That was my impression of boys as a kid. And they were scary in the same way that strange things are scary in general. Because I didn’t understand them, they were unpredictable; who knows what they were thinking about me, how they were judging me, how I measured up to all the other girls here (all four of them). In my tiny private school where even classes of 4 to 8 people were intimidating, anxiety was the rule rather than the exception. Coating this anxiety was the fairytale impression that did not come from experience or reality but from TV shows and songs and books. In my mind, though, I had zero experience or knowledge about boys, I also knew that it was likely one of them had a secret crush on me. Every time Valentine’s Day came around, I arrived at school expectantly, hoping to find something from a special someone sitting in my locker or on my desk or something. All the while marveling at how the other girls in my class could casually and naturally carry on conversations with these mysterious beings without getting frazzled or making a fool of themselves. If a boy so much as looked at me, the suspicions and assumptions started flying around my brain. He is either madly in love with me or plotting to kill me, obviously. One day a boy from a class above me commented on how thin my eyebrows were. What the hell do you say to something like that? I don’t remember exactly how I responded, but I’m sure it wasn’t friendly. What I do remember is watching this boy’s reaction, as if I’d spat in his face or turned into a green monster.
As I grew older, my view of boys as this alien species matured only so far as to form a new understanding that they were sex-crazed aliens. In high school, they were the things that served as trophies or objects to win over and conquer. If an attractive or popular boy liked you, it elevated your status in the school and won you “points.” I’m not kidding; this was my mentality. I wrote a bit about this point system in Chameleon so I won’t exhaust the topic here. It’s also a bit embarrassing and painful to look back on, but it’s important to highlight this mindset in the context of undiagnosed Asperger’s.
I was a woman on the spectrum, and this was the pattern that reality showed me, so I based my belief systems regarding what went on in people’s heads on this reality combined with the things I was seeing in movies and on TV. I found very little depth in people at that time, and as a result, I tended to walk around with my nose up thinking I was the only one who was really thinking about anything. When I eventually did “win” a boy and he became my boyfriend after dumping his current one—who happened to be one of my best friends—I reveled in the delights of being admired for my “profoundness.” I grew addicted to this behavior and we stayed together for a year and a half or so. This was also the foundation of my sex education. From what I’d been taught by entertainment media and the way girls acted around boys, women were obviously objects who were here to serve boys sexually. You were worthless if you couldn’t be sexy or perform certain sexual acts. Why else would a guy be with you? I felt the weight of this on my shoulders all the time, even though I was clueless. There was experimentation and an eagerness to please without ever a concern for what I was getting out of it. I would apologize after sex if I felt I hadn’t “performed” to the standard I should have. The sex was always about him, and I believe it was here that I started to hone the craft of “faking it.” After all, no guy wants to fuck a girl who isn’t “into” it; he needs that ego stroke, right? So I would always emulate what I heard on TV and try to sound as sexy as possible, as if he was showing me an amazing good time…this wasn’t the case at all, but that didn’t matter, right? We were just a couple of high school kids trying to impress each other in the end.
Long story short, when I got to college and saw all these new opportunities to “compete,” I quickly grew bored of the high school boyfriend and moved on…breaking up over the phone. Just another coldhearted act in a long line of them stemming from a lack of understanding and empathy (not generalized lack of empathy, mind you).
It’s important to me to pause here and focus on this idea of women with autism being incapable of empathy or being naturally coldhearted. I can’t speak for all women on the spectrum, of course. That’s something I want to make clear. But after years of study and retrospect, I do have some thoughts on how I grew up and how my emotions matured along the way.
I do recognize a definite lack of empathy and compassion for people outside my family at a young age that continued on for a long time. The people I hung out with in high school were definitely friends, but my concept of that word was simply a matter of spending lots of time with them because we were in the same classes or in band or guard together. Hangout time outside of these settings was usually focused on “the game,” with one or more boys who were going to be there. I never had dedicated “time” to a best friend, just the two of us. When I did hang out with a group of girls, it was usually colorguard related and I would struggle to “fit in” for the majority of the time while feeling fascinated, like I wanted to take notes while I observed. I watched girls around me who would effortlessly hug and be playful with each other, but this just made me uncomfortable. I didn’t feel anywhere near the closeness or connection that these girls seemed to share with each other. And I am sad to admit that the girls in high school who did confide in me—who did consider me their close friend—were part of this difficult area of relationships, where the connection was one-sided. I oftentimes used them for my own selfish ends or comfort without even realizing it until I thought about it much later. High school is a time period in my life about which I feel more guilt than anything else, but the question that always came up in my mind was, am I really a bad person? What was going on there?
At the heart of the issue here, I now believe, is that lack of connection to people combined with a naïve and immature basis for judgments and emotions, what I think people nowadays would call “emotional intelligence” combined with theory of mind issues. I honestly was not wrapping my head around how I might be hurting people through my behavior because I was simply navigating a strange situation the way I thought it was supposed to be handled. I was incorrectly implementing behaviors in different situations separate from the original intended context. For example, I hear pop songs on the radio over and over and over about girls attracting guys away from their girlfriends, talking about how superior they are, so, as a junior in high school, I let a guy give me attention while his girlfriend was away and eventually break up with her in a painful way…for me. This meant I was as cool as the chick in the song!
That may be a bit simplified, but yeah, that’s a solid demonstration of what was going on in my head. The major component to this that I would not understand for many years was the lack of connection that hindered my being able to see and understand how other people were feeling. Part of this is just being a teenage girl. I was completely wrapped up in my own emotions and status. I watched some really wonderful, close relationships going on all around me in the high school environment, but I had nothing to do with them. I didn’t even know it. I knew I felt strange around it and was constantly trying to mask, but I think this fed, in part, that growing identity as someone who was different mentally—not an Aspie, but a young woman who thought on a deeper level, noticed and appreciated details, and had a deeper artistic sensibility. I didn’t have to really reflect on what I was missing because high school was a constant string of competitions and practices. This part of my life was absolutely incredible and I’m so thankful for it, but it was also a very strong and constant distraction from any effort toward forming a “real” relationship or friendship.
So that is the basic assessment of what was going on with me at this time. But I want to point out that I was very, very in touch with emotions and often felt things very strongly. It is a mistake to think that women—or anyone—on the spectrum do not feel emotions and/or are coldhearted bitches. In fact, I’ve talked with several women who found that they have on almost over-developed sense of empathy and this exhausts them to the point that they have to retreat, which consequently paints them as un-feeling and cold. They feel others’ pain in a very deep way, and this often spurs on a motivation to become some kind of civil servant or to dedicate their lives to helping other people, despite their social difficulties. This is truly awe-inspiring to me, and I hope that, in time, as we come to understand autism in women a little more, people will appreciate the many fascinating and intricate ways we figure out how to live on pathways where we are alone and constantly having to innovate. No one paves that road for us. Over time, we all figure out our own strengths, levels of tolerance, anxieties, and anything else that comes into play for us and then create a space for ourselves where we can be happy and productive.
Alright, now I want to set the stage for when I first met my favorite alien—my husband!
If there is any experience in life for a young woman that would solidify the idea of boys as sex-crazed aliens, it is most definitely college. I partied, I drank, I did stupid things, and the boys were all the same. Occasionally, I would drift into fascinating drunken conversations with boys at a party, but I was constantly disappointed by the outcome. Either the night would end without them expressing to me how amazing and brilliant I was, or they would try to take me to their dorm room. Where is the soulmate I’m supposed to meet in college and fall instantly in love with? I don’t remember having any “type” in mind when I used to think about finding someone. I think I just figured it would look a lot like how my high school boyfriend had manifested. He would be in awe of me, and I would finally feel that mysterious connection I see people feeling for each other all around me. It was like this looming desire that I was always on the lookout for wherever I went, whether to a new class or to some random person’s party on a Friday night. I was looking for that big movie moment where I would lock eyes with “the one” and somehow I would just know I’d found what I was looking for. Still quite the child, that emotional intelligence was still forming, buoyed on the foundation of media and songs.
Then there was the “friends with benefits” experience that I discussed thoroughly in my last memoir. Long story short, I was used for sex in exchange for this paper-thin offer of affection which lasted until another, more interesting girl came along, at which point I abruptly left and never spoke to him again. I had tried to make him fit into this mold that I thought I was supposed to be in—it didn’t fit to be having sex and not have some kind of deeper bond. He caught on to this quickly and tried to assume that role for me, but it soon fell apart and I became more confused than ever about what a real relationship was. If I’m honest with myself, though, I was using him as well. If nothing else, I was furthering my education in the way of intimacy and what a man expected of his female sexual partner. I let myself wrestle with this confusion until the day I felt that incredible pang of jealousy as he walked in with another female he’d met at work. They were all over each other, and I was utterly and deeply confused. What the fuck am I doing here? What am I to him? We were collaborating musically, but again, we were fucking, so there had to be something more meaningful between us…somewhere. Anyway, for a handful of reasons—not the least of which being pride—I disconnected completely without any difficulty whatsoever, confirming that this illusory connection I was looking for did not, in fact, exist.
So who happened to walk up to me the exact same day I’d abandoned Mr. Friends-with-Benefits? Let’s see, I had a cute name for him in Chameleon but I don’t remember it. Let’s give him a new one for this book. His name is…Allen!
Allen made his presence known to me one day in poetry class when he volunteered to read a poem by a Scottish writer with a Scottish accent…and he was good! It was very entertaining, and when is a Scottish accent ever not sexy? I had a friend in this class with me with whom I’d spent lots of time in the piano lounge since freshman year. This was our last year as seniors, and I’d planned on graduating a quarter early. She had just met someone in her youth group—she would later marry him—and so she was telling me about him as we were walking out of the building that day. I hadn’t thought about Mr. Scottish much after his performance, but he chose that day to challenge me on a particularly mundane piece of poetry I’d submitted to the class. And by this, I mean he literally accosted me in the middle of a conversation just outside the building and said, “What’s it mean?” No “hey, how’s it going?” or “Can I talk to you?” He kept stride alongside us as we walked, his hands clasped behind his back, eyes intent on my reddening cheeks. I guessed he wasn’t going away any time soon, so I answered in a clandestine and sufficiently bland manner—mysterious girls are sexy, right? It didn’t matter that I had not yet formed any substantial opinion of him. He was a member of the opposite sex, so I immediately assumed the role of object, a.k.a. female on the market. There was no reason to think he was any different from the myriad other boys I’d met in the last four years there…except, he was a bit. After all, who the fuck talks like this to people out of the blue? He asked if I’d like to meet him at the coffee shop later to talk. I was intrigued, so I said yes, and in my head the bells were ringing…score!