A woman that I care about recently told me she might have autism. I listened, not sure what to make of it. I’ve thought for several years about going back to school to earn an M.D. in Psychiatry. It started with Sidney Freedman in MASH and Robin Williams in Patch Adams and then I had a number of instances of trauma 10 to 15 years ago and it got me thinking about the brain. Then in the summer of 2013 a doctor told me while in Rwanda that a psychiatrist could live anywhere, which appeals to me. So I started down the rabbit hole of amateur research in to autism a few weeks ago.
First I’ll admit that I used to get down syndrome, asperger’s syndrome and autism all mixed up. The latter two are actually now the same thing in DSM 5 (which would make a great birthday present for me). I quickly learned that autism in women is quite different than in men. In full disclosure, my parents wondered when I was little if I might be autistic because I enjoyed math and science and I could entertain myself for hours. I don’t think I am, but I definitely have some autistic traits. I tend to be passionate about a small number of things, rather than doing a little of everything. I don’t really get bored running 400+ laps around a track in one day. I enjoy my alone time. Oh I need socializing time, but with a social work environment, I only need 1-2 nights a week (like 2-3 hours per night) to get my socializing quota.
Aspie women are interesting because they’re often very smart, they hide their problems, as much as they can, compared to men that let everything hang out. For example, a four year old boy who doesn’t socialize, has problems communicating (especially nonverbally), has trouble relating to others, and throws tantrums when something changes might be identified as a person on the spectrum. However, a four year old girl will look at the other girls playing, and copy their behavior, and the other girls might like to show her their dolls, appearing that the two are socializing. Gender stereotype here: men tend to be less social than women. So a less social boy is obvious, but a less social girl, is more like the average boy, and less noticeable to adults. Point being, women don’t get diagnosed when they are children nearly as often as men.
This leads to a host of other comorbid challenges. (I hadn’t heard the word comorbid before two weeks ago, but it feels really appropriate in this case.) For example, aspergirls frequently get eating disorders, suffer with depression, struggle to make friends, feel lonely, struggle in romantic relationships by not reading nonverbal communication, and have some OCD. One of the best descriptions I read was something like, ‘a neurotypical (normal person) will be a little bothered if someone is 15 minutes late, because things happen, but an autistic person might have a meltdown because he or she has no idea why the person would be late.’
That’s a lot of negative, but as I’ve thought about it, those things above are the wrong things to focus on. For example, many people on the spectrum are very passionate about something and will become an expert in that thing. I bet a lot of Olympians have autism, diagnosed or not. Autistic people are very direct. There is no game to be played or reading between the lines. While offensive on occasion, it’s actually quite a nice quality because there is no ambiguity. Neurotypicals often box ourselves into very traditional solutions to problems, while an autistic person doesn’t even know about the unwritten rules, and thus comes up with creative solutions. Albert Einstein, E=mc^2, are you kidding me?! Definitely autistic. Another quality is a sort of childish emotional relating, a playfulness. It's like in the movie Inside Out the person does not progress to having the mixed emotions of a neurotypical, but has more intense single emotions. Although again, that's definitely an oversimplification, I'm an amateur on the topic and definitely not a professional.
As I did this research, and bought two books on Amazon, wondering in particular if the woman I care about did in fact have autism, I started to think of other women in my life, both past and present. The first person that stood out was my last girlfriend. Yeah, she had to be autistic! Then boom! A girl I dated from college that was really into motorcycles and then another, a crush from a few years ago. And yet another, described as an "odd duck" by a mutual friend of ours. In three cases I had been told by mutual friends that the possible aspergirl had opened up and talked to me far more than ever seen with anyone else. Five women I’ve been attracted to?! No way. Oh there might even be that high school girl! Then I thought I was projecting this diagnoses onto everyone if they showed even a couple autistic traits. However, I then realized that I’ve maybe only worked with one austistic woman, despite being in engineering for seven years, which attracts people on the spectrum. Similarly, maybe two women that I went to high school with were on the spectrum, and counting the motorcycle girl, then maybe two from college. So I thought of the definitely neurotypical women I’ve dated, and… haha, I was bored! Neurotypical women don’t seem to have the passion that I would like to support quite like aspergirls.
I was asked not long ago if I was looking for a woman to be an equal partner, or a subservient wife. The answer is so obvious to me I feel strange answering, of course I want a partner! In fact, it would be great if she has some sort of passion I can support, such as rowing. I’d love to row across the Atlantic for our honeymoon! When a woman doesn't have a strong passion I'm not too interested in being the sole extreme doer in the relationship. It's really great to pay it forward and support someone else.
I’ve climbed Mt. Everest, I’m a USATF national champion, I’ve got two engineering degrees, needless to say, I tend to take the things I do very seriously. However, as I thought about those women in my past, particularly my last girlfriend, I view these women as taking their passions to an even higher level than I do. I can talk about climbing Mt. Everest all day, but I can tell by people’s faces that after five minutes in an informal setting, a lot of people in the crowd are jealous of the attention I am getting, and after 10 minutes the rest have usually heard enough of my privileged life, so I change the subject to talk about other people’s interests. I didn’t climb the mountain to brag about it, I climbed it because I wanted to. An autistic person can talk for three hours about something, or more specifically, five minutes longer than most neurotypicals in an informal little crowd wants to hear about it, which often turns people off to the person on the spectrum. Frankly, I’m a very curious person, so these women, when they have gone down the rabbit hole talking about their passions, inspire me to keep listening and asking questions. I don’t know if the average person could tell the difference between me and my passions and her and her passions, but I definitely can, and it’s exciting to me to meet a person even more passionate about something than I am! As a side note, I realize that passions change over time, and that's an exciting thing to look forward to in a long term relationship too. In other words, just because she's a stellar rock climber now and in 10 years gives it up to focus on hospice nursing with the same intensity, doesn't mean I'm going to run away, I like supporting a passionate person.
Additionally, while I think I’m really good at nonverbal communication, I’m pretty terrible at understanding when a woman is sending the nonverbal signals that she wants more than just a conversation. With aspergirls, they say what they mean, so that ambiguity isn’t there. That is actually a help, even though those relationships in my past weren’t ultimately successful, we were super up front about the relationships along the way so I didn’t feel as much heart break at the end as I do simply having a crush on a woman who doesn’t want me.
So I think I’ve found my type, women on the autistic spectrum, who are endurance athletes and have STEM degrees. Great, an already narrow field of women has been narrowed to near oblivion.
Up to this point some of you may be laughing or smiling at the thought of my romantic life, but I also wrote this blog post to be as autistic friendly as I could, there is no secret between-the-lines message. To complete the circle there is a little more difficult information about aspergirls. They often struggle to maintain long term employment, or long term relationships and can struggle with money and loneliness. Many are taken advantage of because of their lack of understanding of the nonverbal and between-the-lines meaning of communication. Even though I may have found a “type” of woman that I am attracted to (as if there is even such a thing as a type with such differences between each person) it makes me nervous, because it seems that she may have vulnerabilities that a neurotypical woman might not, and I am afraid that 10 or 20 years down the road I might be tempted to take advantage of those vulnerabilities. In one of Rudy Simone’s books she mentions that an aspergirl only needs one friend, and that friend is her partner. I learned years ago that women have a dichotomy, they are attracted to big strong men, but that big strong man in her house is also the most likely to hurt her. So her having friends outside of her partner helps mitigate the chance that he could hurt her, because he knows she would tell someone. I think that’s really important for any potential partner to have a good friend other than me, and I hope that my sister maintains friends outside of her relationship in order to never be taken advantage of. So I have the fear, because I know I am not perfect, that I could hurt a woman on the spectrum in a long term relationship. What are the chances of that happening? Are they significant enough to even chance a relationship? Hopefully by acknowledging a fear it is easier to mitigate against that fear ever becoming a reality. As the Stanford Prison Experiment showed, not to mention the Holocaust and Rwanda genocide, we're often not as good in all situations as we think we are.
I just watched Dunkirk and cried my eyes out at the end. Partly because of the many people that have sacrificed so much so that I can live the life that I do. My grandpa fought the Japanese in world war two, and now I regularly eat sushi and connect through the Tokyo airport on trips. I had a great uncle who was a prisoner of war for three years in Germany. I have extended relatives that fought on the German side in world war two. And on top of that I love visiting Germany! At the same time I was thinking of all of the women who experience sensory overload and anxiety twice or quadruple times as intensely on a daily basis as I have ever experienced in my life, and they hide it on a daily basis! My heart goes out to those, not just those with the visible wounds, but those with the invisible wounds.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion. What are the actual chances that those women I have had relationships with in the past are aspergirls? It’s got to be minuscule. Yet this new friend of mine who suggested she might have autism, even if she doesn’t, by a few comments has opened my eyes to a world I didn’t know existed two weeks ago. Similarly, my last girlfriend, the most serious partner I’ve ever had, wow, she ticks all of the boxes for autism more than any other woman I’ve ever known. On the one hand it deepens my affection, and at the same time develops a fear of myself that I might hurt her. I think that is probably a definition of responsibility, the fear of not being your best. To be honest, it’s a fear I can live with, and probably only an issue when it is no longer a fear.
What I’m trying to do with this article is bring a little awareness to the reality of many people, especially women. I would not say every person on the spectrum is disabled, rather they have triggers, anxiety, and communication challenges which are different than in neurotypicals, and like an American talking to an Indian or Chinese person there are differences in how we communicate and we have to find the middle ground or the strategies to reach each other where we each are.
I have the best life in the world. I hope you think the same about your life. Yet every time I am exposed to a niche, even a niche that I happen to find especially attractive, I see new pains and sufferings. It hurts my heart, as in I really have a tightness in my chest. This may be the first of many articles I write about autism, or it may be the only one, thank you for reading!
God bless the five of my friends, family and coworkers that are going through cancer, the five women I’ve had relationships with that may be on the autistic spectrum, and the many others suffering with maladies I don’t even know. Jesus loves you!