Society teaches people with autism from a young age that they are incapable of love, says Jessica Penwell Barnett, assistant professor of sexuality studies in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Barnett leads sexual education sessions for college students with autism. The stereotype of children with autism as cold, emotionless robots is painful, pervasive and entirely misleading, she says. “Some are very aware of this social representation — it’s like a cloud that hovers over all of their thinking about whether they can be in a relationship or whether another person is going to want to be with them.”
In fact, many people with autism both desire and sustain lasting relationships. “There’s no incompatibility with being on the spectrum and being in a romantic relationship, being in love, being part of a committed partnership,” Barnett says. Like Shore, an estimated 47 percent of adults with the condition share their home — and their life — with a romantic partner.
That doesn’t necessarily mean relationships are easy for people on the spectrum. Some features of autism, such as inflexibility, anxiety, sensory overload, difficulty communicating one’s own — and sensing others’ — personal needs and limits, would seem to lend themselves to relationship disasters. But that thinking is based almost entirely on conjecture. Scientists have been slow to study how and why people with autism form satisfying relationships.