What happens when autistic young men meet up with pick-up artists? Pretty much what you’d expect.

I’m taking a big risk writing this post. I recognize that it may be misinterpreted as an agreement with concepts that go completely counter to my intention. It’s time, though. 

The media is currently abuzz with the planning and execution of Friday night’s murders at the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. He must have been mentally ill, people argue, to have written a 100+ page manifesto explaining his motivations. No one sane would have uploaded a YouTube video detailing his plans for retribution against the women of the world who refused to date or have sex with him. While most mainstream media outlets gloss over the inherent misogyny of his actions (and the clear connection between his choices and those of Marc Lepine in Montreal in 1989), the speculation of the role of mental health is high. Described as disturbed and unstable by people who claim to have known him well, the preferred focus appears to be on demands for greater gun control in the US as a way to prevent this from happening again. 

The other media focus has been (as with many mass murders committed by white men before Elliot Rodger) on his status as an autistic person. He had Asperger’s, folks say, so this is obviously why he hated women, killed his roommates, and planned to slaughter every woman he encountered. Because autism makes you disconnect, socially isolated, a dangerous loner. Because autism means you are incapable of empathy or of seeing other people as human beings. Because autistic people are volatile and unpredictable.

You do all realize that’s bullshit, right? 

Here, however, is where I may lose a few of you: while autism does not make someone more likely to be a misogynist, autistic men are definitely disporportionately more vulnerable to the messages of pick-up artists (PUA)  and men’s rights activists (MRA). The reasons for this are complicated, and deeply tied into our ableist, sex-negative culture. 

As a culture, we traditionally do as little as we can get away with when we discuss sexuality with children. We describe the mechanics of puberty in technical terms, we talk about how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in as abstract ways as we can, and we avoid avoid avoid as much as possible, with the assumption that kids grow up and figure most of this out as they go along, or that they don’t need the information because it won’t be relevant to them, or we hope, as parents, that the school will do the awkward work for us. I’m just talking about kids who are perceived as able-bodied in this description. Disability compounds the conversation. As parents of autistic kids, we’re told to lower our expectations. We’re indoctrinated with the idea that our children will grow up to be asexual misfits who are incapable of making intimate connections and partnerships. 

For young autistic men who are seen as “high-functioning” (as I’m going to assume Rodger was), the two scenarios combine: we assume that they’ll probably not be interested in dating and relationships, but if they are, they’re smart enough to figure it out when it’s time. 

It’s not about being “smart enough.” The common understanding of how autistic people learn is that direct instruction is integral to comprehension. A lot of us are not so good with abstract concepts and figurative language. We are often concrete thinkers who benefit from step-by-step explanations. Guess who’s really good at offering young men step-by-step explanations on how to get a girlfriend? 

Pick-up artists. They demystify a terrifying process. While social skills groups and parents go around the idea of dating and sexuality, PUAs jump right in and offer concrete steps on how to get exactly what you want. They give advice on appearance and approach, and offer praise for attempts at contact. They acknowledge that autistic young men are capable of and interested in being sexual with other people (in this instance, women) – validation few others in their lives are willing to consider. 

So, yeah. Autistic young men who are interested in women are definitely at risk of embracing MRA philosophy, and of emulating misogynist pick-up artist practice. There. I said it. It’s out there. Now, what do we do about it? Simple answer, more complicated execution. The short answer is that we ensure that every young person has access to comprehensive sexuality education that’s based in respect, mutual pleasure, and consent. We humanize sexuality, and include the emotional parts of it in our conversations with youth. We acknowledge that sexual interest lies on a spectrum. We reinforce the idea that no person on this planet is owed sex by another person, for any reason. 

For autistic youth*  in particular, we incorporate dating and sexuality into social skills curricula. We talk frankly about dating behaviour, about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. We study examples from popular culture and role play how to talk to women respectfully. We model concrete ways of interacting with romantic interests, and provide young people a tool box of strategies. We provide a space in which they can talk freely about their feelings of frustration and isolation, but also about their successes. We replace the PUA step-by-step approach to getting laid with our own step-by-step approach to building confidence in interacting with attractive-to-us people. 

Yes, the fact that Elliot Rodger was SEEN AS autistic matters. The fact that the only people he felt took him seriously also actively encourage men to hate women matters more. 

* Throughout this post, I’ve spoken exclusively about young autistic men who are sexually attracted to women. I have not talked about men attracted to men, nor have I talked at all about autistic women’s experience of sexuality. I am in no way ignoring that comprehensive sexuality education needs to include a concrete approach for young women, nor am I overlooking sexual orientation as a piece of this educational approach. For the context of this particular piece, however, men who want to have sex with women are my target audience, for what I think are obvious reasons. 

(edited to clarify that we don’t actually know if he was autistic, only that it’s been reported.)

The assumptions we make about “real” connections

In the last few days, this Look Up clip has popped up on my Facebook timeline at least a half-dozen times. I finally took the time to watch it after reading the feedback of several friends, all of whom raved about it. While I get that the artist’s message is one of connectedness, I’m left feeling like he’s not talking to me. 

I discovered “social media” in the early 1990s, with BBSes and Usenet groups. Rather than leading to an inability to communicate with other people, I felt more connected than I had in, well, possibly my entire life. I didn’t have to worry about the social expectations and pitfalls of meeting people in unstructured moments in time in person: I could think about what had been said, and be considerate before responding. I could work through the various potential meanings of what people wrote to me without feeling pressured to respond in a certain way. The best part was that I could still choose to meet and hang out with these same people in person, having figured out a shorthand on how to interact with them ahead of time. 

Today, I rely a fair bit on texting for communication outside of my work. When speaking is hard for me, as it sometimes is, I’ll even text someone right beside me to have a conversation with them. What the Look Up video misses is the accessibility issue of social media. I’m nowhere near the only person in the world whose social world has opened up as communication technology has become more easily accessible. Cell phones, tablets, laptops – they’re assistive technology devices for many of us, and platforms like Facebook and Twitter allow us to use the technology to communicate on a broader scale. 

I agree that balance is wonderful, and making sure that you’re happy with your level of connection with the people in your life is important. Connection comes in many different packages, however, and for many of us, looking down sometimes helps us to be able to look up. 

Fake it ’till you make it

If you pretend that you’re okay with something for long enough, eventually, you’ll be okay with it.

That’s kind of a problematic statement, though. It’s more or less the same thing as 

Be someone else until you become that person

Isn’t it?

There are times when I force myself to fake it ’till I make it. In order for me to have gotten to this point in my life, my key coping strategy has been performance. I assess a given situation, figure out the expectations, develop a persona that can best meet those expectations, and move forward wearing that costume. I’m starting to realize, in retrospect, that these personas start to disintegrate over time, and eventually I’m unable to hold it all together. So much energy goes into maintaining my situation-specific identity that I can no longer also accomplish required tasks as effectively, or in the case of friendships and relationships, be emotionally available. 

I am extremely successful at meeting expectations.

Until I’m not. 

In spite of my apparent successes, after falling apart so many times, I think it’s time to redefine success for myself. For all my talk about not wanting to intentionally pass as typical,

By performing normal,

Is that not exactly what I’m doing? 

Every time I take on the task of being someone else until I can comfortably be that person, I tell myself that the person I am isn’t worth as much as the person I’m pretending to be. 

The true irony of this for me is that I absolutely cannot abide when people lie to me. 

And yet. 

That seems to be all I do, at times. 

To everyone. To myself. 

If I give myself permission to show myself,

Awkward,

Run-on chatter word association,

Flappy hands,

AND I kick ass at the work I do and the love I give, 

Maybe, 

Just maybe, 

The only person I’ll ever need to be again is the one I already am. 

Adjusting to the new normal

It’s been almost three weeks since it was confirmed that I am autistic/have Asperger’s/however I’m going to end up self-identifying. The labeling is still a work in progress. I keep forgetting, and I find myself talking about autism in the third-person outsider way I’ve always done before this. It doesn’t feel natural to say “we” instead of “they” yet, and maybe it never will. Maybe it doesn’t need to.

I’ve told a few people about my not so surprising news here and there. Um, well, I guess I’ve told anyone who regularly reads my blog. But in person, I mean. A few. To mixed results. It’s tiring to have to explain my “sudden” disability. That it is invisible makes it even harder. I’m trying to keep a positive outlook on these interactions, and am working on using them as opportunities for me to get more comfortable with my own understanding of disability as well as highlighting the teachable moments for others around their expectations of what autism can look like, sound like, be like. The hardest part of this is feeling like I’m in a position where I have to justify this label, and explain how it fits. It was suggested to me that I get a second opinion. After having had more than a dozen medical and psychiatric opinions over the last thirty years, can’t I just feel relieved that something finally fits?

I have thought I was crazy my entire life. And maybe I still am crazy. I’ll likely always have a good chunk of anxiety, and I don’t expect my depression to disappear overnight (if at all). Sixty-five percent of folks on the autism spectrum will experience issues like anxiety and depression, so that seems pretty par for the course. But what of the rest of it? I was diagnosed with a dissociative disorder, once upon a time. When I’m profoundly overwhelmed, it’s common for me to go nonverbal and shut down entirely for a bit to regroup. With this new understanding of autism in me, that behaviour takes on an entirely different, non-pathologized context. Shutting down IS coping. It’s not disordered behaviour. It’s not irrational in the face of so much interference in my brain and my inability to process everything simultaneously. It buys me quiet, and time, so that I can search for patterns, for meaning. So I can figure out the important, most pressing pieces, and focus on them when I get everything in the right place in my head again.

It has also been speculated by psychiatric professionals that I may have Borderline Personality Disorder. To qualify for diagnosis, individuals must exhibit 5 of the following characteristics:

1) Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
2) A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
3) Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
4) Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., promiscuous sex, excessive spending, eating disorders, binge eating, substance abuse, reckless driving).
5) Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, threats or self-injuring behavior such as cutting, interfering with the healing of scars or picking at oneself (excoriation) .
6) Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).
7) Chronic feelings of emptiness
8) Inappropriate anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).
9) Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation, delusions or severe dissociative symptoms

(Bolded items are what I have experienced.)

If I have difficulty communicating on an emotional level, it stands to reason that my interpersonal relationships are often going to look like a giant clusterfuck. Within friendships and intimate relationships, I have always struggled with feelings of isolation and confusion. I also regularly experience fear of looking stupid if I express that I have no idea what someone’s words or behaviours mean.

I have tried to connect with people on a number of levels. While I hate that having multiple sexual partners is pathologized within BPD’s definition, I will admit that my own choices around unemotional sexual connections have been motivated by my need to connect at some level with someone. I know the rules around sex, most of the time, and if there isn’t an emotional component, I’m less likely to look like a freak. (in theory.)

And the cutting? Well. Self-injurious behaviour is pretty common in folks who have communication difficulties. Add in the sensory dysregulation I regularly feel, and you get someone whose skin literally feels like it’s too tight, but can’t explain what that means. Cutting can be regulating, and can explain frustration and pain that I can’t always put into words.

I’ve already addressed the dissociation, and the emptiness? Well, that crosses over into depression territory.

This is making me wonder, as I type this all out: is there a connection to the disproportionate number of women who have been labeled with BPD, and the under-representation of women on the autism spectrum? It’s sadly commonplace for people of a certain age to have been traumatized and mis/labeled by the psychiatric system on the way to finding autism. It’s so easy to believe that the experts know what they’re talking about when they tell you that they know exactly what makes you crazy, but it’s a lot harder for them to step back and see the crazy as part of the bigger picture. I am a very big picture in a pretty small body, and what I call that picture is currently in flux. Maybe it will stay that way. I don’t know. What I do know is that for the first time in my whole life, I’m starting to not feel broken. I’m starting to accept that I’m complicated, that I don’t fit, and that there is no shame in that. I am not crazy for having to tune out when too much is happening, and I’m not stupid for not understanding when people speak to me in ways that are unclear.

All that being said, my own communication impairments will not always be the reason for misunderstandings. My autism (and therefore I) will not be held solely responsible for when shit goes south. I am working hard to be open about my impairments and what helps me function better, and I’m trying my best to listen for meaning and not get trapped in the white noise that often accompanies messages. I can’t accomplish that by myself, though, and I will not let my disability act as a scapegoat for every problem ever.

The good, the bad, and the ugly: a debrief on my speak at Playground

Months ago, I saw a request for proposals for a conference on sexuality and relationships. I jumped at the opportunity, excited to offer myself in some capacity to talk specifically from the perspective of a parent about the language around the more complex parts of sexuality. This weekend, I had the pleasure of presenting at the first Playground Conference, held in Toronto. Below, I’ll share the basic content of my part of the session, as well as a critique of both my own performance and the session as a whole.

    Part the First

As a co-presenter of “Birds, Bees, and Ball Gags,” I chose to approach my piece both thematically and personally. I set up a theme/issue/tip, and followed it with an anecdote to illustrate how that worked (and sometimes didn’t) in my family.
I covered the following:

1. This is about communication, first and foremost
2. Keep it age-appropriate, and revisit what that means regularly
3. Provide kids with the language and concepts around sexuality early so that they have the opportunity to internalize (and therefore normalize) their own sexual interests as they grow
4. Offer opportunities for your kids to moderate their own level of knowledge as you go — give them the opportunity to “safeword” their way out of a discussion, with the option of returning to the topic when ready
5. Have books around to supplement their sexual education learning (incidentally, Good for Her‘s display window is currently devoted to books on how to talk with kids about sexuality.)
6. Common advice is to wait until they ask about stuff, but as children get older, if you wait for them to ask, they’re asking because they’ve already heard about/experienced it somewhere else, and you’re going to have the job of helping them unlearn inaccurate (and sometimes dangerous) information
7. Emphasize the difference between education/information and nosiness/privacy/boundary violations. You can be very open with your children about sexuality and relationships without bringing your own personal experiences and preferences into the conversation. Don’t be afraid to say, “That’s none of your business” to your child, while keeping the door open to discuss the general pieces of that question. This is going to look different for everyone, as we all have different boundaries around what is and isn’t private. The same can be said for our children – reinforcing that privacy is important to us as adults lets them know that we respect their privacy as well (assuming “privacy” isn’t being used to mask unsafe, unethical, and illegal activity).
8. Be aware that being out about anything to your children – even out as someone who is open to discussing the murkier complex pieces of sexuality – will mean that you’re opening yourself to the probability that your parents, neighbours, children’s friends and possibly teachers will know about what you’ve told your children.
9. The opposite side of that is to be prepared to have your child be really uncomfortable as she/he/zie gets older with anything you’re comfortably out about in your community, as it affects her/his/hir levels of privacy.
10. All of this may be more complicated if you and your partner(s)/ex(es) aren’t on the same page about just how much information your child should have about sexuality issues.

    Part the Second – What went well, what could have been done better


I feel like I covered the bases of what I set out to do. What I could have done better is used the flip chart to ink out the specific themes I was discussing – to give it more structure and make it look less like I was randomly pulling bits and bobs from my head.

It also would have run a lot more smoothly had I had a chance to go over things in more detail with my co-facilitator. We really weren’t on the same page with our approaches, and it made for a bit of a fractured presentation.

We lost a few people as we went through, and I would love to know why they left, so I could figure out ways to reduce the possibility of that happening in future sessions (should they exist).

Very few people attended this session at all. We had eight, including one person who sat in the corner, outside of the conversation, and worked on her laptop the whole time. To be fair, we were “competing” against Queer Sex 101, which I hear was wildly popular. But I think there might be more to it than that.

    Part the Third – “Child” is a four-letter word


Early in the day on Saturday, I was talking with a few people about my session. Every single person I spoke with said, rolling their eyes and making dismissive hand gestures, “Oh, yeah, that wasn’t even on my radar.” They don’t have kids, they don’t want kids, and they have no interest in being involved with those who do. I think, even without being offered at the same time as a popular session, mine would still have had low attendance simply because the place of children (and those who parent them) is a marginal place in alternative sexuality communities.

It takes more organization and forethought for parents involved in these communities to participate in events due to child care and other family responsibilities, but we’re also going to hesitate to participate if how we have chosen to live the pieces of our lives that aren’t directly linked to our sex lives is treated disdainfully or as unimportant. Don’t get me wrong: my children are not welcome in these parts of my life, and that is a good thing. What is not a good thing is that by association, my identity as parent is also not welcome.

I’m not arguing that all people should have a bunch of kids. I’m not arguing that parents should have special privileges simply because they’ve bred or adopted or inherited children through a number of means. What I am saying is that for a bunch of people who can readily identify that many of us had really shitty sex ed experiences, and who can see that education for young people leads to healthier communities overall, not a lot of support is given to those of us who are actively engaged in DOING that work. That needs to be addressed.

Loss, grief, survival, resistance

It seems to be obvious to everyone else, but I’ve been struggling with understanding why my mental health has felt so strained this year. I suppose it makes sense that I’d be feeling overwhelmed. So much has happened in a relatively short period of time, and most of what has happened in my life represents some kind of loss.

I started this year having to accept that I was too sick to work. My body rebelled against me, and has left no concrete signs as to what’s wrong or how to fix it. I worry every day when I wake up that I’m not going to be able to get out bed again, that I won’t be able to pick up the kids from school, that I won’t be able to go to school myself.

I lost my job. I knew it was a probability that my contract would not be extended, but it still caught me off-guard. My income disappeared, and with it my hope for financial security when I planned to return to school in the fall.

I lost my grandmother. I knew it was coming, probably soon, but she’s still gone and I didn’t really have a chance to say good bye to her.

I gave up any outstanding fantasy of being with someone with whom sharing my fertility would be a welcome and wanted thing when I chose to have my tubes tied. I grieved the fact that there had never been that moment of shared joy in a partnership during the years when going through another pregnancy would be a healthy choice for me. I made the right decision in choosing the surgery – I have no regrets at all. But the permanence of it left me wishing things could have been different.

I moved. I started school. I also started two part-time jobs, and transitioned the kids back into school. Nothing really to grieve there, but admittedly a lot of change and a lot of stress all at once for one little me.

Somewhere in the middle of that (and it doesn’t matter where), I was also sexually assaulted. It is what it is, I didn’t and won’t go to the police, it’s a work in progress to get okay again, and I’m not mentioning it for any other reason than, “Holy shit, that’s a lot of crap in one short period of time.” ‘Cause really? If I weren’t me, and I were talking to someone who’s 2011 looked like mine, I’d be a little worried about how they were doing.

So how am I doing? I’m grieving more than I have time for. I’m surviving (and sometimes that means nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other, making sure we have clean clothes and fresh food, and getting our bodies where they need to be occupying space). I’ve pulled away from some friends, and am trying to reconnect, because I know that isolating myself when I need support the most is dangerous for me. At times, I try to never stop moving, because I don’t want to have time to think, to feel, to process. I’ve really turned inward, to keep myself from falling out all over the place. My trust in my own judgment and in people I’ve known forever is up and down, and I often miss the obvious when people close to me are struggling with their own stuff. Eating and sleeping are inconsistent again.

I thought it would be a good idea to do a bit of a “check the oil, kick the tires” kind of psych appointment, to make sure I was more or less on the right track in terms of how to keep myself reasonably healthy. After being asked if I ever do “weird sex things” and whether my experiences of sexual assault were “true rape,” I haven’t really been that motivated to return. So I survive.

In the midst of all of this, I have pain. Pain so bad some days I don’t know what to do with myself. My body actively betrays me. My heart is stapled together after shattering so completely. And my mind? Well. Good days, bad days.

I fell off the wagon the other day. No. I didn’t fall. I stepped off. I made a choice. My entire world was chaos, and I could not find order. So I did the simplest thing I could think of to line it all up in way that I could deal with, that would restore some order, even for just long enough to take a single deep breath. I cut myself to stop the world, because it was something I knew would work. And I can’t even tell you how much shame I felt after doing it, after disclosing to someone close that I had done it, after dealing with that person’s reaction to it.

Too much has happened and continues to happen to my body without my consent.This contentious, “diseased” act, this choosing to make small cuts in my flesh – that was me. Something I chose to do, and chose to stop doing when I didn’t need it anymore. Would I have felt this shame had I gone and gotten a new tattoo? Re-pierced my nose? Aren’t they the same thing, if they satisfy that need to assert dominance over a body forced too much to submit?

I don’t have any answers. I don’t plan to make a habit out of it. It’s not something I enjoy doing. It is, however, a tool that came in handy when I needed to resist the feelings of loss, of grief, of body betrayal. I’m committed to using as many other tools of resistance as I can access.

‘Cause survival is the journey as much as it is the destination.