Autism and Intimate Relationships

In this webinar, Ashton Bartz and Chris Rohweder explore neurodivergent love languages and making their love work across different neurotypes.

Video

Transcript

Ashton Bartz: Hi, my name is Ashton. I use they/them pronouns and I’m an Autistic person. I work at Autism CRC, but today I’m just here as myself not representing that organisation. And Chris is my partner.  

Chris Rohweder: Hi, I’m Chris. I use he/him pronouns and I’m not Autistic. I’m a disabled person and I’m Ashton’s partner.  

Ashton Bartz: So, we live together in Brisbane and we have three cats, you might see or hear them throughout our presentation. And today we’re gonna be talking about Autism and intimate relationships. So, just a note on today’s presentation, this presentation reflects our lived experiences. So you may or may not agree with everything or find all the information helpful or useful. And that’s okay. Our goal is just to share our experience but also hopefully start some discussions as well.  

Chris Rohweder: Also when planning this presentation we decided Ashton would lead for two reasons. The first reason is that I felt that as this is a symposium for Autistic people, the Autistic person should lead in the relationship should lead.  

Ashton Bartz: Yeah.  

Chris Rohweder: And then second.  

Ashton Bartz: The second is that a lot of resources online and books, presentations that are on relationships with Autistic people focus on the allistic or non-Autistic partner. So it was important to me that we provided a different and alternative perspective.  

Chris Rohweder: The last thing we wanted to note is that we will talk about trauma and domestic violence in this presentation. It won’t be in detail, but we will give a warning when we’re about to start talking about it so that you can mute your sound or walk away if you need to.  

Ashton Bartz: So, just a very quick overview of what we’re gonna go over together today. So, today we’re gonna be talking about our history together as a couple, some love languages, how to navigate a relationship and trauma as well. So, here is a photo of us from a few years ago, Chris is on the left and I’m on the right. So we met in late 2013 and we’ve been together since January 2014. So as of this presentation we’ve been together a little over eight years and we’ve been engaged for seven of those years.  

Chris Rohweder: So we met via an online dating website before Tinder and all the apps were really a thing. We had both just come out of relationships and were, for the most part, looking for friendship in actual fact but we instantly really liked each other and we decided to be monogamous or exclusive within a month of meeting each other. And Ashton unofficially moved in with me not long after that.  

Ashton Bartz: So, essentially, I kind of came over and then didn’t go away. [Laughs.] Consensually of course, But so in terms of being Autistic, at the time I didn’t actually know that I was when we met, I was dealing with some pretty severe mental health issues when we initially met. And I think I was diagnosed about six months after we got together after a GP suggested that I get an assessment. So Chris actually provided lots and lots of support, both like verbally and also in person at the appointments. I was actually really unsure and uncertain if he’d want to be with me if I was diagnosed or just even undergoing diagnosis because I’ve had people in the past end relationships because I was too complicated or had too much baggage. So he really had to actually kind of convince me that I wasn’t being a burden and that he, like I wasn’t just, you know, making his life difficult. And he also really helped me to understand that diagnosis meant that I just now understood myself a lot beUer and that I am the same Autistic person I was before diagnosis just now I know that I’m Autistic. So, obviously then, and now a lot of the messaging around Autism was basically really stigmatised Autism. So, Chris really helped me to frame it in a positive way. So, you might have heard of the five love languages before which are often used in therapy settings to help people determine how they like to both give and receive love. Essentially it provides some ideas so that you and your partner or partners can determine what acts in a relationship make you all feel the most loved and comfortable.  

Chris Rohweder: So these love languages include things such as words of affirmation, which can be compliments or saying I love you, physical touch, which can include things like hugs or holding hands, receiving gifts, quality time, so spending time with your partner or partners and specifically being engaged in that time with them. So paying full attention to them and other sort of… and then acts of service which are doing things like household chores, for example.  

Ashton Bartz: So, you might like to receive one of these languages from your partner or partners or all of the languages. Personally, I really like receiving words of affirmation because I need love or appreciation to be expressed in a really straightforward way. I also really, really love to give gifts. I’m not very concerned about receiving them but I love to think about a person who I care about and get them a gift that I think that they’ll really like.  

Chris Rohweder: I really like giving and receiving hugs for myself. So physical touch is my main love language. I also like acts of service and doing things for people to show I love them.  

Ashton Bartz: So, with all of these love languages you might not necessarily relate to any of them. So something that might be something that you relate to more could be neurodivergent love languages.  

Chris Rohweder: So, neurodivergent love languages were created by Amythest Schaber, who goes by the handle neurowonderful on Twitter.  

Ashton Bartz: So these love languages are infodumping, so that’s when you get to talk in detail and at length about something you’re really passionate about. Parallel play, which is when you are alone with your partner or partners but you’re each doing like your own individual thing. And you’re just sort of existing together. Support swapping. So, which is when you accommodate and provide support to one another. So, for example, if I asked Chris if he needed any pain medication and he asked me if I need any heat or cold packs. “Please crush my soul back into my body”, which is providing deep pressure input. So that can be in the form of hugs, but it could also be like sitting on another person or lying on another person. And then lastly, there’s, “I found this cool rock, button, leaf, et cetera, and thought you would like it”, which is essentially like unconventional gift-giving or sharing things that are really interesting to you with another person. This is also called penguin pebbling, ’cause penguins give pebbles to other penguins to show that they care. So for me personally, I do actually relate to neurodivergent love languages a lot more than traditional love languages. And I think that I engage in all of them to some degree. I especially love like really deep pressure input. So, “Please crush my soul back into my body” is definitely one of my neurodivergent love languages but I wouldn’t necessarily say that physical touch is a love language for me because I’m actually really specific about what kind of touch feels good to me. So sometimes Chris will sit next to me when I need to regulate or rest a hand on my back when I’m struggling to sleep. And those are two things that I really, really love and make me feel loved. I also really like parallel play as well. So spending time, not necessarily focusing on each other, I don’t need us to spend like that traditional quality time together but I love getting to basically be with my person and focusing on my own activity while Chris does his own thing. So that’s like one of my favourite things to do. So, with all of those things in mind what do dates look like? So, I’ve included a photo of a very kind of traditional date or what I might think of when I think of dates. Like I think of stuff like, you know like the bachelor and stuff like that. And so in this photo, there’s like one person surprising the other with a hand over their eyes and they have a bunch of flowers for them. They’re in a restaurant and there’s lots here that I actually, when I kind of think about it there’s a lot that I don’t like about it for me personally, I don’t really like surprises. I don’t like unfamiliar places or food and restaurants in generally, like can be really noisy and smelly. So there’s a lot of aspects of traditional romance that I don’t like.  

Chris Rohweder: And interestingly as well, there’s a lot of things here that I don’t like personally as well. Things like fancy restaurants, I’m personally more of a pub guy. So, what do our dates look like then?  

Ashton Bartz: So one of the first things is that we take into account each other’s needs. So sometimes that can be tricky ’cause for example I really like structure and routine and I like to know way, way, way, way in advance what we’re doing so that I can kind of mentally prepare for it. You next?  

Chris Rohweder: Oh sorry.  

Ashton Bartz: That’s okay.  

Chris Rohweder: But my condition actually includes a lot of chronic pain and flares and that often means I can’t really plan in advance, unfortunately.  

Ashton Bartz: And so as well as taking the accommodations we each need into account, we’ve also spent some time thinking about like traditional romance and deconstructing what we actually want. And when I say we it’s mostly me because when we first got together, I was very like, oh well, this is what romance looks like. It’s, you know, the bachelor it’s what’s on TV and this is what’s expected. But then when I actually thought about a lot of that stuff I was like, well, I actually hate a lot of those things like being spontaneous for example, and things like that. So actually a lot of our date nights are often at home because if I get overwhelmed or if Chris is really, really sore we can end it early and we’re already home. So we might get some really nice food through Uber eats, light some candles and eat together on our back porch. We might watch a movie together or play a game together.  

Chris Rohweder: Yeah. And if we do go out together, we usually try to have a bit of a plan. We might not be able to have a strict schedule until the day of the actual event, but we’ll talk in advance about what we want to actually do this, you know, like Ash might say, for example I’d really like to get bubble tea and go to a comic bookstore. And I might say, I want to get burgers and I wanna go into a game store and then we can set up a firm plan on the day.  

Ashton Bartz: And so that way it’s kinda like I already know what to expect or what’s likely to happen. But then on the day, we can be a little bit flexible about whether or not we can actually do all those things together. We also like to keep to places that are not too far away from our house, just so it’s not too difficult to get home. And Chris is really, really good at recognising when I’m reaching my limit and I’m getting better at recognising that. But he’s really good at recognising when I’m needing to go home kind of thing. And of course, I’ll wear sunglasses and have ear plugs in and I’ll carry sensory tools like this guy along with me as well.  

Chris Rohweder: I’m actually getting quite distracted.  

Ashton Bartz: Sorry. Chris Rohweder: No, that’s fine.  

Ashton Bartz: I am flicking him around a lot, ’cause I’m squeezing him. And I realised I kept putting him in frame. So I was like, I should probably show what I’m playing with.  

Chris Rohweder: So we also wanted to talk about how we actually navigate our relationship together.  

Ashton Bartz: So one thing that we do pretty regularly is talk through our accommodations and access needs because, of course, those change but also sometimes they can conflict. So like we mentioned before, an example of that is that I have a really strong need for routine and Chris needs lots of flexibility for when he’s in pain. So when we have conflicting needs, we work up with a compromise that will work for both of us. Additionally, like we both have days where we aren’t able to handle things like housework. So on those days, the other partner will pick up the extra work. But we also have days where we both are struggling. So on those days, we work together to do the bare minimum. So usually making sure the cats get fed and then anything else can just wait until one of us is feeling better.  

Chris Rohweder: Another thing we’ll do is provide accommodations and support that are tailored for each other. For example, mornings are the hardest time for me. And so Ashton will actually check-in if I need anything when I wake up. Like, something like medication or even something like ice packs or my cane, that sort of thing.  

Ashton Bartz: Another example of an accommodation is that often I’m really, really focused in on something. And so Chris might ask me a question and I’ll automatically say, “Yes,” even though the question has not even registered. And then a few minutes later I’ll go like, “Oh, sorry did you say something?” Or like, “What did you say?” So now when I say, “Yes” and Chris sees that I’m I doing an activity, Chris will be like, non-judgmentally of course, be like, “Oh, were you listening? Or were you just saying yes?” And again, that’s not in a judgemental way. It’s just so that he knows whether or not that’s a genuine answer. And it also gives me some time to disengage from the activity so that I can, you know…  

Chris Rohweder: Process it.  

Ashton Bartz: Process it.  

Both: Yeah.  

Ashton Bartz: We also practise something that’s called bidirectional communication. So a lot of the time the expectation is all on Autistic people to try and fill in any gaps in understanding when we’re talking to non-autistic people. So bidirectional communication means that we are both putting in equal work into a conversation. And so one way that Chris does that that I really appreciate is that he tries to give me information in a really concise and straightforward way because that makes it much easier for me to be able to communicate with him. So next is co-regulation. So we co-regulate because we can both notice each other’s patterns and distress and help to support each other and to regulate. So for example, I know mornings are tough for Chris so I can provide support there. And Chris can recognise my cues when I’m in distress or when I’m about to be. And so he can do things like turn on the air conditioning, provide deep pressure, get me a weighted blanket, or bring me a cat.  

Chris Rohweder: Lastly, we did want to touch on consent. We use consent in all aspects of our relationship not just in terms of physical touch but also in terms of support that we provide. Or even when we step in, sorry.  

Ashton Bartz: All good.  

Chris Rohweder: Or when we step in to actually help each other. Sometimes one of us will want the support and ask for it. But there’s nothing worse than when someone forces help on you just because you have a disability. And so we like to check in with each other first. Sometimes Ash will do things for me like organising appointments. Sometimes I’ll do things like advocate for Ash in an appointment, but we either ask for that help directly or we check in with each other first to see if that help is actually wanted. So we just wanted to provide a content warning now as we are going to be discussing trauma and domestic violence in this next part.  

Ashton Bartz: So we’re not gonna go into personal experiences in-depth but we did wanna talk about and acknowledge the impact that healing from domestic violence has had on our relationship.  

Chris Rohweder: If you’d like to mute or switch off now and come back in a few minutes, you’re more than welcome to.  

Ashton Bartz: So in terms of relationship violence, a report by the Disability Royal Commission in Australia found that 64% of people with disability reported experiencing violence compared to 45% of people without disability.  

Chris Rohweder: The same report found that people with disability are 2.6 times more likely to experience intimate partner violence as well.  

Ashton Bartz: So if you are experiencing or have experienced violence or if you are in a relationship and you’re not sure if you’re experiencing violence, 1-800-RESPECT has a disability support kit and that has some Easy Read documents and videos about what domestic violence is. And also what your rights are in a relationship. They also provide a phone line and web chat service and that’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And they have undergone training to better support people with disability as well. So just to provide context for this conversation and why we’re talking about it, I was in a violent relationship before I met Chris and that included physical, emotional, and sexual violence. I didn’t actually know that I’d been in a violent relationship when I met Chris. As an Autistic person, I’m very used to following other people’s leads in social situations because it’s something I have difficulty with. And so I put a lot of trust in the other party to lead the way and to do the right thing. I assumed that the way I was treated in that relationship was just the way that relationships were even though it hurt. And it made me really scared and anxious. And it wasn’t actually until I started talking about my experiences with Chris and with a psychologist that I was told that that was relationship violence and that how I was treated wasn’t actually okay. And that I was actually really lucky to be alive. So because of that history, my history a lot of Chris and I’s relationship has actually involved navigating my trauma so that I could heal and feel safe in our relationship. And so I wanted to talk a little bit about some of the things we’ve done in our relationship that have helped me with that because unfortunately, intimate partner violence is really a reality for people with disability. So the first thing is that I spent a lot of time with Chris unpacking our interactions and my reactions to things, particularly, if we had a conversation where I felt really upset or really triggered. And that includes things that are part of any relationship. So like having a disagreement. So early in our relationship if we had different opinions on things which is super, super normal, I’d get really upset. And I had to really sit with my response and work out why I was getting so upset about it. And a lot of that was because I was worried I’d be hurt and I don’t need to do this so much anymore just ’cause we’ve been together for such a long time. And I know now that you know I’m safe in this relationship as well. The second thing that I found really helpful was checking in with other people about our relationship, especially early on, I found it really helpful to check in with my psychologist just to make sure that both Chris and I were treating each other well in the way that we should be treating each other. And that was really helpful. So that essentially like I could sort of learn what healthy relationships were like. And then lastly, and this is something that I still do really regularly, is that I let Chris know if I have experienced something triggering. So for example, when there’s stories of domestic violence in the news, I get really upset and obviously feel a bit more fragile. So letting him know that that’s happened and that that’s on my mind means that he’s able to take that into account and provide me a little bit more support as well.  

Chris Rohweder: Okay. Well, thank you so much for hanging out with us. If you did want to contact either of us to continue this conversation, our email addresses are now being displayed on the screen and…  

Ashton Bartz: I think that’s all, but thank you so much. Enjoy the rest of the symposium. Thank you for joining us. 

Chris Rohweder: And thank you for listening to us talk about ourselves.  

Ashton Bartz: Yes. Thank you. Bye. 

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