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Feature: My wife and I – an autistic love story

This Valentines Day, David Crisp writes about the challenges of navigating romantic relationships with autism and how receiving his diagnosis made his marriage stronger.

February is the month of romantic love – particularly on Valentine’s Day. For many autistic individuals, finding love and a life partner is their biggest challenge. It certainly was for me!

My hope is that this article will help autistic individuals, their parents, and carers recognise that deep and lasting relationships are achievable with patience, acceptance, and – admittedly – a lot of hard work and understanding.

When it comes to forming relationships, I have always been someone that ‘follows’. What I mean by this is that I need someone to take the lead in a social situation, to engage with me and be proactive, otherwise I won’t necessarily have the inclination to engage with others.

Up until I met my soon-to-be wife, I had few girlfriends in my life, and only one that could be described as a ‘relationship’. In fact, relationships with most people had been difficult and I would only engage with people when they initiated it and it would often have to be on my terms.

I’ve always wanted a girlfriend and to settle down with but, despite going into the female-dominated profession of nursing from the age of 19 through to 22, I had very few girlfriends, although I had many friends that were girls.

Whilst I had romantic dreams, I could never have imagined having a relationship with anyone, and this feeling worsened as, being the youngest child of 4, I watched my siblings marry and have children. Before I met my wife, I already had 3 nephews, 4 nieces, and a grandniece. 

At school I was a bit of a loner, too – except amongst my few friends, who I would never describe even now as neurotypical. Outside of this tiny select bubble, no one else would really engage with me.

Forming our relationship

I first met my lovely wife on the bus to and from college, but romance was far from each other’s minds. Our relationship had its real origins after I put an advert in the ‘lonely hearts’ column of the local newspaper. Our first date didn’t happen, because I was on first aid duty with the St John Ambulance at a motor racing event and I had the migraine to end all migraines, spending the entire event in the back of an ambulance.

Luckily for me, my wife forgave this and invited me on a second date.

Once we both remembered our college experience, this gave us a starting point for conversation. The more relaxed I became, the more I spoke. I told her about my special interests, and Germaine seemed to enjoy hearing me talk about them.

She took the lead – something which was essential to us forming a relationship. I was very lucky to meet someone who was willing to take the lead with me and who genuinely seemed to appreciate me for me.

Developing our relationship

We met in August 1994 and got engaged on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. We were married in May 1996, nearly 25 years ago. Our children were born in 1997 and 1999 and it was from their developmental concerns that the prospect of autism began to arise.

Our children presented as being autistic from a very young age, but the dichotomy of their presentation, in that they presented their most challenging behaviours outside of the school environment, led to delays in diagnostic assessments and conflict with professionals. During that time, it was suggested that I may have Asperger’s Syndrome. Consequently, I was diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum in January 2007, just before my 42nd birthday.

Since my diagnosis it has been easier for me to understand why I might have certain difficulties with relationships and social situations more generally. It has also helped my wife to understand why I might not always respond to her in a way she might expect. Unlike some autistic men, I am hyper-emotional and frequently seek reassurance from my wife. 

Over the years, my wife has become more aware of what I need in our relationship. For example, sometimes I need quiet time, where I can go to a separate room and just be on my own. She understands that I require this time either to calm down from being anxious or to prevent becoming anxious. It is now part of our relationship and is accepted — this really helps to make me feel understood.

Expectations in relationships

The key challenges for me in a relationship are the demands or expectations to do things. The expectation to fail can be make me very anxious at times. Often, I over-think, or am unaware of what is expected of me at any given time. In order to cope, I may seek comfort in routine and my special interests, until expectations become less threatening and easier to manage.

To give a small and rather trivial example, during the first couple of years after our marriage I  ironing all of my clothes immediately after they have been washed and dried, regardless of whatever else had been planned for that evening. Although I have learned to adapt to changing routines, changing them or creating a new one remains anxiety-provoking.

I have a very strong wish to make my wife happy, feeling very guilty when I have failed directly or indirectly to understand her needs. It is a myth that most autistic people lack empathy, some of us have too much empathy— for me, I always want to appear caring and do the right thing but often struggle to pick up on cues. When I do realise, I feel extremely guilty for not noticing.

Since being diagnosed as autistic, our marriage has become stronger. I am now aware that, despite my best efforts, I am simply not wired to be intrinsically tuned in to the needs of others.

Becoming connected

My marriage has also encouraged me to do things that push me out of my comfort zone, such as meeting new people in a social context.  I have been very lucky to find my Germaine, who has been willing to take the lead, enter my world and be patient with me when I needed it. In return I hope I have been able to meet her needs and make her happy.

When I was younger, my idea of love was based on the over-romanticised representation of it in the media. On first dates, I would stifle the poor victim (I mean, young lady!) with flowers, chocolates and gifts, albeit in a purely innocent manner. However, this would commonly be misconstrued as my being old fashioned or over-needy.

My idea of love is that once you have been around someone for a significant time and have shared memories and experiences, your lives become intertwined and you become one, with a longing to stay connected. If you didn’t have that you would be totally lost because they are your other half, and a part of you.

My desire to please my wife has become even stronger as the years go by because of this growing connection. As a young man with only one previous relationship lasting more than a couple of dates, I never thought I would be fortunate enough to marry and have children; let alone stay married whilst so many marriages have failed.

My married life is not perfect, by any means, but despite many challenges, which could have broken many relationships, we progress by complimenting one another.

My wife understands me better than I know myself. She has been my lifeboat through some very stormy times, providing strength when life gets too difficult.

I can’t imagine my life without her.

If you require some support or training on autism and relationships, please contact David Crisp via his website www.wired4autism.co.uk.

Photo credit David Crisp

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