5 Problems with “Married to an Aspie: 25 Tips for Spouses” (#4 Will Really Shock You!)
Yesterday, my friend Dani who blogs at Autistic Academic shared an outrageous article, “Married to an Aspie: 25 Tips for Spouses,” on Facebook. Immediately, several us reacted to it with a mix of amusement, disgust, and horror. By its title, the article purports to be a helpful guide for spouses of autistics. However, it is rather problematic on so many levels. Dani, along with Emma (who blogs over at Lemon Peel) have already written their own responses that are hilariously brilliant and break down some of the worst bits of the original post: one at Field Notes on Allistics and a joint post here.
As a queer autistic polyamourous trans man in a long-term relationship with another autistic man, I also immediately had some issues with the original article. For that reason, I was inspired to write about it, too. In a way, maybe that’s a good thing, considering sometimes I have trouble getting my blogging muse on. So I may have to indirectly thank the author over at My Aspergers Child for some accidental inspiration this morning. Without further ado, here’s my problems with the original article.
1. What, QUILTBAG autistics don’t exist? Apparently not to the blogger. Throughout the entire piece, they refer to autistic-allistic relationships in terms of strictly heterosexual parings. For example, we see this little gem in tip number seven:
“An NT partner needs to understand her Aspie’s background in order to work with him on their marriage. She will need patience and perseverance as well as understanding that he functions on a different emotional level to her.”
While I’m not addressing the inherent truth or falsehood of this statement, I call the reader to look carefully at the pronouns used. The NT partner is referred as “she” while the autistic is referred to as “he.” The author appears to be writing from a heteropatriarchal frame of reference, and I do have to wonder if they have considered partnerships and marriages between two men, two women, two transfemme nonbinary folks, two agender folks, or other non-heteronormative kinds of love relationships. It appears that by the author’s logic, me and my long-term life partner Solomon do not exist.
Which leads me to…
2. The author appears to assume autistics are male. Gender binarism aside, I need to point out the flaws in this assumption. So many of my autistic friends are women or somehow fall in the femme dimension: ciswomen, transwomen, nonbinary femmes, etc. For so long, autism has been viewed through a male-centered, heteronormative lens, which is why so many folks who aren’t male have often missed identification and/or diagnosis. (There are so many issues I have about the medical model of disability and how it applies to autism, but I digress. That’s another post for another time.) This was also true for me, prior to embarking on my social, legal, and medical transition: I was not diagnosed until age 34. And as a formerly female-identified autistic, I often felt erased and ignored by much of the public discourse on autism.
Never mind some of the author’s incorrect and downright harmful assertions. I must deduce that their intended audience is women, and because of this, their adherence to similar conventions in their thoughts does a disservice to a large portion of the potential audience by ignoring their presence.
3. What, no non-monogamous autistics, either? Again with the heteronormativity. They failed to consider that there may be those in their audience who enter loving polyexclusive relationships, or who maintain an intimate network, or who engage in open relationships. I use the term “non-monogamous” being aware that some practice relationship anarchy as well.
4. Excessive emotional labor, anyone? Dani and Emma have already done a phenomenal job of addressing in their own posts how the author seems to assume that in a heteropatriarchal context, the woman will assume the lion’s share of emotional labor. For example, you have cute little nuggets by the blogger, such as this in number eighteen:
“NT partners may begin to feel that they are entirely defined by the role they fill for their Aspie partner. There can be a sense that there is little mutuality, equality and justice.”
That’s not an endemic-to-autism problem. That’s an unequal-social-expectations-based-on-gender problem. I know this personally: growing up, the adults in my family of origin assumed I was female and based on this often judged me to be “unfit” as a romantic partner. “You’ll never get a man if you do/don’t (fill in the blank),” I was frequently told. Or, “you’re a girl, you’re supposed to (fill in the blank, again).” Much of this was likely based on my lack of enthusiastically volunteering for expected, energy-draining emotional labor. And my experience is not unique: autistic women are frequently viewed in a negative light for either be unable to keep up or not complying with society’s overt and covert demands of emotional labor.
Bottom line: whether in an intimate relationship between two people, an intimate network, or relationship anarchy, unequal emotional labor burdens are both unethical and unjust. I know a lot of us are sick and tired of seeing catering to manbabies dressed up as “oh, he’s autistic, he needs a little understanding.” While our needs as autistic people are indeed unique, it is dangerous to use autism as an excuse for abusive behavior, particularly out of cismen. That not only fails to hold individuals accountable for their actions, but also stigmatizes autistic people as well.
5. And how about perpetuating stereotypes? The author seems to be dancing around the unsaid stereotypes of autistic people, primarily those that claim we are unemotional, and incapable of demonstrating love. They appear to assert that we do have emotions and are capable of loving one minute, then in the next they come out with pieces of Dalek fecal matter like this in tip number nine:
“Aspies often has [sic] a specific area of weakness in marriage. They often do not feel the need to express love, and the NT partner can help them understand that this is important. Discussions about how to display affection, holding hands in public and buying small gifts can be beneficial, but don’t be surprised if the results are amusing.”
This is problematic on so many levels.
First of all, my own personal experience proves this to be patently false. My autistic partner Solomon has been by far the most affectionate and loving of anyone I’ve ever been with. Neither of us are big on public displays of affection, but he’s often quicker to hug and hold hands than I am. And physical affection aside, Dani and Emma in their joint post have quite correctly pointed out that trying to play “Pygmalion” with your partner — i.e. pushing compliance with only one way of showing love — is wrong and unnecessary:
“PROTIP: your autistic partner is probably expressing love just fine (and if not, consider that we live in a society that pressures men, in particular, not to express anything that isn’t gun-toting rage) – just in a just-fine autistic way. Rather than condescendingly ‘teaching’ romantic gestures that appear in every cliched rom-com ever written, try noticing how you’re already loved sufficiently that you agreed to marry this person.”
Secondly, the author is making grand, sweeping assumptions about all autistic people. The article is quite multifarious in this, but for brevity’s sake I’m only addressing the point about demonstrating love. In this case, it bears pointing out that autistic people’s ability and comfort levels with physical affection vary wildly. Some factors that affect this can include issues with processing incoming sensory data (including touch and smell), individual personality preferences, cultural norms, and the presence of trauma. For instance, I’ve slowly had to heal from childhood physical and sexual abuse: for much of my teenage years, I was only touched when I was being beaten or molested. So, of course someone like me would reluctant to engage in physical contact! In my case, I desired to, but the trauma I experienced plus my own battles with PTSD have made it much harder for me to actively seek it. It’s slowly happening, but it takes time, like with anything.
And while I’m probably preaching to the choir, I still must warn the reader that this is a case of “your mileage may vary.” I know my experience shares some parallels with that of other autistics, particular those with abusive childhoods; however, it should not be inferred that all autistics are comfortable in participating in physical contact, for whatever reasons.
If you’re in the mood for a good laugh, you may want to read the post that precipitated it all. Or if you feel like picking it apart piece by piece, that’s great too. But on a more serious note, it and other writings like it come from a standpoint not only rooted in false ideas about autistic people but also grossly false ideas about gender, sexuality, and relationships. I’m very cautious about anything written about autistics that’s not by autistics, and this blog post certainly is proof of why. Have fun reading it, if you dare.