Autistic women discuss meaningful relationships

Four autistic women are speaking at the forthcoming National Autistic Society Women and Girls conference in a panel discussion exploring the question - 'What is key to forming meaningful relationships?' The women share their thoughts on the topic in this article, exploring different types of relationships, from friendships to partners, and highlighting the importance of honesty, trust and shared interests in creating meaningful relationships.

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Authors: Lana Grant, Robyn Steward, Ella Tabb, Rachel Townson

What is key to forming meaningful relationships?

Rachel Townson
For me, a meaningful relationship is to having someone in my life that is willing to accept me as myself - the good the bad and the ugly. I am fortunate to have a group of people who accept me for who I am, but who also challenge me cognitively and emotionally. This helps to remove any internal doubts I may have that the relationships are token gestures. 
I’ve had a number of toxic relationships with other people in the past. If I was to give my younger self any advice it would be to listen to my “gut”, and to observe the behaviour of others. In the past I’ve made friends with someone toxic for me, and I ignored my “gut” and other signs such as her telling me others had abandoned her in the past. I felt sorry for the person and ended up feeling like their slave where I masked and abandoned my own “self” to fit in with their expectations of me. I will not be down this path again.
Ella Tabb
For me a meaningful relationship is one in which there is trust, shared enjoyment and support. I think the key to forming meaningful relationships lies in three areas. 
Firstly, shared special interests. Special interests are important to most people on the autistic spectrum. When you find someone with similar interests you always have something to talk about. This can lead to other, potentially more personal, areas of discussion.
Secondly, starting slowly. This can be hard for autistic people as we tend to be very direct, but in my experience, building rapport slowly leads to stronger, more meaningful relationships. Starting with small talk helps people to become comfortable talking about the bigger stuff.
Thirdly, you need to be honest and open. I’m a massive over-sharer and I’ve noticed that this helps other people to feel more comfortable sharing their personal experiences with me. My openness helps other people to feel that I am honest and not judgemental. This helps them to feel safe opening up to me. 
Lana Grant
In my experience it can be difficult for anyone to form meaningful relationships, whether they are autistic or neurotypical. The key word is “meaningful”. Many people judge their success in relationships with how many friends they have or how exciting the relationship is. As I have become older I have realised that it's the quality of relationships that matter. Those qualities are loyalty, honesty, trust and not being judgmental.
There is the historical opinion that autistic people do not want friendships. That they are happy in their own world. The more we research the more we realise that this is not the case for everyone. Many autistics want relationships but are unsure how to go about making them and keeping them.
The key to a meaningful relationship is honesty. I may not shower my partner with physical affection all of the time, but I love him and I show that in the things I do that let him know I'm thinking of him, for example buying his favourite foods etc. I'm honest about my feelings with him and because of that there are no expectations on either side. 
Robyn Steward
Two questions to consider:
what kind of relationship do you want?
what is meaningful to you?
As late as my early 20’s I had no idea that I would have people to go to gigs with who could help be my eyes, and share the experience with me instead of me feeling like a burden. For me these friendships are very meaningful. 
Some autistic people do not want friends, and that should be respected. However do make the effort to find out if it is because they have been bullied and do not have any lived experiences of friendships, and if so this could be something addressed.
Some people may only be able to cope with one friend at a time, and others may need help in understanding that they can have more than one friend. Some people relish the opportunity to meet other autistic people, but for others it’s not very meaningful.
So for me the key to meaningful relationships is:
understanding what is meaningful to the person, and important to them
understanding what shape/type of relationship they want and do not want – whether it’s a friend, someone to go to gigs and events with, a date or a parent.
Date added: 2 November 2017


Sat, 02/11/2019 - 10:04

I married young and had my daughter who is now 11. I was very trusting and hadn't yet found out that people have agendas that I can't perceive. I realised I was easy to take advantage of in my late 20s. In friendships, I'd give organs if they said they need of it. My own family knew this - I'd give it near full wages to my Mother and left myself with nothing, but she's my mum and I can trust her? Apparently not. 

In sexual relationships I've fail to let people past the barrier because of childhood physical abuse. Until my son was born in 2011 I was convinced men don't have feelings, just ulterior motives. It's been a struggle to get past. So for a long time after splitting with my Sons partner I wouldn't entertain men. I couldn't be near and didn't want attention.

Then I met someone who seemed kind and loving, with a genuine concern for my wellbeing. He seemed to listen. I have to admit I hadn't felt comfortable letting someone inside my head so people only got the happy Tasha. It's a mask that slips and I can't help my fit of rage. I try to walk away and regularly cut people off. Due to his profession he has a certain attitude that all things can be got over - like "myth" of depression. Yet he knows I've attempted suicide 3 times this year. I'm trying hard to stop feeling like that every time we argue. Sometimes even discussions lead to a deep depression and feelings of worthlessness.

I find myself picking out specific words when he talk to me. And it's always negative and I begin to obsess - the ruminations turn to paranoia and instead of trying to confront it, I'll run from it. Better to cut off the offending person and never talk to them again. I haven't mastered conflict resolution. 

I tried very hard to explain that I hear (barely because I'm deaf in one ear) and Notice things he doesn't while missing others completely. My perception of life is so different to his. He sees with clear eyes but for me it's like looking through a diamond. I see pieces of information that's hard to put together and I can focus intently on that one thing. That's not to say I can't multitask while under whatever hypnotic task I've taken up. 

I don't know how to move forward or where to go. My Doctor scores my AQ10 test 8/10 although I gave myself 7 because of my deafness but I have the nose of a hound. No one else smells it but I can. 

Mon, 04/11/2019 - 14:18

Hi Natasha

Thank you for your comment. If you would like some information and advice about anything you discussed in your comment, then we would suggest contacting the Autism Helpline, as Network Autism is a forum for professionals to share good practice.

You can contact the Helpline at:

Alternatively please take a look at the Community which is a forum for autistic people and their families: 



Louisa Radice

Thu, 18/06/2020 - 12:18

My situation is that I am a 45-year-old woman with Asperger syndrome, diagnosed in 2001. When I was originally diagnosed I initially hoped that my problems with forming relationships would finally be taken seriously and not just fobbed off with the same old same old “relationships come along when you least expect it”, “you’re too young to be worrying about having a boyfriend”, “relationships are no big deal”, “just join a club” etc. Unfortunately fobbed off is precisely what happened, with the upshot that I have had only one relationship in my entire life, between the ages of 37 and 40. The only explanation I’ve had to my lack of relationship success (other than that I’m “too intelligent”(??)) is that I’m unable to read the nonverbal signals that indicate someone is interested in me, so I don’t respond accordingly. This does however beg the question as to why other women with Asperger’s are not affected to the same extent. For my part, I suspect my inability to form close female friendships has left me with no-one to confide in. More recently I came across a description of demisexuality which I realised fitted me down to a T. Could relationship counselling help me to understand why I am the way I am?