The short answer is, yes. People with Asperger’s syndrome are as capable of close, affectionate and loving personal relationships as any other group of people. The problem of Asperger’s is one of communication, not the capacity to love.
I stress this point about the ability to love because it is the most frequently misunderstood aspect of Asperger’s. Since Asperger’s affects the way people understand emotions and express them, all too often it appears as though they lack empathy, emotional sensitivity and desire for intimacy. The word “Asperger’s” is virtually synonymous with characterizations like detachment, coldness, indifference, aloofness and insensitivity. Without a doubt, the greatest concern of adults with Asperger’s and those who care about them is whether they can truly love and express that love clearly and directly.
Why Intimacy is Possible
I firmly believe that people with Asperger’s are capable of intimacy. Of course, there are exceptions to this. No generalization covers all individuals or situations. Some people with Asperger’s don’t want to be close to anyone else just like some neurotypical people have no interest in intimate relationships.
Why then do I believe intimacy is possible? Because, as I stated above, Asperger’s is a problem of communication not of emotion or feeling. The capacity to feel is no less in those with Asperger’s than it is with people who are depressed or anxious or who have trouble focusing, are cerebral, analytical or logical, who are self-centered, who are solitary by nature or insecure and lack confidence, or for that matter who are happy and content. Asperger’s does not affect the ability to feel. It is a problem of expressing emotions, not having them.
I do want to clarify one thing before continuing. Asperger’s is another term for high functioning autism, and people with Asperger’s struggle with the same core problem as those with autism, the inability to relate in ordinary ways to people and situations and a preference for aloneness. The desire of those with autism and Asperger’s is for a relationship with themselves more so than with others. They have an inborn need for self-absorption rather than a connection with others. It is a problem of extreme aloneness not the absence of feelings or emotions.
How Intimacy Looks Like in Asperger’s
Do people with Asperger’s feel empathy for others? This is a question I am frequently asked. And it makes sense to be wondering since one of the characteristics of Asperger’s is difficulty recognizing how other people feel. But this is different from empathy. Having trouble reading feelings does not mean a person lacks caring and sensitivity towards others or is disinterested in their feelings.
The inclination to turn inward and the difficulty reading other people makes it harder for those with Asperger’s to show empathy. It is often not visible or at least recognizable but it is there. Empathy is no more absent in Asperger’s as it is any other group of people.
That said, it is also true that visible signs of intimacy are not as clear with an Asperger’s partner as they are with other groups of people. The typical Asperger’s male or female neglects how their spouse, partner or close friend feels, given their own ineffectiveness in noticing and responding to feelings. Communication about feelings and personal needs are not as frequent or as profound. Sexual intimacy may be lacking. Affection is often not as important, and time together may not be as necessary.
Instead, characteristics and habits like loyalty, responsibility, honesty and dedication take the place of emotional communication as the means to, and expression of, intimacy. These are often more important indications of intimacy to someone with Asperger’s.
Understanding What You Are Dealing With
People without Asperger’s who desire intimacy with someone who does are best served by recognizing a fact of life – close relationships can be achieved many different ways. What works for some doesn’t work for others. What you need in order to have a close, loving relationship is not necessarily what other people need. Yet, it can be possible to be intimate in spite of such differences.
That is not to say it’s always the case that two people with completely different needs are able to find intimacy with each other. You can choose to try to make it work with your Asperger’s partner or chose not to, and it may or it may not work. What helps the most, however, is understanding what you are dealing with.
Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Asperger’s psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. To ask a question or schedule an appointment, please call 415-922-1122.