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Inquiring minds want to know — can autistic people feel love, engage in relationships, and get married? We've got answers. Some of them fall into the Captain Obvious category ("yes" to all questions), but we'll also take a deeper look.

Can a person with autism feel love, be in a relationship, and even get married? Let me be clear about one thing — I didn't choose the headline of this article. I don't like it, because it's insulting. I am choosing to keep it, however, because (neurotypical, non-autistic) people Google this stuff and want answers. Let's get them.

Do autistic people feel love and empathy?

This is actually a harder question to answer than you may think at first glance. Let's look a little at available research, first. On the one hand, a lack of empathy, as well as restrictive interests, repetitive behaviors, and impairment in social interactions have been described as classic symptoms of autism for a very long time. On the other hand, more recent research shows that it's rather more complicated.

This starts with the fact that there are different kinds of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy requires the ability to gauge what another person is feeling, often based on body language or by imaging what one would personally feel in a similar situation. 
  • Affective empathy is a "feeling with" the person — to feel compassion, care, concern, or happiness on their behalf once you know what emotions they're going through. 
Many autistic people have trouble with the first kind, cognitive empathy, in part because they may themselves feel different in a similar situation, and in part because neurotypical people often expect others to be "mind readers", to rely on physical cues rather than telling others how they're actually feeling. Some autistic people (as well as some who aren't autistic) also have alexithymia​, a condition in which they have trouble identifying even their own emotions, even right as they're feeling them. When you have trouble pinpointing exactly what it is that you're feeling yourself, it's no wonder that you also find it hard to determine how someone else is feeling. 

Research shows, however, that autistic people aren't deficient in the second kind of empathy, affective empathy. Once they know what you're feeling, they care about your feelings. Autistic people may, actually, experience your feelings so intensely that it becomes overwhelming, and they need to withdraw from the situation to keep it together — sometimes especially when you're all in a crowded, noisy, environment with a crazy number of stimuli. This phenomenon, described in a paper about the "intense world theory of autism", suggests that rather than lacking empathy, some autistic people have so much of it that it becomes painful, and they need to withdraw to protect their own mental health. 

Now, some autistic people will strongly recognize themselves in that "too much empathy" theory, while others will say that they do struggle to empathize with other people — something that, after further inspection, almost always refers to cognitive empathy, knowing what another person is feeling. If you want to know more about the way in which autistic people see this, I suggest you look for blogs written by autistic people. There are plenty around now, and they give lots of insights, often in a much more interesting way than research studies could. This could help you whether you know people on the spectrum, are just curious, or think you may be autistic yourself. 

In conclusion, autistic people are not psychopaths. Psychopaths tend to be experts at reading other people's emotional states while not feeling a whole lot of emotion themselves, whereas autistic people may find it hard to read people, but feel plenty. Yes, autistic people can feel love and care for others, which is what the real question was, wasn't it? If you still doubt this, however, you probably shouldn't be dating an autistic person, or it could cause a whole lot of heartbreak — for them. 

Can autistic people be in relationships and marriages?

Yes, autistic people can be in romantic relationships — and most are, have been, or would like to be. Research of a group of people who would previously have fallen under the "Asperger's" heading found that 73 percent had experience with romantic relationships, 44 percent were currently in one, 27 percent had no relationship experience, and seven percent of those who were single had no interest in being in a relationship at all. (This adds up to more than 100 percent because some would have chosen more than one answer.)

There's more research on this topic, including studies pointing to people with autism having more difficulties with romantic relationships than neurotypical people, but let's consider that a romantic relationship that works by definition requires both partners to be compatible in a pretty deep way. A relationship will work if that compatibility exists, and it won't if it doesn't. 

One autism blogger I've been following, Musings of an Aspie, described a relationship between an autistic and neurotypical person as cross-cultural. This stuck with me, because it makes a whole lot of sense. Imagine, for instance, that you're a pasty English person who has recently started dating a Korean person more seriously. Your date may be weirded out that you go around your house wearing the dirty shoes you've just been all over town with, and you may have some interesting feelings if live octopus is on the menu, at the most basic level. You may also have intense differences when it comes to public displays of intimacy, and on and on and on. 

Now, if you're a neurotypical who has recently started dating an autistic person more seriously, you may encounter similar challenges. You may be weirded out, or even misunderstand, if your partner expresses their love through practical things like fixing your sink rather than saying "I love you". You may find the routines they adhere to difficult to cope with. They, on the other hand, may really not be down with your love of kissing, or find it annoying that you keep asking them to come along to office parties with your coworkers. 

I intentionally chose fairly steroetypical examples each time. In this day in age, it's not that common for people to say cross-cultural relationships are doomed from the get-go, and pretty typical to accept that there may be challenges that can be overcome. Taking the same approach to relationships between autistic and neurotypical people may be of help. I'm addressing only this here, because I don't think autistic people dating autistic people will be Googling to find out whether autistic people can have relationships. 

As for marriage, once you decide to get married, you can go ahead only if you first apply for a marriage license, make the appointment, or however it works in your country. Oh, you didn't want to know how you can get married, but instead whether autistic people can maintain stable relationships over prolonged periods of time? Well, consider the fact that autism in adults is still severely undiagnosed. Many people find out they're on the spectrum only after their children — often born into a marriage — were diagnosed. Because of this underdiagnosis, it's not really possible to assess what percentage of autistic people is currently married, so let's just say that yes, many autistic people are married. As with all marriages, some of these will work out, and some won't. 

In conclusion

Relationships are pretty complicated. They can be wonderful as well as messy, and even downright awful. This is true for anyone who sits on that one spectrum we're all on — the human one. Whether you're autistic or neurotypical, if you're interested in persuing a relationship with someone who's wired differently than you, give it a go. Starting from a place of acceptance, respect, and love will give you the best shot at a relationship that adds a lot to your life for a very long time. (If your neurotypical partner keeps wondereing if you can actually feel love, though, that's definitely one giant, waving, red flag that respect is lacking! Perhaps run for the hills, or something.)

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