The Early Background: I’ve been involved with my partner for 17 years now. We’ve always been very different people with not much in common on the surface, but the similarities, connections, and bonds we do share are unusual and important ones. One of these is that both of us are quirky, odd, introverted, and cerebral.
One of the primary challenges in our relationship has always been communication; mine has always been very direct, literal, and plentiful, whereas he can tend to keep to himself, clam up, and be secretive, whether intentional or not.
Almost two months ago, I uncovered the truth about my Aspergian/autistic neuro-type. With the communication issue in mind, it was important to me to approach this new discovery with utmost transparency and openness. After I took my first quizzes and researched the official diagnostic criteria, and I was sure that this neuro-category applied to me, I disclosed it to him.
One of his unique characteristics is that he is legally blind. Early on in our dating phase, I remember him making a genuine and urgent request: that if I had a question, concern, impression/assumption, or other thought regarding his vision, that I would not harbor it inside, make erroneous assumptions based on incomplete or incorrect information, or hold onto negative stereotypes. He insisted, (“please…“) that instead, I come to him and talk to him directly. He reassured me that none of my questions, concerns, or other thoughts would offend him, annoy him, or anger him, and that there was no such thing as a dumb question. He asked that I not simply “tiptoe” around the issue, but that we brought it out into the open.
So when I came to him and said, “I think this is what’s going on with me”, I reminded him of his early request of me and how I had responded in kind, and asked him to do the same with me regarding this issue. Now the tables were turned, and it was my turn to ask him to be up-front and open about any questions, concerns, misgivings, or anything else he had to ask or say.
The Stage: Over the past two months, in typical Aspie-style, I have delved deeply into this New World of Asperger’s and the Spectrum and Google does not disappoint. I have found wave after wave of information, including firsthand information from the blogs and op-ed writings of Spectrumites, published research papers in scientific research journals, cutting-edge clinicians, pioneering authors, brave and articulate advocates, fellow members of social media-based support groups…the list goes on and on. I was almost overwhelmed (in a positive, exciting way) with newfound awareness, appreciation (versus mere “acceptance”), identity, understanding, insight, and a sense of community, even if each of us was on our own little island.
It’s easy for us newly-realized Aspies/autistics to become entirely engaged and swept into the tide of liberation, relief, insight, knowledge, and camaraderie. In fact, it’s a good thing. Finding out the truth about ourselves could indeed be the very first time we might’ve ever had satisfactory clarity, it might be the closest we’ve ever come to self-acceptance. Our heads are in a whirlwind. Our entire lives have been transformed.
But guess what? If we have family, friends, or significant others, they’re going to go through a process of their own, too. With any luck, they’re now trying to go back and make sense of everything they can think of, past and present. They’re trying to reach a new understanding and view you through the lens of this new awareness. They might have a lot of questions. They probably won’t know how to handle each situation. With their newly-acquired insight, they, too, are having to remind themselves what is actually happening, for example, during a meltdown or shutdown or why you might look at them funny for something they said that was meant to be a joke. They’re adjusting to the new “validity” of your quirks and needs, and the newly-realized reason(s) behind them. They, too, are having to adjust to the Whole New You.
With that in mind, and trying my best to apply the appropriate filters, I began to forward links from some of these websites to my partner by email. (Doing this by email, by the way, solved several potential issues: 1) we often had different sleep and work schedules, so I could send these links any time that was convenient for me, and he could read them any time that was convenient for him; 2) he could visit these sites and read the information for himself, rather than having to get all the information through me; and 3) he could then explore other links or search for other terms or ideas as he thought of them, in the privacy of his office or iPad.) I did my best to send him only links that were applicable, accurate, relevant, descriptive of my experience, informative, and unique (i.e. not six links to the same topic where one link would have sufficed).
Although he rarely told me that he read them or what he thought of them, I know that he did indeed oblige me and read the linked articles and posts. I know this because his approach toward me changed. It got gentler, more accommodating, more understanding.
The Scene: A few nights ago, I decided to “interview” him. It’s not like I had planned out a specific list of questions; this was more like a short-essay question: “what has this whole process/experience been like from your perspective?”
At first he said that it was too early to tell, because, in his words, he was “still processing”.
I pressed further. “That’s OK. I realize it’s early in the game and this is a big deal, and you may not have reached many concrete conclusions yet. But I would like to get your initial or early thoughts before too much time passes and those thoughts fade away.”
So he obliged. I took notes, trying not to let that disrupt or distract his thought process or put him too much on the spot. Because of his vision issue, I didn’t ask him to write this post himself, as it would have been physically difficult for him. So instead, I did my best to organize what he said into definable themes and I put his exact words in quotes. (He tends to communicate and express himself very vaguely–you can imagine how, combined with my need for specifics, this frequently causes discord! So I also did a fair amount of paraphrasing.)
He said that looking at me as an Aspie clarified certain characteristics that had previously been mysteries. He said, “you don’t see ‘that’ (‘that’ being anger or depression); you see ‘this’ (‘this’ being sensory overload or social exhaustion).” He went on to analogize it: “it’s like a spiderweb; with plain vision, you see a web of thin white thread. Shine a UV light on that same web, and all these intricate iridescent patterns emerge.”
He gave an alternate example: “or like realizing you’ve been colorblind all this time, when you didn’t know before. There is this whole spectrum of colors you never saw but didn’t realize it.”
He gave a third scenario: “it’s like on Greatest American Hero where this guy got a super-suit and the instruction manual falls out and gets lost in the desert and so the guy with the super-suit didn’t have the instructions, and eventually he starts learning all the cool things the suit can do. It’s like you spent your life with a super-suit that you had no clue how to use.” (He meant the last part to be sympathetic, not callous.)
He said, “the first thing I thought when you said, ‘I think I have Asperger’s…’ was to learn more. I read the Wiki entry (on Asperger’s)….now, you may not like everything it has to say, but that’s where I started, so hear me out…I thought to myself, oh. My. Goodness. That’s her.”
His next profound thought was in regards to an employee who had recently left our office (due to multiple issues, but she had implied that much of the blame for the problem(s) should be pinned on me). He’d had a light-bulb moment: “This is one reason why we had so much strife; different communication styles clashing head-to-head.”
He has now been able to get closer to figuring out “who you truly are. Now we have an answer. Now we have an instruction manual.” He felt like he finally had a blueprint that showed him how to relate to me. He said, “you already know all these things about yourself, you’ve been analyzing them throughout your life, that I’m just finding out.” (He said this in a very neutral, nonjudgmental way.)
He said, “at work, (the employee) and I would look into your office see you playing with your hair (one of my stimming activities) and we thought, what are you doing? Don’t you have a deadline to meet? Get to work! Now, I understand what you were doing, why you had to do it; you were thinking something through more deeply, or simply taking a mental break, either of which was totally legitimate. It took me a bit to understand that you were indeed going to get your work done and that I should butt out and not worry about it.” (Note: he had never said anything to me about this before; these were all thoughts that he and the employee had thought or said to each other, but had not expressed to me.)
He added, “when you first came to me with this assessment, I was going on faith. I’d see you get frustrated or sit there not doing anything and I started thinking to myself, OK, what am I dealing with; what am I really seeing here? And how do I apply this fresh Asperger’s insight to any other situation?” For example, he went on: “now I know why driving stresses you out, or why you need a routine. The things I would see before, I now know there’s something different going on, and now I have an idea as to why.”
He admits, “…but I’m still learning.”
Then, things got deep.
He confessed, “I started to think, my God, what she must be going through…is it inner hell and torment, or is a complete relieving release? I can only imagine that it was a little bit of both?” (I reassured him that what I felt was only the latter. The former had dominated off and on before my discovery, and the liberation and relief had begun to surface slowly, reaching crescendo as I made my discovery and armed myself with additional insight.)
“Then I started to realize that everything gets through (referring to sensory and neurological stimuli). If you can’t filter anything out, then what would that be like?” His voice turned to humility and awe. “Then I thought, wow, that’s a strong person who can go out in the world, interact with clientele, and function, while getting neurologically deluged.”
Then he treaded cautiously: “I thought, what does this mean? What does this mean to her? I don’t know.” He wrestled with himself. “I thought, how do I respond? Do I feel sorry for her? OK, we know now that her quirks and challenges aren’t her fault. That must be good for her to know. Maybe it must feel devastating to find out you’re not ‘normal’? Or, would you be more relieved not to be ‘normal’?”
Then, you could tell that underneath the cool, aloof exterior, a wisp of selfless pain began to escape, tattling on a much bigger torrent normally kept under strict guardianship…
“What bothers me on a deep level is to think, how many kids on the spectrum have had their lives devastated because they had an overbearing, volatile, non-understanding parent or teacher? How many lives have been wrecked and wasted, because those people never got the opportunity to shine?” (The last part refers to the Human Right to be yourself and develop your gifts and talents, no matter what your neuro-type, to not get stuffed down or thrown away, to not be ignored or ridiculed, to not be abused or abandoned. He feels deeply for those to whom this has happened.)
The Commentary: My partner is an amazing man. He has one of the most open minds I have ever seen, one that teeters tightly between logically detached and wholly accepting. If he was ever skeptical or doubtful of my self-assessment, he didn’t show it; if skepticism ever entered his mind, he was wise enough to research the topic beforehand and give me the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.
I appreciate his candor, his openness. I admire his honesty and openness of mind. I adore his sharp analytical power, as well as his willingness to call things as he sees them, without political correctness or the socially-acceptable double-speak that drives us Aspies and autistics batshizz crazy.
I’m very grateful for the time he took to put his thoughts into words and his agreement to sit down with me when I’m sure he would rather have spent those few hours (yes, this took a few hours) watching one of the “cult classic” movies in our collection.
Last but not least, I admire him for sticking with me, through every quirk, meltdown, shutdown, snappy comment, communication clash, and missed joke over the last 17 years; he remained steadfastly committed, despite not having the instruction manual that would have decoded all of my unusual characteristics for both of us.
The Epilogue: The next morning, after reading him a couple of excellent posts from several Aspie-based blogs, I approached him, timidly. I asked, “so…hitting the ‘Total Button’ on this whole thing and summing it up very simply: knowing the truth about my neuro-type and the fact that many of these quirks are not going to go away, are you still attracted to me?”
Know what he said?
He said, “actually, I’m more attracted to you. I never realized that you thought that way, so complex, or felt things that deeply.”
(Image Credit: “Two Wolves” by Heather Gill)