Pop culture stereotypes of "absent-minded professors,""geeks," and "nerds" are familiar labels to most of us, conjuring images of rather odd and laughable eccentrics. But for the first time in history, these nerds who we once thought of as unpopular and sexually unattractive, have been experiencing a pop culture makeover. Shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and "Silicon Valley" glamorize these nerds by showing them to not only make big bucks, but actually get the girl (even if she's a nerdy girl too). Computer and technological proﬁciency is not only hip, it’s essential, and so it makes sense that those most technically adept are ﬁnally getting some respect and maybe even a little nookie. These stereotypes exaggerate many characteristics and difficulties that are similar to people with traits of Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), though not everyone with AS or autism traits is automatically a techno wiz.
Beneﬁting from a new gloss of mainstream sex appeal is one thing, but navigating the tricky social rules of dating or long term relationships is another. People with Asperger’s Syndrome who are sexually active (or who’d like to be) are interested in physical pleasure and release, as well as some form of emotional connection. However, in order to pursue either or both, people with Asperger’s Syndrome generally have to contend with extra challenges:
- Sensory integration issues, which can interfere with or limit their sexual and/or emotional expression with partners.
- A lack of understanding of "the rules of the game" with regard to dating and not understanding how or when to progress to the point where sexual activity takes place.
- Not knowing that any given set of social rules may not apply universally, and that sociosexual rules, expectations and behavior may be different depending on individual, location, social group, etc.
- An unusual or limited understanding of boundaries and "personal space," which sometimes results in giving the wrong impression by standing too close to a person, or missing what is meant by another person’s body language and sexual signals, etc.
- Their inability to express feelings in a sentimental manner, often expected as customary in intimate relationships.
- Being perceived as odd, unsophisticated, antisocial, cold, boring, clueless, unfashionable, naive, or many other social traits which may not fit with a given set of people.
- Harmful situations which result from their inability to read social cues. These may include bullying, ridicule, exploitation, date rape, or worse.
People with Asperger's traits have been accused of not having feelings or being unable to express emotion, like the "Star Trek" characters, Mr. Spock and Data. This is a mistaken concept. However, people with AS may express emotion or feelings of closeness in a way that is not generally expected. And so this expression may be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or even ignored by their partners and friends — particularly if the expression lacks the embroideries of "sentiment." So it is often said that the Aspie lack of emotional and social skills can be a barrier to intimacy or at least to the kind of intimacy that has been deﬁned by their neurotypical partners, family members and society.
It is my contention that many people with Asperger’s Syndrome communicate feelings of connection based on how they understand and experience intimacy, using gestures and language that are meaningful to them. Therefore, the ways in which they express and interpret feelings of closeness may be so unexpected (according to average, neurotypical standards) that this communication may be unnoticed or misinterpreted by their partners, whose expectations also form a barrier to intimacy in these situations.
For AS people, sharing a beloved special interest, with all its minutiae, may be a most intimate act. Practical tasks are another way that many people with AS show affection — but this may be a social and emotional cue missed by those neurotypical partners who’d rather have roses than weekly inﬂation of their tires! The AS person doesn’t always know how to tailor expression to suit his or her partner, and the partner doesn’t always know how to interpret, appreciate, or respond to the offered expression. In other words, “cluelessness” can work both ways.
Many with Asperger’s Spectrum eventually learn expected social and emotional skills and/or become adept at making adjustments in order to get through life, including life with a partner. Some ﬁnd a compatible niche in their work life and manage to trade their brilliance (for these people are often brilliant) and expertise for tolerance of their social eccentricities. Others will also ﬁnd partners who manage to make adjustments to a relationship that may not feel exactly like the sentimental or emotional partnership they expected, but who have managed to build bridges over the gulf created by average expectations.
After monitoring exchanges on internet Asperger groups, and looking at the results of two surveys I conducted as a student, it is clear that many adults with Asperger Syndrome desire friendship, sex and lasting relationships. However they often do not receive necessary information and help with dating and intimacy skills. And so they are often frustrated or bafﬂed by interactions with neurotypical friends and partners, who seem to ask for so much, so often, and who seem so difﬁcult to satisfy.
The average or neurotypical partners also need to learn coping and communication skills to understand their AS partners. They also may need emotional reassurance as they struggle to understand their partner's signals of commitment and caring. There is some indication that for some Aspies, long term relationships and people in their lives can be like features in the landscape, valued and relied upon for continuity and familiarity. That these features may need periodic or frequent emotional care and feeding may not occur to them. Some people with AS need explicit communication about when, where, and how to offer partner and relationship nurturing.
Rather than pressing for social and emotional conformity which may not serve these relationships, we should learn more about how individual people with Asperger’s Syndrome view their relationships, their partners, and their own experiences of sexuality and gender. Books and blogs on sex and relationships, written by people with Asperger's Syndrome, are only recently published and read.
In the work I have done with people who present with significant Asperger's traits, or who have a diagnosis, I generally need to convey information about sexuality and relationships in an organized, sequential manner within a context — or even a script! — of learning social processes. This requires me to challenge my own assumptions about how relationships "should" be conducted. Many relationship elements that I assume are essential are not necessarily relevant to my clients. And everyone is different.
I have begun to think that all of us — whether or not we have Asperger's — should create our own "operating manuals" to discuss with prospective lovers and partners. We could include all kinds of useful information, taking the sting of surprise from some issues and opening opportunities for communication that would otherwise have been closed. This might leave us free to construct meaningful frameworks for intimacy which serve us best. This may not sound very romantic to the average person, but it's a sensible approach that just might work.
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