Well, he tells non-autistic people to make lemonade, specifically. Guess who the “lemons” are in this metaphor.
Popular fiction both shapes and reflects cultural attitudes. In a previous post, I picked apart the film Adam and expressed concern over the film’s troubling conclusion that people with Asperger syndrome—and by extension all autists, since Asperger’s is thought of as a “mild form of autism“—are simultaneously too childlike and too threatening to maintain healthy romantic relationships.
This is a reflection of the attitude that pervades Tony Attwood’s A Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, a popular nonfiction book that often serves as an introductory text to Asperger syndrome for lay readers. Attwood is touted as an “expert” on Asperger syndrome. His Complete Guide has an entire chapter titled “Long-term Relationships” that he starts off with a quotation from Hans Asperger’s original paper on the behavioral profile that would eventually become Asperger syndrome:
Many of those who do marry show tensions and problems in their marriage. - Hans Asperger, ( 1991)
So right off the bat readers with Asperger’s know we’re going to be presented as a problem. (And that “long-term relationship” must equal marriage?) The chapter actually starts with kind of an odd little prelude:
A man or woman with Asperger’s syndrome can develop intimate person relationships…For such a relationship to begin, both parties would have initially found the other person to be attractive. What are the characteristics that someone would find attractive in a person with Asperger’s syndrome?
What a strange question. Attwood then dedicates an entire section called “Choice of Partner” to answering it. I find this so odd because it generalizes what is in reality an inifitely diverse range of experiences, and because it essentializes Asperger’s. People become attracted to each other for an endless variety of reasons, and a person’s “attractive” qualities don’t have to be related to or defined by whether or not she/he/ze has Asperger syndrome. Yes, autists on the whole share a core set of behavioral traits, but the expression of those traits is tremendously varied. We’re as diverse in our personalities and experience as non-autists. Asperger’s doesn’t have to dominate a person’s identity.
It is in this first section that Attwood begins to infantilize people with Asperger syndrome, and to make some upsetting generalizations about gender. The man with Asperger’s syndrome can have an “appealing ‘Peter Pan’ quality,” and “appears to have a ‘feminine,’ rather than ‘macho’ quality,” he writes. Apparently this makes such a man “the ideal partner for the modern woman.” I’m sorry—what?
According to Attwood, men with Asperger syndrome seek out partners who “can act as an executive secretary to help with organizational problems, and continue many of the emotional support functions provided by their mother when they were living at home.” Non-autistic men “who have natural paternal and compassionate qualities” may find women with Asperger syndrome appealing because of their “social immaturity and naïvety,” whereas women with Asperger syndrome “often seek a partner with a personality similar to themselves. They feel more comfortable with someone who does not have a great social life and does not seek frequent physical intimacy.” The brief final paragrah of the section is dedicated to autistic women’s tendency toward ending up with abusive partners. Autistic men are never similarly warned. I guess the (unbearably problematic) idea is that autistic women are lowest on the totem pole of childishness and are thereby the most likely to be victimized.
Attwood presents all of his hypothetical relationships as heterosexual partnerships between a person with Asperger syndrome and a person without. At no point in this section or anywhere else in the chapter does he address same-sex relationships or relationships between two people who both have Asperger syndrome. And he certainly never acknowledges that there are genders other than “man” and “woman.”
The next section addresses “Problems in the Relationship,” and of course all of these problems are caused by the partner with Asperger syndrome. Our diabolical blend of neediness and emotional distance inflicts agony on our poor non-autistic partners. We represent the very essence of self-centeredness—just like children. (Or children as they are popularly constructed.)
Sadly, I am not being hyperbolic when I say that this section presents Aspergian lovers as downright monstrous. A few choice passages include:
The most common problem for the non-Asperger’s syndrome partner is feeling lonely…Although the couple are living together, conversations may be few, and primarily involve the exchange of information rather than an enjoyment of each other’s company, experiences and shared opinions. As a man with Asperger’s syndrome said, “My pleasure doesn’t come from an emotional or interpersonal exchange.”
The non-Asperger’s syndrome partner suffers affection deprivation which can be a contributory factor to low self-esteem and depression. The typical partner is metaphorically a rose trying to blossom in an affection desert (Long 2003).
A recent survey of women who have a partner with Asperger’s syndrome included the question “Does your partner love you? and 50 per cent replied “I don’t know” (Jacobs 2006)…The person with Asperger’s syndrome may express his or her love in practical terms; or, to change a quotation from Star Trek (Spock, examining an extra-terrestrial; “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it”) in Asperger’s syndrome, it is love, but not as we know it.
Unfortunately, people with Asperger syndrome can have a history of limited ability to manage conflict successfully…There can be concerns about verbal abuse, especially as a response to perceived criticism, with an apparent inability to show remorse and to forgive and forget.
So we’re cold, distant, alien, and even abusive, all because we have Asperger syndrome. Yet we’re still simultaneously “innocent” and childlike, which isn’t just exhausting but also a turn-off: “Non-Asperger’s syndrome partners may also have difficulty having a romantic and passionate relationship with someone they often have to ‘mother,’ and who may have the emotional maturity of an adolescent.” Attwood also returns to his weird little idea of the “modern woman” in this section:
In modern western society we have tended to replace the word husband or wife with partner. This is a reflection of changing attitudes towards relationships. Women today are justifiably no longer content with their partner just being the provider of income for the family. They expect their partner to share the work load at home, for domestic chores and caring for the children, and to be their best friend in terms of conversation, sharing experiences and emotional support. Sharing, and being a best friend, are not attributes that are easy for the person with Asperger’s syndrome to achieve.
The single most disturbing passage of the chapter, for me, is the concluding paragraph of the “Problems in the Relationship” section. Attwood cites a study that literally suggests that people with Asperger’s are emotionally and physically parasitic toward their non-autistic partners:
A recent survey of the mental and physical health of couples where the male partner has Asperger’s syndrome, a diagnosis not shared by the female partner, indicated that the relationship has very different health effects for each partner (Aston 2003). Most men with Asperger’s syndrome felt that their mental and physical health had significantly improved due to the relationship…In contrast, the overwhelming majority of non-Asperger’s syndrome partners stated that their mental health had significantly deteriorated due to the relationship. They felt emotionally exhausted and neglected, and reported many signs of clinical depression. A majority of respondents in the survey also stated that the relationship had contributed to a deterioration in physical health.
Attwood uses this information to extrapolate that people with Asperger’s have fundamentally different needs than people without, and to reinforce his assertion that people with Asperger’s are blind or indifferent to the needs of our romantic partners. He never questions the parameters of the survey or comments on its limitations. What part did the gender dynamic of the relationships play in the results? How big was the sample? What were the other demographic qualities of the sample group? Is it possible that people experiencing a high level of dissatisfaction were more likely to respond to the survey in the first place?
Attwood wraps up his soul-crushing exploration of intimate relationships with a section titled “Strategies to Strengthen the Relationship.” He never once suggests that people in an unhappy or destructive relationship might consider ending the relationship. He advises that the partner with Asperger’s seek counseling to improve interpersonal skills, and that the non-autistic partner look for emotional support outside of the relationship. An intimate relationship with a person who has Asperger syndrome is presented as an inescapably bad situation which one can only hope to make the most of. Attwood concludes with “As one partner said, ‘When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.’”
Good to know I’m “a lemon.”
While Attwood is done talking about romantic relationships at this point, the chapter on “Long-term Relationships” continues with a section on “Having a Parent with Asperger syndrome.” In that section, he describes how we fuck our kids right up by thoroughly depriving them of affection. I wish I were kidding.
Attwood is a practicing clinical psychologist, and he seems to do a lot of counseling of couples and families in distress. In The Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome, he has apparently taken the experiences of clients who come to him for help with extremely negative situations and used those experiences to generalize about Asperger’s on the whole. The result is a tremendously skewed picture that reinforces the most damaging stereotypes about Asperger syndrome and autism, while presenting itself as a reliable guide to the condition. This kind of popular nonfiction contributes to the overall discourse about Asperger’s, and the stereotypes it presents are reflected and re-presented in fictional narratives. The unfortunate result, as I remarked in my review of Adam, is that autists are caught up in a discursive web that portrays us as anything from parasitic monsters to inspirational aliens—but never quite as human beings.