The idea that one partner may be autistic may come as a complete surprise to either partner in a relationship, or perhaps confirm an underlying suspicion that one of the partners already had. As mentioned in the previous blog, Could autism be the reason behind your relationship difficulties? the understanding of autism that many of us have may be based on stereotypical characters, or on myths such as autistic people cannot make eye contact, (for some this is difficult, but for others it is not) meaning autism may never be considered to be the reason behind the differences that can seem so difficult to overcome. A relationship counsellor may suggest the idea having seen the difficulties in communication for themselves, or a child may have a diagnosis that triggers the thought process if similarities can be seen.
I must be clear that when I say autism may be the reason behind, or explain some of the relationship difficulties, the reason is not simply just because one partner is autistic, and neither are they to blame. The difficulties are often caused by a lack of understanding of the differences between the two partners in how they communicate and understand the world around them. Neither partner can be held responsible for something they had no awareness of, and it is often when both partners begin to learn more about their differences that they begin to shift from their positions of blaming each other, to being more understanding and accepting of one another.
Here we follow Ben and Sophie from the previous blog Could autism be the reason behind your relationship difficulties? to the discovery of autism, and the realisation of an unseen difference between them that neither of them had previously considered.
Ben – autistic partner
The situation with Sophie and I had become so difficult for me that I was thinking I may be better just being on my own. When the idea of autism was first suggested I just thought it was something else to have to think about and get my head around while I already felt completely tired and drained with everything.
When I started to read about it though, I could see lots of similarities to what we had been going through. I started to realise that maybe I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I had been comparing myself to other partners, and started to see that maybe I was different. It was a relief to realise that I wasn’t the only one.
I decided to look in to having an assessment for autism for some confirmation that this was the answer to why things were so difficult. Before going to the assessment, I actually started to be worried that I wouldn’t be diagnosed with autism. If I didn’t meet the criteria, that would take me back to the thought process that I was inadequate as a husband, I couldn’t do things right, and it was all my fault.
When I was given the diagnosis, I cried with relief. It was confirmation that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I was just different. It gave me an explanation for why I do, and see some things differently. It gave me hope that things could be ok. We now knew that I just do things different to what we had both expected. I felt more confident in who I was, and in the relationship.
It was a relief to know that there are some things I don’t need to change about myself, having spent many years trying, and feeling guilty for not being able to do things the way I thought I should. It meant I could accept myself and stop trying to be someone I wasn’t. When we left it was like a huge weight had been lifted.
Sophie – neurotypical (non-autistic) partner
When I first began reading about autism I started to see some things about Ben that were very familiar. The way he didn’t particularly need to talk or share things with me, being better at the more practical things, and the difficulties with communication in particular. Not everything matched though, so it was a little confusing to begin with. I worried about what it would mean if this was the reason for our difficulties. Would it mean there would be no hope for anything to be different and this is how it would be?
On the other hand, some of the things that had been so difficult started to make more sense from this new perspective, and in some ways this gave me some hope back, but I knew Ben was very tired with the situation, and wondered if we could both find the strength to get through this next hurdle. I think it is fair to say at this point we were both having thoughts of ending the relationship, both completely drained and exhausted with it all. Could we find enough hope to keep going?
It was a pleasant surprise when Ben said he wanted to have an assessment to find out for sure. After he had avoided responsibility for sorting things out between us for a long time, I was happy that he had made the decision, rather than me being the one to ask him or suggest he get some confirmation that he really was autistic.
Receiving his diagnosis was a very touching moment. After crying for a few minutes after those important words were shared, he spoke of the absolute relief in being told at the age of 34, that he was autistic. The process of forgiveness and acceptance of his true self began in that moment, and as I put my hand on his, that began for me too. It was like a huge wall between us had been knocked down.
I knew we still had a long way to go, but I felt sure we would be ok. I felt bad for some of the things I had said in the past, and some of the ways I had acted. If I had known that our thinking styles were so very different, it wouldn’t have been that way. I think part of the problem was a lack of awareness about what autism actually is, and how it isn’t always shown through the stereotypical behaviours that we think of. I wished we had known sooner, but hoped that with the right support we could get things back on track.