Communication Empathy Relationships

The Ultimate Empathy Gap: Can Neurotypical-Autistic Pairings Truly Work?4 min read

Love is a deeply personal experience, the joining of two individual worlds into a meaningful partnership, and it can be a magical thing.  When two people not only love each other– but can truly understand and accept each other– they can agree to team up with an expectation of success.

But understanding and acceptance aren’t always easy.  Love starts off with a passionate infatuation and draws people together who are attracted to each other’s differences.  But when that fuzzy feeling fades, what is left are two people, who care about but cannot truly understand each other.

This lack of understanding and acceptance in support of the initial passion reaches critical mass when differing neurotypes pair up.  The connection between a neurotypical (NT) and an autistic (AS) partner feels incredibly compelling, but once the honeymoon ends, the pair is left with the empathy gap from Hell.

The problem is not that either partner lacks compassion or empathy.  Each have a clear point of view and way of thinking and speaking and are quite good at applying this viewpoint to others.  Ultimately, this is what the root of empathy is.

Empathy is the ability to feel the emotions for others that you yourself would be feeling if you were in their shoes…  but empathy is connected to point of view.  The NT partner feels and experiences the world in the way that most people do: they communicate in typical social conventions, rely heavily on non-verbal communication, and are reliant on their subjective understanding of emotional experience.

Each may have deep compassion, but they unintentionally talk past each other.  They see conflict differently and what brings peace to one may cause agitation to the other.  What one partner needs in order to feel safe and secure might have the opposite affect on the other.  Both will communicate as well as they can, but as they are basically speaking different languages, each may ultimately decide that the other lacks empathy. 

But what can be done?

A lot of marriage counselors and well-meaning bystanders push the easy way out.  Give up on intimacy and focus on behaviors.  I see articles like this all the time.  Autistic partners are described as a list of needs and behaviors and sensory preferences.  Good qualities like reliability and predictability are practically fetishized.  NT partners’ needs are broken down into quick-fix, shallow behavioral solutions like, “Hug your partner after work if they need affection.”

This must work for some couples, or I wouldn’t see it so often– but it leaves me feeling hollow.  For me to be loved, to be in relationship, is to be truly known.  Who wants a partner who only connects by performing a memorized list of generic, stereotyped “rules”?  I want to be known as myself as an individual and wholly accepted, and I hope to do the same for my partner.

A Neurotypical Perspective

To fairly represent both sides of this mutually-rewarding, happy inter-neurotype partnership, I thought it was only fair to bring the other half of this equation in his own words.  So, for this article, I asked him: If I am so foreign to your neurology, how can you empathize with me?  How come we work?

The first step was to let in the possibility that I could be wrong.  I don’t think most people are willing to do this.  In all relationships– but especially one with empathy and perceptive differences like ours– I have learned to start from the presumption that there was a lot I didn’t already understand.

I love that answer.  But then, I am biased…

I realized as the autistic partner, I start at a very similar place with him.  I don’t assume that either of us are wrong, but I do assume that we take in and experience the world differently and that our perceptions color our language and emotional reactions.  I look past my initial assessment of what I hear from him and try my hardest to look at what he means instead.

The ultimate answer is the same as the initial problem.  An empathy gap must be handled through an increase in empathy.  The partner speaking must be willing to try different words and metaphors until the listener understands.  And the listener must be able to look past their own paradigm and worldview.  This is easier for some people than others, but everyone can work towards better communication and empathy.

All couples engage in this work, but larger differences require a deeper commitment to see and think beyond the superficial.  My NT partner can now tell by my body language when I am overloaded.  He knows what I’ll eat on my plate.  He knows when I am in emotional pain even if he can’t completely understand the existential nature of what upset me in that moment.  He reads me now.

We all communicate in our own ways.  To truly connect and empathize with another person is to learn and eventually know them.  This doesn’t come easily or naturally with AS-NT relationships; however, this deep connection is possible with enough effort and determination.  And though, on its surface, this might not sound romantic, it has been one of the most intense, meaningful experiences of my life.



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