Love, Asperger Syndrome and the Big Apple

“Love must be as much a light, as it is a flame.” – Henry David Thoreau “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

What is love? Ask ten different people and you will doubtlessly receive ten different answers. With few exceptions, these responses will be emotional in nature, ranging from sentimental to deeply passionate, bittersweet to just plain bitter… Yet, ask a person with Asperger Syndrome the same question and you may provoke a spontaneous, longwinded lecture on the motivating role of dopamine and norepinephrine in human reproduction.

Chances are the Aspie knows his stuff, but if love is nothing more than a chemical reaction, what exactly is the reaction’s catalyst? What makes a person fall in or out of love? Do we choose love or does it choose us? Why are some willing to die for it and others spend their lives running from it? These are the mysteries that elevate love to mythic heights within the hearts and minds of neurotypicals. So you want to make that longwinded Aspie shut up? Just ask them to define “true love.”

Before being diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome I alternated between two equally unnerving and unsatisfying attitudes towards love. During my more grandiose moods I believed love was a form of mass-delusion, an invention perpetuated to keep Hallmark in business. When a friend or relative expressed their “undying love” for someone, I felt distinctly like Columbus surrounded by the countless merry idiots who believed the earth was flat. On the other hand, if feeling melancholy or insecure, I often suspected that love did in fact exist, yet somehow I was constitutionally incapable of experiencing it.

I’ve never felt those “butterflies in my stomach,” or known the sensation of “walking on air.” This does not mean I am incapable of love or defective in any way. I believe I experience the full spectrum of human emotion. My feelings, however, are not as readily available to me as they are to others.

A friend of mine once observed that I seem to use logic to reach emotion. If you can understand this statement you can begin to unravel the mystery of Asperger Syndrome. While I am highly, even uncomfortably aware of my own thought process, I feel disconnected from my emotions, which often surface long after the events which triggered them. It’s as if I am constantly experiencing the numbness and emotional displacement neurotypicals associate with periods of intense grief.

Another complicating factor is my limited awareness of body language. An intricate array of human feelings and needs are often communicated within a few scattered gestures; the lowering of the eyes, stiffening of the muscles, placement of the hands and arms, etc… can all combine like individual words in a sentence to form one cohesive message. Living with Asperger’s is like seeing the words but not the sentence. I don’t believe I’m incapable of interpreting body language but that my mind is overly engaged in other activities. I’m often mistaken for being extremely selfish and inattentive. This is because my deficits are not easily observed. You wouldn’t fault a blind man for failing to notice your new haircut.

Add to these issues my obsessiveness, anxiety and childlike lack of self-sufficiency, and it is a wonder I’m not completely alone, hiding away behind tightly closed blinds, talking only to my pet fish and popping Valium in the hopes that one day I will again venture out my front door.

So, are Aspies capable of maintaining loving adult relationships?

Love is complicated and all relationships take work. Throw autism into the mix and those involved must be prepared to work overtime.

It takes an incredibly mature and understanding person to maintain a close relationship with an Aspie, particularly if that relationship is of a romantic nature. One such person is my beautiful and brilliant girlfriend Kat, who is studying law at The College of William and Mary in Virginia.

Meeting Kat, I was immediately struck by her passion and intelligence. We talked for many uninterrupted hours about politics, religion, and art. I had never met someone who was as interested in my thoughts as I was. Egotistical as I am (and what Aspie isn’t?), it was miraculous to meet someone I genuinely considered to be my equal. In addition to her intellectual prowess, Kat proved incredibly nurturing, eager to meet my every need. She was a dream come true, and it was all too easy to believe my autistic deficits, which she helped to identify, would never intrude on our partnership.

Kat has always recognized my strengths. However, I don’t believe she fully understood the extent of my deficits until my recent visit to Virginia. During my stay, we took the train to New York City. Kat had invested a great deal of energy and imagination into scheduling our time in the Big Apple around my special interests. Her insistence on dazzling me was touching and remarkable. Unfortunately, Aspies don’t make the best traveling companions…

From the moment I stepped off the train I was overwhelmed. My senses became so mangled it was hard to distinguish sight from sound, taste from smell, touch from… inappropriate shoving. Billboards, street vendors and homeless people all competed for my attention. Yellow taxi cabs filled my eyes and countless screaming, one-sided cell phone conversations forced their way into my ears like fiberglass cue tips. The subways terrified me. The heat was unbearable. The air was as thick and sticky as molasses and smelled of hotdogs and cat piss.

Our schedule was crowded with activities painstakingly selected for my benefit. I had no time to recover from the excitement of one activity before moving on to the next. I clutched desperately to Kat’s hand as she dragged me through the city, convinced that if I let go, even for a second, I would be enveloped by the crowd and end up as one of New York’s many homeless, clutching a sign reading, “Got lost… Need food… Me love you long time.”

My anxiety mounted until, late in the evening, I finally had a massive panic attack in Times Square. The famous autistic Temple Grandin speaks of thinking entirely in pictures. I think almost entirely in facts and statistics; a single word may trigger an enormous release of information from a seemingly bottomless mental reserve, organized categorically from specific to general in an inverted pyramid. The endless advertisements surrounding me, each with competing informational stimuli, resulted in a mental overload. Kat and I hurried back to the hotel where I proceeded to silently and obsessively clean and organize everything in sight before collapsing in exhaustion. No doubt hopelessly confused, Kat lovingly stroked my forehead until I fell asleep.

The next day we woke up to do it all over again. The residual shock from the previous day left me in a fog. I took advantage of this temporary numbness, formulating a Darwinian strategy for surviving New York. It seemed the locals just disregarded all social etiquette and charged through the crowds as if city life was one giant NFL game and they had the ball.

Disregarding social etiquette? I could manage that.

I became very enthusiastic about this aggressive new approach at the Museum of Modern Art, where I had the opportunity to view artwork by some of my personal heroes… if I could beat my way through the crowd of bobbing berets. Now I was the one dragging Kat. I believed this was an improvement, but she may have been embarrassed when I was asked, for the third time, not to touch the paintings, or reminded that, “There is no running in the museum.” Though I had repeatedly failed to notice the Empire State Building while walking around Manhattan, I tore across an entire floor of the museum to see a 9 1/2 x 13 in. Salvador Dali painting I had noticed out of the corner of my eye. Also, I may or may not have stepped on an old lady’s face.

When we’d seen all there was to see we made our way towards the elevator, barely squeezing inside. Crammed shoulder to shoulder with a group of irritated Asian tourists, I decided it would be amusing to declare loudly, “Elevators make me nervous… and sometimes I projectile vomit.”

Kat glared at me. By the look on the Asians’ faces it was apparent that they could speak English.

“Um… so what did you guys think of the Warhol?” I added hastily.

We went for Thai food that evening and before the appetizers had even arrived I was struck by an idea. “Guess what, Kat, my next blog is going to be about love and relationships. I’ll write about our trip and what an awesome girlfriend you are. You’ll love it!” I immediately whipped out my iPad and began writing… completely ignoring her for the remainder of our dinner date, despite her disapproving glare, which would have been apparent to anyone else in the restaurant.

The trip was clearly over.

Back in Virginia, I tried to come to terms with my rambling misadventures in the city. Lying in bed with my tirelessly understanding girlfriend, I began to feel guilty that I was unable to appreciate all she had done for me. In so many ways I was still a child. Holding tightly to her hand as we explored New York, I felt distinctly like my six-year-old self being dragged through the supermarket by my mother. No wonder mom had invested in a child leash. Would I ever be capable of an adult relationship?

“Kat,” I said softly, “I’m sorry I made such a mess of New York.” I felt distinctly like Forrest Gump apologizing for ruining a Black Panther party.

Kat took my hand and looked into my face, her pale green eyes glowing in the dim lamplight. “You didn’t make a mess of New York.”

I looked away. “I’m so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I rarely seem to notice your feelings or needs. I feel so close to you and yet so far away. I’m not sure I’m capable of giving you the love you deserve,” I said.

“What kind of love is that? What does love mean to you?” she asked.

I knew the dopamine bit wouldn’t cut it. I breathed deeply. “Love is… you telling me I have Asperger Syndrome? You saw me when no one else truly did. Love is the way you showed me New York? I never could have managed on my own. I can’t even survive on my own.” Now I was limiting myself. I’ve always been good at that.

“Look Kat, I don’t know what you want to hear. I won’t give you a dozen roses just ’cause I’m supposed to. You’re better than all those cheap, greeting card sentiments. If nothing else, at least I’m honest… I’m just scared of losing you. I know I love you because I’m afraid of living in a world that doesn’t include you.”

“And…?” she persisted.

“And… I just love you. That’s all… I love you.”

She smiled and used the last of her energy to pull me close to her. It had been a long two days. For once I was too exhausted to be logical. I loved her… and that was good enough.