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Managing emotions and relationships with autism

Autistic people have the same need for connection and relationships as anyone else. However, if you or your partner are autistic, developing and maintaining your relationship might need different skills [1, 2].

Autistic traits affect people in different ways. Some people might prefer routine. They might have differences in how they think about or do things, which can include a deep focus on a topic or interest. Autistic people are often active learners, are drawn to patterns and typically have an enhanced or reduced experience of taste, touch, sight, sound, or smell [3].

As an autistic person, you might struggle to recognise someone's emotional state, but have very good empathy once you recognise it. You might also need to manage differences in sensory experience or mental processing. For example, using earplugs at a gig if the music is painfully loud, or taking a break in a calming environment to help process an exciting experience [2, 4].

How do autistic people regulate their emotions?

Regulating emotions is key to building successful relationships. Emotions are closely tied to how we think and feel, and how we manage them can affect how we behave. Emotions go up and down throughout the day. Learning to effectively recognise and regulate them can help us act in line with our values within a relationship [5, 6].

Autistic people often focus on balancing over- and under-stimulation to regulate their emotions by stimming. Stimming is stimulating your brain through a repetitive movement or vocalisation, such as hand flapping or humming. Everyone engages in stimming sometimes, but it is more common in autistic people, and may be more noticeable [7].

During social interactions, autistic people may use a strategy called masking, to compensate for or hide autistic characteristics such as stimming. They might mask to avoid discrimination, smooth social interactions, or succeed in school or their job. Although these goals might be met, masking can have detrimental effects on relationships. It can cause a loss of identity, exhaustion, and mental health struggles, including suicidal thoughts [8].

This may be because the purpose of masking is to avoid a threat: that of being excluded or lonely. Spending a lot of time avoiding threat can cause high levels of stress, possibly leading to burnout [9]. You can read more about stress and burnout in Stress, burnout and relationships.

While stimming and masking can be useful in regulating emotions, and helpful for building relationships, they can also be harmful. But there are skills that you can use to help apply them effectively [10].

Mindful stimming and masking

Mindfulness is noticing sensations inside and outside your body. It involves focusing and moving your attention around to explore things through your senses. Mindfulness can help you recognise and address your feelings and how others are feeling, which can improve your relationships and your wellbeing. It can help you become more aware of stimming or masking and give you more control over which stimming method to use depending on the situation. Ultimately, mindfulness can help you recognise and respond in the most helpful way when you are over- or under-stimulated [11, 12].

How to practice mindfulness

The NHS recommends practicing mindfulness in your daily life: noticing sensations as you brush your teeth or the sounds of the world as you walk to work. You can also try activities that focus on mindfulness like yoga, tai chi, or meditation. Being led by someone in a practice can help you hone your skills in being mindful [13, 14, 15].

Ideas for practicing mindful stimming

Below are some mindful stimming ideas. Although we have split them into calming and alerting, different things will suit different people.  It can be useful to try some and make your own list of things that suit you [16].

Calming activities
Alerting activities


Sucking a lolly or sweet

Sucking a yoghurt or thick milkshake through a straw

Walking with a backpack on

Press-ups or chair press-ups

Chill-out time before a stressful activity

Rearranging furniture

Engaging in heavy manual tasks around the garden e.g. digging


Wearing a heavy coat or blanket over the shoulders

Creating a sensory corner to go to at any time you want

Sitting, leaning, or rolling on a gym ball

Playing with sensory toys

Doing a five-minute meditation or a 10-minute yoga video

Trying a progressive muscle relaxation exercise [17]


Chewing gum

Drinking a hot or cold drink like a tea or a juice

Squeezing a stress ball or fiddling with a fidget toy

Knitting or crocheting

Short bursts of fast movement like jogging, jumping, dancing

Clapping activities

Making faces

Stamping your feet

Eating spicy or crunchy food

Smelling or tasting citrus

Sucking sour sweets

Being playful

Applying lip balm

Singing or playing an instrument

Taking notes

Drawing something 

Top tip

Try watching the Netflix show Atypical. It’s a coming-of-age story about an autistic person who leaves home for university, experiencing his first relationship and best friend. Relating to someone onscreen can be comforting and empowering.

Learn more about autism and relationships see these free videos from the NHS.


If you want to know more about any more about the things we’ve mentioned in this article, we’ve included a list of references below:

[1] Strunz, S. Schermuck, C. Ballerstein, S. Ahlers, C.J. Dziobek, I. Roepke, S. (2016). Romantic Relationships and Relationship Satisfaction Among Adults With Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73 (1), 113-125.

[2] He, J.L., Williams, Z.J., Harris, A. et al. (2023) A working taxonomy for describing the sensory differences of autism. Molecular Autism 14, (15).

[3] National Autistic Society (2023). What is Autism? What is autism

[4] Warrier, V., Toro, R., Chakrabarti, B. et al. (2018) Genome-wide analyses of self-reported empathy: correlations with autism, schizophrenia, and anorexia nervosa. Translational Psychiatry 8, 35.

[5] Guy-Evans, Simply Psychology. (2023, 12). Do You Know How To Manage Your Emotions And Why It Matters? Emotional Regulation: Learn Skills To Manage Your Emotions (

[6] Barlow. A, Ewing. J, Janssens. A & Blake. S. (2018). The Shakleton Relationships project. Shackelton_Relationships_Report_2018_8pp_v5.pdf (

[7] Gal, E., Dyck, M. J., & Passmore, A. (2002). Sensory differences and stereotyped movements in children with autism. Behaviour Change, 19(4), 207-219.

[8] Hull, L. Lai, M. Baron-Cohen, S. Allison, C. Smith P. Petrides, K. Mandy, W. (2020). Gender differences in self-reported camouflaging in autistic and nonautistic adults. Autism, Vol. 24(2) 352–363. Gender differences in self-reported camouflaging in autistic and non-autistic adults - Laura Hull, Meng-Chuan Lai, Simon Baron-Cohen, Carrie Allison, Paula Smith, KV Petrides, William Mandy, 2020 (

[9] Gilbert, P. (2009). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 15(3), 199-208. doi:10.1192/apt.bp.107.005264

[10] Frank, D.W. Dewitt, M. Hudgens-Haney, M. Scheaffer, D.J. Ball, B.H. Schwarz, N.F. Husseina, A.A. Smart, L.M. Sabatinelli, D. (2014). Emotion regulation: Quantitative meta-analysis of functional activation and deactivation. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 45, 202-211.

[11] Kappen, G., Karremans, J.C., Burk, W.J. et al. (2018) On the Association Between Mindfulness and Romantic Relationship Satisfaction: the Role of Partner Acceptance. Mindfulness 9, 1543–1556. On the Association Between Mindfulness and Romantic Relationship Satisfaction: the Role of Partner Acceptance | Mindfulness (

[12] Mindfulness for Autism Jessie Poquérusse1 & Francesco Pagnini1,2 & Ellen J. Langer1 # Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020 P 80 41252_2020_180_Article 1..8 (

[13] Linehan, M. (2014) DBT Skills Training Manual (2nd). Guilford Press.  

[14] Levin, M. Hayes, S. C. (2011). Mindfulness and Acceptance: The Perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Understanding and Applying the New Therapies. John Wiley & Sons.

[15] NHS. (2022, 09, 14). Mindfulness. NHS.UK. Mindfulness - NHS (

[16] Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust. (2023). Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder Group.

[17] Hamilton Health Sciences. (2017, 01, 19). How to reduce stress with progressive muscle relaxation. Youtube. We Know Why We Go | Bulk™ (

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