I have just found out today that the man I have been dating for 6 months is mildly autistic. I had no idea about this until just a few hours ago, so this realization left me shocked. I understand autism and that it is nothing like mental retardation, or anything to that extent. But still I feel like I am doing something morally wrong by continuing to date him. Should I end the relationship because it isn't fair to him, seeing as he may not fully understand his feelings or mine? Or should I continue the relationship because his autism is only mild? Please let me know what you think, I am completely torn and cannot figure out whether I am doing something horribly wrong or not.

I am not sure you really have a philosophical question here. You worry that it might be morally wrong for you to continue to date a man with autism because he "may not fully understand his feelings or mine." I suspect that you are laboring under a misunderstanding of the nature of "autism." An autistic individual is not necessarily incapable of introspecting or articulating his (or her) own feelings; nor is an autistic person necessarily unable to understand the feelings of others. What appears to be the case, according to the experts I have read, is that autistic individuals lack certain ways of coming to understand the feelings of others that non-autistic people find natural. Autistic individuals typically have trouble "reading" facial expressions and body language, for example. Nonetheless, many autistic people contrive other ways of learning about the psychological states of other people, ways that are often effective enough that these other people don't realize that they're interacting with an autistic person.

This, evidently, is the situation with you and your boyfriend. You had, apparently, a mutually satisfying relationship with him up until you discovered his autism -- this should tell you all that you need to know. If he seemed to enjoy your company, to appreciate you, and to value your relationship, then he probably did. If you treated him well in the past -- i.e., if you were attentive to and considerate of his feelings and wishes, then I don't see why you can't continue to do so in the future.

I am assuming that you are worried that, because he may not understand what he himself is feeling, or may not be able to express himself about emotional matters, that there is some special risk -- that is, a risk that goes beyond the risk inherent in any relationship -- of your hurting or inadvertantly exploiting him. I would hope that the two of you could talk about this explicitly -- you both might benefit from learning more about how each of you feels in various circumstances, and about how those feelings are apt to be expressed.

I would also urge you to educate yourself about autism, and to learn, as far as is possible, about the experience of individuals with autism. In that area, I'd recommend an article in the Aug. 20, 2007 issue of The New Yorker: "Parallel Play" written by Tim Page, a music critic and producer, who has Asperger's Syndrome. For a comprehensive scholarly study of autistic spectrum disorders, I suggest Autism: Explaining the Enigma by Uta Frith.

I would add to Louise's eloquent response one point: autism is the name for a spectrum of mental functioning and I suspect that if your boyfriend functions in a way that you did not notice anything remarkable, then he is on what they call the "high end" of the spectrum. You should discuss with him his history and his diagnosis. You may also wish to read some of the first-person accounts of people with autism, such as Temple Grandin's.

I'm sure that you won't be doing something "horribly wrong" by continuing the relationship, if you both can acknowledge and work with your boyfriend's cast of mind. And it's hardly an uncommon situation you are in (as I'm sure many partners of male academics in the mathematical sciences could ruefully tell you!). Though the situation will probably be harder for you than your boyfriend -- for there will be occasions when his lack of ready perception of your more subtle emotional needs will, almost inevitably, be hurtful (for that is as natural reaction for you as his failures will be for him), and be upsetting however much you can explain things away as due to his mild autism.

Can I add to your reading list (this is certainly one for both of you!)? Simon Baron-Cohen's The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain is very readable and very insightful by a leading researcher into autism-spectrum conditions.

And... as someone with a close relative who is on the high-functioning end of the autistic continuum, I'd like to add Tony Attwood's website and books to the list of recommendations. But I would agree emphatically with Louise: it's a mistake to think that autistic people are unaware of others' feelings, or incapable of empathy. And I really can't see that you'd be doing anything morally wrong at all by continuing the relationship. Having Asperger's or high-functioning autism doesn't make someone morally defective, and it doesn't mean they can't care deeply about other people. What Louise and Eddy and Peter have said is much more like it.

This isn't to say that autism spectrum conditions can't complicate relationships. But we could say the same things about many traits of personality and character that have nothing to do with autism. Few of us are perfect; people with autism just have a diagnosis.

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