Autistic Cliques

No, this is not an oxymoron.

Sometimes the online autistic community reminds me of junior high.

No, I’m not saying that autistic people are immature, so please wipe that from your mind right now.  I’m saying that the thing that makes junior high (and in fact the rest of society) difficult for many people (hardly just autistic people) is inside the autistic community too.

Cliques.

Now, I know we’re not robots, and I know that we too are going to have people we highly respect and like – and are more likely to take them seriously than other people.  We know these people, after all.  So I’m not saying this is a completely bad thing – it’s not.  But it’s also not a completely good thing.

Over the last several years at Autreat (maybe the last 3 or 4?), I’ve noticed a change from Autreats previously.  I didn’t go last year, so I don’t know if it changed last year or not.  What I noticed was two things, and I didn’t consider either particularly good, although both come from something that is good.  I suspect this is a wider community thing, and I think we need to look not just at Autreat but at our community as a whole. We need to shape up.

First, I noticed a lot less manners. No, not the typical social skills stuff we’re taught, but things like recognizing that other people might be impacted by your own behavior. Things like actually respecting people’s red badges. Things like trying to figure out how someone interacts at the start of an interaction because you care about their style of interaction, too, not just your own. Things like not doing things that you know will bother other people. Yes, autistic people can and should have manners. Having autism is not an excuse to be rude or inconsiderate. Yes, it means we might not recognize social cues, we might not realize that we’re bothering someone, or we might interact in ways that make others uncomfortable.  But there is a huge difference between doing it accidentally and doing it intentionally (and then using “I’m autistic” as cover). It seems like the autistic community has been slowly getting more and more selfish over the years (although I know that there are many, many exceptions to that).

Second, and I think related to the above, is the rise of more cliques. There have always been autistic cliques when autistic community exists, despite conventional wisdom that says we think logically and don’t blindly build groups or follow leaders. And I think there’s a reason for the rise of cliques: we are meeting each other a lot more often now.

In 2002, when I first attended Autreat and met autistic community, I knew nobody there. Not one person. I learned that others like me exist. And I learned how important it was to see that we exist. A bunch of people there were in the same boat and knew nobody. We spent the week together and enjoyed our time with each other. There certainly were cliques, even then, but there were a lot of people not in any cliques.

Fast forward to say 2011 or 2012. Today, most of the people who come to Autreat already know another autistic person. When I went to Autreat in 2002, I had never met another Autistic, nor had a lot of interaction online. Today, thanks to Facebook, blogs, local autistic get-togethers, advocacy movements, and other events (as well as Autreat being held in the same area for many, many years), the average attendee knows – and maybe even is friends with – other autistic people. And you’ll see even first time attendees often come with friends, either from their own region or met online. That’s a pretty dramatic shift in our community.  That didn’t really happen in 2002.

There’s good with this: it means more people want to come to Autreat and similar events, because they have another reason to attend: to meet the people they’ve met online. Of course you want to meet your friends! You want to spend time with them! This is particularly true if you don’t get a lot of real-life face-to-face communication and your social life is mostly online. So what do you do at Autreat? You hang out with your friends! It’s a wonderful time. But, to an outsider (that is, someone not in your group of friends), this is a clique.  It’s hard to break in, because they don’t share the bond that the others share among each other, at least not yet.

I also think having a chance to meet with other autistic people online interacts with our manners. We can build an online persona that is rough and tough, self-deprecating, or otherwise not all that pleasant of a person to be around. And, no matter how rude we may be, you can probably find validation online somewhere. That can be attractive – I can be “who I am” rather than having to be someone else. And there’s truth that this is a good thing, but it still has limits. It’s still important to think of other people and their feelings. I remember in 2002 being amazed at how concerned everyone was about everyone’s feelings. I saw that in 2012 too, certainly, but I also saw some seeds of difference on this point.

I also saw how, as more and more people at Autreat knew others, how it has become more difficult for people who aren’t “plugged in” to have positive social interactions. They might see someone that they think is really interesting, but they are surrounded by a large group of friends, clearly sharing a common bond. That’s not a great place for an outsider, even in an autistic community.

For my community, I beg all of us to consider each other’s feelings and personhood. Being yourself doesn’t mean “not changing anything about how I want to interact, I can be as selfish as I want.” No, it means, “I can stand firm on my convictions and my identity. And so can other people. I have a part in making that happen.” It involves us taking a less selfish route sometimes. Selfishness is not the same as “being yourself,” even if you can get away with it online.

I also beg all of us to consider that person who isn’t plugged in.  Not everyone is on social media.  Not everyone on social media is popular on social medial. It’s a pretty miserable experience sitting alone at an event filled with people who supposedly know what it is like to sit alone. And, back to manners, if you want to sit alone, that’s cool, but be nice to someone who asks if you want company – sure, you can still let them know you want to be alone (and they should respect that), but no need to be nasty! Taking time to get to involve others is particularly helpful if you know you’re comfortable with your friends. Take time to get to know someone and bring them into your circle. Don’t do what happened to you and me in junior high, and stick to a tight group! Invite (not just allow) others to participate with you! Yes, it’s hard – that’s why it is so comfortable to stay in a tight group, and why NTs in junior high didn’t include us so often! And maybe you do need time just in a familiar group once in a while (particularly if you don’t get it in “real life”). But empathy – which autistics certainly have – also means you notice the autistic doing what you do in real life, staring at a potted plant trying not to look lonely.

All of this involves effort. Community is work. Community is not easy. Community involves conflict, personalities, hurt feelings, and sometimes hurt in other ways. Hurt happens. It happens a lot in community. But so should love, nurturing, respect, consideration, politeness, and generosity. And we shouldn’t ignore those things, either, either if everyone can’t do all of this at once.

We also need to do this online and in other community spaces. We need to start thinking that we’re all really in this together. We need to, when conflict occurs, take a step back or two, breathe, and not demand 100% orthodoxy. We need to be careful about how quickly we run to the defense of our friends, and remember that this “circling of the wagons” was exactly the same behaviors we despised in junior high and onward into adulthood. We need to listen first before we immediately defend the person we know or like. We need to be an open and welcoming community that deals with conflict well.

And we need to recognize our own privilege. Not just things like white, male, privilege. No, also the, “I have influence” privilege. It should scare you when you see it. I know when I have talked about community issues that affect me in abstract terms or anonymously, and see them ignored. Yet when I attach my name and personal experience, now the issue is serious. That’s not cool – the issue is or isn’t serious no matter who is bringing it up. This is something we have to be on-guard about. The leader or blogger or researcher or whoever else shouldn’t be granted more consideration than the yet-unknown autistic person who wants to find out if others exist like themself.

Again, that takes effort. Sometimes a lot of effort. That’s the price to pay for community.  Community is hard. But, community is good and important, particularly for people who have never experienced it.

I’m not writing this in regard to any specific incident. I know people will try to say that I am, but, truly, I’m not. Autreat 2013, which I didn’t attend, had problems. For the record, yes, I do think there were many things wrong in 2013. I hope whatever rises from the ashes is better. I do think this type of concept is important. And I want to see it rise. Yes, we’ll have different leadership next year and fixes for some accessibility issues. And I hope we build a community that is more inclusive – not just eliminating barriers to access, but also actively inviting people into our space. Why get together if we don’t want other people around?

That said, I don’t have a solution other than asking people to be inclusive. I’m certainly interested in thoughts about how we can fix this.

People Pleasing and Self-Respect

I like people around me to be happy.  And I’m in the middle of a bunch of conflict right now.  And I don’t like it.  As part of trying to explain why I’m reacting certain ways and doing certain things, I’m writing this post.  But I’m writing in a general sense, because I think it might affect others and it consolidates a whole swirl in my head.

Sometimes however, it’s easy to do what people want rather than what I want.  Now, sometimes I do what others want and push aside my wants, and that’s good because I consciously make the choice, “This person is more important to me than my own desire in this area.”  For instance, I might not want to help a friend move, but the friend’s happiness and ability to manage life is more important to me than this particular want.

But it’s not always like that.  Sometimes the want is more important.  In some cases, the want is for time and space to think through things.  In other cases, the want is to not see people hurt by others and, if I have the power to stop it, I should, even if it doesn’t please people.  Of course that’s hard to do and it’s why so many of us (including myself too often) fail at it.  But that doesn’t change that it’s the right thing to do.

There are two reasons I try to please people rather than listening to my inner voice.  First, in my past, there are times when I was unable to defend myself against bullies and abusers.  When the bullies and abusers were unhappy, so was I.  That’s probably a pretty common reaction to abuse – to sort of internalize it and think, “Well, I could have prevented it if I only made sure my abuser was happy.”  Of course that doesn’t work, but it’s a maladaptive pattern that is pretty ingrained in me.  It was an attempt to survive, which is exceptionally rational.  So partially, it’s an survival mechanism that can be triggered.

Second, I may try to please people instead of listening to myself because I am sensitive to other people’s emotions, although not in the same way as a non-autistic might be.  They affect me very deeply and very strongly.  I don’t like being around unhappy people.  It can easily pull me into a spiral, something I’ve learned I need to avoid.  I can’t deal with these emotions when they enter my mind, overwhelming me.  I’ll get swept away.  So to avoid getting to that state, sometimes I’ll just go along with what people want.  I’m okay being happy.  I don’t want anger or sadness or whatever else in my head though.  This isn’t a good way of dealing with things, and I’m learning and growing in other ways.

Now, I debated writing this – someone reading this will know how to manipulate or abuse me right now.  But I’m, despite being wronged in the past by some in my community, still of the opinion that most people are decent people who don’t want to do me wrong (and even that some of the people who wronged me didn’t intend to wrong me, and are good people overall).  Not everyone shares my optimism, but my optimism has kept me alive. So, I’m going to hang onto it. I’m writing this to explain what affects me, knowing it probably affects others.

It’s hard to learn to listen to your voice.  It’s hard to step back and say, “I want person X to like me.  But I need to do what is right.”  It’s so much easier to give in to the coping mechanisms and just do what person X wants me to do. My abusers taught me well. And it’s not like most autistic people have tons of spare friends. I still live with lots of fear, whether that’s going into strange buildings, approaching people, or this. And unlike what may be said by outsiders, this fear has nothing to do with autism. It was taught.  And I learned that lesson well.  As do, I fear, lots of autistic people. Someone who hasn’t felt this fear has no idea.

So, not only do I respond to pressure to act certain ways, but I actively look for, “What can I do to make this person happy?” What I’m not doing is what is good for me.  I’m trying to do what is good for them.

Now, this isn’t the fault of the person who is unhappy or that wants my help.  They don’t know they are doing this most likely.  I’ve got to eventually stop things and say, “Hey, I need a bit to process this, get words around it, and maybe even figure out what my brain is trying to tell me.”  But of course that’s part of the abuse training too – I don’t do that often.  But I’m really proud of myself when I do.

How can people help? I don’t really know. I don’t have good strategies for this. I guess, people who know me and know this about me could realize I have a tendency to do this and give me time to process and think, and not take it as a personal insult if I don’t immediately do what they would like to see me do. What they want may also be what I want. But it might not be, too. And I would ask that you listen to me when I hint that I’m at the end of my rope.  If I even hint at it, it probably means the end of the rope is now five feet above my head and I’m dropping down a 500 foot drop. I don’t ask for help much. But I might occasionally hint at it.  That hint is real, it’s not like someone who might yell and scream over something not quite going their way – and, yes, people do that. But my hinting at a problem gets mistaken for not being a serious need while someone else’s yelling gets taken seriously. That sucks. Loudness or forcefulness is not the same as seriousness.

This is why we aren’t believed in the hospital. We go in and say, “Somethings hurting, but not bad enough for me to want to die.” That gets translated to, “It doesn’t hurt bad.”  Meanwhile someone two doors down is yelling and screaming about a minor injury – so they at least get some treatment. If we were worse off then them, we’d yell louder, too, right? Not quite. (ironically, if I say it does make me want to die, then I’m probably “suicidal” and a threat to myself, and, thus, not actually “really” sick and in need of having a physical problem treated)

It’s also a problem with the way a lot of us grew up, both from informal teaching (like my bullies) and formal teaching (where we’re taught don’t question people, quiet is better than loud, keep your voice level down, don’t make other people’s lives hard).  Autistic people get this type of teaching. A lot. Combine that with the typical responses that autistic people have to problems (tell the autistic how they could make people like them, rather than addressing the bully, for instance) and no wonder we often have problems with this. That’s why I don’t think it’s unique to Joel.

But now, regardless, you know something about me. I’m trying to stand up for myself too, to not be carried around with every wind of desire. My friends will accept that. Even when I disagree over things. They want me to have self-respect.

(and, for reference, no, I’m not directing this at one party or another in the Autreat thing, just in general to how demands for “do something now!” can be very triggering, so please don’t read this that way)

Emotional Age and Maturity

This week’s horrible article by Temple Grandin’s mother contained a lot of unfounded and unsupported assumptions.  I’ve written about the assumptions around connecting late sexual experience with child porn, but there’s another damaging assumption in the article that is worth talking about on it’s own – the concept of emotional age or emotional delay.

People who haven’t studied autistic emotions (either formally or informally) often come to the conclusion, “Autistic people’s emotional development is years behind the development of peers.”  Actually, they usually phrase it as “Children with autism develop emotionally at a slower rate than their peers,” but I’m not going to get into the autistic vs person with autism debate now (others have already explained it).

Essentially, the idea is that a 20 year old autistic might have the emotional development of a 10 year old (or a different age – most advocates of this theory are quick to point out there are differences among autistics) and mature much later than their peers emotionally.

There’s a problem, though: autism is not “persistent childhood syndrome.”  Autism isn’t about developing slower.  It’s about developing differently.  Not different in speed, but at a more base level – different in order of development, different in outcome of development, and different in distribution of strengths and weaknesses.

Before we can talk about those things, we need to talk about other parts of autism.  Autism also involves how we communicate with the world.  An autistic person might, for instance, have significant trouble explaining what they are feeling or what an emotion is like.  That doesn’t mean they have underdeveloped emotions, but simply that they can’t express it.  Emotional language is difficult for a lot of autistic people (myself included), although usually not in the ways people think.  That said, differences in nature, strengths, and weaknesses of communication make people think we have emotional differences that we don’t have.  For instance, how do you show love?  There’s a ton of ways to show someone you love them – anything from saying, “I love you,” to action, whether it’s a hug or whether it’s doing something inconvenient for yourself that you know the other person will enjoy.  It’s not all the same!  But if someone tends to use a form of love expression that differs from what another person might expect, it gets interpreted as “this person doesn’t love me.”  This is true for NTs (neurotypicals) as well as autistics (a lot of relationship counseling of NTs seems to revolve around how to show love for each other), so it only makes sense that autistics might express in ways that baffle or confuse a lot of NTs.  But there’s a difference between baffling expression and lack of the emotion.

That’s not the only difference – another difference is in how we perceive the environment and our base stress levels.  Being in some environments, or being in a situation where you’re under tremendous stress, changes how you interact with people.  For instance, see this presumably non-autistic politician calmly discussing pension reform:

Now maybe the politician in the video is emotionally immature.  But maybe he’s not.  Maybe he’s just stressed and frustrated and lost control of the moment.  This happens to us all (I’m not going to comment on the maturity of the woman behind him responding by laughing – she also is presumably non-autistic) in situations where we are sufficiently provoked or stressed.   Now, imagine that you’re in a lot of pain, under a lot of stress, maybe bullied at school constantly.  Might you not lose your temper and display emotional “immaturity” more often?  Is it really emotional immaturity?  Are you handling your emotions well (considering other things you might do, maybe you are – maybe this is what gave you an outlet for your emotions other than suicide).

But, if an autistic has a meltdown, or can’t handle the current situation, rarely is the focus on her situation.  No, she needs to “learn how to handle her emotions.”  She needs to mature.  Never mind that she might be in pain because of the light and sound around her, that she can’t explain something that’s bothering her due to communication differences, and that others are treating her poorly.  No, she’s at fault to many people.  She’s supposedly immature.

So, now that we know some things that don’t point to lack of emotional maturity, what do we know about autistic emotions?

First, we know that autistic people have trouble expressing emotions – as hinted to above – in ways that NTs find acceptable.  Certainly many people, NT and autistic, can improve how they express emotions.  But it’s not typically seen as lack of emotional development (except by armchair psychologists) in NTs when an NT has trouble with this.  It’s seen as someone who has trouble controlling their emotions, not as someone who is a decade younger inside.  There are studies on this (too often, when talking about something like this, you’ll hear “we need to study autistic people’s emotions.”  I hate to tell this to some people, but we do!).

One of our most common reactions to intense emotion is to basically “hold it in” or suppress our emotions to deal with stress, fear, or uncertainty.  I know people who have seen autistics seemingly “fly off the handle” with no real provocation (that they recognized – in other words, that they had empathy for) will disagree with me, but research says otherwise.  It says that we actually do this a lot, more than neurotypicals.  And that we use less of the neurotypical reappraisal, which can be seen as reanalyzing a situation – did the person try to hurt us, or is there another explanation?  Obviously both strategies have their place (and autistics do both), but autistic people tend to do the suppression more than neurotypicals do.  This isn’t something that leads people towards child porn or causes them to be like children when they are adults (these are both aspects of the horrible Daily Beast article).  Instead, this deals with how we respond to emotions, not what emotions and desires we have.

That gets to the second point – we have the same emotions, but may feel them more intensely.  That makes sense, since it’s well known that we feel other things (like sound or light, for instance) often in more intense ways.  This research has shown that autistic people do have empathy.  Not only do we have it, but we feel it deeper and stronger than neurotypicals in many cases.  Maybe that’s why so many autistic adults are involved in social causes that are largely ignored by the general population (I can name 10 autistic adults I know that are involved in immigration social causes, but I can’t even name one non-autistic adult I know that is – and I know more non-autistic adults than autistic adults).

High empathy doesn’t lead someone towards sex crimes or child porn, nor is high empathy associated with stunted or delayed development.  In fact, high empathy would give someone even more reason – assuming that they didn’t have enough in them already – to avoid child porn and other sex crime.  Couple that with the staggering statistics on sexual abuse of autistic children (in my experience, most of us have been abused as children, and research seems to back me up), and it’s easy to see that, combined with empathy, the vast majority of us would not be drawn to child porn.  We know what it’s like to be the abused child (I’ll also add, to bolster things I’ve already said, that we’ve already learned about children and sex through our abuse, and have no need to learn about sex that way as adults – we were the victims of that already – even if Temple’s mom disagrees).

We also have the other emotions and attractions.  Including sexual attraction.  One thing that is more common among autistic people is homosexuality and other non-heterosexual sexualities.  Research supports this.  However, what research doesn’t support is a link to child pornography.  There are anecdotes and some academic writings similar to the Daily Beast article, but they are generally case studies and hypothesis, and thus not able to be used to draw broad conclusions.  Nobody debates the existence of sexual predators and child porn viewers among autistic people – the question is whether or not there is a link to autism (just because an autistic person does something doesn’t mean autism was a contributing factor).  In the accounts I’ve read of autistic child porn viewers, all of them had one other element: either the person was in an adult relationship (in many cases, married) where presumably adult, age-appropriate sexual activity occurred, or the person had otherwise expressed a sexual interest in adults.  In addition, in most, the person also assaulted or harassed adults.  I say this to confront Temple’s mom’s unsupported hypothesis that autistics, being emotionally undeveloped and thus like children emotionally, seek out images of children.  Clearly even in the academic case studies of autistic adults who view child porn, there’s not a lack of interest in adults – those emotions and attractions are definitely there.  We’re not talking emotional development delay – we’re talking someone who places their self-gratification and unusual desires above society’s rules and other people’s welfare.  That’s not “being childlike.”  It’s being criminal, something autistics and non-autistics both manage to do (ironically we don’t blame a desire to be part of a group facilitating some criminal activity, like some gang activity, on the neurology of the person doing it unless they are non-neurotypical – even though the desire to fit in is important and common for people who have neurotypicality).

Another factor involved with autistic emotion is the social acceptability of expressing our emotions.  Here, I’ll stray a little from research recognizing that personal experience is not something we can draw firm conclusions from (so if you want to criticize something here, THIS is the personal experience part!).  One of the tactics of bullies in my childhood was to provoke me to “tattle” or have an “outburst.”  The bullies were skillful – they knew how to manipulate the situation so that the teacher or authority would see Joel seemingly overreacting, without seeing all the background for why Joel reacted the way he did.  So, for instance, they might tease me all day when the teacher isn’t looking or watching, but when I’ve finally had enough and blow up, the teacher just sees me yelling and screaming at the bullies.  When asked, “Why?” I likely can’t respond coherently or calmly, or I say, “He’s teasing me” to which the teacher thinks, “That reaction is WAY beyond how he should have reacted to being called a name once” (and it would be, if it was once).  So, now, I’m emotionally immature (ironically, the bullies who exploit this are not).

We do experience emotions differently and deeply.  Adults aren’t children, even if the adults have emotional differences.  It might sound good to think of an adult as a child as why the person would be sexually attracted to kids, but that’s not supported by studies of pedophiles (a group that has been extensively studied).  Yes, there are autistic criminals, pedophiles, and child porn viewers.  We’re not all saints, and there are some pretty horrible people among us – just as there is with the rest of the population.  We’re not unique and free from the sins of humanity.  But we’re also not more likely to sin, nor more likely to “act like children emotionally.”  We will act differently than neurotypical adults, that’s for sure.  And there’s a wide variety of difference, but none of that is like a neurotypical child.

Part of fixing the problem of poor sexual education among autistic people involves us treating people as they are, not as we think they are or want to see them.  That’s where this scares me the most – if you think a 20 year old is emotionally a 10 year old, what did you think of them as at 10 years old?  Certainly not a 10 year old.  So, if they were like a 5 year old then, you probably don’t need to think of them as soon-to-begin puberty.  So you get to put off that sex talk that you might give a neurotypical (although, unlike what Temple’s mom says, most people put off that talk for neurotypicals too – they just don’t have the justification; dads are not generally teaching kids about sex, nor are moms – so don’t blame the absent dad for this, as the present dad and the present mom don’t do it either).  But the reason for this talk isn’t to keep your child from becoming a predator as much as to keep him from becoming a victim and to help him as he grows develop the type of relationships that are positive and affirming of everyone involved.  That’s something everyone needs.

Inexperience and Irony

I commented on an online discussion today about autistic people.  The conversation basically went like:

  • (person A) [states a premise that isn’t supported by research, but is their belief]
  • (person B) [states a different premise that also isn’t supported by research, but is their belief and uses personal experience to demonstrate it is true]
  • Joel: Actually, I disagree with person A on this, for [this reason] and with person B because it’s also unsupported by research on this.
  • (person C) Joel, that’s just your experience.  Other autistics are different than you.  We also need research on this.

That’s pretty common as a response to comments from an autistic person.  When we say, “Uh, no,” and describe our disagreement, two things are immediately assumed by some people (too often, these people are parents, so that’s the example I’ll use, but of course not all parents do this, nor is everyone that does this a parent):

  1. Joel, you don’t know much about autistic people other than yourself.
  2. Joel, you are nothing like my kid, so what you say doesn’t apply.

Now, I never argue that I am like someone’s kid (for one, I’m an adult, and most kids are well kids; for another, yes, I do know that there are lots of different autistic people).

But on the first point, I’m actually a bit more knowledgable than people seem to think when they dismiss my views on the basis “it is personal experience.”  No, I try to make it clear when it is personal experience and when it’s not.  (Ironically the writings that I’ve written that have the fewest criticisms are writings I wrote based on personal experience alone – probably because of the ease in dismissing any need to take into consideration a different opinion)  Yes, my experience informs me, but I – believe it or not – actually know that there is a wide variation among autistic people.  I have a bunch of autistic friends, all very different.  And I’ve met plenty of autistic children.  But beyond that personal experience, I’ve talked to researchers and experts, read their reports (and criticized some of them when warranted!).  I actually know some things through means other than personal experience.  And when dismissing personal experience, outside of baseless generalization (if someone says something applies to all autistic people, an autistic person is perfectly justified in saying, “It doesn’t apply to ME”), I try to explain why I am saying something, and often even provide citations.  Because I don’t want to be ignored.

Strangely, the people that dismiss my views as personal experience and an experience unlike that of their child generally know very little about my personal experience.  But, beyond that, often the personal experience of raising an autistic child is considered relevant.  Few people question a parent who says something about autism and cites their experience with their kid as an example – that personal experience is acceptable.  That’s valued.

I find that interesting.  And ironic.

I also find the conversation today – one like many I’ve had – interesting in that people say that we need research on this topic while being ignorant of the research that is already done.  Now ignorance of research isn’t a horrible thing – that’s normal.  I certainly don’t know all that is out there, and there is no reason someone else should either.  But most of the time when I talk about the research in such a case – because the research most likely supports what I’ve already said!  Instead, I get, “Well, autistic people are different and we need more research.”  Uh, maybe.  But maybe we should start by figuring out what research is out there, whether it is any good (that would likely involve reading it prior to criticizing it), and being willing to expand our mind a bit.  Too often, “We need to research X” really means, “We need someone to confirm what I’m saying.”  That’s not cool.  Willful ignorance isn’t as benign as simple ignorance.

Now, I’m fine with people disagreeing with me.  I’m not driven by a need to be right (really!).  But I do demand – when it affects people’s freedom and rights – that people saying or doing things to restrict that freedom or rights actually have a valid reason for what they are doing, beyond personal experience or calls for yet more research (particularly when the research actually exists!).  So, disagree with me.  But back it up.  And perhaps we might both learn something beyond who is right.

A Rule to Avoid Being a Creep

Autistic people like clear definitions and rules. Some things don’t have good rules.

One thing that doesn’t lend itself to creating fixed rules is any type of relationship – whether a friendship, a romance, a one-night-stand, or whatever other type of relationship. People are messy. We’re complex.

But, it’s pretty simple to not be a creep.

First let me tell you what doesn’t make someone a creep: sexual attraction. Even if that sexual attraction isn’t mutually felt by the object of your attraction.

That said, there are a couple parts of sexual attraction, and it’s sometimes useful to separate them out, as they are felt differently in different people. First, there’s the “WOW! She’s VERY attractive!” type of attraction that isn’t based on a relationship. Typically, acting on this is a bad idea – chances are, if it’s a random person walking down the street, that other person has practically nothing in common with you. She might be gay (and you aren’t a woman). Or want to marry someone who can share her love of sailing (and you hate water). Or might not see you as attractive. Or might have completely different life goals than you. Or might not want the same depth of a relationship as you want (she might want a one-night-stand while you want a marriage, for instance). Or any number of other things that would disqualify you as a potential partner in her eyes.

So, acting on phase one of the attraction generally isn’t going to be successful. Of course movies are sometimes based on phase one attraction working to build relationships. Perhaps that’s why they are entertaining and interesting. But movies aren’t real life. And, yes, I know in real life there are sometimes people for whom phase one attraction was the only reason they met and things have worked out mutually well. That’s fine too, but it’s not the typical circumstance.

Phase two attraction is a bit different – it’s not just based on looks, but rather it’s something that develops as you get to know a person. This doesn’t mean that phase one isn’t there (someone can be both attractive initially and attractive after you get to know them!), but it is in addition. I think a lot of long-term partners would describe this as making their love life better – the combination of phase one and phase two can be very powerful and exciting (far more than phase one alone for many people). Perhaps this is why 1/3 of men seeking prostitutes seem to desire an emotional relationship with the prostitute – they are looking for that phase two combined with feelings of mutuality. The emotional attraction that comes with phase two is not separate from the sexual attraction – it actually creates a powerful sexual attraction. In many people it is even deeper than the phase one sexual attraction.

This phase two attraction is a bit different. As you get to know people – and sometimes this can happen surprisingly quickly – a mutual emotional connection might be formed, which increases the sexual desire of both. I’d encourage people to look more for this than the phase one attraction, while not denying the existence of either.

So, that’s my thoughts on general principles. Back to the rule. We’ve already said that sexual attraction doesn’t make someone a creep.

What makes someone a creep is simple: Creeps don’t care if there is mutual agreement about how to proceed in a relationship. If it doesn’t exist, they think they can create it – and try to do so. It’s an emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical violation.

That’s where you can get in trouble with the phase one sexual attraction. It’s almost certainly not mutually felt. The phase two attraction might develop as you and the other person get to know each other, but there’s probably more chance it won’t. Just randomly acting on “She’s pretty, I want to get her in bed,” is likely to meet with failure after failure. That getting to know her thing – even if it doesn’t make good movies – is important.

And, then, as you get to know someone, you don’t proceed without mutual agreement. Occasionally you might “test the water” and see if the other person wants to go a bit further in the relationship, but, if not, you have one thing to do if you don’t want to be a creep: listen. If she sees you test the water, and then gently lets you down, respect that and enjoy what you have with her – friendship or whatever else. Don’t try to figure out what different tactic you can try. She knows you’re interested, she’ll initiate if she changes her mind (she probably won’t). And, yes, even in western society women can and do test the water too. So listen for that too.

Of course I can see people asking, how do you test the water? I can’t tell you that. Each relationship is different. There is no formula, no matter what the pickup artists out there may tell you. Everyone is different. Just respect her if she says she’s not interested. Don’t try a different tactic, respect her. And if you keep persisting, and thus become a creep, don’t be surprised when she gets a little more forceful in rebuking you. She’s not a bitch, nasty, or whatever else. You were a creep.

If you allow her to think you are happy having a friendship, while really you want her in bed, and you won’t be happy with it remaining a friendship without sex, you’re also being a creep. You don’t have mutual agreement about the relationship. She’s thinking, “Oh, a friend! That’s cool.” You’re thinking, “How much longer do I have to put up with pretending to be a friend before I can get her in bed?” You’re not in agreement. You’re setting her up and trying to deceive her to get what you want.

It’s risky to say what you want. And if what you want is good for you but not good for her, she’ll probably turn her down if you allow her to do so (not allowing this would also be creepy). But part of coming to an agreement on a relationship is to communicate and understand where the relationship is at. For me, I can’t do that the way neurotypicals do. The slight and subtle hints and body language doesn’t work. So I need to try to be honest. But there are few things harder in the world than being honest and vulnerable. So I think autistic relationships – particularly between two autistic people, but also likely between an autistic person and a particularly understanding non-autistic, can look a bit different. Some things might need to be more explicit. A challenge is trying to make those things clear while not destroying the mystery and spontaneity of a relationship. It takes someone who understands.

I wrote this mainly from the perspective of a man looking for a woman, but it applies in all sorts of other relationships too. Two people might agree to have quick sex without an emotional connection – or three people might want to do something sexual together. That might be unusual, but it’s not creepy so long as you mutually agree on where and what the relationship should be. And you can be a creep without even seeking sex but seeking whatever else instead. Forcing a friendship to progress can be creepy just as trying to get the girl in bed can be.

So, don’t be a creep. Respect and mutuality.