"'Normal’, monogamous relationships are a perfect example of dependence on one person"Illustration: Carly Miller / @carly.tif

Awareness that I have a mild form of autism is like having a persistent, nagging itch which I can’t quite place. I know it’s not a painful feeling; I’m fortunate enough not to experience the immediate prejudice and disadvantages which come with more visible disabilities. Sometimes I even feel guilty or melodramatic for declaring that I have a disability. Other people can’t discern what’s ‘different’ about me straight away, and I have trouble pinning it down myself. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been dealing with the prickly sensation of inexplicable ‘difference’. Even before my parents told me I had been diagnosed with autism, I knew that I could not smoothly absorb the infinite unspoken rules of social interaction - which apparently every other child at school could do easily.

This vague yet unshakeable awareness defined my childhood. I didn’t know why I was different, but I knew that other people didn’t seem to find social behaviour so complicated. Initially, I tried to overcome this by memorising snippets of conversation word for word and recycling them. If someone made a remark, I would remember and repeat their exact words while making conversation with someone else. This came from a belief that the conversation topics and phrases of ‘normal people’ were inherently more valid than anything I could come up with myself.

My intense observation of others didn’t always involve idealising them. As I got older, keeping people’s behavioural quirks in a memory ‘bank’ (to eventually be imitated) gave way to attempting to analyse these quirks myself. After all, it is easier to know exactly when to regurgitate a phrase or non-verbal cue when you can describe the precise context and motivation which triggered it. This led me to the much more slippery territory of obsessively deconstructing other people’s motivations: something even non-autistic people struggle with.

“The system I so obsessively followed made it almost impossible to trust someone sincerely.”

I continued this process, breaking down the reasons behind people’s actions, for as long as I possibly could. Stopping the process would imply that there was something I couldn’t work out, which would mean my process had failed to produce a ‘final value’. I would mentally search for an additional, external motivating factor which could explain someone’s behaviour. This leaves worryingly little room for random acts of kindness, or any actions which are motivated by an intrinsic desire to help a friend. When even the most benign acts needed to be selfishly motivated in order to fit into my system properly, the idea that someone could genuinely care for another person in an altruistic way had no place in my worldview.

Thus, I became a suspicious person. The system I so obsessively followed made it almost impossible to trust someone sincerely. I was selfish and distrustful because I assumed everybody else was. As I became more skilled at “acting normal” and made some friends, I termed them ‘survival friends’; I naively assumed that I would never need them for any deeper purpose than to avoid looking like a loner at lunch.

This habit of basing my behaviour on (often mistaken) assumptions about how ‘normal people’ act followed me into my dating life. Because of this lack of trust, and because I couldn’t see any examples of ‘normal people’ relying on one friend in this way, I was deeply afraid of becoming too dependent on someone else.

“Trusting my boyfriend was only validated to me because I had seen ‘normal people’ do it.”

However, ‘normal’, monogamous relationships are a perfect example of dependence on one person. I registered that entrusting a singular person with all of one’s sexual needs and most psychological and emotional needs is entirely socially acceptable, and doing otherwise may raise eyebrows. It seems absurd that I needed this sort of justification to start really pouring my heart out to my then-boyfriend, but it goes right back to my childhood belief about the validity of my behaviour. Even something as fundamental as trusting my boyfriend was only validated to me because I had seen ‘normal people’ do it.

Looking back to who I was before I started dating, how unprepared I was to put my trust in others, I think I did get into a relationship before I was emotionally ready for one. But suddenly having a new normal to emulate meant that I could simply apply the imitation process which I had grown very used to at this point, breaking down my mental barriers to trust in the process. This was absolutely invaluable. The openness I had in my relationship with my then-boyfriend pulled me through two of the worst years of my life: years when I had squandered many past friendships due to my fear of vulnerability, and kept my emotions firmly closed to practically anyone else.

“Before this experience, I had never grasped the importance of interpersonal relationships”

In this way, applying a mechanistic process to figure out how to act in a social situation - which is a far from flawless approach - ultimately taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learnt about friendship. Perhaps it’s sad that I needed vulnerability to be clearly labelled ‘normal’ before I could overcome my fear of it. Perhaps this demonstrates excessive pressure to conform which we need to curb as a society. In the end, though, I was able to see the benefits of putting my trust in someone else with my own eyes. Before this experience, I had never grasped the importance of interpersonal relationships and the mutual dependence they foster.


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Mountain View

Nobody said it was easy

Even after we broke up, the lessons from this premature foray into dating have stayed with me. I experienced the value of trust, which made me a better friend and a better human being. While I might initially have learnt to invest in relationships for the wrong reasons, as part of this perpetual analyse-and-imitate game, doing so was so much more fulfilling than my old ‘survival friends’ mentality that it has transformed the depth and integrity of my friendships for good. Now, I don’t trust my friends because that’s what ‘normal people’ do, but because they deserve it - and so do I.

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