I am polyamorous.
I don’t really talk about it on this blog because it’s not really part of its overall scope. However, the intersection of polyamory and autism is within the scope of my blog, so I am going to talk about it here. When it comes right down to it, there really don’t seem to be any spaces out there for talking about this particular intersection, so I need to make my own. I don’t claim that my experiences are universal – this is simply how autism and polyamory intersect for me.
So I got featured in the tumblr Poly Role Models and you can read my answers to the questions here. I was specifically chosen because someone was asking about being poly while autistic and a friend nominated me for that, as I am both poly and autistic.
Now I am attempting to write a follow-up, so I can get more into the intersection of poly and autism. Honestly, though, this is kind of tough for me. While I know the two do interact and being autistic impacts how I am polyamorous, sometimes it’s hard to see exactly how when I am in the middle of living it.
First of all, forming connections is hard for me. Really hard. I know that the usual response to this is to explain to me that everyone finds it challenging to make connections, but that is an awfully dismissive thing to say. A major (arguably *the* major) point of autism is that it is a social development delay. I am 34 years old, but I do not have the social development of a 34 year old. Socially speak, my skills are significantly behind my age. They always have been, and they always will be.
Poly, on the other hand, often demands significant emotional and social skills. Above and beyond simply making connections, there is managing how multiple intimate relationships will interact with each other, all sorts of emotional entanglements and responses and consequences, figuring out boundaries and making relationships without the typical benefit of pre-made relationship templates that most people learn in childhood.
Some of these are easier for me due to autism, and others are more difficult. Far more difficult. As I mention in my answers to the poly role model questions, the social templates for relationships have been easy for me to move away from. Or at least, easier than what I see in other people. For instance, many people (including poly people) seem to have an assumption that being in a relationship means sleeping in the same bed with your significant other. It’s so much a default that no one questions it. Yet in my (11 years and counting) relationship with Nee, we do not sleep in the same bed. We do not even sleep in the same bedroom. It is an unconventional way to do relationships, but it works for us so we do it.
Part of the reason for this is that I have a very strong need for a safe space that I can retreat to, that is mine and only mine. Even within my own home I need this. As such, I have my bedroom, and even Nee does not enter it without my explicit permission.
Now let’s talk about communication. In the poly world, there is a social norm of communicating all thoughts, feelings, desires, etc to the Nth degree. There is an expectation that things will be brought up immediately and processed via conversation. While I am poly in that I desire and multiple intimate relationships, this is a part of the overall poly culture that I fit in with very poorly.
In a recent post on my blog entitled “Disconnect and Effort” I speak some of my difficulty in having conversations.
“Simple” things like conversation also take intense effort. I constantly run things through in my head, trying to detect codes or metaphors, decode those codes or metaphors, figure out replies, and how to take the concept of the reply and turn it into words, and how to arrange those words so that they make sense, and how to arrange my facial expression in an appropriate way, and I have to do it all fast enough that the conversation seems normal to them. It’s HARD. Even when I can manage it, it is exhausting and sometimes downright painful.
Doing my emotional processing in the context of a conversation has always been disastrous. I simply cannot do it. Instead, I must defy the polyamorous social norms and do my processing internally, quietly, away from other people. I also must take time to do it – days or weeks or even months is my normal. It is only after I fully process that I can go ahead and talk about whatever it is that needed processing.
Sometimes people get upset with me under the idea that I kept things from them. The fact is, though, that when an issue is complex or difficult, I am often entirely unable to voice it until after I work through it for a while. Moving thoughts from their typical abstract form into a word-form can always be tricky, and in some situations it can take a good long time.
I also want to talk about the rest of the world a little bit. Now, it is very normal for your typical monogamous person to be very confused about polyamory, and I’m sure all polyamorous people have gotten icky comments from people who definitely Do Not Get It (several of which can be seen on this polyamory bingo card). Being both poly and autistic, with all the associated difficulty in developing any relationships at all, can get me my own kind of comments, on top of all the usual ones.
When people find out that I am both poly and autistic, particularly when they find out that I deeply struggle to form relationships, they tend to inform me that I should just be happy that I even managed one relationship because even that is more than many autistic people manage to do. They basically tell me that because I am autistic, I should not be poly. When they do, it tends to seem like they are simply telling me to know my place. That my place as an autistic person bars me from more involved forms of relating, and I shouldn’t even try. This is so hurtful, but I have yet to find any neurotypical spaces where I can be safe from this kind of commentary. Any time I out myself as both poly and autistic, this is the sort of comment I fear.
Returning to poly social norms, there is also the issue of poly social spaces. I used to try to be active in poly communities, both online and IRL. What I found was a community that was extremely unwelcoming, and at times outright hostile, to mental illness and neurological differences. The general concept that people like me should know our place existed there too, with the idea that people who struggle with mental issues just shouldn’t be poly. With so much speaking out in favor of getting away from monogamous norms and getting off the relationship escalator and whatnot, I was sometimes shocked at their narrow acceptance of neurology. I often felt hurt at things I saw and how some individuals treated me and the overall attitudes I saw towards neurodiversity, and eventually I just gave up. I no longer go into poly spaces, as they are decidedly unsafe for me. (of course, there is also the point that the poly community often has issues with otherness in general, being largely white, middle aged, middle class, and abled, but that is getting outside the scope of this post)
I know that autism makes things about being polyamorous more difficult for me. Sometimes in inherent ways (like communication and connection) and sometimes in social ways (the ways people treat this intersection). The fact of the matter is that intimate relationships are important to me. Real, deep, human connection, however difficult it is for me to form, is important to me. I am poly because it is the best description for how I approach love and relationships.