In Regards to Love: Special Interests

I am writing this to the soundtrack of Yuri On Ice, a romantic sports anime that stole the Internet’s heart, and mine, when it arrived in winter 2016. The year of horrible news had reached a new pinnacle with Trump’s election, and a positive, low-stakes love story with just the right depth of plot and character was the medicine I needed. Now it’s another wild year, and while I’m in a much better place mentally than I was in late 2016, still, a few nights ago after another day of lockdown I thought, I need a new special interest.

I often see people ask why special interests cannot be treated with the same respect as hobbies or research interests. There is undeniably a lot of overlap between the three: a special interest can be emotionally fulfilling and lead you to new skills, like a hobby, and it can drive you to accumulate massive amounts of knowledge, like a research interest. One interest – let’s say robotics, or the study of a language or a particular type of animal – could easily become all three. I also think that people and their interests deserve respect anyway, even if the interest does not meet certain judgement criteria from external observers.

And yet, as someone with a collection of hobbies and a collection of special interests, I believe they are still different things. A hobby feels good, but a special interest feels electric.

Looking back, it is hard to define whether you found it, or it found you. It might have happened at first sight or built up over time. All you know is that one day you were engaging with the thing, and you were filled with a feeling that was simultaneously energising and comforting. Some private list you keep, of things that are important and special to you, was suddenly being ticked off. It’s not just beautiful, it’s your beautiful. Oh wow.

I don’t know the neurochemistry of it, and I think words like ‘obsession’ are stigmatising, but special interests have an intensity which is difficult to repress. You may commit hours and hours of your time to it, including at times when you probably shouldn’t; when Yuri on Ice was released, I remember seeing a Tumblr post along the lines of “Please brain I’m begging you, I have to stop thinking about Yuri on Ice now, I have to work”.[1] Talking about it is a way of discharging that energy, and so even when you know the neurotypicals around you are annoyed and would rather talk about something else (Car parking! Haircuts!), despite your best efforts you can’t stop entirely.

There is a loneliness in this. The invention of the Internet has been a miracle for us in so many ways, and one of them is the way it allows you to find endless opportunities to explore your interest with like-minded people.[2] The Internet’s increased portability also makes it easier than ever to check in with bae quickly when you are busy or apart and find a spot of release on a bad day, of which many of us have many.

Did I just call it bae? That is a bit of a reach, especially for someone who does not have a bae (a significant other, to translate). But I think there are parallels. Some special interests are brief flames. I once spent two days fixated on the early days of the Roman Empire. Then I woke up after those two days and I was back to nothing stronger than a fondness for Shakespeare’s Roman plays and the work of Mary Beard. A brief flicker when I went to visit Rome, but no more since. Other interests stay with you for years of your life, growing and changing as your world does. Others will ebb and flow. I don’t spend hours looking at Yuri on Ice stuff anymore, but I have yet to find any situation or emotional state to which Stammi Vicino, a signature song in the soundtrack, does not add an aura of meaning and poignancy.

The intensity of a special interest, while lonely, has such a beauty to it, that I am grateful to lived with them in a way I am not for my regular hobbies like yoga and cooking. I hope that if I make it to old age, I will have a long history of special interests to look back on with deep affection. Someone will say to me, “Julius Caesar!” and I will be transported back to being 21, late at night in Warwick Library Tiffany STOP reading about Octavius you have a deadline

Life goes on. I’m writing in a place of anticipation for my next journey. Like they say, perhaps it will come when I don’t expect it. 

[1] It was not mine. I would say if it was, honestly.

[2] I once had a special interest in a book with no fandom whatsoever. It was all I could do to read the reviews, which were unfulfilling. In the end I wrote a fanfic.

‘The Great Gatsby’, Truth, Lies, and Disappointment

I recently re-read The Great Gatsby for the first time since I was seventeen or so, and my timing was accidental but impeccable. The book’s narrator Nick Carraway turns 30 during the novel, and I am about to do so myself in two hours and 20 minutes. But that’s all coincidence; what I was really inspired to write about was dreams, and disappointment.

Both the novel and the character of Gatsby have a reputation as the essence of party, and while I knew that the point, clear as neon lights, is that this all is a façade, it still surprised me that Gatsby is awkward, almost from his first appearance. He talks to Nick for some time before they come to realise he hasn’t introduced himself – at his own party. Nick, an astute and cynical observer, describes him thus.

“Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.”

We all experience the routine of choosing particular words for particular people as part of moving through the world. But there are situations where your focus narrows just as if your conversation was a pivotal scene in a novel. For example, when you are autistic, when you are trying to attract someone important, and especially when you are trying to do both. It is objectively absurd to enter conversation asking yourself “Who do I want them to think I am?”, and hope that this person first does not notice this fakery, and second, somehow still likes you how you truly want to be liked. But I at least have done this before and will do it again.

The Great Gatsby has a reputation for being over-analysed, so let’s assume for a moment that Daisy, the object of the eponymous Gatsby’s adoration in the novel, is not the American Dream or money or anything but another human being, and that Gatsby is another. One of the high points of the novel is the scene where Gatsby introduces Daisy to his extravagant home and possessions, all of which he has built up in the hope of attracting her. Now think for a moment of objects that are broadly considered valuable and impressive. Mansions. Swimming pools. Champagne. Luxurious food. Antiques, maybe. How many more would you list, until you got to…shirts?

I found the scene where Gatsby shows Daisy his enormous collection of shirts to be one of the most human scenes between them, precisely because, as lovely as they might be[1], shirts are not generally impressive. But Gatsby clearly likes them a lot, and so does Daisy, for she cries “stormily […] “‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”” To love a person, in Gatsby’s book, is simultaneously to wish to be an awe-inspiring, legendary version of yourself, but also to hope they like fancy shirts as much as you do.

Even long before the conclusion of the novel, which I’m not going to describe because of spoilers, our narrator Nick can see where this is going:

“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. […] No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

Few of us will go as far as Gatsby does for Daisy, but to me what he feels about her is, at its core, relatable. Having a romantic dream of another person is about so much more than them. When you experience disappointment, what you’re letting go of is not just that person but also who you wanted to be with them; that legendary version of yourself.[2] It is so powerful a thing that it would almost be helpful if you did not need them to sustain it, but once they go the dream must go with them. That phrase, “his ghostly heart”, seem to suggest that a man can dream himself out of your own body, but eventually he must return to it.  

I don’t know if it’s Asperger’s that makes me a very pragmatic thinker or just my personality and background, but I believe there can be no promises out of disappointment. You don’t know if you will ever meet someone who inspires you that much again, or if you should. You can go through the famous bargaining stage of “What if I had…” “What if I said…”, but nobody is going to give you the answer to your questions. I found The Great Gatsby more moving now than I did as a teenager, as I have come to know what an enemy I am to myself, before, during and after my ideas.

The only thing that can be done about disappointment, is not to let it stop you. In the next decade of my life I look forward to being free from dreams.

“It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning– So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

[1] I am currently wearing an excellent shirt myself. It is red and fancy and it fits me beautifully, AND I got it brand new from a charity shop.

[2] Another aspect of it is the hope of fulfilling that societal pressure to be partnered, but we don’t need two posts in a row about that.

Being “self-partnered”

When British Vogue asked Emma Watson about her relationship status ahead of her upcoming 30th birthday, she described herself as “self-partnered”[i]. The term sparked a furore on social media, with hundreds of people asking why she couldn’t just use the word “single” and scorning her for being…well, let’s talk about who she is.

Emma Watson is an actor, a model, a Brown University graduate, and a UN ambassador. I have to admit to a personal admiration for her. I am also a feminist, I love literature (including Harry Potter) and it’ll be my 30th birthday nine days after hers. I am also self-partnered.

I’m not an actor, though. I have two occupations, one of which is studying an MA in Translation. One of the first things I learned when I first started studying translation, before I started the MA, was that even if two words are classified as synonyms, they don’t, in practice, mean the same thing. They have different connotations, and different associations. “Amiable” and “charming” both mean “an attractive manner”, but “Prince Amiable” just doesn’t sound romantic.

I don’t think Emma Watson was just looking for a novel way to say “single”. “Self-partnered”, as I interpret it, does not exactly mean what “single” means – that you don’t have a romantic partner. It means that you are your own partner; that you look after yourself as another partner would. You are the person beside you on your journey through life. You are the person who knows you best. You are the person you turn to when you are tired, insecure, or sad. I think this will be familiar to many of us on the autistic spectrum. From our earliest childhoods, we find ourselves at an inexplicable distance from other people. I remember being totally disorientated when I found that words and gestures that made people laugh in one context somehow made them angry when I used them in another. And there are things neurotypical people don’t see and feel that autistic people do, things we can’t ignore – the textures of clothes on our bodies, the hum of computers, the touch of a brush on our hair.

This isn’t intended to be a summary description of how it feels to be autistic; that needs novels, not paragraphs. If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person: each of us has a unique lifetime’s worth of influences on how we perceive ourselves and others. To give another perspective, my good friend Paul Isaacs has blogged[ii] about how his perception of self and other throughout his life, and how autism, borderline personality disorder and other conditions have influenced his physical and psychological being.

The “aut” in “autism” is the same “same” in “autobiography” and “auto-pilot”, and suffice to say, when you are autistic, you have to be an ally to yourself.    

[TW: self-criticism talk]

My self is not a good ally to me (Let’s call her “she”). I have a lot of rules to maintain my self-confidence day to day and whenever I break them, which is often, she calls me hurtful words, like “freak”. When I question this, she reminds me of the many times I have been excluded and put down, as proof that I don’t even realise how weird I am. I don’t want to marry her, like the solo weddings organised by Cerca Travel, Japan[iii]. Some days I wouldn’t even give her a piece of cake after work, though I might wish someone else would.

Even so, I can’t leave her. I’ll be spending Valentine’s Day with her. No one will sweep into my life like a rom-com hero and even if they did, I still couldn’t forget about her. I want to make things work with her, because at the end of the day she’s everything to me.

“Self-partnered” is an empowering term in a world where even when you are a beautiful, talented actor and UN ambassador, society is waiting with a “Yes, but…what about your relationship status?”. These attitudes make it really hard to talk about being single actually feels like; if we are sad or angry we get pity, if we are happy it is assumed we must be sad and angry really – just look at the comments on this solo wedding article[iv]. It is difficult enough to build your self-esteem without an inner (or outer voice) telling you “That’s right, you are worthless”.

This isn’t an advice blog. I’m not going to tell you how to fix that inner voice because I’m still figuring that out for myself, and I’ve never been able to do the “what would someone else do in your situation” thing because, well, other people are not me.

But I know that sometimes it is very hard to keep being there for yourself when the world is overwhelming, especially when you and your self have been through a lot, and for a long time. And admitting this doesn’t say anything about how happy or sad, successful or unsuccessful your life is. Our relationships with ourselves – in other words, our lives, are more powerful and more precious than any word or phrase can describe.

This Valentine’s Day, be a good partner to yourself.

I am going to give myself that cake.  

[i] Emma Watson: “I’m Very Happy Being Single. I Call It Being Self-Partnered”. Available at: https://www.vogue.co.uk/news/article/emma-watson-on-fame-activism-little-women (Accessed: Feb 13, 2020)

[ii] Isaacs, P. (2014) ‘Autism, Mirroring and The “Sense Of Self”’, Paul Isaacs’ Blog, -12-01T07:57:27+00:00. Available at: https://theisaacs22.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/autism-mirroring-and-the-sense-of-self/ (Accessed: Feb 13, 2020).

[iii] Kaneko, M. (2014) ‘Single, sad? Solo weddings pamper both wives and unmarried ladies’, The Japan Times Online, Dec 25, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/25/national/single-sad-solo-weddings-pamper-both-wives-and-unmarried-ladies/#.XkWcb2ieQ2w (Accessed: Feb 13, 2020)

[iv] Harris, N. (2016) “Everything but the groom: why I faked my own wedding”, The Guardian, March 5, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/mar/05/everything-but-the-groom-faked-own-wedding-naomi-harris (Accessed: Feb 13, 2020)

Why I started this blog

First things first: This blog is not just about me.

This blog is about being autistic, and how that interacts with experiences of love, romance, sex, relationships, sexuality, gender and many other things in those fields that we are yet to uncover. It is my hope that this blog will host stories from many people, from many backgrounds with many different experiences. However, somebody had to start it off, so here I am.

My name is Tiffany. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (saying that because that was the term in use in the late 90s) when I was eight. I am a cisgender woman and probably heterosexual.

My experience of romance is possibly more than some people’s but certainly less than a lot of people’s at my stage in life. I did not date anyone at all until I took up online dating in my mid-twenties, and that did not work out well. I went on five or six dates with one man over a few months, and though it was nice, and safe, it was physically and emotionally draining in a way I have rarely experienced before or since. I’ll write more about that sometime, but not today.  Then, three years later, I had one date which was again perfectly nice, but very draining, and I neither texted him back, nor did he text me. That didn’t disappoint me – it was clearly for the best – but I didn’t know what to do next.

This enduring lack of experience, combined with the fact I didn’t feel able to do more about it, combined with how tired it made me, combined with the good old patriarchy chestnut that a woman is worthless if a man doesn’t find her attractive, and the good old social assumption that everyone can find romance if they just try…all of this has been an oppressive weight on my shoulders for about fifteen years.

So why blog about it now?

I went into 2019 with a determination to improve my life. I applied for a Master’s (and got on it) and started making a bit more of an effort to meet somebody. Apps and so on. And I had a date which felt different: it was positive. When it was all over, I did not even want to cover myself in blankets and play distracting video games like a convalescent. But I had questions, as you do, and I went on Google, as you do, and I searched for something like “dating advice autism”.

The results were by and large a bitter disappointment. Most websites were not by or for autistic people, only about us – not just for our neurotypical partners, but for our parents, for professionals, and, most depressing of all, the curious general public.

Here is a quote that particularly set me off. Look away if you don’t want to get angry:

“The woman [with Asperger’s] social immaturity may be appealing to those men who have natural paternal and compassionate qualities.”[1]

The thought that there was no hope for me but that a man might pity me enough to accept me as a wife/daughter hybrid was extremely upsetting, and I spent most of the rest of the evening and the following day in a fog of despair and rage.

Much of the “advice” on offer was also heterocentric and ciscentric. The assumption was that autistic men act like so, and autistic women act like so, and both want a relationship with the opposite sex. This can be explained by regular homophobia and cissexism, whereby cisgender heterosexuals forget that LGBTQ people exist, but I felt there was an ableist element to it as well. Like sexuality and gender identity was not something you as an autistic person discovered within yourself, but only wanted to imitate from other people, like “Oh bless her! She wants a partner! She must have seen that on TV!”. 

We know that these assumptions are emphatically wrong. Though both autism and LGBTQ experiences have historically been under-researched and misunderstood, research has indicated that a higher proportion of autistic people are not heterosexual, and not cisgender, than corresponding proportions in the neurotypical population[2],[3],[4]. I point this out to emphasise how very ridiculous it is to assume that all autistic people are straight and cis, but even if the proportion of LGBTQ people on the autistic spectrum were the same as for the neurotypical population, or smaller, it would be no less important for autistic LGBTQ people to have a voice.

That’s why I wanted to start this blog. Sexuality, gender, love and relationships are huge parts of our lives and the social expectations around them are immense. They can cause us extraordinary pain, but, at other times, can be sources of joy, creativity, self-expression and of course, wonderful connections with other people. Humanity has written millions of words about the experience of these things and is still not done yet, and I know for sure that not enough of those words have been about what happens when you have to deal with these things while autistic.

I shared the idea for this blog with friends in the Oxford Autism Experience Group, of which I was a member until it folded due to lack of funding in early 2020. Their support has given me the confidence to take the step of setting up this blog.

I don’t want this blog to be about me. I want it to be about us. About you. Maybe you have struggled to make any sexual or romantic connections in your life. Maybe you’re married. Maybe you’ve had a few partners in your life. Maybe you have a few partners now.

Whoever you are and wherever you’re at, I hope you also feel supported and listened to when you read this blog. Let’s start telling our stories.

[1] Moreno, S., Wheeler, M. and Parkinson, K. (2012). The partner’s guide to Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, p.13.

[2] George, R. and Stokes, M.A. (2018) ‘Sexual Orientation in Autism Spectrum Disorder’, Autism Research, 11(1), pp. 133-141. doi: 10.1002/aur.1892.

[3] van der Miesen, Anna I. R., Cohen-Kettenis, P. and de Vries, Annelou L. C. (2018) ‘Is There a Link Between Gender Dysphoria and Autism Spectrum Disorder?’, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 57(11), pp. 884-885. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2018.04.022.

[4] Van Der Miesen, Anna I. R., Hurley, H. and De Vries, Annelou L. C. (2016) ‘Gender dysphoria and autism spectrum disorder: A narrative review’, International Review of Psychiatry, 28(1), pp. 70-80. doi: 10.3109/09540261.2015.1111199.

Why ‘Love Autistic’?

Four reasons:

Love (when you’re) Autistic: Love, as experienced when you are autistic. Our definition of ‘love’ here is very very broad – we do want to talk about love, but also about sex, and sexuality, and gender, and friendship and self-care and a lot of things under that umbrella. But the blog’s inspiration came from the special mystery that is finding love, so “love” is the title.

Love (an) Autistic (person): Do you love an autistic person? Are you autistic yourself? If so, we would love to hear your joint story. Note: that does not mean it has to be jointly written – we just want to make sure where possible that people’s experiences are not publicised without their consent.

If you are NT (neurotypical, in this context meaning not autistic) you are welcome too. However please note this blog has been started to counteract a plethora of hurtful and patronizing narratives from NTs about their autistic partners, family and patients. For this reason, on this blog, we prioritise the autistic experience, and so we would only want to hear about your experience of a relationship with an autistic person with that person’s consent, and in a context that gives them respect and dignity even if the story is not a happy one.

Love Autistic (stories): We love stories of autism experience, please share them.

Love Autistic (people): We are autistic people writing for autistic people. We know that the topics this blog aspires to cover are very hard to talk about at the best of times, and we are not in the best of times. We are in a sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist world, with pressure and aggravation from many directions. But in this place you are free to be yourself, and we hope you will feel loved.