Ten tears ago i was filmed for a documentary about Autistic adults shown on the ABC, along with three other Autistic adults. At the time the film was made I was transitioning from being very poor and aspirational to being a middle class, well-paid public servant, There is a lot of footage of me in and around my former public housing flat (which was as grim as I’m sure you are imagining it right now). 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 actually a very difficult thing for me to say at the time. I had never felt much love for human beings, at least not in an emotive way. 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 which has inspired poets and artists for generations. I failed the autism self-advocate test because I actually did believe I was deficient and broken as an Autistic person. Apparently I couldn’t feel love. I thought about what a horrible person was not to feel love I really wanted to be able to but even 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. (It was ten years ago. My attitudes around those sorts of things are completely different now). I felt less than human, like the android character Mr Data in Star Trek the Next Generation – a machine, and functional as a human in all aspects except that he lacked emotions.
Thankfully I have the wisdom of ten 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 did by having a partner than in any desire for love or closeness which I don’t get from sex or romantic intimacy. 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 was that I have immense love when my first niece was born. I was overwhelmed by it. It was like nothing I had experienced, And then a couple of years later my second niece came into the world and then my nephew. I felt love for those three beautiful little people. I also felt love for my mum – lots of it – and my dad. I love some of my friends too. And I’m sure Mr Kitty occupies an entire part of the bit of my brain which feels love and closeness. There is nothing like the bond between a Jeanette and her cat after all.
My love for people is not some kind of overwhelming thing which 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 sensible. 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 worry that 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 realised offer 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. My love for the community is largely practical. My workload looks something like this:
Paid full-time job
Writing about Autism – articles, books, blogs
Messaging people – friends and those who have some questions they want me to respond to or want my support
Drafting,practicing and delivering talks
Women’s group and other facilitation and support.
Making up a new meme for social media every day.
An average week’s activity with an output at the end is between 75-85 hours (I recorded it over a few weeks!). I am intentionally very available. I try to respond to every message I get, whether I know the sender or not.
When I pull that apart, all of those thousands of hours i have put in have come from love. There can be no other reason to it. My motivation is mostly Autistic young people. I see them and I want to assist them on their own journey as much as I can. I had no support around Autism when I was young and it was really horrible. I would hate for anyone else to have to go through what I did.
So yes, I don’t have a partner and 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 form a place where the Autistic experience of love is not understood and thus dismissed. Like all stereotypes it has come form place of misunderstanding and unwillingness to listen to the Autistic view.
Here is a poem about these sorts of things that I wrote last year.
They don’t grieve, do they?
I was told by the doctor that I don’t grieve.
‘Autistics don’t grieve.’ she pronounced
‘You don’t feel love
So why then did I feel like my world was ruined and gone
That part of my soul was missing when cancer took Val to a place I couldn’t follow
If it wasn’t grief?
What was the rush of joy which filled me full of closeness and wonder when I held my brand new niece in my arms
if it wasn’t love?
Why then have I spent years doing endless unpaid work to assist others
if I am devoid of empathy?
Maybe the doctor showed me that she lived in a world devoid of love and empathy.
Maybe I should help show her my love
To make her whole?
I have lots of love for this kitty!!