Published: Fusion (June 7, 2016)
As someone with autism, I’ve often wondered if there’s anything I can do to make neurotypicals, the name for you folks in the non-autistic community, less unpredictable to myself. I pose this question not as an attack or criticism. It’s just that those of us with high-functioning autism—or Asperger’s Syndrome in my case—struggle every day with your seemingly illogical behavior.
For me, this question applies to every realm of socialization, but for the sake of brevity (and this piece) I’ve chosen to focus on dating because it forces me to be at my most emotionally intimate and vulnerable. Based on my own experiences dating neurotypical women and writing about dating with Asperger’s, I believe there’s still a lot of understanding to explore—but first we need to identify the underlying reason for the mismatch in emotion and expectation.
Let’s start with how people with autism approach the concept of honesty, which has frequently gotten me into trouble. Although neurotypicals claim to value honesty, when I actually am, they tend to be put off by my excessive candor. The instinct of someone with autism is to bluntly state his or her full thoughts and opinions. Feelings tend to get hurt, unspoken rules of propriety are violated, and in general, even if the intentions are no longer romantic, it’s still possible to come off as a total clod.
For this piece, I interviewed several women I had dated (with varying degrees of seriousness) about the ways I have offended them. At least, the ones who answered my emails. One, who I invited to a wedding long after we’d stopped seeing each other but remained friendly, recalled being “a little caught off guard by the invite to be a backup plus-one.” She explained to me that “women typically prefer to not be a backup plan or a plan B. It’s a silly pride thing, I guess.” This made no sense, but I knew I may have inadvertently rubbed her the wrong way.
On another occasion, when I tried to commiserate with a woman I casually dated last winter about our mutual weight gain concerns, she scolded me by saying, “A tip on female sensitivity: You never highlight your female friends weight issues until brought up by them.” It made me feel like I just couldn’t win. As for dating me, she wrote, “You are very picky. Direct, to the point that you can come across as rude and inconsiderate.”
What neurotypicals subconsciously deduce, Aspies can only pick up through direct verbal communication.
The neurotypical’s aversion to being direct can be incredibly confusing for those with autism. For instance, when a potential or past romantic partner doesn’t respond to emails, someone with autism will logically, unless they are given a specific reason, assume the silence can mean anything—from hostility to forgetfulness. What neurotypicals subconsciously deduce, Aspies can only pick up through direct verbal communication; without it, we’re left with nothing but the full range of plausible explanations.
One benefit to having autism is that I’m not easily embarrassed. For example, in one of my first relationships, my then-girlfriend and I were ridiculed by a Facebook group for our frequent PDA. She was mortified, while I was simply surprised that other people in our small liberal arts college even cared. Similarly, a woman I dated back in 2014 once had to pull me aside to explain why others were annoyed by my habit of talking at length about the history of health care reform in America. This was at the height of the Obamacare controversy, and I hadn’t realized the topic was verboten because as an Aspie, fixating on topics you’re passionate about is not onlyhardwired into your brain, but one of the tastiest spices you can add to any conversation. For neurotypicals, though, it can become a nuisance, particularly when the topics can easily offend others…like politics, Obama, or health care in America.
You may have noticed there is a common theme tying all these examples together. Namely, it’s that neurotypical behavior is rooted in a reliance on a set of unspoken rules about “the way things are supposed to be.” My life would be much easier, however, if the rules of one social situation—say, dating and relationships—were the same across the board. And if each party was as honest and open as possible with their opinions, feelings, and intentions. Imagine a world where if something was said, it was meant literally and without subtext.
Instead, most people live by complex set of guidelines that determine everything from how to communicate what one wants out of a relationship to when he or she feels offended. Because these rules have never been formally adopted, however, each individual winds up settling on the ones that make the most sense based on his or her past experiences and perceived self-interest. The final result, while undeniably exciting, is also excruciatingly chaotic.
I’m currently seeing a beautiful, smart, and (luckily for me) extremely patient and open woman—who also happens to be a neurotypical. As she has pointed out, “the gift of dating with autism” is that “you understand clear boundaries and can follow them.”
For neurotypicals, boundaries are fluid and the methods for communicating them are ambiguous at best. Perhaps in the future neurotypicals will learn how to behave in more consistent and predictable ways, just as people on the spectrum will hopefully develop tools for overcoming their social impairment. Until that day arrives, though, each side will simply have to try its best to empathize with the other. After all, none of us chose to be who we are. We were all born this way.