There are all kinds of relationships, but what people came here to find out is how to have friendships and a Significant Other. There’s no magic pill, but there are patterns we can learn to increase our chances of success.
Where do you find people who might be potential friends? When you do find a person who is willing to spend a lot of time with you and hold personal conversations, how do you turn that person into a special friend?
The hardest part of relationships is that, once you decide that you are lonely, or need more social interaction, or want to find a life partner, the first person that comes along is not likely to have the potential to fill any or all of these roles. Relationships begin to develop after you discover a person who "could" be a friend to you. And, because we autistics are a minority in the population, we will find that our potential best friends and life partners are also in the minority.
That means we need to work harder and meet more people before we find what we are looking for.
MEETING MORE PEOPLE
Where do you find this pool of people that might be potential lunch partners, friends, or even Significant Others?
The standard answer to that is churches or classes. The idea is that you meet people with similar backgrounds (the church you grew up in) or similar interests (the class). But, realistically, how many autistics will you find in a church fellowship/dating group?
I suspect that a better place to meet fellow autistically-inclined people is at groups that let people follow their perseverations. The group doesn’t have to be for your own perseveration, but if it’s something you are somewhat interested in, it serves as the vehicle to find others with a similar neurological setup.
Activities I can think of would be birdwatching, hiking, rocket club, chess program, science fiction convention, conservation club, model railroading, photography - any group that has members with that perseverative edge to their personalities.
Autistic spectrum conferences and support groups offer another place to meet people that may seem interesting and exciting to you. It’s true that you all return to your homes from the conferences, but you can keep in touch by email and work on advocacy issues together. Being part of a group that is affecting how the world will change in the future is a wonderful feeling. A local support group would give you more social contact and practice. The monthly meetings provide continuity and companionship. They allow you to meet more people as time goes by, and to get essential practice in “appropriate” conversation skills. Those neurotypical people get a lot more practice in communication than we do, and that accounts for a part of their greater skill at it.
Any of these are places you can meet people, get practice dealing with them socially, keep up friendships and exchange ideas between meetings, and learn to work together on projects. Right, it’s not finding the Perfect Other to accompany you through life, but it will provide a much more happy existence than staying by yourself except when you think you have located THE PERSON and are pursuing only them.
HOW TO CONNECT WITH THE PEOPLE YOU MEET
If you are used to having few or no social contacts, you tend to pour out your heart right away when you meet someone. Casual contact may feel like no contact at all, or like it is worse than no contact. That’s why it’s important to allow casual contacts into your life. The ongoing contact with people keeps the simmering stew of loneliness from erupting when you need to be able to observe and control your impulses instead. We who don’t have the instincts for socializing need to use our heads carefully when dealing with other people.
When you collect a pool of human contacts to work with, you can start using a way to sort them by appropriateness.
What kinds of characteristics do you seek in a companion? Ideas for that are:
Someone who shares your ethics
Someone who shares your lifestyle (spending habits, eating habits, pastimes, anxiety levels about household cleanliness)
Someone who is willing to discuss these issues and help work out arrangements that let both of you be yourselves in the relationship
Sizzle or comfort? How do you decide who is “The One”?
If you spend 2/3 of your time wondering whether the other person will call as arranged,
Or alternately dodging phone calls because they won’t let you have a minute’s peace ….
You need to work on the expectations you each have of the relationship
Probably the first requirement of a satisfying relationship is to be yourself. Larry Arnold in England gave me permission to quote some thoughts he has about relationships. He told me, “… any relationship based on falsehood is bound to fail eventually, and pretending not to be autistic is as big a falsehood as cheating on someone, because they will never get to know the real you.”
When your need for contact is so great, it can be hard to know whether you are actually in sync with a someone or just thinking positively. Loneliness can give you an urge to try to blend in and be what that person wants so that they will want to be with you more. If they go to lunch with you, then agree to meet you at a museum a week later, that does not turn them into a Significant Other, or even a Best Friend.
Many people will take part in short conversations or even a hurried lunch together at work or a conference, but will not let you close enough to be an actual friend. It’s up to you to decide if lunch with that person and an ongoing half-relationship, meeting six times a year is better than being lonely for those six times. You could look at it as networking. Perhaps sometime they will introduce you to other people and you can evaluate those persons for friendship. The relationship is a real connection at whatever level it turns out to be. It’s worth cultivating and continuing if you enjoy whatever company the person is willing to grant you.
There are people who are kindly and sympathetic, and could be close acquaintances if we allow them to remain in that position in our lives. But they will feel like escaping if we push them too hard to be closer. I would guess from my experiences that most neurotypical people have “fairly” close conversations with a large circle of acquaintances. They actually have few exceptionally close friends, or use their family members for that kind of relationship. They don’t feel the openness to immediately sharing parts of their lives that many of us display. I personally think of that kind of casual relationship as “networking” at this point in my life. I am finally comfortable with having a chat now and then and keeping up on the life of another person without being able to bare my agonized soul to them or having them do the same to me. Many of these people insist on a positive mood to these casual encounters, and will drop you if you moan on and on. A mention of depression, or the reasons for it, are permissible, but not talk about suicidal impulses, and not 20 minutes of perseveration on the benefits or non-benefits of various anti-depressants.
Apparently we autistics are famous for not understanding Body Language. But with practice we can learn to ask questions and that might help us with communication. “You were shaking your head but you didn’t say anything. Can you tell me what that meant?” is a legitimate question, and it might lead to untangling a relationship problem between you and the person who is there with you.
When you do find a person who is willing to spend a lot of time with you and hold personal conversations, it may still “only” be a “best friend.” But that is so much more satisfying than an “acquaintance” or a fellow club member that it’s very worth pursing. Whether the person is “a friend” or a potential partner, though, having an interest in common does NOT mean you will spend every moment together, working on that interest. No two people maintain perfectly synchronized perseverations. We all need our own space, and need to hear others when they tell us that they do, too.
Another statement Larry made: “I would want to hear that the conventional idea of a relationship is a cultural norm that is imposed externally and not something we should aspire to if we do not feel it is for just just because of outside pressure to conform.” In other words, we can find people who are different the same way we are, and design relationships of a type that suit us.
There are some ways that relationships have been carried on for hundreds of years, and we can try them as one tool in our package of ways to keep connected with other people.
Meeting for dinner conversation is the classic one. Sometimes we are so busy with our lives and perseverations that we have to “make a date” with our friends and relatives to keep up with what is going on in their lives. Some autistics can’t eat with other people, but there are alternatives. An almost-empty coffee house in mid-afternoon makes a quiet spot to chat, for instance. You chat doesn’t need to be small talk. It can be discussing a favorite ainterest, or making plans to pursue that activity.
For those not up to face-to-face conversation, there’s correspondence and online chat. Email is so easy – no postage needed, no walking out to the mailbox, just typing a few lines in between other chores while at home. You can make several exchanges a day, almost like holding a slow conversation.
Some of us keep several chat windows open throughout the day. By adding sound to the chat program, you can hear when the other person says something. Then you can make a response before going on about your business.
One more thing Larry Arnold told me about relationships was: “… I would like to hear that there are certain things you need to remember in order to sustain a relationship with regard to giving an equal tolerance to that you expect in turn, stuff about sharing, and how to make the other person feel comfortable in your presence and showing them the things they cannot see from your demeanour.”
That means that you have to be aware of the other person as a guest in your life. They were not issued to you, and you have no right to keep them if you don’t treat them properly. You need to be careful about not saying awful things to them just because you have a bad day. You do or say small things that reassure them that you value their presence in your life. Then they will look forward to returning to see you. They remain a guest forever. You stay true to yourself, not misrepresenting who you are, but you gently make space for them. No one will read your mind or mold themselves to you. You have to provide the space for them on purpose.
Sometimes relationship causes anxiety as it progresses. You aren’t sure what the person will do next, but often you feel off balance or uncomfortable. They may lie, or be unreliable with many good-sounding excuses. The anxiety caused by dealing with them can make the relationship feel very exciting.
Sadly, if you can’t agree on those expectations within a reasonable time, you need to break off the relationship. Otherwise you will be doing that same thing for months or years while the relationship continues. After starting to talk about the issue, if no progress is made you just set an amount of time that you will allow the behavior to continue. Depending on your patience, it could be 24 hours to three months. Sure, you could give them 20 years to change, but people seldom change and you could be trapped in a relationship that undermined your health and happiness all that time.
Here comes “That Subject” – Sex
We are all sexual beings, even without a partner. Our gender and sexuality is set by our chromosomes and hormones and probably other things we don’t know about yet. Our identities may be largely set by our surroundings. Very few of us, maybe almost none, feel simply genderless or without sexual feelings of any kind.
Because we are sexual beings, and have no choice in the matter, it is appropriate for us to learn about sex whether or not we have a partner. We WILL think about sex as far as our individual imaginations will let us. We may as well read or hear about healthy types of outlets and ways to behave that are socially acceptable. In institutions where people are not educated on the subject many develop uncomfortable and dangerous ways of dealing with their urges, accompanied by guilt because they do not understand what is driving their behavior. There are a lot of upbeat “how to do it” books out there, as well as some medical “how and why not to do it” books. Reading them can give a “normal, acceptable” model for daydreaming and ground us in what might actually be expected from a person in the later stages of establishing an intimate relationship.
Possible books – look up four or five titles.
If I went around giving advice to people, one of the main things I would advise is “Plan for sex - don’t just let it happen” Those raging hormones in our bloodstreams can completely blank out our brains. What they are shouting to us might be good for survival of the race as a whole, but that is often not what is best for our own long term comfort and happiness. At the very least, we need to know the backgrounds of our sexual partners and be prepared to prevent any of the bad things that happen when people are not careful about who they choose for a sexual partner. I’m not qualified to teach those details, but they are available in the educational books I have listed.
The thing I emphasized most with my own son when I was teaching him about these tings was that sex ideally forms and strengthens a bond between people. You want to make sure that your partner is the kind of person you can be comfortable having this kind of bond with.
You need to agree with the other person what behavior is OK. Sometimes you decide that some sexual behavior short of intercourse is OK for your relationship, sometimes it’s a matter of deciding just how “kinky” each partner wants to let things get. But there MUST be agreement and each person must stick to that agreement.
Diabetes and some medications can affect the ability to perform sex. They might even make it impossible. Fairly early in the relationship between a man and a woman, there needs to be an understanding of what “would be” possible if the relationship progresses. This is not the kind of surprise to present on the wedding night! Sometimes a change in meds can help, or tighter control of blood glucose over a period of time might help.
Affection in day to day life is something that women often say is lacking from their relationships. It tends to be a problem also when the other partner is on the autistic spectrum. There is no way you can be someone other than yourself, but you can take the time and trouble to do certain things to let your partner know you care.
One is physical stroking, just moving your hand over their shoulder or hand when you happen to be nearby – a little “love touch” to say “I care.”
There are other little acts of kindness that show you care – some might be leaving a sticky note on the bathroom mirror occasionally that says “I love you,” making time to sit still and talk to each other for a few minutes every day, anything that brings to your mind and the other person’s mind the knowledge that you take time and trouble to do something just for them, or just to “be with” them.
Saying NO is basic to relationship. Not being compliant pertains to more than sex. One of the most frequent complaints men have if they have active dating lives is that many women become “less nice” after a few dates. That’s because they believe that the way to catch a man is to be complaint, to do whatever HE wants to do. Then, after a few dates, they are uncomfortable not standing up for themselves, and they pull this personality change on the partner. Not fair! It’s important to be yourself, but politely, all along. Otherwise, how can you really know whether you would be comfortable for the long term?
Hearing NO. Making sure the other person is with you. Enthusiasm can make a person simply not notice another person saying NO. It’s hard to say no to someone you like and want to develop a relationship with. So when someone says NO to you, stop. No always means stop. Discuss it if you want to. But until a clear YES is heard, and you even check and say “Was that Yes, and did you mean it?” the answer is still NO. Again, this is not just about sex. People run right over other people’s opinions and rights and values all the time and don’t think a thing of it. Don’t be one of those people.
Along with instructions to hear the word NO clearly, we have the questions of What constitutes abuse? I have a long list of information here that explains what abuse is and is not. It has been provided by the American Bar Association, with the intention of teaching the public about this issue.
Copyright © 2003 Patty Clark and Jared Radin