By Dr Ranjana Mitra

April was autism month, and it seems a good time to reflect on how this hugely significant, but still relatively unknown (in the public sphere) condition affects our day to day lives. Autism is widely misunderstood, and for many the word conjures an image of someone with a learning disability (LD). While autism and LD can go together, a lot of autistic people are highly intelligent and excel in their field. However they commonly have some challenges around social interactions, the ability to understand and express emotions, and the ability to cope with the changing demands of everyday life. Their lives are usually governed by routine, they may have certain sensory sensitivities and they may live with a lot of anxiety. Chris Packham’s brilliant series on the subject has shone light on the struggles many people on the autistic spectrum face, but have learnt to hide very well.  

A significant proportion of the couple conflict I see in the Counselling room is due to one partner having some autistic traits. Many of us live with these traits (as autism is a spectrum disorder) but do not have autism. Thus there are people who see the world in black and white, and cannot understand why their partner still talks to their sister after they have fallen out once; or why they can’t go to the same holiday destination each year, or don’t want to eat the same food all the time. Some describe being unable to connect with their partners as they are ‘cold’; or very awkward in social situations – to the extent that they cause embarrassment or avoid social interactions for this very reason.

 Conversations between partners attempting to resolve such everyday difficulties can soon get mired in blaming and personal attacks, when all that is needed is an appreciation of each party’s strengths and weaknesses. People with autistic traits are simply ‘neurodivergent’ – their brains are wired differently; they are not choosing to be difficult; they simply have a different way of understanding and negotiating the world. Whilst they may have difficulty with being flexible, they may also have remarkable strengths such as the ability to maintain intense focus on a task for long periods of time. Think of athletes who are at the top of their game – many of them are likely to be on the spectrum. How else can they find the motivation to train from morning to night, day in and day out, forsaking life’s pleasures, without knowing whether they will ever make the Olympic podium?

When a couple can recognise and work with each other’s strengths and acknowledge each other’s deficits with compassion, conflict can be eliminated and a healthy relationship maintained. If you are one of the many whose world is black and white, don’t despair. All that needs to happen is some understanding of what makes you who you are, and working out how to manage the unpredictable world in a way that does not overwhelm you.

If you want to learn more about this condition, go to the National Autistic Society website

If you believe your relationship difficulties may stem from an inability to be flexible, contact me for an initial consultation.