Love in Chains: The Myths Surrounding Autism and Romance

This is a two-part series that addresses the topics of love and sex in relation to autism. I was originally going to make this one post but the intersection of sexuality and disability is wildly interesting and deserves its own post. I will post about next Friday.

My girlfriend is neurotypical. She’s not a saint but she’s my saint.

I would say that for people in our mid twenties, our relationship is beautiful and healthy. We love each other a lot. We build each other up, can talk on the phone for hours, and poke fun regularly without a hint of malice. We’ve reached a level of comfort that involves farting in front of each other and we’re not afraid to call each other out on our bullshit when necessary. She has been accommodating of my ways and has been explicit with me from day one. Not only are our thoughts and feelings constantly on the table but also we analyze them and use what we learn to make our relationship better. I managed to beat the stereotype of not finding love and found something extraordinary. She’s not just a girlfriend to me; she’s my partner. I could easily go on and on about her but for your sake, I won’t.

I’m not unique. Lots of other people on the spectrum have found true love. Unfortunately there are too many pervasive clichés surrounding the idea that the autistic are incapable of love or that they do it wrong, some of them affecting us deeply enough so that they become self-fulfilling prophesies. I want to address some of them.

We’re too preoccupied with our own interests to engage with another human being.

People who talk about autism seem to speak of autistic ‘obsessions’ as if they cannot be a catalyst to bonding with other people. My girlfriend and I happen to share a lot of nerdy interests and we frequently bond over them, whether it’s psychology or a mutual favorite TV show. If you are autistic and very interested in something, chances are there’s someone else who’s as interested as you are.

We have a narrow conception of love as a state of constant euphoria and are thus incapable of deep, long-lasting love.

Same for teenagers. Same for overly frequent watchers of romantic comedies. Same for anyone emotionally immature, really. The barrier to deeper love isn’t disability but a lack of maturity and/or self-knowledge, something that everyone should be responsible for cultivating. It’s the reason the majority of single people are single, not just autistic people, so pretending that this is a uniquely autistic problem is actively harmful to everyone, autistic or not.

The question to ask isn’t ‘does his autism prevent him from experiencing true love?’ but rather ‘is this person emotionally mature enough to love and be loved on a deep level?’

We lack empathy, which is a very important component of a loving relationship.

What looks like ‘lacking empathy’ can actually be a defense mechanism against the extreme amount of sensory input that we regularly face. I hear very different accounts of how our minds work from other autistic people but to use myself as an example, I take in a lot of sensory information at once but I process it one piece at a time. When I was growing up, I didn’t know how to filter this information but this is a process that neurotypical people take for granted.

If anything, because of the fact that we take in so much information, we are actually so empathetic that it can be crippling. If my girlfriend is in a vaguely bad mood, my mood becomes much worse than hers. If she’s in a really bad mood, then I could regress emotionally and risk making a complete fool of myself (this is my version of a meltdown). On the flip side, if she’s happy, I become ecstatic.

We are incapable of expressing love.

This one depends on who you ask.

Like any great couple, my girlfriend and I do occasionally fight. One day, she complained that I don’t say ‘I love you’ as often as she does and I was genuinely confused. I’m absolutely sure that I love her and showed her so several times. Why was she not acknowledging it? This genuinely made me question my capacity for love, although having been bombarded with the idea that autistic people are doomed to a life of loneliness due to their supposed inability to connect, I’ve questioned it for a long time.

It turns out that like neurotypical people, the autistic can have their own ways of expressing love. It turned out that I have different ‘love languages’ then she does. These love languages are broken down into five areas: giving gifts, quality time, acts of service, words of affirmation, and physical touch. She says ‘I love you’ frequently. I cook for her. She occasionally buys small gifts for me. I help edit her papers for her classes. She gives me surprise hugs. I give her a shoulder to cry on when she needs it. Et cetera. Our expressions of love are varied enough to keep our relationship interesting and deep.

We don’t want or enjoy sex.

Yes we do. Just ask my girlfriend. We all have different levels of sexual energy and to assume we are all asexual is misleading

And, for some reason, the flipside: we want sex too much.

It’s not called ‘being autistic.’ It’s called ‘having a high sex drive.’ Again, sex drives vary among us. We are not exempt from the diversity of the human experience.

Tune in next week for more about disability and sexuality!

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