When I was 15 years old, a boy moved in across the street.
Naturally, he was the cutest and dreamiest boy I’d ever seen, with his green eyes, freckle-covered pink cheeks and a bowl haircut that would’ve put Julius Caesar’s to shame.
More than anything, I longed to be close to him, to see my almost-immediate crush on him blossom into a full-blown relationship. When we’d hang out in his room after school, I was constantly glued to his side.
“Amy, come look at something on the computer.”
Whoosh! Now I’m 3 inches from his face, staring intently at him instead of the screen in front of us. (Personal space? What’s that?)
I am autistic, and for awkward teenaged me, physical closeness was a proxy for emotional closeness. At the time, I did not have the tools or ability to create the latter, so I (over)compensated with the former.
An early harsh lesson in intimacy.
What no one told me then, and what I didn’t realize until years later, is that intimacy takes a long time, and it is not something you can force into being. It starts with trust, with the willingness to allow someone into your personal space and vice-versa, and it grows with the aid of continual and clear communication.
On a visual level, there are certain actions or gestures that we know and interpret as intimate: Kissing, touching someone’s face, hands or other body parts. For individuals on the autism spectrum — especially those with sensory issues — all of these tend to present a challenge, and on top of that, visual depictions stop at the surface, barely exposing the tip of the intimacy iceberg.
Like autism, intimacy is a spectrum.
Intimacy can and often does look different for people on the spectrum than it does for neurotypical folks. Sometimes intimacy is simply sitting quietly in the same room with someone, tolerating their presence in your private environment. Whatever form it may take, intimacy runs deep, and there is no one way — no right or wrong way — to be intimate with someone.
When I was 22 years old, I had sex for the first time.
I believed, as had been the case in almost every movie I’d seen up until then, that after we finished making love and were covered in a glowing sheen of passion, there would be some sort of cuddling. I felt prepared for this, and when he returned from the bathroom after washing up, I turned to him expectantly.
“No,” he said, facing away from me when I asked if he wanted to cuddle. “I’m really tired.”
So I left him alone and laid there in the suddenly cold bed, also alone, sleeplessly staring at the ceiling and wondering what I had done wrong.
Intimacy is unselfish.
Another challenge I faced as a woman on the autism spectrum was a long-held belief that, because I could not always articulate or express my needs, everyone else’s needs mattered more. But to achieve true intimacy, all parties involved must have their needs taken into account.
Above all else, intimacy takes work.
Intimacy requires patience, kindness and a lot of understanding. There will always be people trying to solve the great mystery of intimacy, and there will always be shelves full of self-help books and angst-filled rock ‘n’ roll songs on the subject. But where the journey is inherent for neurotypical people, autistic individuals are made to convince others that we are worthy of the same opportunity.
When I was 23 years old, I had my heart broken.
The boy who turned away from me that night turned my love away for good, and I was devastated beyond words. Even though the heartache I experienced then was the worst pain I have ever felt, I am grateful I had the opportunity to feel it, and through it, find strength in myself.
Intimacy brings with it the possibility of both joy and pain, exhilaration and sorrow, love and loss. It can come in different forms and shapes and be complicated or simple. And while being autistic sometimes makes it challenging to be intimate, it is a part of the human experience that should always be open to those who want it.
A version of this story was first published on Autism Speaks.
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