Monday, December 26, 2011

Interesting Article on Young Love Between Autistics

Here is a bit from a very interesting NY Times article that looks at two young autistic people negotiating the strange world of love and intimacy. You need to be aware of the basics of ASD to appreciate this article:
Jack, Kirsten noticed, bit his lips, a habit he told her came from not knowing how he was supposed to arrange his face to show his emotions. Kirsten, Jack noticed, cracked her knuckles, which she later told him was her public version of the hand-flapping she reserved for when she was alone, a common autistic behavior thought to ease stress.

Their difficulty discerning unspoken cues might have made it harder to know if the attraction was mutual. Kirsten stalked Jack on Facebook, she later told him, but he rarely posted. In one phone conversation, Jack wondered, “Is she flirting with me?” But he could not be sure.

But Jack, who had never known how to hide his feelings, wrote Kirsten an e-mail laying them out. And when Kirsten’s boyfriend pleaded with her to tell him what was wrong, she did, sobbing. She could not explain, she said. She knew only that she felt as if she had found her soul mate.

From the beginning, their physical relationship was governed by the peculiar ways their respective brains processed sensory messages. Like many people with autism, each had uncomfortable sensitivities to types of touch or texture, and they came in different combinations.

Jack recoiled when Kirsten tried to give him a back massage, pushing deeply with her palms.

“Pet me,” he said, showing her, his fingers grazing her skin. But Kirsten, who had always hated the feeling of light touch, shrank from his caress.

“Only deep pressure,” she showed him, hugging herself.

He tried to kiss her, but it was hard for her to enjoy it, so obvious was his aversion. To him, kissing felt like what it was, he told her: mashing your face against someone else’s. Neither did he like the sweaty feeling of hand-holding, a sensation that seemed to dominate all others whenever they tried it.

“I’m sorry,” he said helplessly.

They found ways to negotiate sex, none of them perfect. They kept trying.

What mattered more to Kirsten was how comfortable she felt for the first time in a relationship. Even if she did something wrong, she believed, Jack would not leave her. When he remarked on her obliviousness after she chattered on one day about vertebrate anatomy to their neighbor — “Matson was totally bored,” he informed her — there was no judgment, only pride that he had managed to notice. “Is that why he was yawning?” she asked, laughing with him.


She tolerated his discomfort with public displays of affection, though she pushed for more in private. When he explained that his lack of expression did not mean a lack of warmth for her — he often simply forgot — she devised a straightforward strategy to help him.

“When I put my hand on your leg,” she said, “you put your arm on my back.”


Looking for clues to fix her new relationship, Kirsten began frequenting autism Web sites like, where hundreds of messages a day are posted. “Eligible Odd-Bods,” read one. Another, “Are relationships harder for Aspies?”

In the library, she paged through autism guidebooks, few of which contained any information about relationships, not to mention sex. But as she read about the manifestations of the condition, she recognized them — and not only in Jack.

A passage about the difficulty that people with autism have reading facial expressions reminded her of being mocked by a friend at age 5 with whom she had agreed to draw “angry ghosts.” The friend’s ghost had zigzag lines for scowling lips and a knitted brow. Kirsten, unsure how to depict anger, had drawn a blank-faced ghost with a dialogue box above its head that read “Grrr.”
I love the odd connections this article brought up in me:
  • The Jack Robison in the article is the son of John Elder Robison who has written a very interesting book on the autistic experience Look Me in the Eye.

  • The brother of John Elder Robison is also a writer, Augusten Burroughs, who has written two books about his bizarre upbringing caused by the fact that his father was autistic and his mother suicidal. The first book was Running with Scissors which was made into a move. And the second was A Wolf at the Table which looked more deeply into his relatioship with his autistic father.

  • These connections remind me of the "small world" phenomenon that was first researched by Stanley Milgram who is famous for his early 1960s experiments in authority.

  • And these connections of course remind me of the famous science historian James Burke who had a very popular TV series called "Connections" and who wrote many books on the deep connections through scientific history.
The world is fascinating because it is all tied together by multiple connections. This wondrous fact makes learning so very satisfying. Not only do you get to discover the hidden connections, you find that these connections make a framework which makes learning new facts and connections so much easier.

I get utterly disgusted by religious fanatics who claim that "all knowledge" is captured in some millennia old "sacred text" that records the sketchy, ill-informed, and stuffed with magical thinking "explanation" of the world. The real world is much more fascinating. But religious bigots refuse to open their eyes and look. Very much like the famous scholastics of the Middle Ages who could interminably "debate" over how many teeth in a horse's head based on the various writing of ancient "sages" when in fact the solution lay at hand: go out on the street, open a horse's mouth, and count the teeth!

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