“Autistic aloneness”

My horoscope for July 10 says “Your no-nonsense approach will cut through all the emotional garbage that others are trying to lay on you. You don’t care about feelings, you care about facts; and if the facts say “so long” you’ll happily cut the ties that bind.”

Some people would say that describes me to a T (whatever that means…what is this T thing? A T-square?) and to a certain point that is true. I don’t like drama (which is what people typically call big displays of emotion or neediness), and I am very uncomfortable when people become needy with me and seem to want me to be their Mom or their wise big sister or whatever. I think people mistake my aloofness for wisdom sometimes, or my sense of humour and affable “office face” for “warm fuzzy person,”  usually with disastrous results.

People also ask me why I don’t date. I am what the autistic community calls “high-functioning,” meaning that I have crafted a pretty decent “exterior” for myself, my “persona” if you will. So, besides being able to function reasonably well at my job, to many people I also look like a good catch romantically. I’m funny, I can be friendly, I don’t look like a troll (much) and I’m smart.

The truth is, though, that although I make a good first impression, I can’t actually sustain the illusion much longer than that. The conundrum, of course, is that I do tend to crave more than an arm’s-length superficial relationship with other humans (to know/understand someone else, and to be known/understood), but I can’t do it. For me at least, I think that’s the crux of the “autistic aloneness” that researcher Leo Kanner described when he first coined the term “autism” back in the 1940s.

Aspergians are prey animals.

Temple Grandin describes this push-pull/approach-avoid feeling very well in her autobiography, Emergence: Labelled Autistic. As a child she craved human touch, but simply could not stand the “engulfing” feeling that body contact produced. As a small kid she would get under the sofa cushions & have family members sit on them, and the squishing feeling gave her a feeling of calm and connectedness. Later she built her famous “squeeze machine,” modelled after a cattle chute on her aunt’s ranch, and she still uses a modern version of that today to calm herself.

(I have never tried this because I don’t think I’d like that much weight on me, or the feeling of being confined. Like most people on the autism spectrum — and like the prey animals Grandin compares us to — I loathe “light” or sudden touch and am more comfortable with a heavier touch, if anything at all, but I think the squeeze machine would bother me. I calm myself with exercise, routine, or by being around animals and nature.)

Like many autistic people, Temple Grandin has decided to be celibate, an arrangement that works for her. Other people with autism and Asperger’s manage to date and have relationships. John and Chris, whom my friend “Dr. Smiter” wrote about in another article on this site, both date. Daniel Tammet is in a relationship and John Elder Robison is married with a son.

I have tried dating, and been in some relationships. But they always end, and they usually end the same way – misunderstandings, fights, cold silences or screaming matches, bad feelings and resentment all round.

Fully functional.

Someone asked me not that long ago (really, the things people ask) whether the problem was sex, whether I can “do” sex. Well, in the words of  Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, “I have been programmed with multiple techniques and am fully functional.” So, no, that is not the problem.

(And obviously if I knew what “the problem” was, I’d be a very rich person, and probably would not have Asperger’s. )

I guess it comes back to that push-pull/approach-avoid. When I experience an “attraction” to someone, whether it’s a crush or simply a desire to be friends, it is usually on the basis of some sort of shared interest. I won’t say that I’m indifferent to looks or how a person carries themselves — I can appreciate a nicely sculpted body as much as the next person, and people who don’t know how to behave in public make me cringe. But mostly I like the idea of having someone to do things with: hiking, biking, collecting things, playing board games, watching TV or movies, interacting with animals.

And, somewhat surprisingly, I actually like having another person to sleep with at night. Probably the same way that wolves & puppies like to “den up” and cuddle next to each other. Maybe the darkness makes others less threatening. Who knows.

Unfortunately, in my experience, these things always blow up in my face once the dynamics turn to serious romance: once things move to a “deeper” level, with a lot of give-and-take expected, then misunderstandings and thwarted expectations rear their ugly little heads, and pretty soon the whole thing is wrecked.

I HATE this game.

To me it feels like the person has asked me to play Monopoly: I love board games, but Monopoly is a game I happen to hate — it makes me nervous and irritable, and I end up angrily walking away from the table. It’s almost like things are better as an anticipation for me, a romantic dream or a what-if, rather than trying to negotiate my way through the (for me) pointless minefield of human interaction. I just can’t do it.

Sometimes I wonder if people see me as the Snow Queen or something. I seem to intrigue others (and a couple of people have confirmed this), but I don’t — can’t — let them in over the “drawbridge,” beyond a certain point, that point being simple friendship. I don’t do this on purpose, obviously, or with the intention of hurting people; I am not a mean person, although some thwarted suitors and friends certainly have described me as a bitch, unfortunately.

I think it stems more from the “prey animal”-esque need to protect myself — Temple Grandin argues that all people with autism are prey animals, programmed to flee, because of the way our brains are wired, and I tend to agree. I used to get this feeling when I was in high school and someone would invite me to a dance: I would want to go, want to be part of the fun, but I can’t dance and crowds and noise frightened me, so I would make an excuse and not go, and then feel lonely and kind of stupid all night.

From what I understand, people without Asperger’s and autism also feel these sorts of things. A lot of people nod their heads when I talk about such things and I think partly this is because they can relate to (empathize with) similar experiences in their own lives.

But for me this is almost the definition of Asperger’s: I am a prey animal at heart, and more than anything, I need to keep other humans at arm’s length, where I can see what they’re up to.

That’s all for now.


4 thoughts on ““Autistic aloneness”

    • Thanks for your comment! Oh my goodness, your son is definitely not alone! Is he on Twitter at all? Have him search for #Asperger in the terms and follow some of the huge number of us who have it. He will soon find that he is among friends. :))

  1. I am 65 years old and just found out that I have aspergers. After some reading, I have come to the conclusion that this latest diagnosis fits like a glove. I finally understand my life. It’s been an emotionally trying life. Now I know why. To be honest, I think that the only thing I do feel is loneliness. It permeates me. Life is much easier alone but I still feel like I must be missing something. But, I don’t know what it is. Enough said I guess.

    • It can be very lonely being Aspie. I have found that instead of seeking out Asperger/ASD groups, I seek out groups of people who share my interests. Have you tried looking in MeetUp lists for folks who like the same things you do?
      Have a look at John Elder Robison’s books, too — “Be Different” has some excellent insights for Aspies and I highly recommend it.

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