Is High-Functioning Autism an Excuse in Your Relationship?

Man being mad at his girlfriendIf you are involved in a relationship with a person who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, officially known as high-functioning autism (HFA), you’re likely familiar with this scenario: You have a discussion with your partner. It turns oddly off course. You’re left confused. And then—slam!—you’re hit with something hurtful that takes the wind out of your sails.

This is different from other conversations that go off the rails. In this case, you have to struggle with the realization that your partner did not mean to hurt you. There was no intent to abuse, but you are reeling just the same.

So what do you do with the pain?

Do you deny it because you understand it was not inflicted intentionally? Or do you ignore it, hoping it will go away?

These are two time-honored methods used by many of the individuals who come to my office for counseling regarding this aspect of their relationships. The problem is that they backfire; by using them, you generally end up feeling more hurt. Then the ground is fertile for resentment and contempt, and—as John Gottman has repeatedly pointed out—once these emotions enter a relationship, it is very difficult to retrieve mutual respect and rebuild.

Besides, you already know these methods don’t work.

How do I know that you know? Because you likely don’t feel any relief.

The better solution is to acknowledge that although there was no intention to hurt you, your partner’s words DID hurt you. You can’t fairly deny the result of hurtful behavior simply because it was not undertaken with a goal of causing harm. If a tree limb falls on you as you walk through the woods, are you not permitted to acknowledge that your injuries hurt? The tree didn’t mean to hurt you, either.

If you are seeing a counselor, be certain that he or she understands the unique dynamics of being in a relationship in which one partner is on the autism spectrum. From an educational perspective, there are enormous implications that might make the difference between being helpful to a neurotypical partner in an HFA-neurotypical partnership and being not so helpful.

What may look like self-centeredness or even narcissism in your story is more likely to be your legitimate expression of not feeling heard by your HFA partner. While it may not be the result of conscious disregard, your experience of being lonely and hurt in your relationship is valid.

While it may not be the result of conscious disregard, your experience of being lonely and hurt in your relationship is valid.

If your partner is in counseling, or if you are in couples counseling together, it is equally important that your therapist have a specialized understanding of this unique relationship. High-functioning autism is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. However, understanding the impact of the neurological differences and the arc of possibility upon which they can play out in an intimate relationship is essential for fair couples work, and certainly for providing substantive assistance to the person with the diagnosis.

If you suspect that your partner is on the spectrum but has no diagnosis, please bear in mind that a professional assessment is essential; there is no online quiz or self-help book that will help you to make that diagnosis on your own.

Still, you know your situation best. If your partner is hurting you emotionally and you can’t seem to get him or her to understand you when you talk about your pain, as a starting point, consider couples work with a counselor who understands HFA. The couples work will be helpful regardless of whether HFA is a factor, and as is frequently the case with couples with whom I work, an assessment becomes part of our work together. Everyone wins. The person either has or does not have the diagnosis. It is a triaging tool in that it allows a couple to move forward knowing what they are dealing with in their interpersonal communication.

Please don’t try to swallow your pain. At the very least, recognize that if you feel hurt, it is because you ARE in pain, regardless of intent or circumstances. Your pain is real—and it deserves your attention.

Be kind to yourself.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • bev

    September 7th, 2015 at 10:44 AM

    If you have to use anything as an “excuse” in the relationship then you have to already know that there is something wrong. You need to be able to own up to what it is that you could be doing wrong and not looking for a way that will always justify it.

  • Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    September 7th, 2015 at 12:51 PM

    Hello, bev,
    I agree with you. Willingness to accept personal responsibility for one’s own actions and open-mindedness toward one’s partner create the ground in which authentic communication becomes possible.

  • Claudia

    September 7th, 2015 at 5:14 PM

    Is it common to be with someone who is an adult and yet who has never received the proper diagnosis? And what are the chances of receiving the proper diagnosis at this stage in their lives?

  • Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    September 7th, 2015 at 10:05 PM

    Hello, Claudia – Yes, it is common for adults on the spectrum not to have a diagnosis because high-functioning autism (Asperger Syndrome) is a relatively new clinical diagnosis. It is never too late to seek a diagnostic evaluation for an adult who is interested. It can be liberating and help make sense of many things that previously were confusing about a person’s life.

  • Rebecca

    September 8th, 2015 at 8:46 AM

    @Claudia,This same question I been wondering.But with no money for dr.Calls/Emails to various autism help groups say
    call dr.even though i have sad no insurance.

  • Teka

    September 8th, 2015 at 9:32 AM

    One of the most helpful things that I have come to realize is that I don’t need to downplay my own emotions. If something hurts me than why shouldn’t I feel like I can own up to that and tell them? If they don’t know that this is something that hurt me then how would they even know to try not to do it again?

  • Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    September 8th, 2015 at 11:07 AM

    Hello, Teka – you make an excellent point: it is in recognizing and honoring our own feelings and that we know who we are; telling someone else that you feel hurt by their actions is the beginning of a conversation. When undertaken in the spirit of mutual exploration, and without assigning blame or feeling guilt, such a conversation helps both individuals grow.

  • Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    September 8th, 2015 at 11:11 AM

    Hello, Rebecca – I can understand your frustration at being referred to physicians when you do not have insurance. I wonder whether you realize that some psychotherapists also offer diagnostic evaluations for HFA, and that some arrange their fees on a sliding scale. If you look in the therapist directory here on, search by location and clinical specialty to see whether there might be someone in your area who could be helpful to you. Best wishes!

  • Creed

    September 11th, 2015 at 7:22 AM

    When someone hurts your feelings, regardless of the reason why it has happened, there is still the intent that is there behind it and they have to be called out on it. You have to be able and willing to play well with others even when you don’t want to. That’s kind of how society works.

  • Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    September 11th, 2015 at 9:11 AM

    Hello, Creed,
    I understand what you mean about setting clear boundaries so that another person understands what is hurtful to you. However, when there is a diagnosis of high-functioning autism, or the traits/symptoms of it, this is exactly where the difficulty lies: the person can hurt you without intending to do so by virtue of the nature of this particular diagnosis. It is still fair, and important, to have a conversation about the fact that the effect of his/her behavior was hurtful to you, but it is not always true that there was an intent to hurt. This can become a very challenging and difficult experience for the neurotypical partner of someone on the spectrum. I often see the the equivalent of continuous post traumatic stress syndrome in my clients who are in this situation.

  • Christa

    September 11th, 2015 at 7:14 PM

    So, when are we gonna have one of these about how you all use being neurotypical as an excuse

  • Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    September 11th, 2015 at 7:58 PM

    Hello, Christa – you ask a fair question! It is a topic well worth pursuing. I do not believe anything is an excuse, but sometimes there are reasons that are worthy of exploration.

  • Me

    September 25th, 2017 at 1:28 PM

    Christa- When neurotypicals start acting like jerks.

  • Rich

    April 5th, 2020 at 11:23 AM

    Funny, but sarcasm and cutting/biting humor are among the most recognizable signs of contempt. While I acknowledge we Aspies can act like jerks way too often, Aspies don’t have a monopoly on acting like jerks. NTs are WELL represented in the jerk category. I know your comment was tongue-in-cheek, but it also showed the type of contempt that this post is trying to mitigate.

  • Danielle

    October 29th, 2017 at 3:29 PM

    Can someone please tell me why I would choose this excruciating pain
    This is all new to me n has turned my world upside down
    I have read,reached out via email to support groups
    And experienced immense pain and confusion as the result of dating someone I truly loved who recently disclosed his diagnosis of HFA
    I Believed he knew all along
    But at the very end seeing the end of our relationship n my pain he reluctantly disclosed
    I am so stuck,bitter,confused and I only blame myself for going back repeatedly for this same roller coaster
    We are not married
    This has been relatively a short long distance relationship
    Meeting up only weekly due to distance n schedule demands
    Not even a whole year
    What is so deeply broken and dysfunctional in myself that I would pursue this as he continually slams the door shut
    Just make it go away …this need to fix
    Receive love n be acknowledged
    I am only seeing this one sided ….as to
    The sickness n me to scarifice all
    I have knowing the outcome

    Someone please kick
    Some sense into
    This has been going downwards at my expense
    Yet I obsess n Feel lost n abandoned by him
    Anyone else have this experience ?
    Suggestions ?
    Miracle cures ?
    Voodoo spells ?
    I will do anything at this point to change my direction and feelings on this
    Thank you

  • jix

    December 19th, 2018 at 5:06 PM

    i feel you exactly, you are not crazy. what you wrote above looks like i wrote it myself. please let me know if you ever get answers.

  • Julie

    February 27th, 2020 at 2:47 AM

    It’s like you looked into my heart and brain and described how I feel as well. It’s sad anyway you look at it. My guy is the most wonderful , sweetest , cruelest, hurtful, innocent, stupidest, loving man I have ever met. I have had the wing knocked out of my so many time by him. I know he wants only the best for me all the while he is ripping my world apart,

  • Kate

    July 21st, 2023 at 4:16 PM

    Every word you said describes my situation to a T. I feel crazy and guilty and angry all at the same time.

  • Susan

    January 30th, 2018 at 8:31 PM

    I am a psychologist married 34 years to a physician with undiagnosed HFA. As you say in your article the clinical diagnosis is rather recent. It took me many years to understand what was going on. We went to many therapists but my husband was so adept at smoke screens, dodging, and putting the spotlight back on me that I ended up being befuddled as were most of the therapists. When I became very ill in 2014 he became very abusive. My doctor was alarmed and advised me to leave “before something really bad happened” to me. As soon as I was well enough I moved out. Our divorce was final 7 months ago. I am 69.

  • Sarah Swenson

    January 31st, 2018 at 1:16 PM

    Hello, Susan – I send you my best wishes as you heal. I know how difficult this transition is. Be kind to yourself.

  • Hailey

    March 5th, 2018 at 10:39 PM

    This is an old post so I understand if there is no response…. How do I tell the difference between typical “male brain” an Aspbergers?

  • Sarah Swenson

    March 6th, 2018 at 10:05 AM

    Hello, Hailey – Asperger’s/autistic behavior can be differentiated from the neurotypical generally along the lines of intention. However, it is difficult to know the intentions of another person without asking, and individuals on the autisim spectrum may have difficulty answering such questions. My suggestion is to consult with a mental health professional for some education about what autism is and what it is not. I hope this is helpful. Best wishes to you.

  • Lindsay

    March 21st, 2018 at 3:03 AM

    At 41, I just got diagnosed with an ASD. I’m in tears better understanding my life & struggles with relationships. To know I’ve hurt so many people, lost birth family, & fully dependant upon my caregiver/partner. As a aspie, I take complete blame. It’s physically illnesses that keep me from being more independent. After what I’ve read on here, I think it’s best I leave to “free” my partner. But it leaving equals me homeless or in state nursing facility. Has anyone had a good relationship with an ASD partner? Do I need to “stick with my own kind”?

  • Nora

    April 13th, 2018 at 6:24 PM

    I have been dating long distance relationship my boyfriend for almost 9 months and there has been many difficulties in our relationship almost 2 months ago he got diagnosed I really love him but his lack of empathy and understanding gets to me and I fear if I stay with him, I’ll end up with hatred in my heart and the love I have for him would leave. I’ve accepted his diagnosis but how do you get someone who hates therapists to go to one?
    The blame has always been placed on me over our arguments ect and I have another question why do people who has AS get angry when we NTs express ourselves over their lack of empathy? I don’t feel we judge them, I think we just need to be heard out more.
    I would understand if no one replies
    Thank you,

  • JJ

    August 25th, 2018 at 6:07 AM

    I’m a woman diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and I have empathy. It’s a common myth that we don’t have empathy, and I’ve read it in this thread. I recently ended a relationship with an emotionally abusive man who claimed to have Asperger Syndrome. While I understand many of us on the “high functioning” area of the spectrum are met with doubts regarding our diagnosis, I truly believe this man was using the label as an excuse to feel sorry for him, so he could get away with the abuse. The complete lack of remorse for some of the things he did, seemed more psychopathic to me. Looking back, he told me that he had always dreamed of having an Aspie girlfriend, and eventually, wife. He seemed thrilled to have met me. Yet, any typical autistic trait that I’d show, such as the tendency to take things literally, he’d put down. He didn’t really show the typical traits, and actually seemed NT (maybe with a PD?) at times. This has been very difficult. It’s not the first time I’ve tried to leave and failed.

  • ASD Mom

    September 28th, 2018 at 2:11 PM

    Honey, I am so sorry!

    With all due respect to the author of this article no one should accept abuse just because someone else has a disability.

    The author of this article has, unintentionally, armed men like your boyfriend with a potential weapon and way to abuse others with impunity and while also tarnishing the image of people who truly do have ASD.

    I have a son with ASD and he is the most wonderful and empathetic person I know. If he hurt someone he would feel terrible and do everything in his power not to do that again. So I agree with you, ASD doesn’t mean no empathy.

    That said, one doesn’t even need empathy to understand how not to hurt someone the same way repeatedly so even if it were true that someone lacked empathy (which I do not believe is the case for anyone with only ASD, but is true of sociopaths and comorbidity isn’t impossible, plus sociopaths are adept at fooling professionals.).

    My point is, regardless of empathy once someone learns that x behavior causes y outcome it’s easy to NOT do again.

    The only reason one would continue in this manner is if they were a sociopath and enjoy hurting others.

    I sincerely hope you have escaped the dangerous person that you were with. Much hope and solidarity! ❤️

    I suggest you read “Why does he do that?” By Lundy Bancroft.

  • Marie

    February 1st, 2019 at 11:39 AM

    I have had a 3 year relationship with a female partner with HFA. She is incredibly high functioning, kind, loving, and supportive. However, I am just beginning to admit that I feel like a mother rather than an equal partner. I am trying to get back the feeling of respect for her that I have lost. I think my compassion for her disability has turned into pity. I need to decide if I can live with her limitations – lack of desire social interaction w/ friends or groups, fear of travel, lack of desire to make money. I appreciate that you support the NT partner owning their feelings, because I have been rationalizing mine while getting more and more resentful. I hope that Gottman is wrong, that we can get the mutual respect back. Thoughts?

  • JSM

    May 18th, 2020 at 2:26 PM

    Hi Marie,
    It seems you feel how I believe my wife must feel. I would suggest having a conversation about it and let her know how her choices make you feel. Be as specific as possible. To make it easier on her, give a recommendation on what to do, I know I myself appreciate those, which my wife hates doing now.

  • Rose

    May 14th, 2019 at 7:11 PM

    I have or this may be past tense after this post-a relationship with a 47 year old man with ASD. I was attracted to how he had knowledge in everything and had the facts to anything. I realized after a while he liked doing things he was familiar with, and that included things he did with ex girlfriends. Long story short-It seems our arguments are worse than ever, and my boyfriend will hang on one word in the argument and stay there-then we never resolve. It’ like fighting with a 10 year old. He gets very verbal. Help!

  • JSM

    May 18th, 2020 at 2:11 PM

    Hi Rose,
    Based off of my experiences when arguing with my wife, I can get stuck on a word when arguing. For me its because the word is incorrect or inaccurate in MY opinion. With counseling, I have learned to speak up at these moments so we can clarify and move on. Before I learned this, my wife and I would NEVER come to a resolution and I would absolutely dread the moment when she would want to argue.

  • David

    November 16th, 2019 at 1:47 PM

    On a trip I met an amazing scientist, whom I have known for some time, is an HFA. She is very open speaking about how both her and her husband are HFA and their two sons are also on the spectrum in a more severe way. She suggested to me that many dedicated scientists are HFA which is one of the strengths of their scientific curiosity. Now getting back home I usually quickly get into a spat with the relatively firey latin wife who will push and push until the nagging just gets to me and I will make a comment or try to slip away into something else. I never raise my voice to her and try to have a reasonable conversation but she will then just cut it off after some high volume monologue and berating me for my lack of caring, understanding and just about everything else. There is no real conversation that can be had, I just need to take it, she cools off and it kind of goes away until the next time she is upset which is frequently. It is unpleasant for both of us but we have kids and I actually do love her for what is her essential kind nature and she loves me but there is a disconnect here.
    I am actually the social one but I do not want to be social all the time and it is essential for me to be alone, often. She has self-confidence issues where I am very confident and it seems to drive her crazy. Not sure what I can do about it though and she does not want to seem to have analytical discussions that are very deep or go on too long so as far as I am concerned, I am left as the one needing to figure this out and I do not find it very pleasant.
    So now, I am really wondering if maybe I am not HFA. I may try to see a specialist but I am not in a place where I can find a doctor that can speak English natively so it may be an issue as I can speak the other language in a crude functional way that feels artificial for me and I could not imagine anyone being able to distinguish poor language skills from a real diagnosis.
    Well, thanks for the article and the comments here, they do help me. I would really like an article also from the HFA side and not just the partner dealing with the HFA partner.

  • JSM

    May 18th, 2020 at 2:01 PM

    I was diagnosed in my late 30’s with HFA and I would suggest going. In my opinion, its more about how you act than what you say. Just answer question to the best of your ability, or maybe even seek out an English speaker that would be willing to conduct a video session.

  • becky

    February 2nd, 2021 at 10:09 AM

    God, thank you for this. I’ve been feeling exttemely guilty for a long time now because I’ve started defining how my (long distance) partner treats me as abuse, but quietly worried that this is ableist of me (even though much more than likely I had undiagnosed autism myself, as well as adhd.) My partner gets ridiculously upset at me if I ever mishear him or don’t understand what he’s saying, because of previous negative associations with other people leading him to believe I was simply ignoring him. He will get upset and ghost me for days or refuse to talk to me other than to tell me he never wants to see me again, only to call me a few days later crying and apologising (spoiler: it happens again like, a week later.) I’m often left blaming myself for the crime of mishearing him, or for misspeaking, or whatever it is he’s upset with me the next time. He’s been extremely unkind to me recently and whilst I know that really he doesn’t see the full scope of how it affects me, it still hurts so badly. The problemis as well that he only acts like this to me. If any of our friends mishear he gently reiterates until they’ve got it. He’s been increasingly kinder to our friends lately, and increasingly less kind to me. I don’t understand if this is his way of trying to get back at me for something he won’t even tell me about, but I’m so tired of it.
    He was so kind when we first met. So loving. He would call me literal sunlight and tell me he wants to spend his life with me. I don’t understand where that’s gone.

  • Maria

    July 8th, 2021 at 8:46 PM

    0I found out something was awry with my relationship with my husband early on. We always had difficulty conversing. When I tried to explain to therapists that he was HFA, they cautioned me not to put labels on such a nice man. They dismissed my pleas as me being nuts. My exhusband said I was nuts too. I felt alone and betrayed. My husband left me because he said it was impossible to talk to me. He wanted someone smarter and not so emotionally messy and more rational (I work in finance and am pretty sharp) I think if the therapists had understood our dynamic, we would have had better success in getting help in learning how to understand each other rather than continue to grow in resentment. Maybe my husband wouldn’t of walked out. Two years later I am in a “typical” relationship. It’s amazing how resilient my partner is and how we value and honor emotion. I still love my exhusband; he can be witty, a good person and very bright. I am sad that he would not entertain the opportunity to work on our “impossible” communication styles. Very black and white thinking. No one is perfect. If you suspect HFA, get a great therapist and give it your best!

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