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

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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6 Responses

  1. I completely agree that memorized lists are hollow and meaningless. I liked what you said about the importance of being known being important for everyone in love. That is so true. I’m a NT so I’m not fluent in the AS language. But in my experience with my AS husband it seems important to him that he is known and accepted, but it’s up to me to figure him out. He can’t or won’t explain himself and gets very angry and impatient if I ask him to. I think he feels very hurt that I don’t just “get” him. I think he feels deeply betrayed and even hates me as if I were refusing to try at all. He becomes very hostile about it. Also, he doesn’t “get” me. And if I try to explain he gets very angry and impatient because when I explain myself, my greatest value second to my spirituality is my deep connection to my loved ones. He hears that he isn’t doing his part to connect with me and he becomes very defensive and angry. He will blame me for not inspiring him. He’ll tell me it’s because I’m a bitch and I’m always harping at him. (This has some truth to it..I don’t know another way to respond to his daily habits of saying one thing and doing another, dropping the ball on responsibilities, forgetting important things but refusing to write them down, not telling me things that I need to know etc etc etc. Our life is in constant chaos so he gets a lot of negative feedback). Or he’ll say that I don’t do my part, even when I’m the one who wanted to talk and try to understand each other. He’ll say whatever mean thing he can think of to get me to stop talking and then he’ll retreat. I know all of this is a defense mechanism, but I don’t know what his values really are. I don’t know if he’s open to learning about me because he becomes so defensive when I bring it up. Also, it’s always a bad time for him to talk. He really hates talking about emotions or our relationship anytime. Sometimes he’ll agree to try harder but i don’t know what he’s referring to exactly. And then it doesn’t appear that he’s trying harder at anything.It appears he’s trying to forget about the conversation and then he does. Do you have any insight on how I can work with him to apply your good advice on trying to understand one another?

    1. I am so sorry. Please join my page The Amazing Adventures of AspieGurl VS An NT World or friend me at Wendy Katz Au. I would like to talk to you further!

  2. One more thing, my husband has an Asperger’s diagnosis. Since he hasn’t been able to articulate his reality I’ve been researching Asperger’s. But if I ask him if he has this trait or that trait, he gets very angry and says that I don’t understand him at all and that I’m way off base. He makes comments that he shouldn’t have to explain things that are obvious. He seems proud of his Asperger’s identity so I think he understands that he thinks differently than I do, but he doesn’t seem to want to help me understand him. He says that he understands me just fine, but we just don’t agree. I don’t know if that’s true or not.

    1. I may be more lightly Asperger than your husband, but I still may have some insight that could be useful to you. What information would you find to be useful? I am able to communicate with Aspie Spectrum and NT people, and to translate. I used to do this for my Aspie cousin.

      1. Hello, Thank you so much for reaching out to me. Right now I’m focusing on self care and I’m purposely choosing not to resolve difficult conflicts. Just accepting and dealing. In the future I may be in a place where I have more strength to try to connect with my husband again and I will definitely appreciate your help. 😊

      2. This is fascinating to me, and sad. I am hearing the same things from my now-ex partner. She describes my behavior the way the husband in this post is described, and it’s very upsetting to me that I made her so unhappy. I am not officially diagnosed, just self diagnosed from available tests, and that much only 24 hours ago. I’m reading, studying, trying to learn as much as I can as fast as I can, but….ugh. Too late. Too late.

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