Disability acceptance for partners

Anonymous said to :

Hi, my boyfriend is autistic on the Aspergers spectrum and I don’t know what to do when he’s overloaded. I just really want to help him calm down again.

Is there any advice you can give me?

realsocialskills said:

There’s a lot of things that could be going on. I don’t know you or your boyfriend, so I can’t really tell you much that’s specific to your situation.

I think it’s possible that you may be taking too much responsibility for your boyfriend’s overload. If so, it would be better for both of you if you let it go a bit.

There’s a narrative in the media that’s common, and destructive, that goes like this:

  • Disabled person (usually a man) can’t function
  • He meets an amazing person (usually a woman), and they get involved romantically
  • Through the transformative power of love, he is healed
  • Then either he stops being disabled or his attitude changes in a way that means disability no longer matters in any significant way

Sometimes this goes along with another trope, “the only disability in life is a bad attitude”.

  • People who buy into that trope believe that disability only matters if they let it matter.
  • And they disability can be ~overcome~ by positive thinking and not being bitter.

For disabled people, this narrative pressures us to pretend that disability doesn’t matter. Or to make it stop mattering through sheer force of will. For people who love us, it creates pressure to fix everything and make disability irrelevant through the power of love and support. In real life, neither of those things work.

In real life, disability matters no matter what people think about it and no matter how much others love them. Having a good attitude can make life better; it can’t make disability irrelevant. Love can make life better; it can’t make disability irrelevant either. Disability goes deep, and it affects a lot of areas of life. And sometimes things are hard.

Part of being a good partner to an autistic person is accepting that autism is going to matter. No matter how wonderful you are, you’re not going to be able to stop autism from mattering.

I don’t know what’s going on with your boyfriend and his overload. I do know that, for many autistic people, overload is an inevitable fact of life. Sometimes, it’s the price of admission for doing certain things we care about. Overload is not always something you can prevent or fix. Sometimes the decisions get complicated.

Your boyfriend is the one who is responsible for figuring out how he wants to approach overload. He is the one who needs to decide which risks are worth taking, which are worth avoiding, and how he wants to handle it when he is overloaded. You can’t protect him from this.

You might be able to help with some of it some of the time. Many autistic people like certain kinds of support in dealing with overload, for instance:

  • Having someone else pay attention to signs of imminent overload and point them out
  • Being reminded that leaving is an option
  • Being reminded that it’s ok to be autistic in public and that they can stay if they want
  • Help leaving an overloading place
  • Being left alone and having someone else run interference to keep other people from trying to intervene
  • Having a stim toy handed to them
  • Knowing that people they’re with aren’t going to try to stop the overload and will leave them alone
  • Water
  • Help finding a quiet place to go
  • Being able to hold someone’s hand
  • And any number of other things

Note that many of these things are mutually exclusive. Autistic people have wildly different needs and preferences around handling overload. I don’t know what your boyfriend needs or wants; that’s for him to determine.

The only way to find out what your boyfriend wants you to do when he gets overloaded is to ask him, and to listen to what he says.

  • It’s worth having this conversation when he’s not overloaded and is able to communicate readily.
  • It’s also important to listen to what he says when he’s overloaded, even if it contradicts what he’s said before (unless he told you beforehand not to)
  • The question shouldn’t be “How can I calm you down?”, because that might not be possible or something he wants.
  • The question should be something like “When we’re together and you get overloaded, how do you want me to react?”
  • It’s ok if he doesn’t want to have an intimate discussion about overload, and it’s ok if he doesn’t want your help.
  • But you do need to know what he wants you to do in that situation, and so it’s ok and important to ask.

tl;dr Autism acceptance is important for partners of autistic people too. You can’t fix everything or make autism stop mattering. Sometimes things are going to be hard for us no matter what you do. Whether we want help, and the kind of help we want, varies from person to person. If you want to know, it’s important to ask.