As someone with an autistic son, my life has been overwhelmingly focused on understanding autism for the past two years.
That’s why I am so affected by live advice column on website Slate called ‘Dear Prudence’, written by Mallory Ortberg, in which a young girl asks if she should tell her boyfriend she thinks he has autism.
Calling herself ‘Missing Emotional Reciprocation’, she writes:
I’ve been dating someone who lives a few hours away from me for about nine months. He’s intelligent, kind, funny, generous, and a little socially awkward (which is great because I am, too). A few months into our relationship, I began to suspect that he might fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. I have not discussed this with him because I care about him and don’t want him to feel like I think there is something “wrong” with him.
He does not show attraction or love the way that I’m used to, and I’m struggling with the lack of emotional reciprocity. I don’t know if he actually enjoys my company, except he keeps coming around—he doesn’t compliment me, flirt with me, or tell me that he loves me. He doesn’t respond or even acknowledge those things when I do them.
She mentions symptoms such as failing to express feelings and failing to communicate effectively, saying she’d think he was a “jerk” if not for her suspicion he may have autism.
Ortberg rightly advises her not to speculate about her boyfriend having ASD, saying it’s up to professionals to diagnose the condition. (I can tell you from experience that the process of diagnosing someone with autism is lengthy, expensive and complex. With good reason.)
Meanwhile, I too suspect her boyfriend is just a bit of a jerk.
As a member of several special needs social media pages, including one made up of adults with autism and their carers, I can say that most (not all) of those with autism know it and are very aware of how they are different and their limitations. By the time a loved one mentions it, they’ve probably thought it several million times themselves.
Maybe they don’t realise they have autism, but they certainly know they struggle to cope with noise, large social groups, to eat a variety of food or any other combination of the many and varied symptoms and signs of autism.
The reason this discussion on Slate fascinated me so much is because I spend a lot of time wondering what Giovanni will be like when he’s all grown up.
Will he have a job?
Will he get a romantic partner?
Will he move out of home?
Will he have a good life?
It's something that plays on the minds of all of the amazing special needs parents I have been lucky enough to meet. We are coping, sort of, and doing what we think our children with special needs require, but what happens to them when we are too old to care for them and we are gone?
God willing they find partners who can handle their quirks and physical, mental, emotional and sensory challenges.
I find myself wondering if it would be better if Giovanni met someone who was also on the autism spectrum, but then change my mind and think maybe it's better if he ends up with someone who is "neuro-typical".
Is there someone out there who will love Giovanni as much as I do, who will value his difference and feel grateful to have him? I really hope so, otherwise it will be left to his siblings to care for him or worse still, some sort of special home that is meant for the elderly but ends up with special needs patients as well.
Please let him find someone who loves him and can handle his autism.
We've learned a lot about ASD over the past few years with public awareness of it's existence, frequency and symptoms improving rapidly and I'm sure there are many people who look at their loved ones and wonder if they may have autism.
My advice to 'Missing Emotional Reciprocation' is to avoid mentioning to her boyfriend that she thinks he is on the spectrum. If she loves him and wants to be with him it shouldn't matter. She may want to know for sure so she can ensure she meets his needs and he meets hers, but it doesn't sound like that's her motivation.
For every parent who tells me they've sometimes wondered if their child is on the autism spectrum, I urge them to seek a professional opinion. I never tell them that their child "looks fine" and they are probably "worrying over nothing" because that's what people told me.
I wish one person had told me to get a proper diagnosis so I could have started my son in therapy years earlier.