It amazes me how little time and research has been spent by professionals on autistic people’s desire for relationships and the barriers that exist to keep us from relationships. Oh, there’s “research” on how awful we are for people who are close to us, but not a lot on what makes a good romantic relationship where one or both partners are autistic. There’s little training or education for autistic people (other than “appropriate vs. inappropriate” touch, and, sadly, even that’s lacking too often) on relationships, sexuality, avoiding abuse, marriage, child raising, and similar topics.
Yet if you ask autistic people what things would make their lives better, “a partner” or “a spouse” is pretty high on the list, as are things like raising a child. These are often above things like employment and independent living skills, yet we see the focus primarily on employment and independent living skills: things others want us to do. By extension, I’m guessing relationships, sex, marriage, and child-rearing are not things others want us to do.
When barriers to relationships are brought up, it’s almost always in the context of how autism makes it difficult or impossible to be in a true partnership with another person. In other words, the focus is usually on the autistic person’s autism – typically with a whole lot of false assumptions about autism. But those aren’t the only things that give us trouble in relationships. I’m going to write about three things that have nothing to do with autism itself, but rather deal with the society we live in, that make it hard for many of us to have successful relationships: sexual abuse, money, transportation, and misconceptions about autism. Today, I want to talk about sexual abuse. I’ll talk money, transportation, and misconceptions later.
I saw an article that Paula C. Durbin-Westby on Facebook (she finds amazing resources): One Photograph to Break My Silence: A Heart-to-Heart Conversation on Autism and Sexual Abuse. The author, an autistic person and survivor of abuse, asks for the autism community to start speaking about abuse, while demonstrating her own amazing courage. I agree – it’s way too common. Step one is speaking up.
This is the first barrier to relationships I wanted to bring up. Being an abuse survivor myself, I know how it impacted my ability to form relationships, in just about every way imaginable.
It made me vulnerable. There are few things that erase our sense of security than for someone to sexually abuse us. We’re wired to crave the intimacy experienced in sexuality. So when the abuse occurs that betrays any intimacy or connection with another, it rips out your foundation of security. If people can do that to me, what can’t they do? Even seeking help is a problem, since telling others of the abuse increases our vulnerability, at least until we have ways of making that story into something that strengthens us. That’s only possible once we’ve dealt with the psychological effects of the abuse and our own personal security. There are groups that can help with the safety aspects (both the sense of being vulnerable and the actual danger of being re-victimized by a perpetrator), but it’s a hard thing – after all, even asking for help can make us vulnerable.
Vulnerable people don’t seek out relationships. They don’t seek to expose their weakness, for fear that someone will attack it. The only solution is to confront the vulnerability. Yet too many autistic people (and other disabled people) live in horrible situations – bad neighborhoods, shared living with dangerous roommates, or physically close to their abusers. There are ways people cope with this. The most positive ways are typically with the support of others who can make you feel safe – in other words someone who can credibly protect you from dangers. It might be a group of scary bikers (these guys are awesome!). Or it might be your own mind creating another being, another personality who is fierce enough to be the person you couldn’t be (these are the people that scare others when they come out in a multiple – but they have to scare others to serve their purpose, which means not always following the rules or being predictable – they have to look a bit even crazy, but I imagine this too makes it hard for people to form a relationship!). There are other ways, other than people who can make you safe: it could be the ability to move far away from the abuser, or a better lock on your door, karate lessons, or a concealed carry permit. Or, in rare cases, it could be that the abuser spends the rest of his days in a prison cell. But regardless, with vulnerability, it’s hard to enter into a relationship with someone, particularly in the true sense of intimacy of sharing not only our strengths, but also our weakness (or, in the case of abuse, our perceived weakness – it’s not weakness to be abused).
Abuse destroys our confidence, in many ways. I still think back to my abuse and say, “Am I sure it happened?” Yes, I am, but I still hear those whispers in the dark occasionally. After all, my abusers – like many other people’s abusers – are respectable citizens who would “never do anything bad.” I wish. Even the author in the article linked with her picture faces this – talk of shades of gray, rather than black-and-white. Sometimes we doubt ourselves. Engaging in a romantic relationship needs confidence and assurance, however. It needs someone to ask the other to spend time together. It needs both to assert themselves and share things. It needs both people to give something to the relationship, to shape it.
Then there is sexual intimacy. An abuse survivor doesn’t want to experience situations that remind them or put them back into the time when they were abused. In addition to my sexual abuse, I had significant physical abuse growing up – there are times when I believed I would die at the hands of my abusers. I’m not fond of touch that even sort of reminds me of those times, so there are things my wife needs to be aware of when touching and relating to me.
Secondly, in addition to touch affecting me, it also affects how people interact. It affects how I interact with my wife – I might project my own fears and experiences onto her, thinking she might feel similarly to me, even when she doesn’t. So I might avoid activity she would enjoy, which wouldn’t be frightening or triggering. Likewise, she, knowing I am an abuse survivor, may make assumptions about me – and avoid things we both enjoy.
There’s also the narratives that if I allowed myself to be abused, I must be a bad person. Of course I didn’t allow myself to be abused, but it’s easy to question whether or not I did everything I could have. Maybe if I didn’t act so weird, maybe if I fought back, maybe if I didn’t say the wrong things, maybe if… But the reality is that I didn’t cause the abuse to happen – evil in my abusers caused it to happen. But it’s easy to blame yourself, and it’s easy to be ashamed. Couple that with too much of today’s right-wing views on sexuality (“That’s because sex connects two people in body and spirit; it’s impossible to separate the two.“) and there’s tons of guilt around sexual experience, even non-consensual abuse. Add in “shades of gray” abuse rather than black-and-white abuse, and it’s pretty easy to see yourself as a horrible person, unworthy of another.
There’s a whole lot of other psychological effects of abuse than just what it does to our sense of vulnerability, self-confidence, and ability to enjoy sexual intimacy. These all affect every stage of a relationship – can I commit to someone? Am I a good enough person? Can I be honest about my desires? Yet one thing is important to note: this is not autism, this is abuse. Yes, we’re more likely to be abused, and, yes, we need to be screaming about that. But sometimes there’s things outside of us that make relationships difficult.
In closing of this post, I’ll say: it’s still possible to have a good relationship as an abuse survivor. Indeed, it’s possible that the abuse – as horrible as it was (and is) – doesn’t need hurt the relationship. I’m glad I took the risk to get to know her, and I think God and the people in my life (including my wife) that made healing possible. I needed others to heal, and that’s okay – and I’d encourage anyone who has faced abuse to find others who can help you heal, in whatever way is most important for you. There are people who care.