Autism and Me (and Relationships)

I don’t really believe that everyone on Earth has a soulmate, hell, I don’t even believe in the concept of soulmates. My worldview has been called pessimistic in the past, but I just like to think of myself as a realist. Not everyone is destined to find somebody, live a full life with them, share beautiful experiences, all before reaching old age and passing on into the unknown. It’s a symptom of romance being peddled to us as if it’s something that is an A1 guarantee, as opposed to something that can break a person down before they build themselves back up again. Relationships and even that dreaded word, “love” are hard enough for everybody. It’s one long, laborious process of trial and error for most, and it involves putting up with a fair share of unpleasantness before finally settling down with “the one”.

Now, if you throw a disability into the mix that impairs one socially, disallows one from understanding facial expressions and social cues, and instils a fear of physical intimacy in one that is so crippling that just hugging a member of the opposite sex is a huge challenge, we can see where the problems arise. In less than a week, I’ll be 22 years of age, very much still a spring chicken in the grand scheme of things. When you’re in your 20s, you think you’re an adult and you must be doing something wrong because your life isn’t as together as a normal grownup’s. Really, we’re still children, the only difference is height and the chemicals inside us making our bodies do strange things. But, as I look back on my life up to this point and measure it against most neurotypicals in my age group, I am certainly far behind on the whole romance thing.

As I look to my Facebook feed, it seems that I have various peers who update their status to “in a relationship with…” every other day. Sometimes, couples I’ve known for a long time are getting engaged (although I’m not in any way bitter about that, I’m happy for them and hope it works out), and a shroud of doubt is cast over me. I’ve never had a relationship, not really, nothing that would match up with how I define the word. I’ve never been on a date, something even the most socially inept people that I know can say they’ve done. And while I think that society tends to put far too much emphasis on virginity being a big deal, when you’re rapidly approaching 22 having never had sex, you do start to wonder if having a girlfriend is just something that isn’t in the cards for you. It is frustrating when people I know assume that I mustn’t believe in sex before marriage and that’s why I’m still a virgin. No, I’m just autistic.

Expressing myself emotionally is a skill I lack, at least when it comes to talking in person. The Internet is a godsend for people like me, it’s a wonderful communication tool that allows me to choose who I talk to, and how and when it happens. I don’t have to run instructions through my head as I do with a real life encounter. I don’t have to weigh up how long it’s been since I last made eye contact, I don’t have to check to make sure I’m not coming off as rude because of my lack of apparent empathy. I’m very much capable of empathy, but I’m uncomfortable with showing it. So when it comes to communicating with a woman, the fear that most warm-blooded males feel is harshly amplified. Flirting is off the table, simply because it’s like asking me to walk on water. You can talk me through it as much as you like, but to quote Arnie in Terminator 2, it is something I can never do.

I’d like to clarify that I do not identify with those bitter single “nice guys” who moan about how they’re still not getting any, despite being kind and attentive to a female friend of theirs. Being nice is something that you do because you want to be nice, not because women are required to sleep with you if you are friendly towards them. It’s not a McCafé stamp card, you don’t listen to a woman’s problems eight times and get to go to bed with them. There does seem to be a groundswell of intense misogyny among bitter single men, who like to blame all of the women around them rather than themselves for the pornography-ridden wasteland that their lives exist in. I love and respect women because that’s what my mother raised me to believe. Women are strong, they are beautiful, they are essential. I was given life by a woman, fed by her, clothed and sheltered by her. For me to expect that every woman should want to be in a relationship with me because I’ve been single my entire life is just the kind of entitled attitude that leads to men becoming aggressive and hateful.

But do I want to be in a relationship? Honestly, more than anything in the world. I don’t believe in soulmates, but I do believe in romance, and I do believe in love. I want to have a friend who I can walk down the street holding hands with, someone who I can cuddle up to on the sofa as our heartbeats sync up while we binge on the latest season of our favourite show. I want there to be a person who makes me light up with unrelenting joy when I think about them, because I know that they feel the same way about me. But as I said, I’m a realist. The reality is that I’ve liked the same girl for around ten years now, but will never do anything about it. The reality is that I nearly have an anxiety attack when the thought of dating or physical intimacy enters my mind. The reality is I have no idea how to demonstrate my affection towards another human being and never will be able to. Autism is my blessing and my curse. I can memorise a wealth of information, which would ironically be helpful in a relationship. I’d never forget a birthday, a favourite restaurant, likes and dislikes. I view being in a relationship as something that people are lucky to have, and would cherish every moment I had with somebody, devoting myself to them wholeheartedly. But all of that is performing the marathon, I just have no way of training for it.

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Autism and Me (and RPGs)

Last week, I talked about the brilliance of how the recent Power Rangers movie handled its portrayal of autism and the effect it had on me. The piece received a response that I found emotionally overwhelming, I was even invited to write a guest post for a website called GeeksGamers.com, which can be found here. Such positive feedback has inspired me to start a series of sorts, linked by title and what popular culture components have done for me and my autism. While last week was focused on my own interpretation of the representation of autism, today, I’ll be exploring my own integration of autism into role-playing games, more commonly referred to as RPGs.

Video games in general have always played an important role in my life. Along with autism, I also have dyspraxia, a neurological condition that drastically hinders my motor skills and hand-eye coordination. My earliest video game memories involve Spider-Man on the PS1, an action-oriented game and a fan favourite. Through relentlessly playing this game and teaching my brain how to associate the movements made on a controller with the actions that were happening on screen, video games were rewiring my neurological connections. My dyspraxia is not as severe as it once was, but it’s changed the way I live exponentially. I couldn’t walk in a straight line on my own until I was 14, for example, and my right foot still twists at an awkward angle whenever I take a footstep. I’ll most likely never learn to drive, either, so relying on the temperamental luxuries of British public transport is my only real option.

Those early developmental stages of my gaming life planted the seeds for a world I was yet to discover, one that would spark my creativity and love of narrative storytelling. I’m not sure what the first RPG was that I ever played with an emphasis on character creation and influence over the story itself (I, like most in my generation, was a Pokémon addict as a young boy), I just have a whole host of favourites. I can remember being 8 and the hype surrounding the hotly anticipated Fable. Despite Peter Molyneux pulling a, well, a Peter Molyneux in hyping up his game far too much (trees growing in real-time, come off it mate), I was still about to devote my life to this game.

Fable opened my eyes to a world in which I could control what happened. I could be good or evil, thin or fat, a mage of extreme power or a warrior wielding his sword with deadly precision. In retrospect, Fable’s approach to RPG mechanics was relatively one-dimensional, ultimately condensing every decision down to whether or not you wanted to be naughty or nice. But if you put that aside, a video game love affair had begun, I was having an influence, I felt important. The biggest issue I’ve faced throughout my life has been social interaction. Initiating conversations scares me, making friends and keeping in contact with them is not a natural instinct. I’ll go long stretches without talking to my friends, not because I don’t like them, but because I don’t understand how friendships work.

My life is defined by rules, the fact that our time on this Earth isn’t dictated by rules, but rather by having to understand the complexities of the human mind has always been a source of distress for me. There is no real step-by-step programme on getting a girlfriend (aside from ones that expect you to already possess the ability to read other people) or getting friends, we’re just expected to know how to navigate this elaborate minefield. The clearly defined rules of video games are comforting to me and stimulate my very human needs of social and romantic fulfilment. I can have a strong circle of friends that look to me as a leader if I play Mass Effect, I can have a wife and a home in Skyrim.

Purpose is something we all search for, even though I don’t believe we all have one. It sounds bleak, but sometimes there are people that are born, they live and then die, having never achieved anything of note or making a lasting impact on anybody. Was their purpose to be a forgettable face in the crowd? No, they never had a purpose to begin with. RPGs endow the player with purpose through their very nature, the sense of empowerment one gets from creating an avatar and being granted with a mission of great importance is like a high for me. The world is looking to my guidance to save them, along the way I’ll meet people who I can choose to love or fear me. The intention of an RPG that relates to providing a sense of power is an escapist fantasy for neurotypicals, but for me, it’s an alternative lifestyle in and of itself.

In terms of character development, I’ve been presented with the chance to retroactively add autistic representation into the games I play, creating an environment of autistic empowerment. I particularly enjoy the freedom afforded to me by Bethesda’s Fallout games, most notably Fallout 3. Through the dialogue options in the game, the personality of my character can be shaped into an ASD badass that roams the Capital Wasteland of Washington D.C., executing tasks and threats with the cold efficiency of a well-oiled machine. Legends quickly spread about a man who has no connections, drifting from settlement to settlement, accruing bottle caps and lending a helping hand to the good, preferring to terminate the evil. The life I want to live will never be accessible to me in the real world, but that blow is softened with the soothing digital splendour of gaming.

With the sheer volume of RPGs currently out there on the market, there’s a lot of putrid waste to sift through in the search of a true diamond in the rough. I still have my criticisms of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls franchises, as for whatever reason, I’m even more critical of video games than I am of films. But the sense of escapism I’m given through the genre gives me purpose in a realm that I have full mastery of and, most importantly, I get to feel like a normal guy.

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