Written by Amy Cramb
I perceive, communicate, and express emotions very differently to non-autistic people. Due to these differences, it can be hard for me to empathise with the experiences of non-autistic people, and crucially, for them to empathise with my experiences. Dr Damian Milton, an Autistic academic, called this a “Double Empathy Problem.”
This problem begs the following question: Can Autistic people and non-autistic people thrive in relationships with one another, even though their experiences are often worlds apart? Oftentimes, the answer might truly be no.
Looking back on past friendships, romantic relationships, and general social experiences, I frequently felt the presence of an insurmountable ‘wall’ – I am on one side, the non-autistic people are on the other, and we just cannot get through to each other. Authentic connection fails in such circumstances.
It reached the point where I had given up on ever feeling true human connection and belonging. I found it too hard being consistently misunderstood and trapped on the lonely side of the wall. Then, out of nowhere, my now fiancé came along.
He is not Autistic, yet I am. Despite our differences, our relationship is thriving. The wall is gone, and we are deeply connected.
Why has this relationship gone so differently? I know exactly why: We meet each other halfway with compromise and unconditional acceptance.
Unsurprisingly, my partner and I experience the world very differently. Therefore, we often have conflicting wants and needs, particularly in relation to sensory preferences, communication styles, and how we engage in our personal interests.
As one example, I am very passionate about the Autism advocacy work that I do from home. Each day when my partner came home from his full-time job, I would excitedly rush up to him and start info-dumping every detail of my work that day. Without interruption, I could go on for several hours unpacking the day’s events, what I had learned, and my plans for tomorrow. One day, my partner candidly told me that he loves my passion and learning about my day; however, it is overwhelming to be instantly bombarded with so much information after work. He is exhausted by this stage and needs down time to relax. So, what happened next?
We worked together to reach a compromise. When he comes home from work, I give him some space by making us both a hot beverage. We then drink our hot beverages together whilst I info-dump the main things that I am excited or anxious to talk about. Once our beverages are finished, we spend the remainder of the evening relaxing. (Well, he relaxes … I avidly research whatever it is I am interested in at the time.)
Engaging in this routine is great for both of us. For me, I can make sense of my whirling, excitable thoughts by info-dumping them to my partner.
It is a measured approach to info-dumping that feels guilt-free because there is a clear boundary of when to stop. For him, he gets to hear about my day (or tunes out, who knows?), and then enjoys the down time that he needs, and deserves, before his next workday.
There are two things worth highlighting from this example. First, we communicated clearly and openly about both of our needs, wants, and feelings. This open communication helped me to understand and empathise with him, and vice versa. Secondly, we were both open to adapting to the other’s needs. I wanted one thing, he wanted another, but we met somewhere in the middle.
Compromising is one thing, but unconditional acceptance goes one step further. One can compromise in a relationship yet still reject the other person’s perspectives as inadequate, invalid, or wrong. Sadly, this kind of rejection is very common for Autistic individuals, myself included.
For most of my life, I have felt negatively judged or dismissed. Others seemingly struggled to see my experiences as valid.
I would try to meet halfway but was often left stranded there – confused and alone. As the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir put it, “No one would take me just as I was.”
So, you can imagine my surprise when my partner immediately embraced my quirks.
Fundamentally, he offers me unconditional acceptance by acknowledging, rather than judging or dismissing, my differences. In return, I accept and love him unconditionally even when I don’t always understand him.
Some examples of how we show each other unconditional acceptance are with phrases such as, “That doesn’t make any sense to me, but I am here for you regardless”, or “I can see you are struggling. Whilst I can’t understand why, I know you see things differently to me. How can I help?” Through thoughtful, supportive, and open dialogue, we put effort into accepting each other’s unique experiences as valid.
Relationships between Autistic people and non-autistic people don’t always thrive, as explained by Dr Milton’s Double Empathy Problem. The ‘wall’ exists, whereby Autistic and non-autistic people often cannot get through to each other. However, this separation in experiences is merely the starting point. If both sides work their way up the wall through compromise and acceptance, they can meet at the top – the halfway point – where true connection, understanding, and even love, can arise.
Amy Cramb is the Founder of Finding Autism.
The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.
We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.