photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt

That’s What Love Is. Thoughts . . .

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.

23 thoughts on “That’s What Love Is. Thoughts . . .”

  1. Well, I really appreciate reading you! At the end of this article, I got thinking you’re really extremely lucky to have met “your” man, especially so early… I get a little envious I have to say! I’m 35, almost 36, I’m single, always have been, and I’m at a point in my life where I realize that all the people I love tend to doubt or totally ignore the fact that I love them dearly, except for my mom. Even my sister, even the lovers I’ve shared the most with. It hurts so much, I mean SO MUCH, when someone I love dearly questions my feelings or somehow shows that they’re convinced I don’t give a sh*t about them. What Grandin said, that an autistic kid would get into a burning house to save their parents, well… I’m sure someone like my sister would end up saying “yeah, that’s because the kid knows it’s what’s appropriate to do, because he’s’ trying to make himself look good to others, or out of purely egoistic reasons such as “If my mom burns, then who’s gonna take care of me? Not out of love”.
    When I think of all the things I’ve done out of love, always ending up being considered as the cold heartless sly one in the end… Actually it makes me feel like I’m the only one around who realy knows what love is.
    Sorry, I’m having a bad day.
    Thanks for all that you write down and share, it helps!

    1. I agree that I’m very lucky! I’ve had much the same experiences as you with others in my life and that’s so hard. Don’t apologize for feeling bad about it all. These things are so frustrating and hard to live with at times.

  2. I found out about my Asperger’s because I lived or tried to live as a neurotypical with someone who is further along the spectrum than me. I discovered his Asperger’s and through that found I too was on the spectrum. This was after I’d moved out. I found it immensely hurtful to be in sobs of tears and to be left alone in tears. When I told him I was incredibly unhappy and incredibly lonely in my life with him, he pointed out to me that my happiness didn’t matter because his children were happy. Classic!

    I love him a great deal and always will, he is a remarkable person, but I had no idea what was wrong with either of us and I was really burdened by the mothering role I had with him. I’d quite like to ‘try again’ with him knowing what I know now but I think he is pretty confused about how he feels and has ‘fallen in love’ with a girl he met on a dubious dating site. Man she’s going to eat him alive. I felt guilty about how I treated him when he was only employing coping strategies. I was trying to get both of us to be ‘normal’ — an exercise in complete futility. We lived quite happily at the kitchen table, playing music together, me writing, we never really wanted to go out and ‘socialise’ and we agreed on so many things. I found it really hurtful because he was clearly not an unfeeling person and he seemed to understand me intrinsically which is really rare in my life. But whoa yeah I pummelled him with the you’re a heartless, unfeeling, user etc. I feel pretty guilty about some of the terrible things I said to him and he never ever retaliated with ANYTHING. I used to think rationally (i am insanely rational) that you judge someone on their actions, but even then I’d end up stunned and deeply hurt, it didn’t make any sense that such a sensitive and actually uniquely perceptive person could be so callous. Wow. Just wow.

    1. I had much the same experience with my husband, though as the one who was employing some unhelpful coping strategies and coming across as heartless/unfeeling. Knowing what’s going on really does make a difference. I’m sorry your relationship broke before you figured it out. Perhaps you’ll get a second chance at some point.

      Your comment also reminded me that if I was judged solely by my actions, people might end up with a completely wrong impression of how I feel. Interesting. I think the key in aspie relationships is probably for the other partner to learn how to “translate” certain actions and to figure out what’s real and which things are, as you so aptly put it, coping strategies.

    2. I’m sorry you discovered the truth too late to salvage your relationship. I separated with my husband briefly years ago for the same reasons. That was 6 years ago. I believe that we could have easily ended in the same situation, had fate not intervened. Concert-after concert sex-antibiotics-failed contraceptive-offspring. That is why we stuck it out. Not that you should trap somene that way, this was serendipity. The magic of music & modern medicine, huh? It’s not all rainbows & sunshine. We spent 9 years fighting daily. Only in recent months have we realized our place on the spectrum, and it helped us to stop fighting and start communicating. In your story, I see what could have been and what almost wasn’t. My heart and kind thoughts go out to you. It might not be too late. Unfortunately, it sounds like he has some very painful lessons to learn before! Also, don’t give up on meeting someone else. There are others like us. This does not work for everyone and is very frustrating, especially if you hate the dating game. But, my best advice is to live your life and cautiosly make as many friends as you can, and stop trying to “find someone”. When you do that, things happen in a more organic way, giving you more clarity as to whether it is right for you!

  3. This is really interesting to me; I’ve gotten through about half of Attwoods “Complete Guide to Asperger’s,” so I’ve read the section it has on children reacting to seeing their mother crying, but somehow I totally missed the idea that a hug is a “symbolic” expression of love. My reasoning behind giving someone a hug would have been that it’s usually physically pleasant/comforting, not necessarily that it symbolizes love. Does that mean that a hug could double as both a practical and symbolic expression of affection?

    1. Oh, yes, good point. Maybe it also depends on the type of hug? There are those great long tight hugs that are comforting. And then there are those sort of lean toward the person and give them a quick squeeze hugs which seem more symbolic (to me, at least). So I guess a hug could be either or both, depending on the people involved and how they feel about hugging and what kind of hug it is. 🙂

  4. That question at the end of TED enraged me – all I could think was ‘how dare he assume that autistic children cannot love’. I’ve never understood why NTs can’t see how hurtful these statements are.

    What people forget is that for us, our expressions of love often provoke a negative reaction because we’ve done the ‘wrong’ thing. Then when you find yourself in an emotional situation, the need to get it right is so intense, and the consequences of getting it wrong so awful, that we end up paralysed with fear lest we cause hurt and pain to someone we care about. The thoughts are there but putting them into action can be awfully complicated.

    1. It was a really rude question and one that I think caught Temple Grandin unaware, based on her hesitation. But I liked her answer. It was unconventional and probably made little sense to a lot of NT people in the audience, but it will perfect sense to anyone who loves someone on the spectrum and has seen that kind of love in action.

      You’re right about the fear – it’s so hard to be spontaneous and open when we’re so often “punished” for our natural expressions of love or other emotions.

  5. As a female NT spouse it is quite obvious that you are capable of love and do love him. I have felt that love from the first entry I read of yours and was actually surprised to see you ever doubted it. Great blog and thank you for sharing!

  6. Thanks, very helpful! I have been with my Aspie boyfriend for coming up on three years and he has never said he loves me, but when we broke up for the first time and he wanted to express that he still cared about me, he told me “I am still going to fix your lawnmower.” As we struggled through the very challenging first 9 months, during which we had LOTs of communication difficulties, I learned to notice and appreciate his Aspie way of expressing affection. Along with fixing things for me, he talks about his dog’s affection for me. Recently, on the day I was returning from a week away, he texted me to confirm the exact time I was arriving at the airport and added: XXX (his dog) will be really happy to see you.

    1. Your comment made me smile. Fixing things really does feel like an expression of love for me and I find it so strange when other people things it’s quirky or odd. It’s great that you’ve made the effort to learn to interpret your boyfriend’s love language and appreciate it for it is. He’s lucky to have you!

    2. My wife is NT and i made a point to learn what NTs like.in a relationship . I just consider it a rule of life that i tell my wife i love her several times every day . i hug her every time i see her when i come home or leave the house. We aspergers folks should take upon ourselves to learn these things . We can learn so many other things –we can learn a few simple rules for NT relations and we should.

  7. It helps -as an AS married to NT- to learn some NT methods of showing love — NTs NEED hugs and they NEED to be told you love them on a regular basis -just make it a rule- i think learning each others language–as it were –is so important. My wife treats me with gentleness cuz she knows i can be kinda childlike and so soft spoken words work better than harsh words….etc etc . I would never raise my voice with my wife and also treat her with kid gloves –etc— maybe that is a better way to put it –we treat each other with kid gloves.
    our life has been bliss for 18 yrs and 3 kids.

  8. I’ve been trying to explain to my friends why “friendship,” to me, looks like “I’m useful to you.” Your explanation here is better. I’m focused on what makes your life easier; that’s what tells me you’re a friend of mine – I’m useful to you.

    I have had friends say that this interpretation, to them, says “person who was abused.” But that’s not what I’m talking about, and it’s been very frustrating trying to get it across to them that I don’t mean they’re USING me. It means I’m USEFUL. I am doing practical things that make their lives better. How is that not friendship?

    1. I totally understand what you mean by useful and wouldn’t know what to say to the abusive interpretation. That’s just weird. Maybe instead of useful you could explain it as showing love/friendship in concrete ways by being helpful? People might be less likely to misinterpret helpful.

      1. Adam: I’m NT and I see relationships similarly. We all get something from the other person and we give back, if we are a good friend. We are useful to each other whether it’s practical or emotional.

    2. Hi, Adam, i really think the same as you do. Maybe it’s because NT rather express friendships through words and feelings, like “I miss you”.

  9. Hi, thank you soooo much for your post. I’ve totally recognized myself in what you wrote. Before reading you, i wondered if it was right to think this way. I’ve had an issue lately with family members and felt so bad because some were resenting me. The thing is, even though i understand their point, i realized that i can’t change my feelings.
    Thank you and take care !!!

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