Thursday, February 02, 2006

I Don't Know What I'm Missing


Copyright © 2006 Lars Perner

By Lars Perner, Ph.D.

As a person on the autism spectrum, I am at least “sort of” human--at least some of the time. This means that I am subject to many emotions that most ordinary people experience. My experiences may not be typical, but they are human—or at least near human—experiences nevertheless.

Most people have is the drive for attachment. For evolutionary reasons, there are good reasons why people pair up. In my life, I have experienced something akin to love several times. I have fantasized about romance many times and dreamed about finding the perfect match for me. Truth be told, I know that perfection is impossible, and I would be perfectly happy for settle for someone who is merely super-human. I have been deeply touched by hearing about other people’s experiences. I will even admit that I have felt by the experiences of fictional people. When I read novels by Danielle Steel many years ago, I had perhaps too much empathy for some of the characters.

Yet, in my own life, I have never advanced far into relationships. There is only one woman with whom I have had more than one date. One of the reasons here, of course, is that finding the right person is hard work and that the match has to be mutual. To many of the women that I saw as a possibility, I would not have been a suitable match. Many women who would have been intrigued by an “adorable eccentric” like me would not have been suitable for me.

Another issue, however, is whether having a relationship, when we add up everything, really comes out as a net positive experience. Yes, this question sounds very autistic, but I am constantly surprised to see the rather constant conflict between people who actually both like and love each other. Relationships also involve challenges that, to me, are rather frightening. Spontaneity is one of the more terrifying realities of many relationships. It is very difficult for me when decisions are still “up in the air.” I dislike discussing options for things to do with no knowledge of the likely outcome. Or the possibility that a change of plans will be suggested. It may be true that “imaginary lovers never disagree” and “are always there when you need” them, but most people are, for better or for worse, real or—worse yet—fake. As the singer Dann Rogers put it, “Love’s a slice of Heaven—and little Hell.”

Having never had a lasting and significant relationship, I literally don’t know what I am missing. I don’t really know much about the reality of the plusses and minutes of a relationship. I have felt a tremendous attraction to a sequence women in my lifetime. One could call my feelings attraction, love, infatuation, captivation, or any number of other terms. As a sincere and committed prude, lust would probably not be a suitable description, but other word choices abound. The bottom line is that I know the feelings of attraction and longing. Yet, I don’t know if being successful in finding a match would turn out to be a blessing or a curse. Yes, I am intrigued by the possibility of having someone “whisper something soft and kind,” but would the experience really be all that satisfying when push came to shove? In some ways, I am perhaps even more of a “world class hopeless romantic” than Joan Wilder, but I also have an acute sense of danger and strong drive for self preservation! Do I really want to “know what love is?”

Having been alone for so long, I value my freedom. Outside work, I usually do not have to coordinate with anyone what to do and when to do it. Giving up this freedom seems a major sacrifice. Yet, maybe something really worthwhile could result from love! I know this is not rational, but I am human after all.

In a sense, I would like to experience mutual love. It is human to want this. Yet, although I know that a feeling and acting on an attraction are an evolutionary necessity for the species, it is much less clear that this is really in the rational interest of the individual. In the old days, a relationship provided for an important division of labor. This is not as necessary any more. Some people would argue that you don’t need a rational reason for everything in life, but, at the very least, I would really like to hear a truly persuasive irrational reason!

On the issue of children, many people started out like me. In their youth, they had no need for children. As one mature woman, who now had a daughter she loved said, the “very word used to scare [her].” At this point in my life, I no longer doubt that I have made the right decision—or at least avoided making the wrong decision—in not having children. I do not question that many people get genuine joy out of having children. Yet, there is no doubt that I would resent the burden. I believe that my writings can contribute much more to the world in helping parents understand their autistic children and autistic people understand themselves than having children of my own ever could. I do not miss children. I get tired all of a sudden and would resent having to take care of a child. I would also intensely dislike the conflict that inevitably results even between the best parents and children. I rather doubt that I will ever wake up one day and regret I did not have children. I may come to increasingly understand that there would have pros and cons, but I rather doubt I would ever conclude that squandered an opportunity.

The question of love is different, however. In my daily life, I do not usually feel deprived in not having anyone. There have been instances when I have longed for a particular woman, but this comes and goes. When the crisis is over, there is no great void. Love is not easy, and the downside can be considerable. As the singer Ed Bruce put it, “If it [were] easy, everyone would be in love.” So many marriages end in divorce, sorrow, or both. But still, some marriages turn out to be very happy.

Dr. Tony Attwood has commented that many people on the autism spectrum may need a “thimble” of socializing instead of the big oversized sixty-four ounce gulper that many “normal” people seek out. Social interaction, in moderation, is important to me. Perhaps I need a thimble of love, but does love fit into thimbles? Flexibility is not my strong suit, but perhaps—albeit with marked reservations— I could even go for a small cup. I just worry that it might flow over.

Am I avoiding something that is highly overrated and, in reality, likely to be distressing, or am I missing out on something that would truly enrich my life? I don’t know.