Polyamory and autism

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.


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12 responses to “Polyamory and autism

  1. As a person with autism, my experience is that autism is very much a ‘your mileage may vary’ phenomenon… just like polyamory itself is.
    No two people with autism are the same, just as no two polyamorous relationships are the same.
    I have not experienced the stigma you have with regards to being autistic and polyamorous. When people learn I have autism, disapproval, rejection, and ostracism have not been part of their responses.
    To the contrary, they express curiosity, wonder, and even admiration at it.
    There may be a number of reasons for this, not the least of which being that my primary and I have racked up quite a history as a poly couple of twenty years. In addition, probably due to my extended history with my partner, I have managed to create a very concrete road map of responses to any questions that are thrown at me.
    Like you, I form relationships with great difficulty, and due to severe sensory processing problems, I have significant sexual dysfunction which leads me to reject, rather stridently, the traditional forms of physical intimacy, e.g. oral/digital genital contact and penetrative sex.
    This factor more than any other aspect of my autism is what leads to potential partners rejecting me, because neurotypical people are often unable to conceive of how someone who doesn’t like having their genitals manipulated could have or offer a satisfactory sexual experience.

    But when discussing why I am polyamorous with the curious, this works to my advantage, because I can point out that due to my problems, the things I do find sexually arousing are very narrow… and my polyamory arises in part out of a sense of pragmatism.

    It would be Orwellian of me to expect a single partner to be content with the very limited range of sexual expression I am capable of. It therefore makes perfect sense to be open to them having other partners, and an equitable arrangement means the person(s) with whom I have partnered must likewise be amenable to this arrangement with regards to myself.

    I do not frequent polyamorous spaces out of any sense of rejection… but indifference. I do not see why proving myself to anyone outside of my polycule is necessary, and were I to encounter people such as you describe… this indifference becomes armor. I simply lack any motivation to care what such people think.

    It might be noted that my lack of fucks, so to speak, is not an indictment of your feeling of insecurity in, and avoidance of, poly spaces. It is perfectly reasonable to have such feelings in a place where you are pigeonholed and stigmatized, and as always, your mileage will vary.

    Thank you for sharing your perspective on the intersection between autism and polyamory.

    I found it insightful reading.


    canth? Decided

    Artist and Writer at Gift Horse Productions

  2. I’ve experienced much of the same thing you have, although a friend of mine in San Francisco remarks that the poly community is not the annoying and repugnant collection of repulsive middle class white ableist wankers I’ve run across here in the UK.

    The thing that irritates me more than anything is the assertion that there is no “right way” to do poly, and yet people seem to pass judgement on anyone who experiences any amount of jealousy so much that I often say there’s a scarlet J in the poly “community”.

    I mean… I’d say I’m not part of any “community” as such because if it’s not ableist it’s racist. If it’s not racist it’s sexist. Etc. And don’t even get me started on some autistic communities, especially frequented by heterocentric folks at best and a gaggle at worst of autistic men whinging about how they don’t have a girlfriend. I don’t have a girlfriend either, but you don’t see me going on about it.

    Anyway. I just wanted to say, I totally agree.

    • h8er

      Eh, I’d have to say the SF community is fairly repulsive as well as very middle class and white, but maybe not to the same extent as in the UK.

  3. thanks

    While there are a lot of neuroatypical people in the poly community here, there are not many who tend to introversion, and a lot who try and “catch ’em all,” which, as an introverted autistic person, I’m not very interested in either doing or hearing about. This has made me question whether or not I’m really poly lately, but reading about your experiences, which are very relatable, makes me realize that’s just not true 🙂 Thanks!

  4. zoe

    I find it very important to find community with other polyamorous people… but not the “polyamorous community”. I love finding other poly people in queer and neurodivergent spaces, or indeed slowly creating new poly people by tearing down amatonormativity in our conversations!

    I found the mainstream community (forums and things) very important when I was first discovering poly and needed a roadmap, examples, etc. I stopped finding them interesting or helpful fairly quickly though. I never actively decided or noticed that they were doing stuff I found objectionable (and I did not get hate cause I didn’t actively participate, just read), but I quickly got bored, felt like their way of doing things wasn’t me, and moved on.

    I dunno where Id be without other queer and poly people in my life, in real life and online. (the people in question don’t mind being referred to as queer, just to reassure you)

  5. I just wanted to state for all you folks coming in and looking at this article that the author has a lot of good and interesting things to say on other stuff as well and you should check out some of the other posts here too!

  6. Generic Surname

    I am an autistic adult with an autistic boyfriend and very happily monogamous. I have been part of the autism reddit for exactly a month, not very long, but I have been actively involved in it with doing my best to help out the parents and my fellow autistic people and reading much of what gets posted there. You can just call me Ms. Horse lover or AutismFtw. I think that it is good that the original poster (OP) and another commenter on this blog post has autism and that it causes (I’m assuming both of) them to need to have a separate room from their significant others and to not be able to have sex at all or easily with their significant other because I’m somebody who believes in one of rules in the Good Book that people should not be sleeping together. I am somebody that probably would not ever want to be polyamorous because of my belief system/worldview, I am very moralistic in a different way than some other autistic people might be on here, and I believe that there is a certain specialness in a romantic relationship when the two people aren’t dating other people and that you lose that specialness when there is a third party. I mean for those of us who are monogamous we might sometimes be tempted to have feelings for somebody who we are not in a relationship with, but then we’ve got to decide whether we want to act on those feelings and 1) dump significant other number 1 for the second person, 2) cheat on our current significant other with this other person (and our current significant other has not given us permission to engage in a romantic/sexual relationship at the same time as them), or 3) resist those potential feelings for the person we are not currently in a romantic relationship with and stay in a romantic relationship with our current significant other. I am as autistic as the next High Functioning Autistic person in terms of I have a clear sense of right and wrong and what should and should not be done, I just have a different set of rules and moral compass that I live by than some of you do. Call me old-fashioned if you want; I don’t care. I think though that we can all at least agree on certain things being clearly wrong and rules governing them that we should not break, like you can’t just go around killing people unless you are in the U.S. military and have been told to kill all soldiers or maybe even suspected civilians and you should not steal. If you break those rules, you would go to jail and be breaking the rules of the U.S. law and legal system. I just thought that I would throw my opinion out there and plead being a moralistic, conservative, autistic person to anybody who would want to berate me.

  7. Hi, Andraya!

    I am also autistic, and have been in a polyamorous relationship (I don’t really look at polyamory as being intrinsic to who I am — I am equally capable of monogamy, I think) and a lot of this rings very true to me!

    Not in terms of, like, stigma that I’ve had directed at me — I have been a lot luckier than you in that regard, although my mom never really got beyond thinking of my relationship as my ex exploiting me — but definitely in terms of, like, having a hard time forging relationships besides the main one with my ex.

    Probably didn’t help that he was my first-ever romantic partner of any kind, so I hadn’t had any practice balancing even one relationship with the rest of my life.

    Definitely relate to your “I am 34 years old, but I do not have the social development of a 34-year old”! I’m 31, but otherwise this very, very much applies to me as well.

    Also the thing about not being able to keep up in conversation.

  8. Dave4445

    Thanks for the article. I’m autistic and polyamorous. Much of the time people react to my autism as if I’m latching on to the latest trend and looking for attention, that I’m basically full of bull. If a rare person actually asks about it, I’ll start explaining and they immediately say, ‘oh, I’m just like that.’ I gave up so I keep it to myself, I just allow people to get irritated with my quirks and don’t explain myself. People would prefer to be irritated than make an effort to understand someone.

  9. Woohoo! Another Poly Autistic! I was beginning to wonder if I was the only one. I was also kind of wondering if maybe the way I see relationships is the reason I’m poly. I really don’t get jealous or possessive and don’t want anyone else to act that way towards me. And I, too, have stints where I don’t share a bed or room with my husband. Maybe I will write about it as well….
    Thanks for sharing!

  10. I’ve never had a loving relationship at 46 and never expect to I never fancied any of the guys who chose me I felt I had to be grateful to them as i’d been taught I was of no value and disgusting -despite my parents both being on the spectrum too – they’re asexual and don’t share a room. I I was in a sort of polyamorous situation once but nothing happened where a married man had a crush on me and I felt a sisterly connection with the wife – I remember having a bad meltdown when they turned up together at a concert and having to rush home- and it wasn’t just jealousy I felt left out of my soul group which is who I believe they are. THere’s a fourth member of the group who died and I feel him round me a lot though we never met when I was alive and feel loved. I still feel gutted that I never met him he was a musician and I would have loved to see him play and wonder if he can continue his career in heaven- and wish he wasn’t dead and that we could all hang out in a group.

  11. Echolalaphile

    Hello from a fellow poly autistic! So much of what you wrote here rings true for me, especially the “know your place” bits. My self-diagnosis was delayed for YEARS because of a therapist i had in my late 20s who told me, point blank, that i could not be autistic because “autistic people aren’t capable of the complex emotional connections necessary for poly relationships.” and since i was obviously managing my triad successfully… Sigh.

    I’d love to talk more about being autistic and poly. maybe we can form our own poly space. 🙂