Yes, Autistic people have feelings of attraction. I have had to learn how to funnel my feelings into socially acceptable actions, which is hard since societal definitions of how women should behave in manners of attraction vary so much between regions, political beliefs, and cultures. My innate ideas of expression follow along more traditionally male accepted behaviour. I like giving my date flowers and small gifts, I like treating my date to meals, and I like initiating acts of romanticism. Not only is this not acceptable to many in a straight relationship, but in many cases can be dangerous when my actions are misread as sexual aggression rather than romanticism. For a woman, this means I end up being treated like a throw away toy.
Again, we come back to that idea of being born completely open, and thus having to train myself to be cautious and guarded. It is a painful process. Like having to touch a hot burner to remind myself that it is hot, my openness means I get burned frequently. It hurts just as much, no matter the frequency.
Most of the men I have had any kind of relationship with beyond friendship follow the same pattern. At first, they find me fascinating and want to engage in long periods of conversation. They like to attend my public events as a speaker and a performer, and seem to enjoy my candid nature. Everything usually follows along smoothly, with many hours of laughter and intellectually stimulating conversation.
Then, I hit what I call the tip over point. Usually as I settle in and just feel comfortable to fully engage the person, the guy places distance between us. This usually follows a sensory event where my candid, outgoing self is masked by my need to rely on guidance. (Also known as – Enter Phoenix) . From almost nowhere you enter the room, Phoenix. Overwhelmed entirely by my sensory system with you at the wheel, I appear weaker and unsure. It is such a contrast to my typical operating mode, it creates confusion I suppose. All I know is a sensory event is part of autism.I am not me without my Phoenix.
Then for the part I really hate. Echolalia and repetition approach me like a dense fog on the bay. I start verbally asking for reassurance that everything is ok, often repeating the same questions in the same order. Like a series of lights on a string, once I ask one question, the next question has to be asked. Remember when we used to call for mom from the top of the stairs just to make sure she was at home? I knew she was there, but you, the Phoenix, wanted reassurance. I know the answers to the questions I ask so I don’t want to ask them, but if I interrupt the sequence, a sort of panic sets in making me feel as if I am lost, alone in a dark cave. The Phoenix nest in my brain wants the same answers as before, with remarkable precision. Tone, pace, word choice and body movement must all be the same and if it isn’t, I ask again.
Damn you, Phoneix. That is where I get so angry with you. The repetition. Why do you need everything to be exactly the same? There is such a beautiful pattern to chaos.
I am totally cognisant of this entire process. I know when you are burning the nest, or circling my sanity. I know what is happening while it is happening, but I can only endure the ride. Like being in a car accident, how everything slows down and you are aware of each millisecond, but you can’t stop the accident. All I can do is wait until the sequence is over, clean up the damage, and hope I still have a friend afterwards. It is not violent, or outward. Rather I turn inwards and sometimes I feel afraid. I seek deep hugs and need to hear answers. Once the person I am dating goes through this a few times, the luster of being with me wears off and I start to notice I am being pushed away. I don’t blame them. It is just hard. The difference is that they can walk away, but tomorrow I still wake up autistic.
But then there is love.
English words fail to express love the way I feel it. In this way, English word choice is oversimplified. The Ancient Greeks had many words for love – Eros, Philia, Ludus, Pragma, Philautia, and Agape. Each word describes a different aspect of love in its multidimensional splendor. Of these, I identify most often with Agape, the love of everyone, and Pragma, longstanding love.
Other cultures on our great earth understand what the Ancient Greeks did about love. For example in Boro (a language of India) they have the word Onsra to describe the bittersweet feeling that love will not last. Or Cwtch, which is Welsh for the safespace provided by a loved one when being hugged. One of my favorites is Merak in Serbian which describes the feeling of oneness with the universe when enjoying a simple pleasure.
Oneness with the Universe. That idea is important as we fly through the human experience together. Phoenix and me. It is a type of love, deeply romantic, that is free of the need for reciprocity. It is part of that fourth dimension you bring to me, Phoenix. An experience far deeper than most human love.
Aside from fourth dimension love, these multiple aspects of love are something we all feel, but often fail to express in words, at least in English. This means that people often use body language and innuendo to communicate what kind of love they are feeling. This too is an oversimplification. Despite our societal beliefs that we can read people like a book, we simply cannot, autistic or not. In the psychology world, we identify these beliefs and label them. The belief that people can read us when we are emotional is called the transparency illusion. Add asymmetric insight, the belief that we know more about others than they know about us, and you have a self feeding cycle.
Think about this more deeply for a moment. A neurotypical couple, let’s call them Alex and Casey have an argument, which triggers an emotional response. Inside the brain of Alex begins a complex series that will cause a Ninety second chemical reaction. But Alex has learned to identify this feeling and label it as frustration. Alex loves Casey, but is not content with her conclusions. Alex believes Casey can read her emotion as frustration. Casey, who is also experiencing the same chemical reaction, believes that Alex can read her emotion, but has labeled it as anger. Casey also believes Alex can read her emotion as anger.
Confused? Me too. Just reread that last paragraph as much as you need.
Now we have two people who are feeling different emotions but believe they can read each other clearly. Are their emotions different? Yes, I believe they are. Frustration is usually directed at the situation, whereas anger is directed at the person. Alex is frustrated with the conditions of the argument, but feels no ill will towards Casey. Casey feels wronged and that Alex is the cause and needs to apologize for making her feel bad.
Since Alex and Casey both have drawn conclusions based on illusion, belief and bias, an argument must happen with words to sort out the problem. In a healthy relationship, the argument should be an exchange of words explaining observations and how one got to those conclusions. The words replace the incorrect conclusions with observable descriptions and helps to better frame the situation. And if Alex and Casey love (pragma) each other as they claim, then they will be able to find middle ground.
Much of the time, couples seem to resort to blaming. Words become weaponized as each one points out flaws in their conclusions, and sometimes even in their character. Born to a society that believes we communicate more nonverbally than with words, each one starts reading too deeply into the other, which turns the 90 second chemical reaction into a multi day emotional ride. The focus shifts to each one defending their original conclusions on the other.
Note that when I say non-verbal communication, I mean intention expressed through body language, facial expression, and theory of mind. I am excluding sensory perception.
From an autistic point of view, this is a nightmare. Many people believe that since I was born unable to absorb cultural beliefs and customs surrounding non-verbal communication that I am automatically at a disadvantage. This conclusion exaggerates the asymmetric insight, leaving the neurotypical person to believe I cannot read them at all, but they can read me even better than I know myself.
Let’s say that in our imaginary couple scenario, Alex is autistic and Casey is neurotypical. What changes? Very little actually changes in the beginning. The process is the same for Alex, except that Alex may struggle to find the words to describe it. Not because Alex is out of touch with emotions, but because Alex’s senses are so finely tuned that the words selection given to describe emotions is not adequate, nor is the description others give us of emotions complete. So Alex now must search for another way to express the emotion, but Casey is expecting Alex to adhere to the social norm – to choose an emotion word, facial expression, or physical gesture. Alex can’t, and now Casey feels unloved. Since Casey feels neurologically superior, they develop a need to identify Alex’s emotion for her. This is so exhausting, the relationship eventually ends. Casey ends up taking on the role of caregiver in the relationship rather than seeing Alex as an equal.
Like Alex, I struggle to communicate, not to feel. My pallette of experience is not lesser, it is bolder, louder. When I feel love, it is for everyone, but comes in many shades. For me to say “I love you” paints only a small portion of the picture.
Let me be clear that I do not mean to dilute the word love. When I tell someone I love them, I truly mean it. But to me the word love is a box which encases another universe. It means I am open to them first, trusting and vulnerable; vulnerable like that of a child where the connection happens not because we shared a common interest or political belief, but because our inner universes collided. Vulnerable to be open to experiences like they are all new and not filtered by the sting of life.
Only once have I been touched so deeply by another that my inner universe actually expanded to accommodate it. The most complex form of love I have ever known. It hurts as much as it heals, invigorates as much as it calms. It is speechless. But the only word I have is love.
Loving others is at the core of my inner universe, even when others do not love me. Perhaps the simple act of loving is enough for me. But there is this part of me that feels a kinetic calmness, like that of a star, when I am loved by others. Part of being born so open I suppose. I just want everyone to have a chance to feel genuine love, even if it is only for a moment.