancement program, entitled ‘Ready for Love’, went over social cues and skills with people on the spectrum. This enhancement program taught them flirting, assessing someone’s interest, how to show empathy and social support as well as the art of asking someone out on a date (5). The individuals in the study reported increases in social skills and empathy.
These findings support the use of relationship enhancement training to increase social skills and empathy of individuals on the spectrum, interested in engaging in romantic relationships.

Achieving a successful relationship

It is important, in order to achieve a successful relationship, that individuals on the spectrum both understands and respects themselves, as well as understands their own need, in order to see how they relate to others and achieve independence (6). They might need help with these aspects from others, as individuals on the spectrum can have difficulties with self-understanding and self-reflection (7).

A priority for the educational services and caregivers of an individual on the spectrum is their development of friendship skills.

The ability to create friendships will improve self-esteem and greater maturity, reduce teasing or bullying, encourage teamwork abilities for both successful employment as well as laying the foundations for adult relationships (7).

Youngsters on the spectrum need accurate information on attraction, the dating game, and sexuality, that will help to develop their relationship skills. Fortunately, programs designed for youngsters on the spectrum are available. The programs range from improving dating etiquette knowledge, dress sense to learning ways both to identify interested persons as well as avoid sexual predators.
Seek out your local or national help organization in order to find available programs near you.


  1. Strunz, S., Schermuck, C., Ballerstein, S., Ahlers, C. J., Dziobek, I., & Roepke, S. (2017). Romantic Relationships and Relationship Satisfaction Among Adults With Asperger Syndrome and High‐Functioning Autism. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73(1), 113-125.

  2. Baron-Cohen, S. (1997). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. MIT press.

  3. Brewer, R., Biotti, F., Catmur, C., Press, C., Happé, F., Cook, R., & Bird, G. (2016). Can neurotypical individuals read autistic facial expressions? Atypical production of emotional facial expressions in autism spectrum disorders. Autism Research, 9(2), 262-271.

  4. Poquérusse, J., Pastore, L., Dellantonio, S., & Esposito, G. (2018). Alexithymia and autism spectrum disorder: A complex relationship. Frontiers in psychology, 9. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6056680/.

  5. Cunningham, A., Sperry, L., Brady, M. P., Peluso, P. R., & Pauletti, R. E. (2016). The effects of a romantic relationship treatment option for adults with autism spectrum disorder. Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation, 7(2), 99-110.

  6. Attwood, T (2009). Romantic Relationships For Young Adults with Asperger's Syndrome and High-functioning Autism. Retrived from https://iancommunity.org/cs/articles/relationships.

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