I’m not exactly neuro-typical myself, but I test as very much not autistic. Nonetheless I seem to have a particular attraction to others who are also neuroqueer, and particularly women that are on the autistic spectrum. Perhaps it has something to do with my enjoyment of clever, interesting brains that think differently to me, or perhaps it is my love of enthusiasm. Who knows, but whatever it is there are a few things that I’ve learned in relationships with autistic women, that I’d not really understood as clearly before these relationships.
1) Direct communication is really hard
I am a pretty direct person. When I lived in Ireland I permanently felt like a bull in a china shop, and others have described me as a “force of nature” for the good and bad that brings. Nevertheless there is a whole other level of directness that is not quite required, but certainly desirable, in relationships with many autistic women. Frankly they live in a world that isn’t really made for them, and by persisting in going around the houses and speaking in metaphor or trying to soften something by drawing parallels means being part of the wider problem. Making their life more full of anxiety and unnecessary stress simply by trying to be “nice” or “polite”. Moving past attachments to socially constructed standards of politeness and into direct conversations where you don’t expect the other person to read your mind is hard to learn to do –and hard to remember having conflicts. It feels counter-intuitive, and I feel like I am saying really horrible and hurtful things at times, when really I’m just expressing my emotions. My partners, on the other hand, go from looking perplexed and completely stressed out when I’m trying to “soften the blow”, to understanding and compassionate when I tell them more directly. It is an all around win.
2) Direct communication is really easy
I know, I contradict myself. But once you’ve learned to communicate directly and put it in to practice regularly it feels great! I feel more authentically myself. I feel like there is more room for both of us to have feelings and to talk honestly about ourselves, our relationships, our pasts. It is healing. It is like stepping out of a toxic culture that requires us to abide by unwritten rules and to be really ourselves. It’s like coming out as queer all over again, and it brings with it some really wonderful freedom.
3) Other people experience the same sensory input very very differently – and that’s awesome.
Of course I knew that my experience of music, culture, touch, language and the world in general wasn’t universal. But I didn’t really realise quite how diverse experience of these things could be. My autistic partners have given me a window into that. Some of their experiences are way more intense than mine in a really wonderful way. They enjoy music or sound or sensation at a depth that I simply can’t. The flip side is that sometimes those same things are overwhelming. The experiences that I’ve had with my autistic partners have helped me to be more comfortable with the intense reactions that I have had to PTSD triggers. To understand these as parts of the human experience that may be different to most other people, but I’ve never really wanted to be “normal” anyway, whatever that means.
4) Routine can be liberating
These are words I never thought I’d say. Ever. I am not a routine person. I didn’t think it would ever be something that would work for me because I prefer variety to routine. What I have learned is that actually routine can be excellent for stabalising my mood, making my relationships work better and also giving me a level of consistency that I lack when my job is varied and my life is a bit of a rollercoaster. Having things to hold on to that happen every day can be bloody wonderful. It can create something stable and supportive and wonderful amid a sea of uncertainty and there is something lovely about that. It is also clear that it makes at least some of the autistic women in my life very happy. It gives them much more than it gives me, it seems. They seem to thrive on knowing what makes them happy and making it a regular part of their day or week. That sense of loose control – making sure that the routine isn’t too constraining, but supports their happiness seems to be a big and wonderful source of pleasure.
5) Trust can be really easy
I am a person that really likes to trust her partners, so generally speaking I do tend to believe what they say. With many autistic women that I love trust is much simpler than it has been in previous relationships. In general when someone professes commitment to two seemingly inconsistent viewpoints I tend to think they are, not lying exactly, but being misleading in respect of their commitment to one of the two. With my autistic friends and partners I assume something quite different, that these things are likely compatible to them and I need to ask more questions to figure out how. I trust that they will be telling me the truth, because in my experience lying is both outside their values and also far more work than it is worth. This makes it really easy to trust that what they say is true, just not always in the way I assume.
Like with any relationship there are both joys and challenges in relationships with people with brains that are different to mine on a really fundamental level. Sometimes the almost algorithmic way that the autistic women that I know and love think is scary to me as someone who responds to a lot of emotional needs very intuitively. Sometimes I feel like those algorithms are cold and unfeeling – but most of the time I recognise that they are a way to understand the many and complex feelings that would be overwhelming to my people without structure to contain and understand them. In these relationships, more than most, I feel challenged to be my most authentic self. The self who claims space for herself, who fearlessly (and sometimes fearfully) expresses needs and desires, the self who can celebrate the joys that difference can bring. These relationships bring me back to my childhood in a classroom where my cohort spoke at least 15 different languages, and whose school motto was “united we learn”. I’m still in love with learning.
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