Asshole, Autistic and Other A-Words of My Love Life

This time, I tell myself as I sign in to a dating app and set up my profile. This time, I say, as I connect with pretty and witty women. This time, I won’t be an asshole.

But then a woman asks for my phone number and for a drink. And the logical part of my brain goes black, covered in a wash of sheer panic.

I delete her. I delete my account. I delete the app. I disappear, a ghost fleeing the scene. I’m an asshole, leaving another confused and hurt person and a lost opportunity.

Sometimes, with others, the process goes further. We make a date, and I ghost. We go on a date, and afterwards I ghost. We have sex, and I ghost. Fuck and run. Delete, disappear.

For years, this has been my pattern. I’ve blamed it on any number of things from my past. I’ve blamed it on the times I’ve connected with someone from an app in real life, and they were an asshole. But ultimately I blamed it on me. Something was deeply wrong with me, something shameful.

Turns out, the truth is more complicated.


We all have histories. We all hurt from them, perhaps especially those of us singled out for our difference, our queerness.

I clung to that idea, as I tried, time and again, to figure out why I couldn’t just date like a normal person.

There was my ancestry. My parents married out of high school and proceeded to resent and hurt each other for the next twenty-five years. My aunt married five times, looking for the love that would support her instead of erase her; instead she got abusers and coke fiends and dirty lawyers and methhead survivalists. My grandmother was widowed young and never bothered again; my other grandmother married a brute who used fists and words to keep her small.

There was academics. I’m the only one in my family to graduate college. I defined myself by academic accolades, by degrees. But I never learned the real stuff in schools. No one taught me how to be an adult. At home and at school, I didn’t learn how to love or how to earn love or how to spot abuse masquerading as love. How to have sex and how to value bodies, ours and others. How to believe truths and spot lies. How not to hurt others.

There was my aberrance. From a young age, I knew I did not want kids. I knew I did not want to get married. I was deeply afraid of living with someone. For a cis woman, who often dated men, I was odd, strange. Even dangerous. And with those traditional end points of a relationship crossed out, the people I dated felt unmoored. So did I. What was the point?

There was abuse. I swore I would never be like the women in my family. But for ten years, I partnered with a man who stripped away all my pride and self, until I fled into the early morning light with only a backpack and shaking hands.

And there was always the abyss. Always the dark of depression, the loud static of anxiety, the blackout of panic attacks.

That could have been enough. Plenty to point to as an asshole excuse for asshole behavior. But there was more I could never explain.


Last year, at age 43, I read an article in Bust about an adult woman who discovered she was autistic. Something nagged at me about the way she described her lifelong difficulty in making and keeping friends and love/sex relationships. So I took an online questionnaire. And another, and another. Dozens of books later and a diagnostic session with a therapist, and I came away with a new title: Autistic.

I’d learn autism is characterized by many things. Prominent among them: a sustained, significant difficulty with creating and maintaining relationships with other people. The workings of typical people, the rules that govern interactions, the give and take of friendships and love relationships; all of it is utterly mystifying to us.

I also learned there are a lot of women like me. Women who found out later in life that they were autistic. Women who, as girls, were overlooked by the times we lived in, and the assumption that autism is a condition for young white boys. Women who learned how to hide, how to be social, how to live in the world, even as it ate away at us. Women who, frequently, identify as queer.

All of my past — the ancestry, the abuse, the aberrance, the abyss — it still pointed me to where I was. But with this new diagnosis, I saw that my behavior ran deeper, coded into my biology.

Autism meant I acted, all the time. In every friendship, in every romantic relationship, as far back as I can remember, I always felt a sense of playing a role. I’d argue most women feel this to an extent, balancing the messages our world gives us about how to behave, how to attract, how to blend in. I’d reasoned away my sense of acting as just part of being a woman.

But in my case, the acting was never ending. Engaging with people, even those with whom I’d gained a sense of hard-fought comfort, was exhausting. Meeting new people was heavy. And knowing that weight, my brain would work to protect me. Run, it’d say when I faced the prospect of a new date or a new person. Flee. It’s not worth the pain. No matter who gets hurt in the process.

Autism meant I spotted (and hated) artifice. As much as I could point to my past for some of my dating behavior, I could never fully explain how all the trappings of dating and sex were deeply difficult and painful for me. Until this new identity.

So much of dating revolves around subtle hints, unspoken feelings, signs and signals that have always eluded me. There are rules involved, some sort of code, for what you can and can’t talk about without dissipating the mood or ruining the romance. I’ve never understood any of it. I always joked I could never tell if someone was flirting until they had their tongue down my throat. Now I knew why.

So much of dating and sex can involve supposedly romantic things like spontaneity and surprises. I fear both. Routines and schedules are necessary to help me feel comfortable with social stuff, and just writing the word “surprise” makes my stomach churn.

So much of dating and sex demands standard signs of love. Gifts and gestures, which confuse and scare me. Or even the simple practice of sustained eye contact; to me, it’s physically painful.

Autism also meant my relationships turned into annihilation. In the relationships I did forge, I played my part so well I disappeared into it. People liked that part. I felt trapped by it.

I wanted to be loved, but more than that, I wanted to be understood. But following all these rules for relationships demanded I pretend; that prevented being truly seen and known. I couldn’t ever relax, couldn’t ever feel comfortable.

So when I grew exhausted from playing the role, panicky at the prospect of the energy needed to sustain it, I ran.


There’s something immensely powerful about naming. We queer folk understand that implicitly; by naming ourselves with a lesbian or bi or queer identity, we claim a space where we can be better understood. Trans folk perhaps understand this even more; by claiming the names meant for them, they find freedom.

For autistic people, finding a name for all the years of feeling strange and damaged and shameful is empowering. Understanding that, in many ways, my lifelong depression and anxiety were due to an undiagnosed disability, has helped me allow a little grace for myself.

For the time being, I’ve put a hold on dating. I’m allowing myself to be alone, my comfort place, my safety in the storm of the everyday. There’s a part of me that yearns for connection and love. That’s why I kept returning to those apps. Even knowing my patterns. I kept hoping I would change. But for now, I’ve paused. I’m deep in therapy, working through all the aspects of autism and my past.

Now that I know what was buried deep at the root of my behavior, I can better understand why I panic and run. I can look to the future, when I might be able to use this knowledge, talk myself down. I can see a potential place to rest and maybe even a person that will let me.

I can see that I won’t always be an asshole. Instead, maybe I can find other A-words for my love life.


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amyleelillard

Amy Lee Lillard is the author of the short story collection Dig Me Out. She is the co-creator of Broads and Books, the funny and feminist book podcast.

Amy has written 1 article for us.

11 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I discovered I was autistic almost 3 years ago, when an amazing psychology professor encouraged me to look into it if I thought it sounded familiar. It changed my entire life. Understanding the way my brain works and working with it instead of against it has been the most profound thing I’ve ever encountered. It also made a lot of past relationships suddenly make sense! I’ve been utterly shocked by every breakup I’ve ever endured, completely unaware that anything was wrong or that some people desire a deeper level of closeness or life-sharing until things were over. Now I have a solid relationship with an amazing partner who fully understands and appreciates where I’m coming from. In retrospect, I don’t think things ever could have worked out with anyone until I learned about my autism.

    The other day, my mom (who is exceedingly well meaning, if sometimes clueless) commented that it seems like I identify with autism more than being queer. Although I’d argue that queerness is a pretty huge part of my identity as well, she’s not entirely wrong. Queerness was fairly natural and easy for me to spot and accept in myself, but realizing I’m autistic was literally like having the world go from black and white to color. Suddenly my entire life made sense! I’m so glad that more people who don’t fit the stereotypical “straight white genius boy” model of autism are starting to discover themselves. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone to go through their whole life as clueless and confused as I used to feel!

    • I recognize myself in that last bit. For me being gay is just about who I’m attracted to. I don’t identify a lot with being part of a group or a subculture, possibly because I tend to feel like an outsider still. And my personal style is such that as a cis woman I blend in with the straights without trying.

      But being neurodiverse permeates almost every aspect of my existence. From the executive function troubles that means I can’t get basic things like the dishes done to the hard work that is socializing. I blend in too, most of the time, but that blending is hard work. It was a large part if my identity before I even got diagnosed.

  2. I’m going through the process of diagnosis right now, and so much of this essay spoke to me and my experiences so thank you for sharing.

    And you’re right (and for anyone else reading who wonder) – labelling can be a wonderful thing in understanding how your brain works and that maybe you’re not the awful or stupid person you thought you were. I’ve never been good at making or maintaining friends or relationships. I really struggle with non-literal instruction. I really struggle with loud noises and textures and touch. And maybe instead of these things being things that make me weird or unloveable, it’s just…me.

  3. Ahhhhhhh!!!!!! (Excited)

    I haven’t read this yet, but the title & the few words I caught while scrolling down to comment my excitement about AS publishing Autistic content has me (~~*]!_+,,>{TOO EXCITED FOR WORDS}<,,+_!]*~~)

    I’m 30 and only realized I could be Autistic this year – my partner and I both got official assessments+diagnoses this past June.

    Looking forward to reading your story & hopefully many others – so much love to my family of NeuroQueer Autistics+ !!

  4. “Autism meant I spotted (and hated) artifice. As much as I could point to my past for some of my dating behavior, I could never fully explain how all the trappings of dating and sex were deeply difficult and painful for me. Until this new identity.”

    THIS, 100%. I’m more attached in relationships than avoidant, but the only thing that has worked for me has been to be upfront with my emotions, no matter how awkward it is. Some people will appreciate it. I’m now happily married, but I spent many years wondering what was wrong with me.

    (Not formally diagnosed with autism, but I mean… Also Ifl one or both of my parents could potentially be diagnosed with it. I was raised by wolves who didn’t understand social cues)

  5. All of this. Definitely.

    I was diagnosed at around ten. But in Switzerland at the time, I didn’t have much specific help for that. As a result of the constant bullying, harassment, isolation, I became angst ridden and depressed for most of my life.

    I still struggle with maintaining relationships with people in my life, but it has gotten a lot better.

    Despite also being queer, I also didn’t feel that the LGBT community as a whole was kind to me either (this website included) but I did find my solace in books, writing and other like-minded people.

    Don’t be afraid to be an asshole. Don’t be afraid to say no and be you. :)

  6. A lot of this is very familiar to me. But relationships don’t have to be like that. Every one of the lasting friendships and relationships I’ve made as an adult has been with another neurodivergant person, most of us finding out years in that we were diagnosable with something other than weirdness. People with autism and its cousin disorders don’t approach relationships like neurotypicals, but we do approach them in very similar ways. We gel with each other, we understand each other. Relationships that work for you, and your neurotype, are out there.

  7. Thank you for sharing this with us, this is something relatable to me.

    I still feel a mountain of guilt for all the things I haven’t noticed (that are a no-brainer for others), though on the other hand, by starting having neurodiverse friends (most of them also queer) I understood that my need for direct communication is as valid and that people ok with it (while also having their communicational needs met) exist and can thrive alongside me. Having scarce role models and an ill-informed blueprint has messed up the way I relate to people, much like in your case (currently starting therapy with a sexuality specialist because of this).

    It’s interesting the discussion taking place in the comments, I’m also among those who have found an all-encompassing meaning to the autistic label, in ways that take more energy for me than finding out to be queer (a process that was simpler to me in comparison, despite being just as important).

    (…on another note, to anyone wondering why they can’t do communication and empathizing “right”, please look up Double Empathy Problem. Spoilers: the misunderstanding is mutual, not just an autistic person’s fault.)

  8. #actuallyautistic Just diagnosed at age 40. I’ll never forget the moment I realized I’m autistic – I said “oh my god – I’m NOT an asshole! I’m NOT an asshole” over and over and sobbed with relief. The most incredible moment of my life.

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