Love on the spectrum

Note to readers: Although there are many types of love, this post deals only with the the romantic kind.

On our wedding day

My husband and I are celebrating our seventeenth wedding anniversary this weekend. Considering that only five percent of people on the autism spectrum ever get married, I consider this something of a miracle. Five percent! The odds are not in our favor.

Love is complicated enough but becomes even more so when one or both of the people involved are on the autism spectrum. Have you seen the Netflix series, Love on the Spectrum? It chronicles the challenges several autistic people encounter attempting to find and establish a romantic relationship. I encourage those who might be interested to watch the series, if able. Here’s the trailer.

SPOILER ALERT! While endearing to the audience, most of the people featured on the series are unsuccessful in finding someone with which to connect and share their lives.

What happens when a person attempting to establish and maintain a relationship has extreme difficulty doing so? Let’s refer back to one of my original posts, Autism 101. In order to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a person must show and demonstrate several characteristics, including:

  • problems with social and emotional reciprocity (e.g., normal conversation, sharing emotions, interacting in social situations)
  • problems with non-verbal communication (e.g., interpreting body language, making eye contact)
  • developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships

Not exactly a recipe for domestic bliss, is it? Perhaps the marriage statistics for people on the spectrum seem a bit more realistic knowing this information.

Now seems like as good a time as any to delve into my romantic history. (Don’t worry, it won’t take long.) As a child and teenager, I always hoped to find that special someone with which to share my life. Of course, at that time I still held out hope that I would eventually develop into a “normal” person in time and have a normal relationship. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a realistic understanding of what a healthy relationship involved.

I had crushes come and go but none ever showed any reciprocal interest in me. Then again, I never revealed my feelings to anyone, either.

My first long-term, on-again-off-again relationship was poorly chosen and executed. We didn’t have much in common and were not well-suited, although of course I didn’t realize it at the time.

After that relationship ended (for the final time), I jumped into an even more unhealthy and unhappy one that somehow managed to limp along for several years. Jealousy, lack of trust, control issues, constant arguments … you name it. Once again, I didn’t realize it was unhealthy at the time. I thought it was a sign of strength and commitment to stay, no matter how difficult it was. And it was really difficult. Beyond difficult. Despite the difficulties, I stayed in the relationship because I was afraid of being alone. I had such a hard time meeting people and establishing connections that I feared I would never meet anyone ever again. I thought it was better to have someone and be unhappy than have no one and be unhappy anyway. To this day, I have nightmares that I’m trapped in that relationship and can’t escape. Fortunately I did.

That brings us to my final and current relationship. My husband and I met at work. We were just friends at first, but a mutual attraction eventually developed. At that time and for many years thereafter, we didn’t know about my autism. I wasn’t diagnosed until just after my fortieth birthday. Learning this information at an older age caused a lot of emotions to surface – mostly relief but also anger, guilt, and regret.

I sometimes wonder how things would have been different if we had known beforehand. He might not have been interested in pursuing a relationship with me had he known. Had we had known sooner, he could have made a more informed decision on committing to me. He might have been able to find someone else who was easier to deal with and more able to maintain and participate in a “normal” relationship. I know it’s not easy being married to me. I have so much trouble communicating – especially when it comes to feelings – and reciprocating things that are expected in a relationship. Honestly, I don’t think I’m cut out for relationships. Luckily, I married a very understanding, patient, and loyal guy.

All in all, I think most people on the spectrum would agree that finding and maintaining love is monumentally challenging. Given that the term autism is derived from the Greek word autos meaning “self,” it’s unsurprising that people on the autism spectrum are better able to function alone than with another person.

Although most wouldn’t consider a life of social isolation to be happy and successful, those of us on the spectrum might disagree. Swedish researchers followed 100 autistic boys and men for 20 years after their diagnosis in order to try to determine the level of contentment these men have with their lives. While a large number of the men in the study displayed extraordinary difficulties with relationships (both platonic and romantic), employment, and other areas considered necessary to achieve happiness, many of the men seemed happy nonetheless. Researcher and psychologist Adam Helles stated, “Maybe we don’t think a person with Asperger’s is living up to his potential, but perhaps he feels that he is.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t use traditional milestones to judge people who have difficulty with or are unable to conform to the traditional guidelines of expected behavior in the first place. After all, having extra challenges doesn’t mean a person can’t live a happy life.

Am I happy? I have an amazing husband and children, and I do work that I love. That’s really all I need. I don’t have much of a social life or friendships outside of my family and work, and I am perfectly content with that. If I had the chance to ride this roller coaster all over again, I would be the first one in line. Yes, I’m happy.

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