Neurodiversity and Relationships

Humans seek relationships for all sorts of reasons: protection and mutual aid, employment, friendship, romance . . . It should not surprise anyone to read that people like to be with others who are like them. There are a million ways to define “like themselves,” and it may not even be a conscious choice, but there is no doubt that many communities of like-minded people exist, just as many like-minded people become friends or romantic partners.

Evolutionary psychologists have a term for that: Assortative Mating.

Said that way, you might think people primarily pair off with others like them for romance, but in fact people connect with “folks like them” for most all relationships in life. In the case of neurodivergent people, a recent Swedish study supports the assortative mating theory:

In that study, researchers found an autistic person was 11 times more like to marry another autistic person than average. They were also more likely to marry a person with ADHD schizophrenia or bipolar diagnosis. In that study, neurodiversity marries neurodiversity.

People with autism prefer partners on the spectrum

Anecdotally, it appears many who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum in adulthood discover many of their old friends are autistic too. I’ve written about that in my books. It’s not unusual for an adult to have 5-10 adult friends who turn out to be on the spectrum. How does that happen, given ignorance of neurodiversity at the time of becoming friends? If it was just chance, a person’s circle of acquaintances would have to be 50 times the number of autistic friends they have, and that’s rarely the case. That’s an illustration of “assortative mating” matching up non romantic friends.

How does it work?

  • Does assortative mating work at a subconscious level?
  • How do we select friends?
  • How do we select people for other relationships, if we select at all?

Being different has a huge impact on one’s relationship skills/success, as in these accounts of women discovering their neurodiversity:

People often try to hide their differences in hope of fitting in. In the neurodiversity community that’s called masking. Here’s an account of its effect:

The costs of camouflaging autism

Questions for the class:

What are some psychological consequences of an inability to form or sustain relationships?

How do those consequences match the psychological challenges common among neurodivergent people (from earlier class discussions)?

In previous neurodiversity classes we talked about neurodivergent people’s often-diminished ability to read body language, understand subtle cues in language, or respond in expected ways in social settings. While those challenges are real, they are not exclusive to neurodivergent people. Who else has similar challenges?

  1. People from foreign countries who don’t speak the local language?
  2. People from cultures whose behavioral norms are unacceptable in a different culture?
  3. Blind people, and individuals with some other perceptual disabilities?
  4. Other groups?

Is the diminished ability to read others, etc., a “neurodivergent reading neurotypical” issue, or is it a “neurodivergent reading anyone else” issue? In other words, is this a universal disability, or a mismatch between neurotypes?

There is no doubt neurodivergent people have more challenges with relationships than neurotypical people, as a group. But are the challenges unique, or a microcosm of what every human faces at some level?

What do we do about difficulty forming relationships? Mutual support – often from online communities – is helpful. Therapies like PEERS are emerging. Are they just for the neurodivergent, or for anyone? Read and consider . .

(c) 2018 John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences. He’s the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He’s co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and an advisor to the Neurodiversity Institute at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont.

The opinions expressed here are his own. There is no warranty expressed or implied. While reading this essay will give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.