Normal Is Overrated

Musings and meanderings on the autistic spectrum

February 20, 2010

Autistic Thoughts on Autistic Relationships

(This is my post for Disability Blog Carnival #63: Relationships. See also the companion post from my girlfriend.)

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.

Filed under: Blog Carnival,General — codeman38 @ 12:39 pm

12 Comments »

  1. This is *so* excellent, your rare posts are always worth the wait.

    And I’m happy for you.

    Comment by Kowalski — February 20, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  2. […] Link: Normal Is Overrated » Autistic Thoughts on Autistic Relationships […]

    Pingback by Normal Is Overrated » Autistic Thoughts on Autistic Relationships | Bitter And Sweet Blog — February 20, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  3. I wish I had a relationship like that – ever!

    Comment by Clay — February 20, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

  4. I assume your girlfriend has an ASD; I don’t remember reading anything about that in the post but I am assuming.

    For me, it wouldn’t matter if the guy had an ASD or not: just as long as they were accepting, open-minded, kind, caring, all of that good stuff, etc. I’ve gotten along well with “NTs,” but they have always been they very open-minded, intelligent, fun-loving, caring, slightly weird type.

    I have also NOT gotten along with those with ASDs.

    Just because a person has an ASD doesn’t mean that I will get along with them. People with ASDs can have personality clashes just like everyone else. And someone with an ASD and an NT might get along very well.

    Plus, if you’re lucky, you might find an NT that finds your ASD “unique” and “appreciative” and “loves you for you who are” and all of that squishy stuff.

    I say that because I’ve gotten along very well with an NT once, more so than anyone else, but he was a psychiatrist, so…no friends allowed! (Plus he was married). But, if I ever meet another NT I hope he is like him.

    You know how if you are abused by a type of person…say, people with ASDs are abused by NTs. Well, it seems that NTs often get a bad name by those with ASDs because some NTs can be quite cruel to those with ASDs. But then when you actually meet an NT that IS really great you realize that not everyone is like that and you begin to have faith in NTs again.

    NTs can be cruel just like those with ASDs (as we can all see).

    And I really wouldn’t mind having an intimate relationship via the internet. In fact, that is probably where most of our real communication would take place.

    Sigh.

    Maybe one day!

    Comment by Stephanie Lynn Keil — February 23, 2010 @ 9:21 am

  5. @Stephanie: My girlfriend is not diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, though she shows some of the traits. She is, however, officially diagnosed as ADD.

    And yes, there are some open-minded NTs that I get along with really well, and there are also some people on the spectrum that I don’t get along with at all. It really depends on the person.

    Comment by codeman38 — February 23, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

  6. @Stephanie Lynn Keil

    Actually, I have inattentive-type Attention Deficit Disorder (read: I hyperfocused on everything but what the teachers wanted me to focus on) with a few personal quirks that share aspects with spectrum-ish things.

    Comment by sarahgirl — February 23, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

  7. I’m on the autistic spectrum (well, I have Asperger’s syndrome, but these days saying that on the Internet is essentially saying ‘I am self-diagnosed and want attention,’ which I resent horrendously but still don’t want to be grouped into), I am outrageously empathic, care more about the feelings and thoughts of others than of myself, am in love with my wonderful boyfriend and have close relationships to my parents and several dear friends.

    I really, wholeheartedly appreciate this post. Basically everything about it. It says a lot of things I think and feel, and as my boyfriend is NT, I feel he might benefit from reading it, too (which is why I’m going to shoot him a link) — to understand that I am not alone and strange and awkward in the way I don’t like to hear “I love you” when he can show me he loves me instead, and the way I don’t like to say it, and the way sometimes, no matter how much I love him, no matter how good things are, I have to say no to touching.

    My parents, as probably won’t surprise you, never had any issue with me being on the spectrum, never had any issue with me not being touchy-feely or expressing emotions in words instead of actions like doing little nice things for them and coming up with surprises and adventures. (Of course, my mother is also on the spectrum and my father is about as emotionally expressive as a pile of pebbles, but even if they weren’t, I think they’d accept me like this.)

    The stereotypes that say people with ASDs aren’t empathic I hate just about as much as the stereotypes that say people with ASDs are good at math (I’m really, really not). The world is always in need of more people exposing the fact that it’s true that autistics feel and think and love, and that we’re not all antisocial blanks. And that we’re not all Rain Man, either.

    You are far more eloquent than I, though your relationship’s context is different than mine. It’s very hard, sometimes, to be in a relationship with someone who’s NT, and someone who’s NT and very touchy-feely and always saying ‘I love you’ and expecting me to do the same. But I take every communication issue and every bit that still needs to be worked on and adapted, and I’ll continue to take it to keep him, because believe it or not, autistics feel love and need love in return.

    Basically every one of your words applies to me.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Rue — February 26, 2010 @ 10:22 am

  8. @Rue: Thanks! Glad my post was so helpful.

    I totally understand about being too empathic– one of my issues is that sometimes it gets so bad as to be overloading and shutdown-inducing. Which, of course, people then take as a sign of lack of empathy. -_-;;

    Speaking of relationships, I need to do a post on me and my bizarre relationship with mathematics. I got a 5 on AP Calculus… and yet, I still cannot do basic arithmetic in my head. I can’t even remember basic addition or multiplication facts by rote; I have to literally count up in my head to figure them out.

    Comment by codeman38 — February 26, 2010 @ 10:27 am

  9. This has been by far the most informative and insightful blog on this subject that I have ever read. You clarified so many questions for me that will help me understand my incredible little grandson as he is growing up with challenges of his own. I stumbled across your site a little by accident and I am so glad I did. I look forward to reading more. Thank you.

    Comment by DJR — September 3, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

  10. “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.”

    YES. YES. YES.

    So many people have tried to get me to change and have tried to convince me that eventually changing would feel natural to me.

    This. Is. Not. True.

    Comment by eternal_stranger — September 12, 2010 @ 11:06 pm

  11. I am actually closer to the stereotypes than most people, and I don’t really attribute it to autism. It’s a cost/benefit thing. I’ve spent more time alone and was not accepted by my family or peers, so I came up with my own ways of doing things and my own things to do. And I LIKE them, and I’m not willing to give them up just to gain social status, even if there aren’t many other people with whom they can converge with.

    Coincidentally, I like the internet because I can easily find people who are part of the minority, and because it’s a much easier form of communication for me. So it’s less cost and more benefit. Of course I do it more- really connecting with someone offline is just less probable, though it’s happened before and probably will happen again eventually. Unfortunately for me the internet isn’t “real.” Whoops.

    I also don’t understand dating in the since that I don’t understand what it is, so I can’t come to a conclusion about whether or not I want to do it. I did once think I was probably romantically interested with a close friend of mine, but she wasn’t, which didn’t really seem like a big deal. Can be fun to imagine dating people though, given that I do it in a really idealistic and unrealistic way. Some of the literature on autism says that we are the same in regards to dating but take a bit longer to go through, so I figure I’m at about the point of a 12 year old girl at the moment. Not a “gaping hole” in any sense, though. I turned down a few people for dates when I was in secondary school (I actually found the occasional requests somewhat alarming) and I recently refused a woman I didn’t know who wanted me to buy her dinner, although I’m not sure if she was just looking for a free dinner or what.

    Anyway, I’m totally open to finding someone who I actually like that also likes me that I have some concurrent interests and ways of doing things with. I’m just not going to spend all my time looking for this person/these people when I have more important things to do. The fact that I’m not distressed about it and don’t feel some kind of hole in my life appears to actually be unusual. Internet is great, though- without it I would miss other people’s practical input and ideas if nothing else.

    Comment by concertogrosso — September 13, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

  12. I have AS and as it happens I happen to have an Autistic girlfriend!

    I must confess that I never thought that I’d fall for an ‘Autie’ as in the past I (mostly) dated girls with AS, but after giving consideration to the fact that I was dating girls who had Aspergers (I’ve had about three girlfriends who has AS in the past and also one who’s an NT, many of whom I’m still in contact with and good friends with) so it’s not all that strange when you think about it….

    For me when I’ve fallen for a girl, I afterwards reflect on the reason(s) and weather or not a (possible) relationship would work (should such a thing come to pass) it does not take long to consider a girl and woo one, even though I do try to look for ‘perfection’ (I am still flexible at least to a degree) as I like to have the best of everything (as long as I like it that is)

    Although some ‘points’ (as I like to call them) are more important than others I do try to find girls that fit my criteria as closely as possible.

    Just in case any of you were wondering they are as follows…

    Does she have a high sense of right and wrong? (VERY important)

    Is she loyal? (Important)

    Is she girly? (Important although she can still be a bit of a tomboy as well)

    Is she well mannered? (quite Important)

    Does she like to be looked after and wined and dined? (quite important)

    Is she a happy person/have a positive outlook on life? (Very Important)

    Is she childlike and fun loving? (Important as I can’t stand ‘stuffy’ types)

    Is she a good listener? (Important as I like to talk a lot about all manner of things)

    Is she good looking? (not all that important, however I still expect her to take care of herself in this area nonetheless)

    Anyway my GF (who will be nameless for the normal reason, although I will add it really suits her) fits those ‘points’ to the letter, and so she is my perfect woman, however not quite in the way many would expect….

    While one may never find a ‘perfect’ woman (whatever ones taste may be although I bet the media had a hand in shaping it) or ‘perfect’ man (whatever taste may be although I bet the media had a hand in shaping it) as we see them for such things truly only exist in ones mind and who can say what is perfect? As a Christian I will add that only God knows about what is and isn’t perfect and thus I do believe that true (or near enough) perfection is often to be found sadly we cannot always see that.

    Hence although my GF is indeed my perfect woman it’s not quite in the way I expected, however I’m not disappointed, in fact I’m glad that she’s not like how I saw my ‘perfect woman’ as she’d not only be boring but also she’d most likely be so needy, dependent (she’s a little like that, but she does not always come running to me all the time as if she needs help but I’m busy she’ll go to someone else) and drop dead sexy that it would become a living hell taking care of her (and when I mean taking care of her I mean that as in ‘she’s unable to live or hold down a job or even do anything for herself’ kind of ‘taking care of her’) or even ‘keeping’ her! She’d be bound to go after other guys after I ‘neglected’ her (in her eyes that is, although I suppose that it really would be a form of neglect if the girl was like that)

    And although I’m a handsome and good natured chap, she may end up thinking that I was ‘beneath’ her giving her all the more reason to want to leave me….

    And so I’m glad that although she’s not a ‘perfect woman’ how I saw them she is in fact a perfect woman as I can see the best ‘points’ in her nonetheless abet in a way I wasn’t expecting.

    Just one thing though when dating someone with Autism and I’m sure that many of you out there have done this in the past, make sure that (at an early stage but only after all parties feel properly ‘into’ the relationship) you take the time to sit down and discuss each others ‘boundaries’ (we all have them) and what you both ‘expect’ from each other, then it avoids problems in the future. Be sure to ‘renew’ this as well as things can change with time.

    Although I’ve yet to get the chance to do this with my GF I am going to do so the next time I see her (it’s been over a fortnight in fact!)

    Just my two cents on the matter (it’s more of less a blog!)

    Chris

    Comment by Christopher — March 26, 2011 @ 5:29 am

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