Bad date.

Why Understanding Consent Is Essential for People on the Autism Spectrum

Recently I read about a campaign on social media, which had caused some controversy, designed to teach young children about consent.  In weeks and months past, watching events unfold on the world stage, a common theme has been respect and relationship with others: how we interact as a species, decide others’ worth and how, accordingly, we treat them. The recent worldwide Women’s Marches have highlighted issues surrounding how those who hold the “power” dominate those they consider “other.” As such, much emphasis has focused on protecting rights based upon gender, religion, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation.

As children and adults on the autism spectrum, we may occupy a different place in our heads. Consciousness is not consciousness as other people experience it. You live in a space that is not entirely connected to your physical self or the world around you. I’m not sure if this is due to sensory differences, but it’s a distant place and often the connection to self feels as though you are being towed around like a balloon by the physical entity you are connected to far below. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the opposite: you feel like a balloon, towing around the entity that anchors you way down there. You may feel entirely at odds with it, like a badly fitting sweater: either too tight, hemming you in, not letting you speak; or too loose, tripping you up, too loud, too bright, too scratchy.

Much of a day on the spectrum may be spent traversing planes of existence, being jerked to and from the reality of your body and becoming palpably aware you have returned from another place, rudely reminded by the shock of light and sound around you. Stimming can keep you in the room and aware of your surroundings. The tap of fingers or thump of a foot can maintain a connection between body and self, providing a reminder of ownership of the vehicle.

This distance and disconnection between body and self can lead to a lack of understanding of others. A child on the spectrum may not realize they have verbal communication problems or appear “different” because their internal life is so very different from their external world. Only as they become older will they become aware, often hyper-aware in the case of girls, of their differences from other people.

When you are so far removed from your physical self in daily life, other people may seem alien. They occupy a space you don’t, and when you struggle to connect to self, understanding what you look like and how you appear to other people can seem like a nearly impossible task. When you are caught on a plane between body and soul, you have to find a platform on which to project yourself and find a mutual ground. And it’s exhausting being out there.

Other people’s body language and communication is foreign, and it can be hard to understand that not everybody is honest, or means what they say, or has your best interests at heart. It is hard to understand that another person might hurt or harm you. It leaves you vulnerable, both as a child and adult, because although you don’t exist in the same space as them, you still desire friendship and communication. Autism does not mean you do not experience love or compassion or empathy. In fact, a person can be flooded and over-whelmed by compassion and emotion to the point that it becomes overwhelming and overloading. If all your senses were burning, would you not look away from the source of the flame?

The differences can affect physical relationships and the way we interact with others. Because of the variation in physical connection between our minds and bodies, there can be an altered perspective of what might be considered “attractive.” People on the spectrum can be less likely to consider the physical and more likely to have a “soul” connection as that is where they live internally. An initial attraction may be more likely to be based upon soul qualities and then in turn physical than the other way around.

It is not uncommon for children and adults to experience abuse, both verbal and physical and not think to tell anyone.  We may not understand we have a right not to be treated in this way. It can be easy to manipulate either a child or vulnerable adult on the spectrum into believing that abusive behavior is appropriate because we often don’t understand deception, dishonesty and manipulation. It can be very hard to understand lying, or the purpose behind the lie. In girls, who often mimic the behavior of others and spend their lives attempting to conform, there is an increased danger of them going along with something they don’t want to do because they believe it’s “what everybody does” and they just want to fit in.

In times when the degradation of women, minorities and the vulnerable becomes widespread, it is even more important to teach children on the spectrum (and on any other spectrum of disability) the principles of respect and self-worth. It can seem easy to want to protect and shield them. Perhaps it’s harder for some adults to view them as humans who will grow up to have sexual experiences than a child without their difficulties.

I believe there is a greater responsibility to arm these children and adults with the knowledge and communication they require to understand their value in the world. They are individuals with unique talents and perspectives. It is important to show them what physical respect in relationships is, how they should not be touched without their permission, what it means to be in a loving relationship and why another person may want to take advantage of them.

It is important to allow their questions and provide a safe haven of trust, so if they come to you and tell you something has happened, they know that you won’t blame them, or tell them they have always been naive and make it their fault. If the time comes that someone treats them in a way that hurts and confuses them, they will need a place to turn to so abuse does not become the mainstay of their life and allow their uniqueness and value to be drowned out.

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Woman in gray sweatshirt shopping for toys

What I Wish More People Understood About Toys as the Parent of an Autistic Child

A young autistic boy had been asking his parents for a doctor kit. While “shopping” on Amazon, he added about 50 of them to our cart. During that week, he had therapy appointments, so Mama told him she’d take him to Walmart. He couldn’t wait to go shopping for a doctor kit.

This little boy is 10. In many ways, he’s wise beyond his years, but in others, he’s still a kid at heart. The day came to go to Walmart. The boy was so excited. He chattered nonstop about getting his doctor kit and playing vet with his dogs and stuffed animals. When he and his mama got to the toy section, he stopped. Suddenly he looked sullen and even scared. “Mama, you go first,” he whispered. There happened to be sales associates on every aisle, and this little boy seemed like he felt embarrassed. At this moment, his mom had an idea about what was wrong.

She walked ahead and pointed out doctor kits when she saw them. He finally chose which kit he wanted. (It was between an all-pink kit or one geared for toddlers.) The boy whispered his choice to his mama, seeming like he felt too embarrassed to reach out and touch them or look them over. He was too nervous to carry it up to the register. But as soon as the little boy got into the car, he was ripping it out of the bag and proudly showing it to his daddy.

The toy doctor kits were on just two aisles, the baby toy aisle and the all-pink “girl” aisle. Now this little boy might know his family doesn’t judge him for the toys he chooses, but sadly, he might also know that others in the world can at times.

You see, it doesn’t matter if he wants something pink, or blue, or 50 shades in between the two. It doesn’t matter if the suggested age is 3 to 6 years, or older. In his home, there is no age restriction or gender stereotypes.

Let me put a spin on Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s touching words… A toy is a toy is a toy is a toy. It shouldn’t be genderized or limited to age (except of course for small pieces and kids who might put them in their mouths). Why can’t more people grasp this? Kids are kids only once. Their childhoods should be happy and magical and free of useless judgment.

Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

Follow this journey on A Legion for Liam.

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Thinkstock image by danr13

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin Named to National Women's Hall of Fame

Dr. Temple Grandin, one of the greatest autism advocates of our time, has been named to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Grandin, a six-time author with a Ph.D. in animal studies, was diagnosed with autism when she was 2 years old and is one of 10 women to be inducted this year. Previous hall of fame inductees include Oprah, Sally Ride, Maya Angelou, Hillary Clinton, Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt.

“Honoring Dr. Temple Grandin in this esteemed group of women not only speaks to the power of her research and advocacy, but also her impact as a role model for young women everywhere,” said Tony Frank, president of Colorado State University, where Grandin teaches. “Early in her career, her determination helped her break into what was a largely male-dominated animal production industry, and she continues to serve as an advocate for women in the sciences, for young people with autism, and for anyone unwilling to let artificial boundaries stand in the way of their personal and professional success.”

Prior to this honor, Grandin was named one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The author and her partner wearing shirts that say [love] with the o as a puzzle piece

Autism and Dating

As an adult with autism, I do everything a bit differently than most, so it should come as no surprise that I have a partner who is different than most.

He is kind, intelligent and compassionate. It sounds cliché, but before he and I began dating, some of his good friends were autistic! He is knowledgeable about autism, and what he can’t relate to, he tries to understand.

I believe the key to autism and dating is understanding and open communication. Dating can be complex and difficult, and when you add autism to the mix, it can bring a new set of unique challenges. Often, those of us on the spectrum have difficulties carrying out social norms in romantic relationships. It can be difficult for us to sit through a long meal and “appropriately” converse with our partner’s family members for various reasons. Many on the spectrum also have different needs when it comes to sensory input, touch specifically. Sometimes we might crave more touch than average; other times, even though we care deeply for our partner, we may not want to be touched by them. It’s not necessarily anything personal having to do with the other person; it’s just different sensory needs/perception.

Most autistic individuals prefer to have a schedule or a plan for upcoming activities. They may become upset if that schedule or plan is altered in some way, especially without a timely warning. Adapting to or working around another person’s routine can be challenging.

Every relationship has its difficulties, and every one is unique to the involved individuals. In my experience, autism has a way of altering these difficulties. It is always important to have open communication! Both people need to be able to honestly speak their minds about a given situation or activity. When dating someone with autism, it is important to know how that person’s autism affects them. In doing that, it’s advisable to create a plan for working through and or preventing meltdowns. To someone who’s not used to it, helping an autistic person through a meltdown might be stressful and upsetting. No one wants to see their loved one hurting. That’s why it’s important to openly discuss what is helpful and what’s not for a particular individual.

Children with autism grow up to be adults with autism. We have the same feelings and urges as anyone else. We just tend to express them differently. The right partner is understanding of that. The right person will be accepting of an autism diagnosis, and both people will seek to grow together. Each person should support the other, even if it looks different than “normal.”

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