Greetings. I’m Cody, I’m autistic, I have a girlfriend, and I love her.
Yeah. I hear you saying it right now. There are autistics who actually want friendships? Autistics can actually feel love for others? Autistics can be in romantic relationships?
And to answer those questions: Yes, yes, and oh so definitely yes.
On one hand, it amazes me that these tropes continue to persist in the face of all manner of evidence to the contrary. And yet, on the other hand, it really shouldn’t amaze me.
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen some sort of human-interest story or fundraising film about autism in which a parent rambles about how their once talkative kid will no longer say “I love you”— or how their child doesn’t even seem to show affection at all. And I don’t know how many times I’ve seen, in these same sorts of films, all manner of evidence from the kids in question that they’re quite concerned about their parents— with the parents never even noticing these overtures.
And I’m definitely not the only one. Amanda Baggs, a fellow autistic blogger, noticed this as well:
An interesting aspect of this in action was the “Autism Every Day” video in fact. I showed the video to the people at the MIT Media Lab recently, but instead of watching it straight through, we stopped it and focused on the social behavior of the children in the video, and the parents in the video. The interesting part to me was that the social behavior of the children was not only often invisible to their parents, but often invisible to the people who worked at the Media Lab as well. I had to point out to them things like one child speaking to her mother and inquiring about her mother’s emotional state, another child’s affection, another child looking up at his mother’s face to gauge her feelings.
And that, I think, really cuts to the crux of these tropes. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if there are indeed some autistics out there who really don’t want friends, who really aren’t interested at all in relationships, most of what I’ve found, at least based on my experiences in the online autistic community (and note the word community there!) is quite the opposite.
It’s just that we don’t necessarily show these feelings in a way that neurotypicals can quickly comprehend.
My girlfriend and I have actually noticed a related pattern even in our IM conversations— not to mention our occasional face-to-face encounters.
(A brief interlude, because I’m sure the previous statement will, in itself, likely seem a bit odd to most readers. See, we live several hours apart, neither of us drive, and intercity transportation in our state is horrible, so there are spans of several months in which we don’t see each other in person. And with my auditory processing issues, phone calls aren’t exactly convenient either— though we do carry on Skype-to-Skype conversations every once in a while, which aren’t a problem because of the enhanced audio quality. But a majority of our interactions are through SMS and instant messaging, just because it’s the most convenient option.)
What I’ve noticed is that we rarely use the words “I love you” in our conversations. Sure, it was a shock for both of us the first time those words came out in a late-night movie theater trip. But now that they’ve been said, why do we need to keep saying them? It’s like that poem by E. E. Cummings: “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” Why bother with “the syntax of things”— saying the words “I,” “love,” and “you” in that order— so often, when there’s such a variety of other ways to actually show it? And indeed, our IM conversations are peppered with frequent emotes of the very sorts of things we’d do in person: hugs, cuddles, hair ruffles and the like.
Oh, yes, that’s another myth that I hear far too often, incidentally: autistics can’t be touchy-feely. Sure, I don’t like unexpected touching— but really, does anyone? Mutually agreed-upon cuddling and hugs, however, are perfectly fine… and indeed, they’re usually extremely comforting. (And that’s not all too surprising, either, given the ideas which led to Temple Grandin’s hug machine.)
But even beyond that, this particular relationship wouldn’t be what it is without one additional factor: mutual acceptance. That’s the whole reason that so many potential friendships have failed me. It’s not, as so many neurotypical observers would think, because I didn’t want the person as a friend, and definitely not because I didn’t want a friend at all.
Simply put: my girlfriend likes me for who I am. And I like her for who she is. It’s those quirky traits that both of us have that attracted us to one another in the first place, and it’s those traits that continue to attract us to each other.
And that’s why so many potential friendships fail for me. So many people just want me to be someone who I’m not… and although I’m perfectly happy to put up a façade for social situations that require it, and I’m perfectly happy to work on those little ‘hidden curriculum‘ items that never really occurred to me in the first place, I’m not willing to go so far as to change my entire state of being to some random individual’s whim. If I have to constantly feel like I’m working at something in order to be around someone, if I have to keep my guard up at all times and can’t just be myself, that defeats the implied trust that exists in a friendship. Indeed, my closest friendships ever have all been with people who accepted me for who I was, and who didn’t want me to become something that I’m not.
So, neurotypical observers, before you’re too quick to label an autistic acquaintance or relative as being uninterested in friendship, lacking in signs of affection, or unromantic, take a closer look. There may very well be more than meets the eye.