If by “intimacy” one means the feeling of being in a close personal association and belonging together, the answer is yes. People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) love just like anyone else. With the right kind of communication and a strong desire to make the relationship work, intimacy is entirely possible.
It’s not easy, however. Here are reasons why intimacy is generally harder to develop for someone with Autism.
It’s characteristic of someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder to have difficulty predicting the beliefs and intentions of others. “Reading” what another person is thinking is limited or even absent, so that forming a bond through knowledge and experience of the other person is hard to accomplish.
It’s also typical for people with ASD to have trouble understanding and using common rules of social contact, rules based on gestures, eye contact, word choice, movement and many other aspects of behavior. It’s hard for them to recognize what someone means when they use a phrase that has several meanings even though the context in which the phrase is used specifies a particular meaning. The same is true of gestures and movements, and other non-verbal expressions that specify what someone means. These are all difficult for the person with ASD to make sense of correctly.
Because their comprehension of other people’s expression and gestures is poor, and because they often misinterpret or ignore non-verbal signs of communication, their relations with others is often difficult.
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder have a great deal of difficulty identifying and interpreting emotional signals in themselves and in others. They don’t “get” how other people feel, and accordingly they have trouble being empathically attuned to others.
Since this emotional blindness is true with regard to awareness of their own feelings they are often unable to identify and regulate their own emotions, particularly strong emotions like sadness, anger and joy. Feelings are expressed in sudden outbursts that seem to have no relation to what’s just happened. Lacking emotional stability is a frequent complaint of those in a relationship with someone who has Autism.
As an Autism Spectrum Disorder psychologist, I see this emotional blindness as the main factor in preventing intimacy for adults with this condition.
Difficulty in social situations goes hand in hand with problems empathizing and controlling emotions. The conversations of someone with Autism is often one-sided, long-winded, circumstantial and lecture-like.
They can come across as self-centered, insensitive, rigid and having to have the last word.
They are not deft in social settings, are unlikely to offer apologies or acknowledge responsibility for mistakes, are overly sensitive to criticism and are often suspicious of others. Because they hold onto lingering resentments over perceived slights, they can been accused of being paranoid.
All of this makes it hard to be in an intimate relationship with someone who has Autism Spectrum Disorder.
So, How Is Intimacy Possible?
It’s possible with the right person. A partner who will learn about Autism and make the necessary adjustments to what’s lacking and difficult in the relationship can ensure a fulfilling level of intimacy.
Intimacy is possible when both parties have a strong desire to make the relationship succeed and to work hard at communicating their different perspectives. Communicating non-judgmentally, which is essential to understanding and appreciating the differences between the pair is a key factor in creating intimacy. I see this often, as an Autism Spectrum Disorder psychologist, when I work with couples to change ineffective communication patterns.
Being committed to compromise and sharing is vitally important. Since these do not come naturally to the person with ASD, working to make sure that accommodations and equal division of labor are present in the relationship is critical to success.
For some people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, social skills training can help them deal with partners, spouses and children.
Therapy, especially with an ASD psychologist or other experienced mental health professional, can help both parties understand what’s happening in their relationship, what’s working and not working, and what can be done to improve it.
Overall, the key to achieving intimacy for people with Autism is a willingness to accept the difficulties of this condition and commit to putting in the work that it takes to change those difficulties into positive agents for closeness.