Autism and Polyamory
Today, June 18, is Autistic Pride Day! This year, I found out that I am on the autism spectrum - basically what used to be called Asperger's. It wasn't terribly surprising, but it explained a lot of things about the difficulties I've had interacting and communicating with people.
For as long as I can remember, I've known that the way I prefer to socialize is not normal. I prefer direct, clear, blunt, unambiguous statements. I ignore word connotations in favor of accuracy. I tend to think in rigid logic, and I get confused by emotional reasoning. I will often say things to people that are true, and in my mind the kind of thing they would want to know, but to my surprise end up triggering an unintentional emotional reaction. From what I understand, this is typical of autism/Asperger's.
I didn't realize it was autism for a long time because, while my style isn't popular, it also works really well for some people. I've had plenty of friends and relationships that appreciated the way I interact and communicate. I've also had quite a few people tell me that they prefer that style of communication, but eventually it becomes clear that they have a preference for a more emotional and intuitive style.
I've mostly navigated around this by learning a giant complicated set of heuristics. The golden rule doesn't work for me - if I treat people the way I want to be treated, I will alienate everyone around me. So I listen when people talk about how to socialize. I pay attention when people say how they want to be treated. I read books about it. Blog posts like this one are invaluable to me. I've had some social success, but it's very non-intuitive. It's just a lot of rules in my head about what to do in different situations and my attempts to harmonize all of the conflicting advice out there.
In relationships, this can complicate things a lot. If I was willing to settle for a normal, socially-approved relationship, it would probably be easier. There are pretty clear rules for that sort of thing, which I would likely be able to follow. But I don't find that kind of relationship satisfying. I'm a relationship anarchist, which means I don't want my relationships to have any rules other than those that are mutually agreed upon. That means I can't really rely on anyone else's rules or advice on how to have relationships. When I'm relating to someone, we have to decide for ourselves how to interact. I take this very seriously, but it's also very difficult. Everyone has preconceptions, opinions, and moral stances about how people should behave in relationships, and for most people it's difficult to make those things explicit - both because articulating things can be difficult and because people often don't know what they want from other people outside of vague undefined feelings. This can lead to a lot of misunderstandings or simply differences of opinion that don't come out until something becomes an issue.
There's also a weird thing that happens where I try to be as explicit as possible about what I can and can't do, and people seem not to really take it seriously. Like I will tell partners "I can't read subtle cues," and they will still try to send me subtle cues and get angry if I don't pick up on them. I will tell partners "I need you to clearly articulate what you want because otherwise I will not be able to know," and partners will get angry at me for not picking up on their unstated needs and desires. It's often just been assumed that I'm remaining willfully ignorant of people's needs, even after I've explained in painstaking detail about how difficult it is for me to intuit how people feel or what they want. One ex-friend even called me a "master manipulator," which, given that I'm pretty much the opposite of that, would be funny if it weren't so sad. I'm hoping that now that I'm Officially Autistic people might take it a bit more seriously, but we'll see.
The way autism manifests for me also means that I am extremely hurt when people are dishonest with me. In any relationship, I am entirely reliant on the other person's honesty when they tell me what they want or how to interact with them. I can't pick up on subtle cues. I can't read body language or facial expressions reliably. I need people to tell me what they want from me. So when people aren't honest with me about that, I feel like a complete idiot and often keep trying to connect long after a more neurotypical person would have gotten the hint. It's extremely embarrassing and often unpleasant for everyone involved.
It's also further complicated by the fact that our society is constantly undermining my communication goals. Guess Culture, the kryptonite of clear communication, is rampant and heavily encouraged. People are taught that having needs, especially non-mainstream needs, is wrong and makes you unlikable. Honest, direct communication is often punished. Toxic masculinity opposes almost every good communication norm.
There is also tremendous pressure in the polyamory community to punish and ostracize people when there is a misunderstanding, especially if it is sexual or romantic. In the current community, misunderstandings are assumed to be intentional and mistakes are assumed to be malicious. Very little room is made for understanding neurodivergence or the fact that not everyone processes social cues in the same way. In the poly community, when there is a conflict, the overwhelming majority of the community will simply side with the higher-status side (which will never be the side of the autistic person - we just don't have the social skills for it). It is an extremely unsafe environment for someone who doesn't socialize in a neurotypical way. Andraya from the blog "Aspergers and Me" echoes my concerns:
I used to try to be active in poly communities, both online and IRL. What I found was a community that was extremely unwelcoming, and at times outright hostile, to mental illness and neurological differences. The general concept that people like me should know our place existed there too, with the idea that people who struggle with mental issues just shouldn’t be poly. With so much speaking out in favor of getting away from monogamous norms and getting off the relationship escalator and whatnot, I was sometimes shocked at their narrow acceptance of neurology. I often felt hurt at things I saw and how some individuals treated me and the overall attitudes I saw towards neurodiversity, and eventually I just gave up. I no longer go into poly spaces, as they are decidedly unsafe for me.
My experience has been similar. I'm unwelcome in some poly spaces due to conflicts resulting from different ways of thinking and communicating, and not one single organization or leader has been willing to develop an understanding of the different ways people communicate and connect, and how that can lead to misunderstanding and hurt feelings. The overwhelming message I've gotten from the polyamory community is that People Like Me are not welcome there.
I sometimes say that I don't see my autism as a disability - I see it as a superpower. Most of the good things in my life are a result of the strange way that I see and process things. I think that the relationships I have are far more satisfying and meaningful because of the ways that I am different. All relationships benefit from more explicit communication and fewer assumptions. Many things in life, relationships included, benefit from a rigorous logical approach. Today is Autistic Pride Day, so I want to reaffirm that I have no wish to be neurotypical. Autism has improved my life in innumerable ways even as it makes certain things more difficult. My main hope is that the outside world becomes more comfortable with these differences and starts valuing us for the nonstandard ways we look at the world instead of simply seeking to punish us.