After several weeks of juggling various projects and generally bumbling the whole executive functioning thing, I’m finally getting around to transforming my presentation on neurologically mixed relationships into a series of blog posts. And I say posts, plural, for a few reasons.
For one thing, my presentation was just over an hour long. No one wants to wade through that wall of text. Plus, the actual content that I wanted to cover in the presentation would have taken an entire day or more to go through. Now that I can include everything, I will—it’s my blog, goshdarnit!
This post is an intro to the metaphor of neurotype as culture. In the following posts, we’ll begin the more in-depth dissection of autistic and neurotypical culture, and how these “cultural” differences affect relationships.
As a child, I assumed relationships were something that just happened.
I knew that if a cartoon movie had two main characters, they would usually wind up Together (The End). I thought romance was essentially a product of proximity.
Another lie my childhood media consumption taught me was the whole “Happily Ever After” thing. You win the heart of your complimentary character foil by existing near them until they inevitably fall in love with you, and then you’re instantly and unceasingly happy. Forever. Obviously, that’s just what any good relationship is like, right?
Pop culture doesn’t like to waste time on the boring stuff, like how to make a relationship work, or that it takes any effort at all. In the land of ~Happily Ever After~ a relationship either works or it doesn’t.
Strangely, it’s only relatively recently (in the grand scheme of things) that people have become comfortable talking openly about the gray areas of relationships. Talking about things like arguments, frustration, and (GASP) couple’s therapy.
Relationships are hard! Even the best, most ideal relationship takes work. What’s more, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for the perfect relationship.
All relationships are different, but some relationships are more different than others.
(Is it inappropriate to make an Animal Farm reference in this context? Whatever, I thought it was funny.)
By the way, when I say “neurologically mixed relationships,” I’m not talking only about romance. While that will be my primary focus, a romantic relationship is still a social relationship at its core. Most, if not all of the information I intend to cover in this series is relevant to any type of relationship. My intent is to create content that can be equally useful for anyone, single or partnered, autistic or not.
So, I assume we already know that autism supposedly affects interpersonal relationships.
(Meaning, both relationships between each other, and relationships with allistics.)
Autistic people often need extra help in learning to navigate social situations—especially when interacting with allistics!
The important thing to remember is that we can learn.
Autistics usually have highly developed declarative memories. That means we’re good at conscious recall. It’s the kind of memory used to spell a word at a spelling bee, not to be confused with the kind of memory used to ride a bike. (Though I will admit that we often have pretty weak working memories, but that’s a whole other topic.)
We use our declarative memories constantly to do things that otherwise come naturally and unconsciously to allistics. And we can use our declarative memories to intentionally learn how to understand and interact with others.
While social connection is an enormously complex collection of processes, and an autistic can never be expected to “overcome” that by effort alone, we can use declarative memory to improve self-awareness and help develop an analytic understanding of social interaction.
But, autistics aren’t the only ones with problems!
Allistics need to learn to understand autistics in order to work together.
It takes two to communicate, and it takes two to have a communication problem.
All too often, the burden to communicate “correctly” is placed entirely on autistic people.
It’s true that an autistic person who wants to interact with allistics does need to put forth effort to improve their self-awareness and communication skills.
But, it’s often even more important to remember that an allistic who wants to interact with autistics needs to make the effort to learn how to communicate with the autistic people in their life!
Accurate, mutually-beneficial communication is always an act of compromise, no matter who’s involved.
Neurological Culture Shock
The challenge of a neurologically mixed relationship can’t just be reduced to “normal” vs. “disordered.”
It’s an issue comparable to two conflicting cultures trying to interact.
While things like cognitive empathy and communication are still issues in relationships where both parties are autistic, these things are even more difficult when only one partner is autistic.
One of the most difficult barriers to a successful relationship between an autistic and an allistic is the difficulty the allistic has in empathizing with their autistic partner. There’s so much focus on the autistic squeaky wheel that it can sometimes be difficult for allistics to recognize when they need to practice empathy too!
It’s important for allistics in the autism community to understand that we all live in a neurotypical culture.
Difficulties in communication and empathy in mixed, autistic/allistic pairings can in many ways be likened to a culture clash.
This analogy is one I first heard from Dr. Stephen Shore, a wonderful man and autistic advocate. Stephen likes to say that one of the reasons he and his wife connected and understood each other so well when they first met is that they both knew what it felt like to be cultural outsiders—he being on the autism spectrum, she having only just immigrated to the US from China. (I recommend his memoir, Beyond the Wall, to anyone interested in the full story.)
All autistic people identify in some way with the feeling of being an outsider, a misfit, or having been born “on the wrong planet.” The metaphor of autism as a culture usually makes intuitive sense.
While autistic people don’t have a true, united culture in the anthropological sense, our physiological differences result in practical differences that mimic a united culture.
Interestingly, many of the “social difficulties” involved in autism don’t cause the same problems when autistic people are socializing with each other. Things like autistic conversation style, topic choice, nonverbal communication, and so on, can seem strange and even alienating to allistics, yet perfectly fine to other autistics.
Of course, there are infinite reasons why making social connections is difficult for autistic people. In certain ways, connecting and maintaining relationships with fellow autistics can be even harder. And reaching out to others at all is a complex topic in and of itself. But there’s a reason why autistic people actively seek to create “safe spaces”—like ANI’s Autreat—where we can be our own autistic selves, comfortably blending with an autistic majority.
I would argue that many, if not most of the disabling aspects of autism are not “autism” so much as the environment, expectations, and norms of the dominant culture.
(As well as comorbid conditions that are also not “autism,” as often discussed by Amy Sequenzia, but that’s a topic for another day.)
To quote the blog Autism Through Cats, “We’re disabled by the way it’s socially acceptable to wear strong perfume that makes us feel ill but it’s not acceptable to cope with stress by rocking.”
When it comes to forming relationships—either friendly, professional, or romantic—we’re often disabled by our different social rhythms and priorities, and our sensory perceptions.
We’re disabled by the fact that normal autistic behaviors are seen as rude, crude, and antisocial. Our intentions are misinterpreted, our natural body language is seen as a lack of body language, our emotions are misread, our sensory needs and pains are dismissed, our conversation structure is seen as self-absorbed, and our expressions of empathy are read as uncaring.
Even if we don’t always come out and say it, everyone knows that the autistic minority has to adapt to an alien culture that won’t adapt to us. When you play the game of social integration, you win or you die.
After all, there’s a reason why the mainstream philosophy is to drill autistic kids with eye contact and handshakes. The physical pain and psychological trauma of autistics is secondary to the minor confusion of allistics, when those allistics are the ones with the power to arrest us, hire us, or fire us.
We live amidst a neurotypical majority in a world where everything from clothing to infrastructure is designed without us in mind.
It’s disabling to be autistic in a neurotypical culture.