I started to read an anthology written by partners of people with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) called Asperger’s Syndrome and Adults… Is Anyone Listening?. I only managed to read a handful of the pieces before I put it down in disgust. Mostly, I was hoping for tips on how to be a good ally. Instead, I got despairing rants that to me seemed chock full of ableism. On the bright side, I suppose if I wanted more information about the prejudices people with AS face, I got quite a sample. I won’t go into too much detail, but skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to read one example of that prejudice.
I respect that partners have all sorts of different experiences, some of them really difficult. It seemed like all of the authors of pieces I read were deeply unhappy about their relationships. The level of condemnation in a number of the pieces and the privileging of the authors’ own perspective as “normal” troubled me, though. To give just one example, one of the authors worried about the fact that people with AS can serve on juries. Personally I would be much more concerned if everyone on juries were neurotypical (NT), especially given how often autistic people are targeted by police.
My boyfriend of almost three years, T., has AS and ADHD. I have anxiety and depression, but I still don’t know a lot about Asperger’s or ADHD. T. recommended some reading to me about ADHD. I’ve started it and so far it seems pretty helpful—certainly far better than what I found on my own about AS, although that’s obviously not saying much. After seeing so much negativity in print, I wanted to put an alternate perspective out there about what it’s like to have a boyfriend with AS and ADHD. Of course, this is just my particular experience of our particular relationship. Still, at the risk of being sappy, here are a few of the things I love about T.
• Sometimes, he spontaneously smiles at me, hugs me, kisses me, or picks me up and swings me around.
• When I figure out something that I need emotionally and tell him, he is genuinely pleased to know. Then he does his best to meet my needs (and his best is usually very good). Getting that type of feedback from him has helped me to be more self-aware and direct with others about what I want and need.
• He isn’t trans and had never dated anyone trans before me. When we first started dating, he asked to borrow a documentary about trans issues and watched it. He also asked me some good questions.
• The first time we had sex, it was pretty awkward. We giggled some, awkwardly. I love that. Seriousness and grace are overrated when it comes to sex.
• Just about every single subsequent time we have had sex or done SM,* it has been unbelievably hot. He’s creative, curious, kinky, cute, and considerate. Deviously playful too.
• One night I was staying at his house and couldn’t sleep. He found me awake on his couch at around 3:30am. He said, “What’s going on?” I said, “I’m sad, anxious, insecure, and can’t sleep.” He said, “Oh. Well, since you’re not sleeping, would you like to talk about your feelings, or play video games?” It was the best possible offer anyone could have made to me in that moment. We talked about my feelings for a bit. Then, he stayed up with me playing video games. I finally fell asleep in his arms.
• He is always reading, thinking, and working through new ideas. He eagerly discusses those ideas with me. He is growing as a person and committed to further growth. He cares about issues of justice.
• When he and I have different ideas about politics, he debates with me in a way that shows he respects and wants to understand my views. He doesn’t pretend to agree with me and he keeps an open mind.
• He wrote me a love poem!
• He supports my other relationships and hook-ups. When I was having communication problems with my partner, he sent me a link to a podcast on good communication techniques. After I got triggered during sex with a stranger, he held me and comforted me as I cried. When we went to a sex party together, he helped arrange for me to have hot sex with other guys. He has been willing to meet my other friends and lovers.
• He’s also generous with his other relationships. He introduces me to his other friends and lovers and talks to me about them. He welcomes me watching him have hot sex with other guys. He helps facilitate communication between me and his other boyfriend when needed.
• Sometimes, he cooks for me. Sometimes, he fixes my computer. Sometimes, he cuddles with me.
• Once, he did something that I experienced as a huge betrayal. When I told him, he encouraged me to share my feelings and listened to them. He reflected on the impact of what he did in a way that helped me to feel like he understood where I was coming from; then he apologized for it in a way that felt sincere. He didn’t minimize what he did, but he also didn’t start castigating or condemning himself (or at least not to me). He answered my questions, asked me about what I needed going forward, expressed willingness to make changes, and held back on saying anything he thought might be a false promise.
Originally, this piece ended here. When I showed a first draft to T., though, he encouraged me to be a bit more forthcoming about areas where I’ve needed to stretch to meet him, in the hope that it might help other partners of people with AS. In his words, “while self-awareness and open emotional communication are almost universally valuable and underappreciated, success in a relationship with an aspie may require focused effort in those areas that other relationships would not. Furthermore, there’s often a cultural expectation that a good partner will recognize the needs of their mate without prompting; as bad as that is for normal couples, it’s utterly toxic for any relationship involving AS.”
It’s a bit tricky for me to write this part, partly because I’m not sure what about our dynamic is actually related to AS. Regardless, one thing that has been helpful for me in our relationship is letting go of my self-censorship as much as I can. That is not by any means easy or natural for me. It has taken a lot of time in collective organizations, talk therapy, romantic relationships, and bdsm play for me to make any progress in directly expressing my feelings at all ever to anyone. But with T., it is actually easier. For example, once when I was angry, I actually cursed at him and stormed out of the room. Later, I apologized that I handled the situation in that way. He said, “No, that was really good! That way I knew that you were angry!”
I don’t want to recommend that people just go around cursing at their AS partners and storming out of rooms all the time! Probably it is better to stay in the room, speak in “I statements,” and so forth. Still, for me, knowing that he appreciated even that type of communication helped me a lot in terms of my own social anxiety. Often, I have stewed for hours and hours—or even months and months—about a particular feeling I have, why I have it, whether I can get over it on my own, what the best way to raise it with a partner might be, how I can bring it up in a positive, thoughtful, inoffensive manner that will lead to good communication, etc. All of that second-guessing makes it a lot harder for me to communicate at all, especially in the moment. If T. appreciated even that level of communication, though, I could let go of some of my fear of expressing myself in the “wrong” way.
I’ve noticed that even when T. is reading my emotions or meanings correctly, he sometimes doubts that he has it right. Sometimes he will ask me to clarify.
T.: That was–sarcastic?
Me: Yes! Yes, that was definitely sarcasm.
T. Yay! I interpreted intonation correctly!
I also try to volunteer how I feel as often and explicitly as possible.
Me: I love it when you pick me up and swing me around like that!
T.: Oh good! I thought so, but it’s nice to know for sure.
I try to use everything I’ve learned from my other experiences to help us understand each other too. For example, I have some experience as a masochist. Before we did much SM play together, I tried to share what I knew about my reactions.
Me: If I say ‘f*ck,’ scream, gasp, or laugh, that’s very good. If I say ‘sh*t’ or suck air in through my teeth, that’s bad. If I go silent or start crying, that could be fantastic or terrible—best to check in.
Specificity about what I want and need emotionally helps a lot too. When I can, I try to say more than, “I am sad.” I try to tell him, “I am sad, and I really want you to just hold me and let me be sad for a while.” Or, “I am sad, and I want you to call me and tell me you care about me.” Or, “I am sad, and I want to hear any suggestions you have for me on how to cope.” I’ve been trying to carry some of that specificity over into other relationships too, which has been quite helpful when I can manage it. Self-awareness and directness really are handy in a variety of situations.
Of course, self-awareness and directness only go so far. What makes it work so well is that once I’ve done that much, T. listens, believes me, and generally either gives me what I want or tells me that he can’t. And really, overall, that sort of attention and honesty is exactly what I want.
T. and I do have problems too, from time to time. Nothing and no one is perfect. Still, AS/NT relationships are hardly the universally hopeless experiences portrayed in that book.