What I Learned From My Neuroatypical Partner
While society sees my partner's neuroatypicality as a disorder, I see it as a big part of why the two of us are so good for each other. But I haven't spent too much time analyzing why our relationship works — I’ve been too busy loving him.
For our first date two years ago, Josh and I went to an interactive art show in Brooklyn, where an artist hugged people before taking pictures of their reactions. I suggested that Josh and I hug each other first, to test it out. After we embraced, and his heavy-lidded eyes stared into mine, I couldn’t tell what he thought of me — he had no expression on his face. I found the feeling both disconcerting and fascinating.
As we talked at the opening, Josh told me he played the handpan, a type of steel drum that was invented a decade ago and has become really popular among street musicians. He went on and on about it. I told him I did dance improvisation, so I suggested we go to his apartment so he could play his drum while I danced. In his living room, I caught his spontaneous look of delight as I moved to his beat.
That was my first inkling that Josh liked me, but I couldn’t gauge his real interest based only on that reaction; he was impassive for the rest of our date.
We got together a couple of weeks later, when he told me over bubble tea that he has severe ADD and is on the autism spectrum, unable to either send or read social cues nearly as well as other people. As a result, he also experiences a lot of social anxiety, because he’s been routinely rejected from various social groups, both in school and at work, due to his inability to understand some social signals.
In this media-saturated world, my neuroatypical partner reminds me that it’s more important for us to be happy than to look happy.
“My brain is like a serial processor,” he explained between sips of taro ice crush, making use of a computer metaphor, which seemed appropriate. “It processes things one at a time. Other people have parallel processors that are able to evaluate several things at the same time.” He explained that social interactions are particularly hard for him because they require immediate parallel processing, judging not just the content of what people say but all sorts of other factors like his relationship to the person, the various nonverbal signals they're exhibiting, and the larger social context in which he is interacting with them.
Instead of running away in the face of these revelations, I found myself more drawn to Josh, finding so many of the ways he thinks and behaves both touching and charming. I adored his open enthusiasm for a broad range of subjects, from making paella to user interface design, and his lack of apology for being who he was. And when I explained that it’s customary for people who are dating to take less than 24 hours to respond to texts — something he had a hard time doing because of his lack of attention — I was deeply touched by how much of an effort he made to train himself to text me back, even setting alarms to remind himself so he wouldn’t forget.
Between extended discussions about typography, his efforts to make me the best japchae possible, digressions into World War I history, and his sweet, often bumbling attempts to act more like a "typical" boyfriend, I found myself falling in love.
Unlike Josh, I am not a serial processor at heart. I make a lot of quick, intuitive decisions, gleaned from a holistic understanding of a situation. I jumped headlong into our relationship because the more Josh and I were together, the more I knew I wanted to see him again. I haven't spent a lot of time analyzing why I love Josh; I've been too busy loving him. But reflecting now has given me the opportunity to think through why our relationship works, and why he's actually a better match for me because he's neuroatypical.
I appear to many people like a socially confident woman who passes for cisgender. I move through the world in this form, and am mostly OK being perceived that way, but I actually live two realities. To myself, I am a gender-nonconforming transfeminine person who’s experienced many struggles to get to where I am, and is often alienated by the world. For many years, I tried to hide this part of myself by appearing as “normal” as possible, which involved dating men who possess traditional markers of success: well-spoken, socially well-adjusted, stereotypically attractive.
But over time, those men made me feel like they would end things between us if I revealed too much of myself. It didn’t help that my suspicions proved to be true — someone broke up with me because he wanted to have biological children, and another admitted that he felt ashamed when other people recognized me as trans.
I fell in love with Josh as a whole person, including the aspect of his mind that is distinct from most other people’s.
It's tempting to say that the reason I'm with Josh is something as simple as the two of us both having disadvantages: me being trans and him being neuroatypical. But this idea turns love into a simple matter of economics — your match is only as good as you yourself are worth — and I don't think I'm being over-romantic in believing that my love for him goes far deeper than that.
Josh is the first person I’ve dated who I feel like I can be fully myself with, in large part because I know that he routinely tunes out other people’s judgments. What’s widely perceived as a disadvantage — finding it difficult to read social cues — also means that Josh isn’t preoccupied with how other people feel about his association with me. What matters most to him is the rapport between the two of us.
Having lived most of my life inordinately concerned with how other people see me, being with Josh allows me to understand that what matters is not other people’s perceptions, but the reality I actually experience with him. In this image-driven, media-saturated world, which Josh pays little attention to, he constantly reminds me that it’s more important for us to be happy than to look happy, for us to feel attractive to ourselves than for other people to perceive us as attractive, for us not to conform to society’s prescribed expectations of who to be and how to act.
Of course, our relationship isn’t perfect, and there have been times when Josh’s neuroatypicality has come between us. I once went out to dim sum with him and a couple of close friends, and I wanted him to make a good impression. I’ve mentioned to Josh that it’s good to maintain eye contact, and to try to pay attention even when you’re not particularly interested in what someone’s talking about, a nonverbal cue he’s had a hard time grasping.
Josh was fine for the first 30 minutes, but when we started talking about neighborhoods in New York, one of my friends wondered aloud what the most expensive areas are. Josh pulled out his phone to check Wikipedia and, as he tends to do, ended up spending the rest of the meal staring at his phone, only minimally paying attention to the conversation.
I felt this ingrained fear of how his behavior might reflect badly on me because of our association, and how my friends would perceive me having an inattentive boyfriend. But I learned from his example that I shouldn’t be overly concerned about the judgment of others, just like he has never made me feel like he cares how other people judge him because his girlfriend is trans. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t really matter that he needed to do something else because he was getting bored, since his ADD made it hard for him to concentrate for long periods of time. Josh may give the impression of not paying attention, but in reality, no one else has ever perceived or understood me better.
Those who date neuroatypical people are often applauded for their charity, and the same is true for those who date trans people. But I’m not with Josh because I’m this overly generous creature who overlooks his neuroatypicality and is therefore deserving of a prize. I’m with him because I fell in love with him as a whole person, including the aspect of his mind that is distinct from most other people’s. What society sees as a disorder, I see as a big part of why the two of us are so good for each other. Just as I don’t think anyone should be considered brave for dating a trans person, I don’t consider myself special for loving someone neuroatypical. I consider myself lucky that he loves me back.