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Love, Autism Style: Tips for Navigating a New Relationship

This post is from Amy Gravino, an adult on the autism spectrum who is on our Autism Speaks Communications Committee. This post is part of an initiative on our site called “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” which highlights the experiences of individuals with autism from their perspectives. Have a story you want to share for the series? Email us at InOurOwnWords@Autismspeaks.org

I can still remember the first time that I ever cooked for a boy.

I remember standing in his parents’ kitchen, three carefully selected recipes propped up on the counter behind me. I remember stroking the plastic measuring spoons in my hand, memorizing their shape with my fingers. I remember stopping partway through chopping some parsley and quietly looking over at him sitting on the couch in the next room, watching television.

I have a boyfriend, I thought to myself. That’s my BOYFRIEND.

The word didn’t seem real, any more real than the thought that a guy would actually want to date me. We’d been going out for a few months by then, but up until Neil, I thought for sure that I would never be in a relationship. I was convinced that no one would want me, and that it seemed pointless to hope.

So when Neil came along, I was absolutely overjoyed. Ecstatic. Bewildered. Anxious.

Happy.

It was not until many years later, with the gift of great hindsight, that I realized that wanting a relationship and wanting a relationship with a specific person are not the same things.

Neil was not my Prince Charming. He wasn’t even Prince Charming-enough. But he was there, and he wanted to be with me, and that was all I thought I needed. I revered him, never once questioning whether he was a great boyfriend—because I believed there was no way he couldn’t be—yet I consistently placed myself under the lens of an electron microscope.

He’d been in relationships before; I had not. To my mind, that meant he had to know what he was doing, and I had to learn what a “girlfriend” was, what duties I was expected to fulfill, and how to do them as best as I could. Anything less meant I was a failure—not necessarily in Neil’s eyes, but in my own.

If anyone had told me to stop putting so much pressure on myself, I would not have listened. My black-and-white autistic worldview reigned supreme as I thought of the only two things that could possibly happen to my relationship with Neil: Either we would eventually break up, or we would get married.

Both options terrified me for completely different reasons.

The truth is, a romantic relationship is a lot like that meal that I cooked for Neil, in that it is made up of many, many different ingredients. My relationship with my first boyfriend was all about me being his girlfriend, doing everything to make him happy, and so the missing “ingredients” were mine:  Who I was, what made me happy, and what I wanted from the relationship and him as a boyfriend.

Unfortunately, there’s also no recipe that neatly lays out what the ingredients in a relationship are. We begin to learn that just by getting older and finding out who we are.  But the more you know who you are, the more you know what you want from a relationship, and what you can bring to one yourself.

Another thing to know about relationships is that sometimes they will work out, and sometimes they won’t. Neil dumped me so that he could, as he put it, “go out and find a real woman, one with breasts and hips.” I blamed myself for the breakup, as you can imagine, and believed that if I’d only been a better girlfriend, it wouldn’t have happened.

It’s easy to get caught up in the flush and excitement of a first relationship, but remember that you will make mistakes, and things won’t always be rosy, and even if things fall apart and the world feels like it’s ending…it’s not. Relationships are not about being a “better” generic girlfriend or boyfriend; they are about someone accepting and loving you for being the best “you” that you can be, and vice-versa.

And always remember that if you truly want someone to love you, start by loving yourself. 

Have a story you want to share for our “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” series? Email us at InOurOwnWords@Autismspeaks.org