Driving on Sunday …
Me: Ooh, that’s a pretty color, isn’t it Brooke?
Me: Hmm, that’s funny, I thought it was kind of orange.
Brooke: It’s yellow!
Me: You know what? We had different perceptions of it. Do you know what that means?
Me: It means that we’re looking at the same thing but we each see it in our own way. Your perception of it is that it’s yellow and mine is that it’s orange. So we have different perceptions. I think that’s kind of cool, do you?
Brooke: Uh huh.
The other day, my friend, Kate sent me this beautiful post that she’d written about the intersection of authenticity, vulnerability, connection and autism. When I told her how much I loved it, she responded with a question.
Can you tell me what it is like and how it is like when NTs connect? How is it different than autistic connection?
(ed note: NT means Neurotypical, or, in this case, non-autistic people)
I stared at her words on the screen. I almost wrote back. “I have no idea.” I stared again. I don’t know how to describe what simply is. I don’t know how to explain how it feels to be the only thing I’ve ever been any more than I could describe the color blue without relating it to other colors or to answer for water what it feels like to be wet.
I don’t know what the difference is in what I feel from what any other person feels because, really, no matter how many words we may use to try to approximate feelings, aren’t we all just really making a whole lot of assumptions that the words we use represent the same experiences? I mean, What is it like to connect with another person? Um, it just, ya know … is.
I wanted to write back some sanitized version of all that, but before I could type a word, a thought came hurtling at me at warp speed and knocked me off of my feet.
We (in this case meaning neurotypicals, and even more specifically, non-autistic parents of autistic children), ask these questions … all … the … time. We ask autistic adults to explain their experience of the world in relation to our own. We try to get our children to articulate, in words or otherwise, how it FEELS to be them, compared to, you know …. us.
The thought flattened me. Jesus, we’ve been asking a lot.
So I dug deeper into the muck, because I can’t refuse to answer the very questions that I ask and upon whose answers I so heavily rely. I went mining below the surface – below the I don’t know, and the It just is, beneath the Water is wet and the Blue is just blue. I dug deeper into the space where words don’t usually find their way – the place where feelings are pure and unadulterated by vain attempts to describe them.
I let the sediment settle in my hands, the heavy mud slipping though my fingers, messy and grimy and oily. Finally, when enough of the gunk was gone, I began to filter the weeds from the silt. What is it like to connect with another human being?
And here’s what I found, left in my hands, when all else was gone.
It feels like seeing and being seen.
It feels like recognition of yourself made manifest in another.
It feels like consideration.
It feels like missing, yearning, needing.
It feels like ease, like comfort, like home.
It feels like energy – swirling, whirling, twirling, dancing, resting, settling, quiet energy.
It feels like ideas – their very existence validated even if by disagreement.
It feels like respect.
It feels like care, like concern, like compassion.
It feels like awareness of an entire universe of need and wonder and thought and feeling and perception — all contained inside another human being.
It feels like warmth, like presence, like safety.
It feels like vulnerability.
It feels like an acknowledgement of shared space.
It feels like seeing and being seen.
But how it feels was only half the question. How, she had asked. How does it work? And how is it different from autistic connection?
This is a minefield, of course – this invitation to generalize, to stereotype, to divide human beings into neat little neurological groups, tidily label them, then make the same sweeping generalizations about them against which I spend most of my time railing. I’d have an easy enough out if I claimed conscientious objection to the exercise.
But again, isn’t that what we NTs ask our autistic friends to do ALL THE TIME? Yeah, it is. And so, in the interest of answering Kate’s question as honestly as possible, I will do my best to articulate what I have perceived to be some general differences between NT relationships and those in which at least one party is neurodiverse.
Again, this is based only on my own experience and is NOT gospel. It may not be even remotely representative of others’ experiences. That said, I hope you’ll offer up your own in the comments below. But this is what I’ve seen.
NTs make assumptions. We jump to conclusions. We assume that others are feeling and thinking and perceiving things as we are, so we don’t ask them. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware that we’re making said assumptions, so we don’t voice them.
We so trust our magical ability to read body language, to notice and decipher nonverbal signals, that we don’t use the words that would ensure understanding. We miss a lot.
We cross wires and miss cues and say, “Nothing” is wrong when we mean, “Everything” is wrong, because we think that we shouldn’t have to say whatever “it” is out loud.
We expect our friends and lovers and siblings and children to read our minds and somehow divine what we want them, expect them, need them to do, without ever being told.
We break up with boyfriends and girlfriends and let friendships dissolve over things that we or they or we both … never said.
We create personas that we think that others will find attractive and when pressed for authenticity, we lie because we’re too afraid to face rejection as ourselves.
We trip over ourselves to be polite. We say that we like meals that we don’t because they were cooked with love and for years thereafter, we let the ones who love us pour their energy into making them again and again because we think it’s more important to convince them that they’re making us happy than to tell them how to make us happy.
We spend time together when we really need to be alone, because we don’t trust that we can love each other without being close enough to touch each other.
We doubt ourselves and each other constantly. Lying to spare feelings is still lying. Those who lie are not trustworthy.
The autistic people in my life do not lie about feelings. For better or worse, there is no pretense.
There is complete and absolute trust because what you see is what you get.
There are no assumptions. When you grow up knowing that your perception is different from most, you learn to ask – How do you see this? How does this feel for you?
There is an awareness that NTs don’t yet have that all of us are different from one another.
That assumptions are dangerous.
That we need to ask the questions and voice our thoughts (in words or gestures or otherwise) and find ways to assert our needs (and be open to hearing and listening and seeing and watching for those assertions in whatever form they may be expressed).
That we need to check in with our friends and our lovers and our children to see if they’re okay, if they have what they need, if what we are doing to help them is really helping or if perhaps it’s not really helping at all.
If the meal we’re making is one they’ll want again and again and yes, again, or if our time would be better spent on something entirely different.
There’s less resentment in every autistic relationship I have ever had because explicit honesty leaves little room for confusion and even less for doubt.
Sometimes autistic connections, for me, are simply about holding space with another human being. About moving together, dancing together, feeling something together. About joining in. About finding joy in the same thing at the same time. About slowing down to see the world from a different perspective. About watching fingers change the path of light through a window – together. About seeing dust motes dance in a shaft of light and thinking it might be the most beautiful thing in the universe. About touching the earth and peering under rocks and feeling each and every blade of grass within reach. About sitting together on the heating grate in the floor in the kitchen because it’s the best seat in the house. About playing a part in a script again and again and again because it’s an invitation to connect. About learning not to fight for one’s own language but instead to commit to learning another and together, creating a third. About hearing, watching, listening, seeing.
About slowing down and feeling something frighteningly, beautifully, overwhelmingly real.
In short, my connections with autistic people have taught me how to better connect with all people. Authentically, explicitly, slowly, respectfully.
My relationships with autistic people have changed me. And I couldn’t be more grateful to have been changed.
I don’t know if any of this will be remotely helpful to Kate.
But I knew that for all of those who try so hard to answer questions like these every day in the interest of helping to ease the path for their autistic brethren, I had to try.
Your turn. What does connection feel like to you?