Disabilities and dating

I recently (7 months ago) went through the most difficult breakup of my life.  It was, and still is, so hard for many reasons, not least of which was that I was still head over heels about Person of Interest when I broke things off, but a major one of which also relates to my disabilities.

Anyone who knows anything about autism probably realizes that for autists, entering the dating scene, or any romantic interaction from flirting to sex, is a steep uphill climb.  Among the many roadblocks we face are:

1) Cluelessness about body language.  This is a definite disadvantage, since much (maybe most?) of flirting takes place via this medium.  I know when someone is interested in me if they repeatedly comment on my appearance or explicitly ask me out, but this mainly happens with creepy dudes in parking lots.  If people are sending me signals through gaze, tone of voice, or other more subtle cues, I am oblivious, and will assume they are uninterested.

2) Difficulty with daily functioning.  It’s hard to feel like you could ever be attractive when you have trouble making it to appointments, checking your mail, returning phone calls, attending classes or work, eating a balanced diet, and keeping up with self-care.  When you’re disabled, people around you begin to treat you like an incompetent child because of your different needs, and it’s easy to internalize this paternalism.  Most people are looking for an equal partner, and it’s sometimes hard to envision how you can fulfill that role when it’s difficult even managing your own life.  Of course, autists and other people with disabilities have plenty to contribute to a relationship and the world in general, but especially since we aren’t often taught that message, that doesn’t mean being disabled doesn’t affect our self esteem.

3) Fear of rejection.  A combination of my first two points enhances the indefatigability of the third.  When you assume that you are unattractive to others both because of your nature and because you can’t perceive positive reactions, each interaction assumes higher stakes.  It can be rare to find a person you really like and who you think might like you, so the idea of having your courageous advances rebuffed can be hard to take– it’s easy to assume you might never find another good dating candidate, or at least not for a very long time.  Raising the stakes makes it all the less likely that you’ll summon what social skills you’ve learned and let them know how you feel.  (In my case, this difficulty has been reinforced by the fact that my the conditions of my breakup were less than self-esteem-boosting.)

4) Nitpickiness.  People with autism are famously reluctant to change the tried-and-true methods and routines that have helped us cope with the world so far.  Having things a specific way comforts and insulates us.  If we’re lucky, we find someone very accommodating; otherwise, in long-term relationships, we gradually adjust our routines to incorporate the needs of our partners.  Either way, both readjusting to single life and opening ourselves to the demands of a new relationship, with the quirks and desires of another complex human being whom we don’t know that well yet, can be cause for extreme distress.  And once you have gotten used to being alone again, connecting with someone new can seem all the more daunting and disruptive.

5) Sensory and intimacy issues.  Personally, I really enjoy cuddling and closeness, but can’t stand abrupt, aggressive displays of affection.  Many people with autism find that pressure is soothing, while a light touch is uncomfortable.  In addition, more autists, especially women, than neurotypicals describe themselves as being on the asexuality spectrum.  Whatever the particulars are of a given autist’s sensory differences and intimate preferences, it’s assured that there will be more than a little awkwardness when getting physically close at first.  Anticipating this bump in the road deters pursuing romantic relationships.

I’m sure there are other potential complications that I’m missing, but it should be clear by now that dating while disabled is no easy matter.  And thus the extra shoe thrown into the machinery of my breakup:  I question constantly, what will my life be like from here on out?  Will I ever find another person I feel this attracted to, let alone with whom I can stand to spend my hours?  Will anyone ever show interest in me again?

So, for seven months, I convinced myself that this was the end of my romantic and sexual life.  I became totally okay with the idea of being celibate, dedicated to my other goals, not dependent on anyone.  And then– after many odd conversations with my ex-partner and best friend about my attractiveness, desirability, prospects and needs– I began to realize that I was interested in another person.

I am still struggling with this realization, and trying to determine whether the best course of action is to stick with my celibacy plans and trust that this, too, shall pass, or to pursue this attraction at risk of rejection and further hurt.  I can’t even answer this complex and painful question for myself, let alone any other disabled people, but I know that whatever path I choose, it’s undeniable that being an autist has played a crucial role in my decision.  I only hope that one day the world will be supportive and accommodating enough that the impact of these difficulties will lessen, and more and more people with autism and other disabilities will be able to freely pursue romantic relationships if that’s what they desire.

Why a ‘flaw’ in The Lord of the Rings makes it my favorite book right now

“I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different… I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back… I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end…”  Samwise Gamgee

Anyone who’s gone through a painful breakup is well aware of how culture is dominated by stories about love, lust and dysfunctional relationships.  Luckily, there is a thousand-page masterpiece that almost shelves the romance altogether.

Because I am a nerdy nerdface (shock!) I have read a lot of criticism of The Lord of the Rings, and among essays written through wildly different critical lenses, one of the pervasive topics is the fact that the fellowship is kind of an Old Boys’ Club, much like one can imagine the Inklings, the group of medieval literature nerds that included Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton and others.  One writer quips (ew, I just said “quips”) that women feature so little in the story because none of the male protagonists knows anything about women.

I won’t argue that the paucity of relatable female-identifying characters in the trilogy (and The Hobbit, though not quite so much in The Silmarillion) is not problematic for a reader like myself who thinks a lot about gender theory and equality.  It’s clear from his personal remarks that Tolkien was quite the sexist, although not, I think, more than the norm for a British white male born in the late 19th century.  (He believed that past a certain point, women were incapable of a serious contribution to academic conversation.)  While reading LotR, I am often frustrated by the fact that Tolkien paints the character of Eowyn with such simple yet poignant grace, yet her story is a brief aside to the main plot (despite her ultimately crucial role) and there are no more prominent womanly characters given the same treatment. 

However, there is an enjoyable side effect to this problem.  We are given a cast of male characters who are not strictly heteronormative, because for the most part they have no perceptible sexuality.  We hear a few sentences about Sam’s interest in Rosie back in Hobbiton, but the only important romantic subplot, the love quadrangle between Aragorn, Arwen, Eowyn and Faramir, is so epic in tone, so non-mimetic, that it bears little resemblance to the fixation on romance and sexual attraction that we find in most other works.  With those exceptions, the protagonists, the antagonists and even the supporting characters seem to have no interest sex with either, or even to identify with a particularly masculine gender.  Instead, goals for the greater good and strong, trusting friendship take center stage.

Of course, I would feel much more comfortable with the work if the primary actors included women and queer people.  I know with enough authorial courage this could be achieved without altering the platonic, purpose-driven group dynamic that sets the books apart.  Unfortunately, Tolkien himself didn’t agree:

There is in our Western culture the romantic chivalric tradition still strong… It idealizes ‘love’ — and as far as it goes can be very good, since it takes in far more than physical pleasure… In this fallen world the ‘friendship’ that should be possible between all human beings, is virtually impossible between man and woman… The other partner will let him (or her) down, almost certainly, by ‘falling in love’. But a young man does not really (as a rule) want ‘friendship’, even if he says he does. 

Okay, so Tolkien gets props for an early and critical recognition of the the “friendzone” bullshit that “men’s rights” and PUA people are always bandying about, but it’s such a shame that he couldn’t see past the social constructs of his era to imagine a world where people of different genders and sexualities could work together and care for each other without requisite romantic attachment.

At times, though, there is really nothing more comforting than being swept into a world so exquisitely imagined without confronting the real-world anxiety of sexual and romantic dynamics.  Call it escapism if you wish, but I will argue every time that literary escapes are effective because they show us what we want our world to be, leaving us, sometimes, stronger and smarter than when we escaped.