Recently, I received a question from a gentle reader, who is non-autistic, but is involved with an Aspie/autistic person. I won’t give too much detail, but this kind person was perplexed by their significant other on the spectrum and, if I interpreted the inquiry accurately, was seeking some insight from “the other side” (i.e, someone on the spectrum).
This situation appears to be common. I’ve often heard/read that people “with” Asperger’s/autism are difficult to be friends with, get involved with, like, and love. Or that our loved ones can be bewildered by some of our mannerisms.
Sometimes, without realizing it or meaning to be this way, we can come across distant and uninterested, because although we care deeply for the friends and loved ones in our lives, we might not show it in the “usual” ways. Sometimes we can send the signals that we’re connected and committed, only to vanish into thin air or run with the ghosts.
There might be times which we’re actively participating, reciprocating, communicating, and engaging, and then suddenly, poof!–we fall off the radar, leaving the other person hanging in the wind.
What’s going on? Are we interested or not? Do we love the other person and want them in our lives or not?
I can’t (and won’t) try to speak for everyone on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. In fact, I can’t speak for anyone else but myself.
Since I’m married to someone who is similar to myself and we’ve been together for 18 years next month, we’ve got most of our wrinkles ironed out. But life isn’t all about marriage, partnerships, or any other type of romantic or committed relationship. Bonds with friends, family, and other types of relationships are relevant here as well. So, in the interest of being inclusive, I’ll extend “love” to mean any type of love, in any type of bond.
I can be yin and yang at times. I’m sure this is perplexing (at best) to some of the people around me.
I don’t mean to be cold, distant, aloof, or confusing. I don’t mean to hurt anyone, put anyone off, or push anyone away. I don’t mean to run cold.
So what is it?
I can offer a few personal explanations (each individual’s mileage may vary).
It might be that I’m preoccupied with something–not necessarily in a bad way, just super-busy. I’m not alone in my tendency to hyperfocus on a task at hand, and I may simply be so deeply immersed in it that I lose track of time.
Please don’t feel bad – during times like these, I’ll forget to eat, too! (Oops!) I can’t count how many late-night emails I’ve sent to my mom that have started out with “oh shizz, I forgot/was going to call you tonight!!”
Yep, it happens.
I might be preoccupied in a more stressful way. I might be staring down the business end of a rapidly-approaching deadline, unable to think of anything but the immense pressure weighing on me. I can literally feel it in my shoulders. I have yet to miss a deadline, and I work very hard to keep it that way. I don’t want to let anybody down, especially those who are depending on me. But everything–and unfortunately, everyone–else in my life has to take a temporary back seat.
Maybe I’m preoccupied with a niche subject of focus (also known as a “special interest”). During the time that I’m immersed in this activity, I might not realize how much time has passed.
It may be an executive function issue, manifesting as compromised time management skills.
I may be dealing with an urgent matter that has come up suddenly and unexpectedly.
I may be in the throes of a shutdown, unable to do or say much, much less interact with anyone.
Or perhaps my schedule is a little hectic, and I may indeed have spare time, but not necessarily during normal waking hours. Sometimes, by the time I get done with my work for the day, it’s already too late at night for the average person.
I may also be experiencing executive function issues relating to lost contact information. I may have misplaced a phone number or email address. I might be frantically looking for it, or maybe I had torn the apartment apart, searching for it, but given up a while back for lack of success. (This happens often; I assume that I’ll stumble across the missing information later, which also happens often.)
I might have gotten bombarded with email (I have a few friends and family members who like to send forwards, jokes, and other daily email), and an email from someone might have gotten buried under the pileup.
Or maybe it has to do with the an activity (such as calling someone or otherwise making contact with them) that’s outside my routine, as I’m fairly dependent upon my routine, and I’m much more likely to remember an activity that is a part of it as opposed to something that isn’t.
The truth is, Aspergian/autistic people make excellent friends, allies, family members, and acquaintances. We just have different ways of relating–ways that others may not fully understand.
What’s the approach? How does a neurotypical person relate to someone on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum?
Well, there are at least as many (or more) answers to that as there are people on the spectrum, but I may be able to shed a ray of light, even if the only person I can speak for is myself.
Understanding is key. Understanding is a key that unlocks the outside of the vault (“the vault” referring to the boggy mist that often fills an area between people of different neurotypes). Simply being aware of some of the possibilities–understanding the seemingly erratic It’s Probably Not You–may give you some peace of mind. It doesn’t change the situation, but it may brighten your feelings toward it. It’s also probably not our fault, either, as we’re all humans and Life Happens.
Understanding how the “average” (if there is such a thing) Asperger’s/autistic nervous system works, what the major traits are, and some of the underlying factors that give rise to some of those traits, can go an obscenely long way. Remember, we’re often extremely focused, routine-dependent, stress-sensitive people, for who time has such nerve to pass too quickly.
Patience is another key. Patience typically lists Understanding as a prerequisite, although there are exceptions to that rule. They sound alike, but they’re different. People who lack Understanding can still be patient and people who have Understanding can still lack patience, but typically they two go hand-in-hand.
Patience is crucial for me. I might have time management issues that cause me to run late, call late, fail to respond to emails or text messages, and I’m always extremely appreciative when someone shows me graceful patience. I might be dealing with something on an emotional level that knocks me off kilter and impacts my emotional state. I might run out of energy (“spoons”). I might have to cancel plans if I’m feeling the overwhelming urge to cocoon at home.
Striking a balance between giving enough space and showing one cares is important. This one can be tricky sometimes, but it’s not impossible. My partner often goes out with a friend one day a week, or perhaps on a several-hour-long walk on a beautiful weekend day. This gives us some Apart Time that can be very healthy and resetting for both of us. Then, when coming back together after being apart, it’s good if he’s not distant or unaffectionate.
Managing emotion and/or avoiding excess emotion is usually a good strategy, because many of us become overwhelmed by a lot of emotion. We’re not quite sure what to do with it, or how to react. Although this might seem cold or heartless at times, it isn’t. For many of us, this doesn’t have anything to do with a lack of emotion on our part; I believe it has much more to do with processing and attempting to respond/react properly/accurately. When someone is in distress, we might look like we’re just sitting there, not reacting. Chances are very good that we’re reacting inside, but not sure how to express it. If we’re silent or expressionless, we’re most likely trying to avoid saying or doing something wrong, something that we know based on (often painful) past experience will make the situation worse.
Reaching out, yet loving from a distance when applicable, is often helpful. My few good friends know that they can send me messages on social media, text me, or email me any time, and I’ll respond as soon as I’m able. “Able” might mean that I’m awake at 3am (and thus, if I’m texting them, I hope they have their mobile volumes on silent, or perhaps set to a “Do Not Disturb” mode at night, or something similar, so that I’m not waking them up) 🙂 “Able” might have a couple other different meanings, too…
“When I’m able” might mean:
- When I finally have the time to check Facebook
- When I finally have enough consecutive time to interact
- When I finally have enough energy to compose a response that won’t come off sounding wrong or send the wrong message
- When I eventually come out of a shutdown
- When I feel like I’ve made progress on the to-do list that otherwise hangs over me, inducing guilt at times
- When my brain finds itself in a particular “mode” in which it’s capable of communicating
- When I’ve had a chance to “chew on” or think through a response, consider about what I’m going to say
- When I have the energy to interact with another person
- When I have the energy to help another person and offer solutions or moral support, if that interaction involves such elements; and also, when I’m not in need of support or help myself
- When I don’t have an acute, pressing, or time-sensitive matter dominating my attention
- When I’m not completely exhausted from “peopling”, or I’ve had a chance to recharge
Indeed, a lot of elements must come together; a lot of variables must align. Each one of these can present a potential hurdle. On most days, that hurdle might be easily surmounted; frequently, however, at least one (or more) of those hurdles might be impossible or incredibly difficult to clear.
Sometimes, it’s surprising (at least, to me) that I can communicate at all. I even enjoy talking on the phone with three people in my life (!) But frequently, one or more of these hurdles gets in the way, and I fall short. To the other person, I appear uninterested, uncommitted, disengaged, distant, or uncaring; I promise, that’s not the case at all. And although I can only speak for myself, I feel comfortable saying that this likely applies to many of us, based on what I’ve seen/read/heard throughout the Asperger’s/autism spectrum community.
Speaking of communication, direct is best. Many people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum aren’t going to pick up on subtle facial expressions, hidden meanings, or social “graces”; if we ask what’s wrong and someone says, “nothing”, we’re usually going to take the at their word, so I recommend answering that way only if you mean it. I also find it very helpful and anxiety-easing if, when someone is feeling down, they explain to me that it’s not me, it’s not something I did. That’s a huge relief!
When confused or initially shocked/hurt by something we said or did, I recommend asking, “what did you mean by that?” or “tell me more” (I explore this strategy, and a few others, in greater depth in some early posts here and here).
In reality, we usually have huge, sensitive hearts. Combine that with a frequent lifelong confusion about the social rules and customs, and our needs for patience, gentleness, space, and balance become a bit clearer.
In reality, loving us is easy; the tricky part is getting used to our own mannerisms and customs, and perhaps decoding some of our behaviors in attempt to discover the true meaning/significance and understand what they mean.
In my own life, I’ve noticed that it does take exceptional (neurotypical) people to click with me; everyone else just sort of falls away at some point. Maybe they can’t handle my directness, or they can’t deal with my response lag-time. The special ones hang around. The special ones love me for who I am, and I’m eternally grateful for that–I always have been.
And I always will be 🙂