Navigating High-Functioning Autism and Romantic Relationships

Love, dating, and romantic relationships can be challenging for anyone. Add autism into the mix, and things might get a little bit more challenging.  For people with high-functioning autism and their partners, navigating romantic relationships presents unique challenges. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) certainly adds its own twist to the world of love. Whether an autistic […]

Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC By Greg Lozano, LPC

Updated on May 13, 2024

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Love, dating, and romantic relationships can be challenging for anyone. Add autism into the mix, and things might get a little bit more challenging. 

For people with high-functioning autism and their partners, navigating romantic relationships presents unique challenges. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) certainly adds its own twist to the world of love. Whether an autistic person has never been in a relationship before or a neurotypical (non-autistic) person has never dated someone on the spectrum, there might be a bit of an adjustment period as you learn the ropes. Furthermore, in situations where both partners are autistic, each individual will have to learn to take time to understand each other’s needs and relationship style, since everybody’s different.

In order to thrive in a relationship with an autism diagnosis or diagnoses in the mix, it’s so important to understand the specific dynamics that come along with it. Not to mention, everyone, autistic or not, has their own needs and challenges.

Here’s what you need to know about high-functioning autism and romantic relationships. 

What is High-Functioning Autism? 

Before we dive into how high-functioning autism affects romantic relationships, let’s go over a quick overview of what it means. 

Put most simply, autism involves an “alternate way of thinking,” says Nancy Arnovits, a licensed clinical social worker with Grow Therapy. Autistic people are neurodivergent, meaning that their brains work in a different way. Another phrase used interchangeably with neurodivergent is neurodiverse.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a spectrum because it encompasses a wide range of characteristics, abilities, and challenges that autistic people experience. This spectrum recognizes that while all autistic folks share some common autistic traits related to social communication and behavior, the severity and combination of these features can greatly vary significantly from person to person. Some people may experience only mild challenges, while others face more pronounced difficulties that affect their daily lives to a greater extent, where they may need full-time care.

High-functioning autism is not a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, it is a term that people often use conversationally to describe autistic people who exhibit mild symptoms compared to those with more severe forms of autism. High-functioning autistic people have intelligence and cognitive abilities that are average or above average.  They can live independently and take care of themselves. However, they may still struggle with things like social skills and sensory sensitivities. 

ASD is relatively rare, affecting only 2.21% of the general population of adults in the United States. 

Every autistic individual will have a unique experience when dating someone. However, there are some common factors that autistic people might face in intimate relationships, including: 

Struggles with Communication

One of the primary challenges high-functioning autistic people may face in romantic relationships is communication, says Arnovits. For example, she says they might have a hard time picking up on nonverbal cues in conversations or struggle to express how they’re feeling.

Regardless of whether someone is in a romantic relationship or experiencing general personal relationships, people with ASD tend to have difficulties with the following aspects of communication:

However, it’s important to note the concept of “masking” which involves hiding certain autistic traits in social situations in order to blend in with neurotypical people. For example, oftentimes women with autism pay so much detail to the social cues of others and then mimic those cues. They fly under the radar, and to an outsider, it might not look like they have autism. Internally, these women suffer from burnout and exhaustion because it takes so much work to mask. This can further contribute to difficulties in social situations. 

Trouble Expressing Emotions

Another aspect that plays into difficulties with communication in intimate relationships is a phenomenon called alexithymia. “Alexithymia is when they are having trouble finding the right words to describe what they’re feeling,” says Arnovits. “They have difficulty expressing the emotions they feel using verbal words, and they have difficulty identifying facial expressions.” 

As you can imagine, being unable to express your feelings and having trouble understanding how someone else feels can make emotional conversations a bit more difficult. An autistic person might get very frustrated when they can’t find the words to describe how they are feeling, and their partner might get frustrated when they can’t understand what the other is trying to convey.

They have difficulty expressing the emotions they feel using verbal words, and they have difficulty identifying facial expressions.

- Nancy Arnovits, LCSW

Alexithymia is a common occurrence. Research has found that about 50% of people with ASD also have clinically significant alexithymia.

Sensory Sensitivities

Autistic people often struggle with sensory sensitivities and get overstimulated in places that are very crowded or loud, Arnovits says. They may also have sensitivity to lights, smells, tastes, or textures. It varies based on the individual. Certain environments or activities may be overwhelming for an autistic person, requiring sensitivity and understanding from their partner.

Sensory overload is a common experience for people with these sensitivities. It happens when someone’s sensory system becomes overwhelmed by an excessive amount of sensory information, leading to feelings of intense distress and discomfort. They may find it challenging or near impossible to focus, communicate, or engage with others. This typically leads to anxiety or the need to withdraw to a quieter, less stimulating place to calm down and return to their baseline. 

Since certain environments and activities may be super overwhelming for an autistic partner, this requires sensitivity and understanding from the other partner. Partners must be aware of and adaptable to their loved one’s unique sensory issues, which ​​means date nights might need to be at quieter, less stimulating locations, and they should also be patient when their partner is feeling overwhelmed and needs a break to decompress and tend to their mental health.

Difficulty with Change

Many high-functioning autistic people have great difficulty adapting to change, even minor change, Arnovits says. Because of this, autistic folks tend to thrive on routine and predictability, which brings them comfort and stability. However, adding a romantic partner and their own personal schedule into the mix can throw off the other partner’s usual routine, causing them stress. 

While neurotypical people might be happy to be more spontaneous and switch up their routines, this can be very unsettling to the neurodivergent autistic partner. Even small deviations from pre-established routines can feel very unsettling, leading to stress and discomfort.

Not to mention, a romantic relationship in and of itself brings about a lot of change. For example, a new relationship can bring about new communication styles, shared responsibilities, date nights, a busy social calendar with a partner’s friends and family members, and more. The ebb and flow of dating can introduce a bunch of new uncertainties into an autistic person’s life, which can take some time to adjust to.

Every autistic individual has unique strengths, talents, and qualities that can make a romantic relationship special. While there are the challenges mentioned above, there are also benefits to being in a romantic relationship with someone with high-functioning autism, such as:

Attention to Detail 

Many autistic people have really great attention to detail, Arnovits says. This talent of remembering the smallest meaningful details can make a great impact on a partner, whether they’re new to dating or in a long-term relationship. 

This knack for picking up on the little things can make their partner feel truly valued and cherished. It’s a testament to the thoughtfulness that many autistic individuals invest in their relationships.


Although everyone is different, much of the time, autistic people prefer long-term relationships over dating around and short-lived flings, Arnovits says. “Once they’re able to find someone, they are very loyal,” she states.

Once they establish a connection with someone they care about, they often remain committed and supportive, offering long-lasting devotion to their partner – and who doesn’t want that? 

Unique Perspectives

Since neurodivergent people think differently than neurotypical people, they may offer unique perspectives and insights into everyday challenges. This can bring fresh outlooks to relationships. Many autistic people also have special interests that they’re very passionate about, and if their partner shares their interests, this can be a great bonding experience.


Autistic people are known to be very honest. In today’s dating scene, the honesty and authenticity that autistic individuals bring to relationships can be refreshing. They tend to be straightforward, often avoiding the “games” that can complicate dating. This authenticity can lead to a deep and genuine connection with their partner. 

However, it’s important to note that this can veer on the side of brutal honesty in some cases, Arnovits says. It’s possible that some autistic people might be too intense with their honesty, or say things in a tone of voice that might be offensive.

Autism and Thriving in a Relationship

Ultimately, both people in a relationship where one or both partners are autistic can experience great personal growth and learning. 

Neurotypical partners must be educated on autism and understand the unique challenges it presents. And as with every relationship, communication is key. Both partners need to learn to communicate their needs, wants, and desires. 

Relationships take work. If you’re struggling on an individual level or as a couple, therapy can help. For example, a therapist can teach new communication skills, conflict resolution techniques, and more. Grow Therapy can help you find a therapist in your area who takes your insurance within just a few days.


  • Yes – autistic people can absolutely have romantic relationships. While autism can make dating more challenging at times, autistic adults can certainly have healthy, long-lasting relationships.

  • It’s a misconception that autistic people only date other autistic people. The reality is that an autistic person may date whoever they’d like: autistic/neurodivergent, or neurotypical.

  • It’s a myth that autistic people cannot feel love, says Arnovits. While they may struggle to express their emotions and how they love someone, they absolutely can feel love, she says. They are fully capable of falling and staying in love with a partner.

  • Yes, some autistic people struggle with intimacy due to difficulties with communication, Arnovits says. Since a lot of intimacy is related to communication, autistic individuals may find it hard to express their emotions and desires effectively, which can create a barrier to establishing deep emotional intimacy. When it comes to physical intimacy, autistic people can absolutely have healthy sex lives. “In fact, many autistic people very much enjoy sex,” Arnovits says. “It's a way for them to express their intimacy non-verbally.” However, research shows that some autistic people’s sensory sensitivities may hinder sexual acts. It varies from person to person. Individuals or couples may consider working with a certified sex therapist to discover what works for them and learn how to communicate their needs and preferences.

About the author
Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC Greg Lozano, LPC

Greg Lozano is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in working with individuals with severe mental illnesses such as depressive, bipolar, schizophrenia, and substance abuse conditions.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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