Before I get too far into this, I’m going to say something very blunt and possibly shocking to some. In fact, it might piss some people off. And it might make others cheer.
Most of the articles I’ve seen written on this topic approach the subject as though…
- There’s a problem in the relationship,
- That that problem lies exclusively with the Aspie/autistic person, and
- That the problem stems specifically from the Aspie-ness/autism itself.
And predictably, the crosshairs are then aimed solely at the neurodivergent person.
My answer to that, also predictably, is: Bullshit.
My mom always taught us kids that, in any aspect of any relationship, it always takes two. It takes two to communicate. It takes two to fight. It takes two to make it work, to make the relationship successful. (Naturally, I tried to come up with a counterexample to that, and the most extreme situation I could think of was one where one person is an addict and the other is not. And even then, it takes two. It must be recognized that both people have a problem, that both people need support, both people need counseling, and both need to go through a recovery and a healing process. Their perspectives and specific needs will be different, but the “issue” does not rest solely with the addicted person.)
The same concept applies to relationships involving people of different neuro-types. Too often, the focus–with a side-dish of blame–is entirely on the Aspie/autistic person, and that focus is not positive. Sometimes that focus does enter the territory of blame, as if the Aspie/autistic person is the sole reason for the discord in the relationship.
Let’s be pretty clear here: Asperger’s/autism is not some pathological monster that “stole” the neurodivergent person. It is not something that needs to be “fixed”, nor is it some disease that “affects” an Aspie/autistic person, or even the other people around them. (No, that wasn’t a typo; none of what I just said was a mistake.) We all “affect” each other. Everyone, whether on the spectrum or not, has their own personalities, quirks, and peculiarities that the other person must decide whether to live with…or not. It’s called Being In A Relationship. And it applies to everyone, no matter who they are or what their neuro-type.
So let’s do away completely with the idea that the Aspie/autistic person is somehow “inferior”, “broken”, or otherwise “sub-par”/”wrong” in some way. Because not only is that assumption flat-out incorrect (on so many levels), it’s also damaging to both people. And it will prevent any relationship (in which one or both people are on the spectrum) from truly succeeding.
The Aspie-ness/autism is not the problem here; it doesn’t need to be bred out of that person. That person should not have to change who they are or how they think in order to be “accepted” by the other person. The Aspie-ness/autism (with all of its challenges and gifts) is that person; it makes up and colors the very core of their being.
This is also true for the non-spectrum person; their non-spectrum-ness (sociability, “normalcy”, etc) makes up the core of that person. In order for a relationship to work, both people must love and accept each other for who they are. If both people are not willing to do this, there’s no point in entering a relationship with each other.
So if you’re in counseling and that counselor is focusing too much on the neurodivergent person and the spectrum-related characteristics that sometimes make it tougher for allistic (non-spectrum) people to relate to them, and attempting to coach the neurodivergent person to turn into something or someone that they’re not, RUN. That counselor has no clue. That counselor sees the spectrumhood as a problem, when really it’s more like a different culture.
Let’s consider, for a moment, two people of different cultures coming together for a dinner or business meeting. Each person’s culture has shaped them and is responsible for a big part of who they are. Each culture has its own priorities, values, “sins”, customs, habits, characteristics…you get the idea. For example, in one culture, it’s perfectly acceptable to consume pork, so serve up the ham at a holiday dinner; in another culture, the consumption of pork is abhorred–a big no-no.
Another example: some cultures don’t value domestic animals, and violence against them is tolerated and commonplace; in my culture, we do, and it’s a felony to abuse or kill them. A final example: where I come from, people think nothing of sitting with one ankle resting on the other knee, such that the other person can see the bottom of your shoe. In other cultures, allowing someone to see the bottom of your shoe is a severe insult, essentially sending the message that “you’re a lower being than the bottom of my shoe and you deserve to lay below my feet”.
Why the emphasis on cultures? Well, because Asperger’s/autisc and non-spectrum people each have a different culture, with different values, priorities, and customs. In the allistic/non-spectrum culture, they value beauty, flashiness, charisma, extroversion, conformity, diplomacy, sex, and socializing. They watch the mainstream news and mainstream movies, listen to mainstream music, follow the everyday goings-on of famous celebrities, and go “where the people are”–shopping malls, restaurants, etc, after work/school or on weekends. They don’t necessarily say what they mean. They like to “change things up”, sometimes just for the sake of change. They dress according to trends, even if the clothing is uncomfortable. They adhere to typical gender roles. They’re perfectly fine with mainstream public schools and typically adhere to mainstream organized religions, with varying levels of devotion. They live according to society’s expectations, and they’re fine with that.
On the other hand, Asperger’s/autistic people tend to value intelligence, diversity, genuineness, honesty, deeper conversation, limited conversation, calm, and quiet. We analyze someone for their “vibe” and/or level of “safety”, their intelligence level, and their “real-ness”, rather than the size of their breasts (for women) or muscles (for men). We usually don’t develop a sexual attraction to someone just by looking at them. Our TV shows and movies tend to run on the eclectic side, as does our taste in music and books (the non-spectrum people read far less in general). We value nature and animals, not as something to be simply used, but rather, treasured, valued, and loved. We’d rather stay in our carefully-crafted sanctuaries. We’re “blunt”, often wasting little valuable time in saying anything other than what we mean. We’re more comfortable with routine where possible, and don’t necessarily need to change something that we’re otherwise satisfied with. We dress for comfort and our own individual tastes. We see ourselves more as people than bags of skin with genitalia, and gender roles are often pointless to us. We do better in unconventional education and we often gravitate toward unconventional philosophies, other-culture religions, or general spirituality. We live outside of society’s expectations, and we’re fine with that.
So when two people–one from each of these cultures–comes together and attempts to build a life together…then what? Well, it depends. Often, the subject of relationships is a thorn in our side, and often, it’s because of a volatile and/or painful relationship history. Some of us begin to wonder if we’ll ever find love, “The One”, or ever succeed in a relationship period.
The short answer is: it takes adjustment. It takes understanding. It takes work. It takes love. It takes dedication. It takes commitment. It takes communication. It takes listening. It takes acceptance. It takes support. It takes effort. It takes flexibility and adaptation. It takes consistency. And it requires these concepts of both sides. Not just the Aspie/autistic person, and not just the allistic/non-spectrum person. The only time a relationship doesn’t require these things is when you don’t want to continue, when you want to end the relationship.
The long answer (what worked for us personally): stay tuned for Part 2! 🙂
(Image Credit: “World Unity” from Eticalgarve)