[Note: This was originally published on the blog of Autism Speaks, for their "In Our Own Words" series. Any and all feedback is very much appreciated!]
When I was 15 years old, a boy moved in across the street.
He was, of course, the cutest and dreamiest boy I’d ever seen, with his green eyes, freckle-covered pink cheeks and a bowl haircut that would’ve made Julius Caesar proud.
More than anything, I longed to be close to him—to see my almost-immediate crush on him blossom into a full blown relationship—and when we’d hang out in his room after school, I was constantly glued to his side.
“Amy, come look at something on the computer.”
Whoosh! Now I’m three inches from his face, staring intently at him instead of the screen in front of us. In my mind, physical closeness equaled emotional closeness; because I did not have the tools or understand how to create the latter, I (over)compensated with the former.
An early harsh lesson in intimacy.
What no one told me then, and what I didn’t realize until years later, is that intimacy takes a long time, and it is not something you can force into being. It starts with trust, with the willingness to allow someone into your personal space, and vice-versa, and it grows with the aid of continual and clear communication.
Intimacy is being naked with someone with your clothes on.
On a visual level, there are certain actions or gestures that we know and interpret as intimate: Kissing. Touching someone’s face, hands, or other body parts. Not only do all of these tend to present a challenge for individuals on the autism spectrum who have certain sensory issues, but visual depictions stop at the surface, and are merely the tip of the intimacy iceberg.
For people on the spectrum, intimacy can and often does look different from how it is for neurotypical folks. Sometimes intimacy is simply sitting quietly in the same room with someone, tolerating their presence in your private environment. Whatever form it may take, intimacy runs deep, and there is no one way—no right or wrong way—to be intimate with someone.
When I was 22 years old, I had sex for the first time.
I believed, as had been the case in almost every movie I’d seen up until then, that after we finished making love, there would be some sort of cuddling. I felt prepared for this, certain of its inevitability, and when he returned from the bathroom after washing up, I turned to him expectantly.
“No,” he said, facing away from me, when I asked if he wanted to cuddle. “I’m really tired.”
So I let him be, and laid there in the suddenly cold bed, sleeplessly staring at the ceiling and wondering what I had done wrong.
Intimacy is unselfish.
To achieve true intimacy, all parties involved must have their needs taken into account—another challenge that I have faced as a woman on the autism spectrum, as I believed for so long that, because I could not always articulate my needs, everyone else’s needs mattered more.
In addition, having a dearth of opportunities for intimacy meant trying so hard not to screw up the few chances I did have. But being so afraid to make a mistake—mistakes that are far more easily forgiven when you’re not on the autism spectrum—only made me (unwittingly) put undue pressure both on myself and my partner, and those experiences were not very enjoyable as a result.
Above all else, intimacy takes work.
Intimacy takes patience, kindness and a whole lot of understanding. There will always be people trying to solve the great mystery of intimacy, and there will always be shelves full of self-help books and angst-filled rock n’ roll songs on the subject.
Intimacy challenges neurotypical and non-neurotypical individuals alike, but the difference is that it is actually acknowledged that intimacy is something that neurotypical people want.
Individuals on the autism spectrum often have to take a different road to arrive at the same destination, but our journey is no less valid.
And the first step starts with seeing us as people who have those desires and needs, and who are as capable of understanding and learning intimacy as anyone else.