Looking back, with the illuminating force of my diagnosis, I can see a huge gap between what I thought was happening in my relationships, and the reality of it all.
Although the following advice is universal, it’s something that needs clearly stating for young people on the spectrum.
Autistic people tend towards black and white thinking; we trust everyone or no one; we’re completely sceptical or completely naive. We often struggle with shades of grey.
The problem is that both those extremes are damaging. Trusting makes you vulnerable to people who might take advantage of you. Mis-trusting makes it even more difficult to form relationships and isolates you.
So what is the solution?
Autism means you’re less able to pick up on subtle body language that may suggest someone is bad news.
I believe the most obvious of lies. I take things very literally. If you tell me you are nice and friendly, then I’ll believe you. It’s my default setting.
The question is, how to form a healthy, critical view, without having a major negative impact on the individual? How do you teach safety, without creating another barrier to overcome?
When we teach young people about staying safe when out and about, there is often too much focus on putting the responsibility for an act of violence onto the victim of that violence. As though if we tell women not to walk home alone, then we have done our job and we are absolved of the blame for anything that happens to her if she does.
Yes there are things we can all do to reduce the likelihood of being attacked, but the only variable that is a causal factor for the attack, is the presence of an attacker. How vulnerable or trusting the victim of that attack is, shouldn’t be relevant.
I’m more vulnerable because I believe people. With hindsight there are many occasions when I’ve ended up in vulnerable situations because of my intrinsic trust. The reason I was not attacked on those occasions was simply because there was no attacker present.
The other day I asked my husband if he’d ever been afraid walking home alone at night. He said that he never had. I told him I’d always been afraid, that sometimes I’d had no choice but to walk after dark, and that it always terrified me because I’d been told that I was in constant danger from predatory men.
Which is funny when you look at the statistics. When you actually deal in facts. Statistically it is my husband who is more at risk of being attacked if he walks alone at night. He is more likely to end up a victim of violence than I am if he walks alone, but no one had ever taught him that he should be afraid, and more importantly, if he was beaten to a pulp he would not be told it was his fault for walking home alone.
It’s illogical that we treat victims of sexual violence differently to those of physical violence, but we do. Women are more likely to be the victims of sexual violence, and less likely to report the crimes because she has already been told that she must be responsible.
We spend a lot of time teaching girls to be scared of a stranger in the dark, but a woman is far more likely to be assaulted by someone she knows, than by a stranger. Which actually means that getting a male friend to walk you home, could be increasing your danger, not decreasing it. But we don’t tell women and girls this, and they’re less likely to report an attack by a friend, because the rules have told them already that they must be responsible.
This isn’t about teaching women and girls to place themselves in danger. It’s about sending a proportionate and sensible message to everyone. Men and women.
Just one message that says, “If you walk alone at night you may be at risk of being attacked”.
What I wasn’t taught about, was that the person most likely to hurt me, was the person who would also claim to love me the most – the boyfriend, the partner, the husband – and that if this happens then it automatically invalidates their love.
It’s a simple black-and-white concept that it took me years to learn; if someone hurts you they are not showing you love, they do not love you, you must leave.
For a young woman who is desperate to be like everyone else, not telling her this truth, makes her more likely to not only place herself in danger, but not to recognise the danger for what it is. She will blame herself, when what she should be doing is seeking help.
We need to know the facts. We need to know the truth. We need to be able to look for danger in the places it is most likely to be, and we need to know what to do if we find ourselves in a bad situation.
Another problem is that as a teen we will probably have just learnt that lots of the “rules” we are told are actually lies: Honesty isn’t always the best policy, those who wait patiently won’t always get a turn, being good will not lead to an ultimate reward.
Consent is another thing that seems like a lie.
We’re told we can say no, and that our bodies are ours alone, but then we may also be told that we must hug or kiss relatives. We may not want to be tickled, but it’s not listened to. Our boundaries will be ignored and trampled in many little ways.
When we’re told that a skirt must be a certain length so as not to distract the boys, we learn that it is our bodies that cause harassment and unwanted attention. The blame is put on the victim and not the perpetrator – which is terrible for the perpetrator too, they are not being taught to respect boundaries and will struggle to build their own relationships.
So in one quick leap of logic, “you have a right to say no” is quickly replaced by, “unless someone else really wants you to say yes”.
Or even worse, we can learn that saying no can lead to being attacked, but saying yes can eliminate that risk; tragic and terrible black-and-white thinking in action.
There are some relationship rules that I have learnt over the years and these are the things that I wish I had known as a teenager:-
1. If his actions don’t match his words, then it is his actions that are the truth and his words are lies.
Read it again. It’s the first and the most important rule. What he does is all you need to know
2. If he hurts you, then this makes his love null and void.
Would you hurt the person you loved? No? Then this is not love.
3. People make mistakes all the time, but if someone is sorry, they do their best not to repeat it.
If someone is doing something that they know has hurt you in the past, then it’s not a mistake. Apply rule 1.
4. Being single is far better than being with the wrong person.
Forget the films. Forget the fairy tales. Happily ever after doesn’t come from a relationship, it comes from being happy with who you are.
5. It’s ok to break up with someone even if they’re nice.
Sometimes someone is lovely, but just not right for you. They may be happy, but if you’re not, it’s ok to end things if that’s what is right for you. Being in an incompatible relationship with someone nice can be as damaging as being in a relationship with someone awful.
6. Men are great.
I often read complaints that start, “All men are…” And it’s never true. Men are brilliant. They’re kind, compassionate, funny and thoughtful. If you find yourself in a relationship with a selfish person, then that’s just that individual. There are good men out there. Don’t settle for someone who doesn’t make you happy.
7. Being with you isn’t an act of charity.
Low self-esteem can lead to a feeling that you owe him in some way just for being with you. A nice man would reject that, whilst a nasty man will feed it. He wouldn’t be with you if he wasn’t enjoying the relationship. If he’s making you feel like you owe him, if he’s criticising you for not living up to some expectation or other, then his actions are not loving. Find someone nice who values you, or even better, just value yourself. You are worth more than that.
8. Don’t waste your time on game-players.
We are straightforward say-it-as-it-is folk. The first sniff of games and you know it’s not for you. From following “relationship rules” on when to text, to blowing hot and cold in their interest for you. He may be lovely, but you’ll never be compatible. You can give him one chance to cut it out if you like, but only one. He will leave you feeling miserable and on-edge. It wasn’t meant to be.
9. The Honey-moon period is the fun bit.
If it’s not good, the only way is down. Yes love grows over time, but the first days, weeks and months should be spent feeling excited and happy. They’re a time for finding out about each other. Arguments about who does the washing up are a distant spec on the horizon. If this bit isn’t fun, if it is angst and heartache, then don’t expect it to get better. When people say that relationships are work, they don’t mean that they’re mostly work.
10. He should relieve your stress, not worsen it.
When I’m around my husband it’s like a huge aura of calm envelopes me. Anything I worry about, I can say to him, and he just soothes it and I do the same for him. Having a person who is not stressful to be around is particularly important if you have Autism. You need to know where you stand, you need stability and honesty. Don’t compromise on those things.
11. Societal expectations are just that, expectations.
Non-autistic people get to break lots of rules all the time – decide what is right for you. Do things when you are ready, not before. If in doubt, take more time to decide. If someone is pushing you to make a decision about anything, be it marriage, sex or buying new curtains, then they’re not putting your needs first.
12. You always have a right to say no.
When you were tickled as a child, and you asked them to stop, and they didn’t, they were wrong. You had a right to say no and to be listened to. When you were a teen and a boy was mean to you, and you were told he probably fancied you, they were wrong. You had a right not to be treated like that, he was not behaving like a good person. You had a right to say no and to be listened to.
Any time you can remember when someone overruled your views on your own body, they were wrong. You are the only person who gets a say in it, it belongs to no one but you.
That’s a fact. Not an opinion.
13. Sometimes when you seek help from family and friends, they get it wrong.
There’s a value to keeping things the same, even for neurotypicals. When we reach out for help to leave, it can be mistaken for help to stay. People worry about big changes.
But it’s not just that. Relationships are big and complicated. When we ask for help, we may not explain it well. We may focus on one small aspect, when actually it’s one symptom of a bigger issue. For example the problem is not that you had an argument about who would do the washing up, the problem is that he frightened you, or that he is always telling you that you do things the wrong way, or that it’s part of a pattern of behaviour that is making you miserable.
Tell people what you need. It may not be the first person you tell. And there are always organisations who will support you too if you need them.
Knowing the risks is not about being scared. It’s about helping you recognise when things are not as they should be.
14. There’s no such thing as a stereotypical Autistic Woman in a relationship.
Some people may have an idea of an autistic woman as the androgynous, asexual autistic. Of course some autistic women are androgynous and asexual, but that is just one side of a rotating coin. Autistic women cover the spectrum of sexuality in the same way that non-autistic women do. We are all different.
Autistic women do not conform to any one definition, and it’s so important that we are able to be who we are in a relationship.
And then there’s the other side…
How to recognise a good relationship:-
1. It makes you feel good.
You look forward to being with them. You don’t dread what mood they may be in.
2. You don’t always agree on everything (who does?) but when you disagree, you can discuss things reasonably, and they don’t make you feel small or like your opinion isn’t important.
You may occasionally argue, but you compromise and work it out, and neither of you ever resorts to name-calling.
3. They don’t tell you what to wear or how to cut your hair.
They know your body is yours.
4. There’s a fair division of labour.
Fair doesn’t have to mean you split every job down the middle, it just means at the end of the day you both get about the same amount of downtime to relax. It’s whatever works for you.
It’s not true that men don’t see mess, or can’t clean things as well. Don’t fall for it!
5. Neither of you are ever obliged to do anything you’re uncomfortable with.
It works both ways, and it’s the root of all good relationships. Respect each other’s boundaries.
6. You both compromise at times.
Compromise is important, but there should be give and take on both sides. It shouldn’t be one sided. If you’re always the one compromising then it’s not an equal relationship.
Do they make you happy? Do they add something to your life? If the answer is no, then being single sounds like a good plan.
These are very general rules, because there are so many different ways to be in a working relationship. It really is what works for you as an individual.
The most important thing to take away with you, is that whilst in every other social-interaction, you may find the need to mask, or to pretend to be like everyone else, in your relationship it is vital that you be true to yourself and your needs. You need to be you. I can promise you won’t be compatible with anyone who doesn’t want that too.