Are aspies capable of love? Maybe it depends on how you look at it . . .
In the reimagined version of TV series Battlestar Galactica (yes, I’m a geek), two of the main characters have the following conversation:
Adama: Did you love her?
Tyrol: Thought I did.
Adama: Well, when you think you love somebody, you love them. That’s what love is. Thoughts…
If love is thoughts, then it’s the expression of those thoughts that separates aspies from neurotypical people. Aspies tend to express love through practical actions, whereas NTs are more likely to express love through words or symbolic actions.
What do I mean by practical versus symbolic actions? In The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, Dr. Tony Attwood tells a story about a diagnostic interview question that he uses with young children. He asks the child what she would do if she came home to find that her mother was standing in the kitchen crying.
Neurotypical children will suggest solutions like giving their mother a hug (symbolic action) or asking her what’s wrong (love as words). Children with Asperger’s will suggest solutions like leaving her alone (being left alone is comforting for aspies) or bringing her a box of tissues (practical action).
To an NT person, I imagine that the child standing there holding out a box of tissues looks rather cold and unfeeling, but even as an adult, this would be my first instinct. Most aspies are not comforted by touch or by talking about their feelings. If anything, either of these would probably be seen as making a highly-charged emotional situation worse.
And even in non-emotionally-charged situations, aspies tend to express love through concrete actions. If my husband goes away on business, I’ll forget to initiate phone calls with him for days on end, but remember the exact day and time to log on to the Southwest Airlines website and do his flight check-in so he gets a good spot in the boarding line. To me, that’s love. I’m doing something for him that will make his life easier in a practical way. To him, love is calling me five times a day just to say hello.
I don’t think either of us truly understands the other’s way of expressing our love, but we’ve become accustomed to recognizing these expressions of our thoughts, and as Adama says in that fictional conversation, that’s what love is. Thoughts . . .
Bridging the Gap
Temple Grandin makes a similar point at the end of her TED talk (which I’m embedding here in case you want to check it out).
The host asks her a number of questions, including “is it unrealistic for a parent of an autistic child to think or hope that their child loves them?” Dr. Grandin pauses a moment and responds, “That child is going to be loyal and if your house is burning, they’re going to get you out.” Then it’s the host who is momentarily speechless, probably because this notion of a child running into a burning building to save a parent doesn’t align with his concept of love.
And here is the root of the communication gap. The host is asking about the symbolic and verbal expression of love but Dr. Grandin is answering in terms of the practical expression of love. In each of their minds, I have a feeling they both start from “love is thoughts” but the way aspies and NTs express those thoughts is so very different.
If you’re an NT with a child, partner or family member on the spectrum, you probably experience this dissonance all the time. Your aspie husband forgets your anniversary but is happy to spend all weekend fixing your car or building the kids a treehouse. If you recognize these gestures for what they are, a practical expression of feeling, you’ll never have to wonder if your aspie loves you.
As an aspie, I’ve questioned if I’m really capable of love or if what I feel is some stunted version of this wonderful emotion that only NT people can experience. Rather than agonizing over it too much, I’ve concluded that Adama is right. If you think you love someone, you do.