Ten years ago, I was filmed for a documentary about autistic adults shown on the ABC, along with three other autistic adults. In one scene I was talking about my difficulties feeling love with a partner. I said, “I think I would only go out with an autistic partner because at least we would understand one another.”
That statement was a difficult thing for me to say at the time. I had never felt much love for human beings. In the few sexual relationships I had, I usually just found my partners confusing and slightly irritating. I certainly didn’t feel anything like love. I believed I must be a broken human being to be devoid of this characteristic that has inspired poets and artists for generations. I believed that, because of my autism, I was deficient at something other people seemed to find second-nature.
I imagined I would live my entire life not ever feeling love. I thought about what a horrible person I must be. I really wanted to be able to experience love, but when I tried to understand what love felt like, I couldn’t get it. As far as I saw it, my autism stripped love from me and meant I was incapable of the feeling. While I no longer feel that way, I felt less than human. I related my experience to the android character Mr. Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” — a machine, and functional as a human in all aspects except that he the lacked emotions the human crew members took for granted.
Thankfully, I have the wisdom of 10 years’ experience to challenge some of my own unhelpful thinking around the issue of autism and love. I discovered I am asexual and aromantic a while back. This means that having a partner for me was more based on my wish to do what other people expected me to. I had no desire for love or closeness, which I never got from sex or romantic intimacy anyway. The reason I didn’t feel love for my few partners was simple — I didn’t love them. You can’t really manufacture love.
Another thing I discovered quite unexpectedly was that I had immense love when my first niece was born. I was overwhelmed by it. I felt like it filled the room and went out the door and out into the world, probably making people smile in the next suburb! It was like nothing I had experienced before. And then a couple of years later, my second niece came into the world, and a while after that, my nephew. I felt great love for those three beautiful little people. I also feel love for my mum — lots of it — and my dad. I love some of my friends, too. And I’m sure my naughty, beautiful little black cat Mr. Kitty occupies a large part of that bit of my brain that feels love and closeness. There really is nothing like the bond between an Aspie and her pet.
My love for people is not some kind of overwhelming thing I feel all the time. There really aren’t any metaphorical fireworks. It is a sensible emotion, sitting somewhere between joy and care. It is reliable and and gentle. I suspect that most people’s love might be like that. What we see in movies is probably an exaggeration, but a lot of us see that as the benchmark. In fact, I think for autistic people, seeing those sweeping emotional portrayals of love in films and books can be really confusing, Like me, they may worry they are cold emotionally because they don’t feel the need to lay down their life for someone or write “I love you!” in the sky.
Another thing I have realized over the years is that I am filled with love. I know this because I care so very much about all the people who come into my life through my autism advocacy. I put in thousands of hours of time in mostly unpaid writing, public speaking and representation. Those hours and my willing work have come from a place of love. There can be no other reason to it. I want to make a kinder world for autistic young people and for them to avoid all the misery I went through in my youth.
So yes, I don’t have a partner or a bunch of my own kids to love, but I have lots of love in my life.
I think the stereotypes around autistic people lacking love come from a place where the experience of love for an autistic person is not understood and is thus dismissed. Like all stereotypes, it has come from place of misunderstanding and unwillingness to listen to the autistic view.
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