(autistic) relationship dynamics

I have recently been asked by a reader about a quote concerning autistic relationships. I feel quite honoured and flattered about being asked about my opinion by a passing acquaintance. πŸ™‚
Also I thought this is an important topic for many of us one way or another so I might as well share it with a wider audience. This is the starting piece:

β€œFar too many people on the spectrum spend most of their days with people who carry around memories of, and are often too overwhelmed by incidents of, prior misinterpretation. This is no fun. In travel you can start over, and reinvent yourself. If somehow a relationship gets weird, you can leave and go to the next town, the next block, or whatever the case may be, and try again.” β€” Michael John Carley

First of, I have no idea who Mr. Carley is and am thus not familiar with his work. The reader in question told me he is on the spectrum himself and that’s pretty much all the information I have. Just in case there are ardent Carley fans out there willing to accuse me of slander. I have no reason to personally attack the man, it’s all about what he said and what I think about it. πŸ™‚

For me punctuation and sentence structure in the quote is a little bit confusing. As I understood it it’s about people on the spectrum often being surrounded by people of whom they remember how said people misjudged the autistic person, misinterpreted them and so forth and how this is very painful. A possible way to counteract this is proposed as travelling and starting anew with other people.

Now for my opinion on it: the first two sentences deals with memories and autistic sensibilities which I feel I need to state my ideas about first. It is widely regarded as the typically autistic phenotype to have a way above average memory and usually autistic people are also extremely sensitive when it comes to interpersonal interaction. Some people I have come in contact with only seem to organise their entire life around avoiding being rejected further. Which in an impressive show of manifestation of negative cognition actually leads to them being rejected further. Quite spectacularly at times.

Also the problem described is not one I’d define as an inherently autistic one. People growing up in abusive or neglectful homes have the same issues not being able to have healthy relationships because they never learnt how to deal with conflict, how to assert their boundaries and so forth. I’m going to write about autistic people mostly, because while other folks have similar problems as I understand it they might learn quicker about healthy social interactions due to not being neurologically blind to social implications.

These things stated, yes it happens very often that autistic people are misjudged and even more terrifying it’s even sadly very likely that we are not only frowned upon but persecuted, ostracised, bullied, talked down to on every possible occasion, painted as mentally defective, wilfully malicious and so forth. There are two things that need to be distinguished and I myself am still trying to learn how to deal with this: one is
toxic interaction
-i.e. the autistic person is confronted with people who are … say narcissistic or who carry their unhealed childhood abuse into every interaction they have in their present life and thus are becoming the abuser themselves-
and the other is nontoxic interaction
which for some reason still is unbearable for the autistic person in some way. Maybe the other person is just too loud or has this thing for something we really can’t stand sensory wise or they are hurtful without knowing that since they can’t know that we don’t always prefer the same things they do. (Imagine a guy talking your ear off about football… Never for one second stopping to think that you might actually not like football, because in their mind everyone loves it, Theory of Mind failures. He might very well shut up if you informed him about not sharing this particular interest of his and if he would the primary problem lies with you not asserting your boundaries and not with him.)

Dealing with toxic people

Obviously like every other person it is not healthy for us to spend our time around toxic people. We might even be especially gullible, easier to manipulate, have a harder time spotting their lies and so forth. Autistic people being murdered for a misunderstanding is just the tip of the ice berg and our fear of brutal things happening to us is very well justified, normally we completely lack the ability to understand what is going on and only realise to late we screwed up. And toxic people WILL persecute us for our lapse of judgement which we SHOULD be entitled too because this is how we work. We rarely mean it and when confronted usually apologise and try to learn how to improve. This is our inability and we should be allowed to have this weakness just like every NT should be allowed to have a persistent preoccupation with things we consider spectacularly unimportant (for example peoples looks or who dates whom…) .
Taken to the extreme we never know if the next thing we do or say leads to a gun pointed at us or proposals. It’s quite frightening living like that. And it’s even more frightening to know we need to rely on other peoples tolerance and patience to cope with this, when it’s not guaranteed and expecting it would even make us ask for other people being superhuman in their ability to give leeway.
The thing with toxic people is they will never give leeway and assume the worst about your behaviour. Usually they are self involved enough to cook up some sick story of how we only do this to hurt them and we have little means to defend ourselves because for all we know we have been behaving inappropriately. But an apology to such people is a sign of weakness meant to show them who they can exploit. Rarely do people ever step in and explain to us what is going on and stand up for us. So the socially blind need to find their own way of seeing who is socially inappropriate and who isn’t. That’s going to work well! And that is the very understandable reason why autistic people have the urge to just run. Left to our own devices we have a very hard time telling healthy relationships from nonhealthy ones and when in doubt you better run rather than try to fix what the other person wants broken.

Dealing with nontoxic people

Here is the thing: in an ideal world you wouldn’t need to justify yourself at all because people would be seeing your difficulties for what they are – difficulties and not malicious intent executed to perfection. In a world as close to perfect as this one might get if you openly told everyone about your peculiarities they would accept them and not judge you for something you can’t help but help you cope. No radio blasting if you can’t stand it. No fluorescent lights… In such a world dealing with nontoxic people would be about something we are known for (but which I personally can’t pull off due to my neglectful past and I’m certainly by far not the only one that struggles with it): we should be frank an open about what we can and can’t do and what we like and dislike and that should be it.

The sad truth is worlds collide. We might be as unable to work with the radio blasting as other people are unable to work without it and they have the NT privilege of this being acceptable so you have to deal with your headache or wear earwax or whatever. By colliding worlds, NT privilege and the toxic people we cannot distinguish from nontoxic people we get trained to see our needs as weird, ourselves as broken, abnormal in a pathological way an other assorted unflattering descriptors. We thus might never voice anything “peculiar” for fear of repercussion. Remember your next statement might lead to you being held at gunpoint and you have no idea why.

My idea is this: this needs to stop! We should weed out everyone who does not accept you for who you are. Quit your job if you are ridiculed for your earwax, use everyone not accepting what you said about your needs, wants, likes, dislikes and so forth as a powerful tool to distinguish between people who are true and good supporters of you and those who might as well shoot you in the wrong circumstances for all you know. We need to find our voice and we need to make the world listen so that the nontoxic people have a chance to shine and support us. It’s damn difficult for me but if I want to be seen and accepted this is the work I need to put in to get what I want.

the nontoxic peoples legacy

Back to the quote by Mr. Carley. As opposed to me he does not distinguish between autistic people not voicing their problems and toxic people being who they are. Thus he has an equally simplistic “solution” to the problem named “interaction with other people is likely damn painful”. He recommends travelling and if I got him right, he doesn’t only mean let’s travel to another place and come back in two weeks but he is actually advocating for changing your location permanently whenever your relationships turn awkward. In other words he recommends running from the problem.

I certainly have been running from relationships gone wrong and communities not being very accepting for at least about a decade and it has been helpful to widen my idea of how different NTs can view me. It has healed some of the abuse done by wilful misinterpretation. However starting with a new social circle also has it’s downsides. Given I did this repeatedly and never learnt how to work out interpersonal differences with people it lead to ever changing faces in my life. Whenever I ran into a conflict I could not solve rather than working on my conflict solving skills I ran and started anew. No friendship lasted long and the longer lasting ones weren’t very deep.

Short relationships are by definition not yet very deep. Something needs to be said about committing to someone, learning to forgive even when they hurt you. Also when starting anew you still have the memory of the prior hurt burned into your mind, you might thus be unlikely to do or say the very thing that you have been persecuted for again, this scar will not go away unless you find the strength to overcome your demons and face your fears by doing what you think you know you should not do. This is where people working so hard on not being rejected will run into rejection at every turn.

I have often suspected in interaction with people on the spectrum that they apologise for something to me that someone else accused them for and try to somehow gain my forgiveness for something I have not minded in the first place. In this scenario there is nothing I can do to help these people in my experience. I point out how I did not mind in first place but this normally falls on deaf ears. They are in a dialogue with their demons and in denial about it (I myself am very likely guilty of this particular relationship killer as well). While denying they might well paint the face of the demon on your to make it look as if they actually interact with you rather than their imaginations and memories.

Starting over anew will never help people get over this. In my opinion the best way to deal with the demons mentioned in the quote is a mix between the suggested running and staying to work out the misjudgement. The great difficulty lies in knowing when to run and when to stay. In theory you run when someone keeps firing pain at you and is a toxic person and you stay when someone genuinely wants to learn and you see improvements as soon as you learn to voice what makes interaction with them difficult.

In reality the people firing pain might be people we are relying on someway or another and the ones wanting to learn either take too much energy to teach (it is also rather dehumanising to have to explain yourself like you are an alien species) or are actually toxic people in disguise. It’s not like it’s easy telling this apart. I have been done some running in the last few months again and it feels good to cut loose the ones who keep getting more and more demanding about you justifying yourself towards them. I’m also maybe slowly finding people who are hopefully more understanding and able to learn. The second part is the truly uplifting section of my life at the moment.

Some people coming out of abusive or neglectful relationships indeed have been warped and twisted and forced and pushed and hurt so badly by a world that simply isn’t made for them that they indeed prefer no permanent relationships. Only through my connection to the autistic community have I started to understand who I am and what my needs are on a very fundamental level. I think this kind learning process should have happened in kindergarten. Meeting other people who have some overlapping characteristics and some completely alien to you (what do you MEAN you don’t like animals???) and through this process you learn to deal with your own needs, learn to accept them as normal and you learn to deal with people who are different from you. Instead what happens to autistic people is that everyone around them is fundamentally different. Everywhere they go because the statistic likelihood of meeting only one other autistic person from your birthyear is low when you go at it from randomised kindergarten population samples and socialisation requires not only one other person who gets you. obviously the more delayed such developmental steps are the higher the price you pay in self worth, social skills and general well being.

It takes a lot of strength to not become bitter and loose faith. I myself am walking a thin line there. After all once you are estranged from your family what kind of constant relationships will be left? The early relationship are all influenced by who your parents approve of. If your parents are abusive and/or neglectful how likely will they be to approve of someone who tells their little punching bag right from wrong? How how likely would that little punc.. ahem child be to accept what nonfamily has to say when they still rely on the family so much? So coming from a toxic family your early relationships are all deeply infused by this person you pretended to be, a habit you have in order to ensure continued survival in your birth family. Take off that mask and decade long friends don’t recognise you anymore. They can’t because if they did, they’d feel they let the abuse and neglect happen. Most people have to much ego problems to deal with such dark topics. Nor will you recognise your friends as friends once you bin your act. After all you thought they cared and had your back.

Once you start to take your power back you do not only let go of those who controlled you and need to learn how to take control your own life (possibly for the first time ever) you also will be left behind by those who can’t deal with who you actually are. You will be very very very alone. For autistic people this is especially difficult as far as I am privy to the process since we have a hard time figuring out everyday things like how to clean a carpet or when and how to apply deodorant. I’m not sure I’d be able to live on my own if it wasn’t for Google. With that kind of sudden loneliness and unhealthy relationships comes the pain, the distrust, the wariness. Some autistic people will run and we’d be a sorry excuse for the human species if we did not acknowledge that they run because we humans collectively failed them. They have a right to run and live their existence as they deem fit as long as they do not hurt other people.

But I do not want to run. I want a world which is better than the one we have today. I want to build up my confidence and let go of these toxic ideas of what is right and what is wrong, what is pretty and what is acceptable and what is ugly and what the hyenas gossip about. I want to make the world a place where toxic people will be called out by unwritten social rules rather than be protected and I know to start this I will need to start with my own attitude. Abuse and neglect are crimes and thankfully our species slowly begins to acknowledge and prosecute it.

What do you guys think? I think many of my readers are both autistic and abused/neglected but some are only either of the two and I’d like to hear how other people think about it. πŸ™‚


One thought on “(autistic) relationship dynamics

  1. I got this rather insightful comment by a reader and wanted to share it publicly:

    Its very well written and moving. It saddened me to read certain aspects, that social interaction has produced negative experiences. There are a couple of things I noticed: it is your perspective and therefore not to be generalised. You segregate into toxic and non-toxic but I think there is a middle zone; a bit of both, actually the majority of society fumbling along trying to learn and themselvesin the context of that relationship. There are also misconceptions: 1) We presume that the general population has adequate levels of theory of mind, however that isn’t definitive, 2) there is no such thing as a perfect relationship because our perception that it is perfect is subjective, 2) relationships dont come with a manual; we learn along the way and usually through our own mistakes and often do not recognise that we develop negative unhealthy patterns in relationships, 3) we subconsciously choose a mate and that our choice could mean choosing repeatedly the wrong type, 3) our expectations are often idealised and unrealistic, 4) being with someone with AS but not really understanding the condition or equally important it’s unique expression in our partners means couples get trapped in cycles of communication challenges and negative coping styles, 5) every person that enters into a relationship comes with their own problems, just different problems. My concern is this: if you view relationships through a negative lens then you form an opinion that could be distorted and potentially prevent the chance of being with a really suitable significant other in your life.


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