Last Saturday, the Asperger/Autism Network (AANE.org) gave me the honor of serving as a panelist for their spring conference: Intimacy, Dating, and Sexuality. Although I’ve used Aspergian Diary as a platform to share my story, Saturday was the first time I’ve actually spoken about my Autism in a public forum. It was also the first time I’ve attended a conference about Autism. For that matter, it was the first time I’ve even been someplace where the majority of people around me were either on the Autism Spectrum themselves or have a loved one who is. So, a day of many firsts.
Saturday’s topic of conversation rarely gets the attention it deserves. Society (including many healthcare providers) often assumes that people on the Autism Spectrum either don’t want or are incapable of meaningful, intimate relationships. We’re introverted, we lack empathy and emotional reciprocity, we don’t like to be touched or hugged, and we’ll never be able to have meaningful personal connections. While some of that is certainly true for some individuals, it’s by no means the rule. (I’ll admit that many of us are difficult to live with—myself included—but that doesn’t mean we’re not relationship material.) People with Autism, especially high-functioning Autism, often want love and friendship—we just don’t always know how to go about getting and sustaining them.
Speaking to Saturday’s AANE audience, Dr. Isabelle Hénault offered some interesting insights regarding empathy (something most people with Autism are assumed to lack.) The truth, Hénault argues, is that people with Autism frequently experience enormous empathy but convey it in ways that are easily overlooked or misinterpreted by their neurotypical partners. For that matter, empathy brings up a surge of emotion that we struggle to identify and convey in real time. I now realize for the first time that when Erica is upset about something, I often show my empathy by doing nice things for her like cooking dinner. But this isn’t what a neurotypical expects, so the message often gets lost in translation.
Since everything changes eventually, acceptance is key. See what is, allow what is, accept what is.
And grow from there.Karen Lean
Karen Lean, Vice President of the AANE Board and herself a person with Asperger’s, encouraged the room with her statement, “You are capable and worthy of growth, companionship, community, and love.” This is a basic truth that’s easy to forget. When you’ve spent a lifetime getting things wrong in your personal interactions, and being frequently admonished for your social and romantic mis-steps, it’s easy to wind up feeling alone—unworthy of love, friendship, and other forms of human connection. Lean reminds us that we are all human and all deserving and capable of love. (And it helps to remember that plenty of neurotypicals also suck at dating and relationships.)
Relationship success seems to require three key ingredients. First, you must value yourself before others can value and appreciate you. That’s of course much easier said than done, and takes time, but it’s a universal rule equally applicable to neurotypicals and those on the Autism Spectrum. Second, you must have realistic expectations about relationships. And those expectations may look somewhat different when a partner is on the Autism Spectrum. (See Finding Love.) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you must never give up. You must keep learning and growing until you get it right. The destination you arrive at may be different than the one you set out for, but to quote the late Douglas Adams, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”
There’s something to be said for spending time around a group of people to whom you don’t have to explain your quirks. As I was eating lunch (after an hour on stage) a man approached my table. He introduced himself, thanked me for my presentation, and then—without skipping a beat—politely asked if I would like to see some card tricks. (I love my fellow Aspergians!) The best part was that, when I responded that I was in need of a little time to introvert after my presentation, he didn’t bat an eye—not a problem, no further explanation required. He wished me well and headed back to his table without another word. Brothers in arms. (NOTE: I was so touched that I sought him out a little later once I’d regrouped. Not surprisingly, he turned out to have some of the best card tricks I’ve ever seen.)
For me, Saturday was about knowing who you are, embracing that person, and creating space for others to embrace you as well. That’s not something I’ve entirely mastered just yet, but I’m pleased to report that I am a work in progress. In the course of that journey, it was liberating to spend a day engaging my own community, sharing my story, answering questions, and hearing about others’ own experiences. I am grateful to Dania Jekel, Ilia Walsh, Janeka Melanson, and the rest of AANE for putting on this event. In a few hours time, they brought together a community for whom intimacy, dating, and sexuality have such great meaning.