Wired online dating
According to the National Autistic Society (NAS), autism is an incurable developmental disability, in which one’s ability to communicate and relate to the outside world is impaired, meaning empathy (the drive to identify with others’ emotions), socialising and picking up on cues, such as subtlety or irony, are virtually impossible.
But romantic unions may fare better, with the right partner – a caring man may relish being with a detail-oriented, highly practical but slightly childlike woman; it can appeal to his instinct to protect.
In her book Pretending to Be Normal, Liane Holliday Willey, who is married and has AS, writes about the challenges she has faced being in a relationship while lacking the ability – very much expected of women – to anticipate her partner’s needs.
She also urges him to say when he needs something he is not getting from her. On the bright side, AS women adjust quite easily to motherhood – as babies and small children thrive on a strict routine, and so do Aspies!
It is no coincidence that Asperger’s in relationships has become a hot topic since the boom in online dating websites, which has seen a parallel rise in the number of ‘mixed marriages’, or those between one Asperger’s partner (almost always the man) and one ‘neuro-typical’ partner (the woman).
‘An avid observer of human behaviour’, she will learn what to do or say, how to copy others and so go unnoticed; unlike the AS boy, she will ‘apologise and appease’. Her social awkwardness has been evident since she shot to fame in Britain’s Got Talent in 2009, but she has tried to fit into the ‘normal’ world – smiling for photo shoots, making TV appearances.
She recently described her AS diagnosis as ‘a relief’. Attwood says that working so hard to ‘avoid social error’, and so slip through the diagnostic net, is emotionally exhausting for AS women, and can lead to extreme stress and anxiety.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Britain’s leading authority on autism, argues that all autism is, in fact, just varying degrees of ‘having an extreme male brain’, which emphasises systemising over empathising (an extreme female brain would do the opposite, and a ‘balanced brain’ would do both equally).
So much credence has been given to his point of view that it now has its own official name: the Extreme Male Brain (EMB) theory of autism.
So should the partners of AS sufferers wring their hands in despair? This realisation that so many men have some form of AS – something they can’t control and did not choose – goes a long way towards explaining the stereotypical Mars-Venus dichotomy between sensitive, feelings-oriented women and tuned-out, facts-oriented men, and should come as a great relief. ‘I felt liberated,’ says my friend Tess of the moment she realised, after reading up about Asperger’s and how many men it affects, that her husband Peter wasn’t just being rude when he failed to realise he was meant to look up from the television when friends they’d invited round turned up for lunch. I accept that now, so I subtly let him know what I want him to do, whether it be helping around the house or trying to tune in to a conversation, and most of the time he then does it.’The writer Toby Young, though he remains officially undiagnosed, is convinced that he has AS, as is his wife Caroline, who likens him to Homer Simpson and has come to see his ‘total disregard for social etiquette’ – he recently failed to see what was wrong with trying to re-sell a cheese sandwich his child didn’t want to eat to other customers in a café – as ‘more innocence than arrogance’.
Good news, ladies – we don’t need to feel angry when he doesn’t ‘sense’ that we’ve had a bad day and shoo us off to have a hot bath while he gets the supper ready. And while my ex-husband definitely does not have AS, there were times in our marriage when I did puzzle over his detached behaviour: such as when he went off on a golf weekend with a friend who was on the brink of becoming engaged to a long-term girlfriend.
According to Maxine Aston, another Asperger’s counsellor and author, dating websites have ‘opened the floodgates’, allowing those with AS to enter the romance game.