You look at the films, the books, the songs, and the poems and you see something that may not be entirely true. You get educated in school, by your parents and by your friends but this can be devoid of emotion, connection and transparency. So when it comes to your turn to understand love, sex, and relationships you have no idea, your feelings cannot be explained by the films, the books, the songs, the poems, by school, by parents or by friends – you feel alone. At least I did.
I felt not only alone, but confused, frustrated at the situation I found myself in. This situation was a relationship with a boy at the age of 21. I remember the time he said I love you, I said it back knowing this was expected of me; regurgitating the words exactly like I had seen and heard in films and books, though it felt wrong in my mouth. I remember still not feeling anything 6 months down the line, no fireworks, no sparks. I may have had “butterflies” in my stomach on the first date, but that was nerves about being in close proximity to a boy.
I had no idea what anything meant, I felt confused because this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I felt happy, but conflicted, which made me sad. I felt secure but also questioning, so what is that? But I felt safe, intellectually stimulated, sexually satisfied, but the feeling I could not grasp on to, even to this day, was the feeling of love. I didn’t feel the way love and relationships had been presented to me, and because of this, I felt like my relationship was wrong, inadequate, and broken. I wasn’t madly in love and besotted, I couldn’t declare my love and sing it from the rooftops or even have warm feelings inside my heart. Instead I felt blank, empty, unable to grasp at the words or the feeling that I felt. Did I feel anything at all?
So, do I love him? What is love? Why don’t I feel it the way they say I should feel it? Should I fake it? Should I mask?
And I did mask at first, secured it the way I was supposed to, I was the girl I thought I should be, the girls presented to me throughout my childhood and teenage years: overly affectionate and constantly expressing how I felt. But this act broke me down, little by little, piece by piece I developed more insecurities, as I was not being honest with who I was.
I would cry in the bathroom, alone, feeling less than human because I wasn’t being true to myself. It was toxic, I had never given him a chance to see me, not really. I was scared I would lose him if I didn’t show my love in the way I thought I should. I was told, shown over and over that love and relationships were meant to be a certain way, they looked a certain way, but because my reality didn’t live up to this expectation I lied and played a role. This facade in truth held us back, but most importantly it held me back.
I was told I have alexithymia, a very common comorbid symptom to autism. This is the inability to know how I feel, but this, in conjunction with the way I look at the world (due to my autism) affected my relationship profoundly. I took the books/films seriously, I analysed them, what I read was what I expected. However, now I know, through my own trial and error, this depiction of relationships is not always accurate. It took me a long time to get to the point where I don’t doubt my relationship, I don’t doubt myself, I don’t question my love, as I know it presents itself in a very unique way. My partner also realises this, but it’s been a long road of many conversations. What is love? Well, I can now answer this in my own way: (Yes/No to each)
- If he got hit by a car I would cry.
- I feel safe.
- I feel mentally challenged and stimulated.
- I feel happy (most of the time).
- I would be upset if he wasn’t in my life, something would be missing.
- Growing old with this person would be something I wouldn’t want to miss for the world.
- We share values.
- I want what is best for that person.
- I want to walk dogs and hold hands with that person
- I would rather spend time with that person than be alone (most of the time).
- The world is a better place with this person in my life.
Though I don’t feel the feelings of love, I can analyse what I think love is, and this is what I come up with, romantic I know.
The sensory side of it all.
I now accept I struggle with affection, having someone close to me is like a sensory overload that makes it hard to breathe. I now know touch is something that can be done, but only when I want it, otherwise again a shutdown is inevitable. For me, every kiss, hug, hand hold comes at a cost, and the cost is my own clarity and energy. I used to push through this, push through my impulse to pull away when I felt suffocated, however it would lead to fatigue and a burning head.
I may collapse sometimes if it’s too much, unable to talk or hold my weight, my brain so overwhelmed that it cannot operate properly. Can I say I am lucky to have a partner who is also autistic and props me up in these moments, allowing me to be me? Or shouldn’t we be viewing relationships as unique and different to all, exploring how relationships may differ between people. I never knew people could collapse when kissing, yet here I am flopping all over the place.
Sometimes, he cannot kiss me, I make him hold still, not moving or instigating in any way until I reacquaint myself with the feelings that kissing and touching make me feel. If he tries to kiss back or hug, I will feel suffocated, but once reacquainted I am fine. These behaviours are not “normal” but shouldn’t be seen as weird or odd. I shouldn’t be made to feel like I am not a good partner or I can’t love properly because I show my affection differently.
Knowing I perceive the world differently, accepting I perceive it differently is so fundamental to my relationship, I cannot change me, I shouldn’t have to. But understanding what you need is essential especially as an autisitc woman.
A new perspective
But now I am angry. I am angry that sex and actual real day to day relationships are not discussed properly, we gloss over the them, leaving out the fact that relationships are heterogenous and we glamorize an old fashioned image, now only updated to include same sex couples. But this is not reality and no wonder many autistic women fall into bad relationships and end up in compromising positions.
I was lucky, the man I met was kind, generous, autistic, intelligent and the best soul on the planet, but I know of many autistic women who have not been so lucky. Autistic women tend to be more vulnerable, trusting and have worse mental health, putting themselves in more challenging positions. This could be because they saw it represented on TV, or their partner said “this is okay, I do it all the time, it’s normal”. There is a tendency to want to fit it, often at the expense of self, which can lead to further vulnerabilities.
Many of us can’t read between the lines, yes, I genuinely thought as a teenager Pretty Little Liars (bar the murders and A) and Glee were accurate depictions of relationships, I believed that the YA novels I had been given were also accurate. Though this diverges from my story, I worry that if relationships and sex are not discussed properly, with accomodations for young neurodivergent individuals we may be unknowingly increasing the exposure of young autistic people to unrealistic ideals about relationships (like myself), or at worst harmful relationships.
Education, autism and relationships
Given that relationships in this world seem to be the cornerstone of life, I think it is important for educators to realise you may have children who are not as knowledgeable, are too knowledgeable, transgender, neurodivergent, gay, coming from broken homes. These conversations are hard, but needed. I think once again it comes down to acceptance and teaching people about relationships in an open, frank way. I think it’s being realistic not idealistic.
Coming back to my story, my expectations affected my ability to be truthful, it caused me to mask, ignoring what I felt. When I was honest, open, when I cried, showed my anger, my dislikes, told him I said “I love you” too soon, we both became more real, I found out he had been masking too. We were two autistic people thinking we had to be something we were not because that’s what the world had taught us to be. Now we have breakdowns, are cats (yes), we cry, we argue, we laugh, we are real with one another. Some people look at us and genuinely think we are too open with each other, but who are they to judge? Relationships are unique to each person, I mean I still don’t know how to feel love, I’ll just list it, and that’s okay.