Autism: Symptoms and Signs

Dr. Genevieve Marshall, BCBA, breaks down myths about autism, the early signs of autism, and what you can do to keep yourself informed on best practices. To learn more about ABA therapy and services available to you, visit

Myth: People with Autism Don’t Feel Love

by Katherine Johnson. M.S., BCBA
Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral

 “One of the most Googled questions neurotypicals ask about dating on the autism spectrum is, ‘Can autistic people fall in love?’” says Tasha Oswald, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, on her blog series Dating on the Autism Spectrum. “To be honest, this question always catches me off guard,” she says. “Of course, they can.”

For those of us who know and love people on the spectrum, the question may be: how is this myth still around? For one thing, widespread abelism in our culture means that media often depicts love as happening only between people who match some arbitrary standard of ability, beauty, intelligence, or “cool” that the majority of us don’t meet. This perception is compounded by the communication differences that are a defining feature of autism: autistic people either have difficulty communicating or communicate differently than neurotypicals, including expressions of love and attraction. Additionally, sensory differences can make physical expressions of love a little more complicated, requiring explicit communication that, again, may be a challenge. And of course, it shouldn’t be missed that in general, love can be an overwhelming and confusing part of the human condition, including, but not limited to, autistic humans.

Expressions of love

The fact that autistic people experience the full range of human emotions, including love, is indisputable.

A recent article in the journal Autism examined the lived experience of autistic mothers with children ages 5-15. Answering open-ended questions in a semi-structured interview, mothers spoke of their connections with their children using the words “love,” “bond,” and “complete adoration.” Reading their accounts highlights that in spite of the barriers many of them face, their emotional experiences are quite familiar. For instance, one expressed that she felt worried that her love for her second child wouldn’t be as strong as it was for her first – a nearly universal experience of parents of multiple children (Of course, in the end she was “pleasantly surprised” that this wasn’t the case.).

Austin John Smith is an autistic blogger who has shared his experience moving in with a girlfriend and getting used to living together before getting married. As he writes lovingly about their day-to-day lives, he describes the things they have in common, their differences, how they share their emotions, and how they support each other. Smith says, “I love her more than anything in this whole world, and I am 1000% willing to go through anything with her…”

But these are stories of autistic folks who can speak and express their feelings. What about those who are unable to communicate verbally?  Laura Cunningham has first-hand experience. The Pueblo, Colorado, woman adopted her son, Spencer, when he was 11. He’s 19 now. He’s on the spectrum and is non-verbal. But “he feels love,” his mom says. Not only does he hug her and hold her hand, but he also has his own way of expressing emotion, one example of which chokes her up. It was the beginning of the school year, and she was talking to him about school. Spencer was excited and did something he had never done before: he picked up his phone and found certain sections of songs that he wanted to play for her over and over. The meaningful lyrics were his way of expressing what he was feeling.


Although difficulty in love has been the subject of countless songs, stories, and myths since the beginning of time, autistic folks may have additional strains on their emotional connections. Sensory differences mean that the types of physical expressions of love that our society views as “typical” may not serve the same function for autistic people. For instance, the sensation of kissing may not spark the same warm feelings in an autistic partner that a neurotypical person would expect. Reading social cues, being flexible to accommodate a partner’s needs, and expressing their own emotional needs can all be challenging for autistics. For non-verbal autistic people, expressions of affection can be tragically misunderstood; one mother of a non-verbal autistic teenager named Sam related that “if a 17-year-old boy in his high school puts his arm around somebody, that’s considered fine. My son puts his arm around somebody, he gets an incident report.”

Support: Translating to the other side.

Autism expert Peter Gerhardt repeated a question posed to him by a friend on the spectrum: “if you neurotypicals have all the skills, why don’t you adapt for a while, damn it?”

So, what is society doing to support autistic people in their human quest for love? There are certainly more resources today than there were a decade ago, with support groups devoted to neurodiverse couples, books and resources for autistic people, online communities where neurodivergent people can support each other in their relationship challenges, and even a television show devoted to the topic, Love on the Spectrum.

Even so, more mechanisms for support are needed. Gerhardt says, “When I talk to professionals about the issue of sexuality and relationships on the autism spectrum, they often say, well, parents don’t want to deal with this, parents are afraid to deal with this. And then when I talk to parents about the issue, they say, well, professionals don’t want to deal with it. So, what ends up happening, is nobody deals with it, and it becomes, sort of this, you know, elephant in the living room that nobody is really dealing with.”

Debunking the myth

Society often sends the message that there is a “right way” to express love. People who love someone with autism and are loved by them know that affection can be expressed in a wide variety of ways. Still, that societal standard of what is “right” can lead autistic people to try to be someone they are not.  Anyone who has tried to be a “better version” of themselves for a partner knows how much energy it takes and that the relationships often fail. Masking is stressful and harmful. We can all help to destigmatize love among people with neurological differences and work to find more ways to support our autistic brothers and sisters in this integral part of the human experience.

Thankfully, there are a lot of beautiful success stories out there. Austin John Smith writes of his wife, “Despite all the good times we have had, there have been times where being on the spectrum has made things difficult for Annie and me. What can I say? I’m not perfect. I never will be. I just am who I am. But what I do each and every day with her is what I consider trying to do my best.” We should all be so lucky to have a partner with his perspective.

Myth: Kids with Autism Don’t Have Emotions


My cousin, a teenager with a broken heart, lay on my couch, crying. Her little brother, a mostly-non-verbal autistic four-year-old, wiped the tears off of her face and then tickled her to get her to laugh. 

A boy I worked with many years ago wanted desperately to get his baby brother to stop crying. He ran to get some scissors and told his mom, “Tag, Tag!” He, himself, was often irritated by tags in clothing, and, seeing his brother inconsolable, believed that maybe the tag in his onesie was the cause of his distress.    

A young autistic girl in a social skills group I ran years ago woke up earlier than her parents one day. She got out every glass, bottle, cup, and bowl in the house and arranged them in intricate patterns around the kitchen floor. When her mother got up, she looked up with pride and said, “Mommy, I made breakfast for you!” 

Autistic people have emotions. They love, they hurt, they empathize, and they care. So, where in the world did the myth about being “unemotional” come from?

The answer may be in the concept of alexithymia.

Alexithymia refers to the inability to recognize and express emotions. It’s not considered a clinical diagnosis or disorder but rather a condition or a personality trait, and has been studied since the 1970s. It occurs in about 10 to 13 percent of the general population but is more common among people on the spectrum, occurring in close to 50 percent of autistic folks—a high prevalence that may lead to people confusing the trait with autism itself.

If you or your child experiences alexithymia, then you know firsthand that those with this trait still have deep feeling—they just have difficulty naming their emotions and explaining their feelings. Some may not be able to distinguish between their emotions and the bodily sensations connected to them, and may have less imagination or ability to fantasize than those without alexithymia. As one non-autistic man with alexithymia explained it: “Obviously, I’ve got a vocabulary. I’ve got words for emotions. But whether they’re the right words for the right emotion is a different point altogether.…”

Although experts have been unable to pinpoint a cause, research suggests a genetic component, and that environmental factors such as trauma, health conditions, and socioeconomic factors may play a part.  A brain injury to the anterior insula can also cause alexithymia.

As parents and caregivers, we are always eager for more information on what we can do to help our children. Since autistic people are more likely to have alexithymia, it is important that family members, service providers, and the community at large understand the condition and the unfortunate risks that come with it. For instance, research suggests that people with alexithymia experience depression and anxiety significantly more often than those without the condition—problems that should be taken seriously and treated.

Anxiety and depression may be due to people not understanding their own feelings, and to the effects alexithymia can have on their personal relationships. For example, some people with the condition report that they know when other people are experiencing negative emotions, which can feel distressing. Not understanding what those emotions are or how to react to them can make the situation even worse. For these reasons, it’s important for others to recognize that what may just seem like a simple skill deficit can affect an individual’s quality of life and well-being far more than they are able to communicate. And of course, if the person also has autism, communication may be even more difficult.

When one team of researchers conducted a meta-analysis of studies on alexithymia and autism, they concluded that although the two things can co-occur, alexithymia is NOT a core feature of autism— although there isn’t yet a consensus. Regardless, since alexithymia appears to increase the risks for mental health challenges like anxiety and depression, and for unhealthy behaviors like greater alcohol consumption and lower levels of physical activity, healthcare providers consider it a trait that is important to identify. This way, alexithymic individuals—autistic and non-autistic alike—can be proactively supported in all of these areas.

The last few years have seen more and more autistic people raising their voices, sharing their experiences, and inviting others to hear their stories. As we listen, it’s important that we all work to dispel myths around autism, so that we can see people for who they truly are. Alexithymic autistic people have emotions, like everyone else. They just need support from loved ones in expressing and processing their feelings, and they need professionals to understand their unique needs so they can provide the best assistance. Likewise, non-alexithymic autistics deserve to be seen as themselves—and not bogged down in harmful myths about their lack of an emotional inner life. Once again, science arrives at a truth that harmonizes with what philosophers have long told us: regardless of what we look like—or behave like—on the outside, we are all humans, craving to connect emotionally with other humans.

For more on mental health and autism, listen to our recent podcast, “Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness.” Here, Roy Richard Grinker, a professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University, explores stigmas around various diagnoses, including autism.

Gaigg SB, Cornell AS, Bird G. The psychophysiological mechanisms of alexithymia in autism spectrum disorder. Autism. 2018 Feb;22(2):227-231. doi: 10.1177/1362361316667062. Epub 2016 Nov 2. PMID: 27811193.

Martino, G., Caputo, A., Vicario, C. M., Catalano, A., Schwarz, P., Quattropani, M. C. (2020).  The Relationship Between Alexithymia and Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review.  Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 20-26.  DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.02026.

Kinnaird, E., Steward, C., & Tchanturia, K. (2019).  Investigating alexithymia in autism: A systematic review and meta-analysis.  European Psychiatry, 55, 80-89.  doi: 10.1016/j.eurpsy.2018.09.004.