Writing From Factor X

January 31, 2011

On Being Incapable of Love

This post was originally written for the Spectral Amoebas blog carnival.

I found out about autism when I was twelve years old–young enough to be impressionable, old enough for my life to change. Old enough to go out and do my own research. I promptly started reading everything about autism and more specifically Asperger’s Syndrome that I could. Not that there was much, particularly much that dealt with teenagers instead of children or autistic girls of any age, but I went through everything I could find anyway. In retrospect, that was a recipe for disaster.

See, I kept running into NT stereotypes that claimed that autistic people had a hard time loving others, or caring about them, or expressing love if it was there at all. I even ran into a bunch of people who appeared to be conflating autism with sociopathy and who variously claimed autistic people couldn’t connect to otthers, or didn’t want to, or simply didn’t have “higher emotions” to begin with.

This struck me as a bit strange, because I am not a person who has any difficulty feeling strong emotion. On the contrary: I sometimes have difficulty because of my strength of feeling. I can’t bear to see someone embarrassed or two people arguing. I used to have to flee the room because I couldn’t handle the fear or anxiety I was getting off the characters on a movie screen, and I was supposed to be incapable of strong emotions? Does not compute.

And of course I kept seeing the comparisons to robots, to hyper-logical characters, the stereotypes of being really good at analysis but incapable of feeling anything emotional. Guys, I’m good at analysis and I’m not necessarily great at emotional processing, I usually need either help or a ton of time to analyze emotions when they confuse me–but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

But to continue the story, I kept reading. I started interacting with specifically autistic communities. I got an account at WrongPlanet and started posting on the forums. And I began to absorb the idea that to be autistic, I had to be hyperrational and low on feeling. Besides, I liked the idea that I could be cold and rational all the time. I was getting bullied in some pretty unpleasant ways at the time, and it felt pretty good to pretend that the insults I was getting didn’t bug me, that I couldn’t feel hurt at all.

I turned fourteen. Somewhere in there, I found out about asexuality and about being aromantic, and started sort-of identifying myself as both. Not that I, you know, told anyone about it or spent much time in asexual spaces–I basically ignored that aspect of my identity for a long time, unless someone asked me directly about it. I was focusing on other things, and it didn’t seem important then; after all, I was fourteen and none of my friends were dating anyway.

When I was fifteen I moved. I took some time away from WrongPlanet and I spent most of the rest of high school focusing on other things. I was pretty isolated throughout high school, so I spent a lot of time online or reading books. And all the introspection started making me question the “triumph” of logic over emotion. I certainly started questioning the idea that I was necessarily all that logical. It’s hard to think of yourself as a hyperrational data junkie when you’re freaking out because your routine got destroyed, for instance. With that came disbelief in the “emotionless” paradigm. I was isolated, as I said; well, as I got older I started realizing that not having any close meatspace friends really sucks for me. I need people to care about.

I developed a violent distaste for being told I was cold, robotic, emotionless, or any combination of those things. I started getting particularly upset about the idea that I didn’t care about people, because I do. I care strongly about people, as a matter of fact. And I started getting angry about seeing all those stereotypes applied to me. I’m not a goddamn robot.

Then I went to college and started interacting with people again. I got reminded of why I had an identity to begin with, because I was surrounded by people who weren’t like me at all, and interacting with them made me feel isolated again. Suddenly being on the spectrum mattered, but asexuality really mattered now. I was so different from my friends that I started craving the company of other asexuals just to remind myself that I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t a freak, I wasn’t the only one out there. (I was one of the unbelievably lucky ones; I knew there was a community and I even knew where to find it.) So I came back to AVEN and started talking about being asexual again. And I started talking about being aromantic.

Imagine my frustration when I started hitting stereotypes on AVEN about aromantics being–you guessed it!–emotionless, cold, and devoid of strong emotions for others. I remember threads where posters asked shamelessly whether or not aromantics loved others, whether aromantics were heartless. Aromantic sexuals, where they came up, were almost always discussed as completely feelingless people who knowingly used and manipulated people for sex.

I started to get angry.

I looked at the media and noted that where portrayals of aromantic asexuals existed, they tended to be coded inhuman, alien, and most of all emotionless. Where portrayals of asexuals who cared about other people popped up, they tended invariably to be romantics. I won’t even begin to discuss autistic media portrayals here; they tended if anything to be worse.

I got angrier. And I am still angry.

I am not emotionless. I am not cold. I am not robotic. I am human, I feel things, I care about people. And I am so, so tired of other people trying to take that away from me.


  1. I grew up before the internet, before Asperger’s was anything more than an obscure diagnosis, before there was discussion of asexuality. I’m not sure whether I was lucky or not, to miss the worst times, when autism was all about the refrigerator mothers and the kids rocking back and forth and knocking their heads against the wall. But I know, from long experience, that anything that’s different from the norm will be misunderstood and stereotyped. As bad as things are now, they’re improving. Very slowly, but at least there’s discussion, and people coming out to say that they’re human beings. And you have years ahead of you to work things out from your own perspective and to grow strong in your own identity.

    Comment by Catana — January 31, 2011 @ 10:50 am | Reply

    • Oh, good lord am I glad not to have been diagnosed in the era of refrigerator mothers. And yes, I have time–I’m still quite young, and that’s what self-introspection is all about.

      I think I agree with you that things are improving. It’s just that they’re not improving fast enough. I’ve always been a little impatient…

      Comment by Sciatrix — February 1, 2011 @ 9:28 pm | Reply

  2. I found out when I was about 11. I also read a lot about it. The books back then sucked particularly much (though not nearly as much as the books from even further back, which I also read), and due to ‘no emotions, no sense of humour’, I spent the next few years thinking that therefore I wasn’t allowed to be autistic (the best way to describe how it felt) and searching for other things I could be instead (because I knew I was *something* atypical).

    I’m also not fond of human contact and have few meatspace friends. This leads to a lot of *facepalm* in the same way that being a woman who is very bad at maths does (meaning: the two are not related but people often immediately think they are anyway). *And* I’m asexual. I don’t want to be the example to prove someone thoughtless point.

    Comment by Norah — January 31, 2011 @ 12:17 pm | Reply

  3. I read recently that new research shows that people with Aspergers tend to feel more intensely and pick up on emotional currents around them, but shut down because they are so overwhelmed by emotional data. To me this makes a lot more sense. I have never been a cold, unfeeling person; that stereotype does not fit me, nor does the one about “people with autism can’t understand fiction” (I am a fiction writer, for G-d’s sake!)

    Anyway, I had no idea that these stereotypes of aromantic people were out there. I’m glad I haven’t been on AVEN much in the past couple years, I suppose that shielded me from that nastiness. One thing that has been really pissing me off lately is that people seem to feel a need to turn against others in their own community. Like we don’t get enough sh*t from the outside world. I’ve been noticing this a lot in the transgender/gender-neutral community and it disheartens me as well as pisses me off that it’s present in the asexual community as well.

    I have met some aromantics who claim that romantic asexuals aren’t “really” asexual, which to me is as bizarre as accusing asexuals of any stripe of doing things for the purpose of gaining sex…

    Starting to ramble so I’ll shut up. I really really don’t get why people think the way they do.

    Comment by Stephanie Silberstein — February 1, 2011 @ 2:06 am | Reply

    • Stephanie, I’ve noticed that recent research is upsetting a lot of stereotypes and assumptions. When I first suspected that I might have Asperger’s and started reading everything I could find, there was more confusion than enlightenment. I kept saying “that’s not me, that’s not me,” which just delayed my self-diagnosis. It took a while to realize how limited and innacurate the DSM and most research were. In emotional situations, for instance, I’m not always overwhelmed, but I don’t know how to respond in a way that seems natural to NTs. It’s made worse by my dislike of touching and being touched. So where someone might expect to be hugged, all I can do is try to verbally express my sympathy, understanding, etc. And if it is a highly emotional situation, I’m also trying to control my own feelings. I joined AVEN very recently, but haven’t found too much there to respond to. I’m accustomed to finding lines drawn between those who have the “right” symptoms or traits and those with the “wrong” ones, so it certainly wouldn’t surprise me to find that at AVEN.

      Comment by Catana — February 1, 2011 @ 8:50 am | Reply

    • As I mentioned to Ily downthread, that would square very neatly with some of my experiences. My problems with emotion tend to revolve around identifying and sorting my emotions out, not so much not having any.

      I should mention, the stereotypes are there for aromantic asexuals, but they were much worse whenever aromantic sexuals came up. (Seriously, I do not think I saw aromantic sexuals come up once without someone saying something that implied that they thought such people must be cold or sociopathic–which, of course, has such lovely implications for the aromantic asexuals sitting right here.) Even so, every so often I would run across questions about whether aromantics could love or whether we were cold and unfeeling, and just… as usual for AVEN, the moderation never made any kind of active effort to protect anyone or let it be known that saying nasty things about any particular group of people on the site was not on. Except romantic nonasexuals, mind you, they’re treated with kid gloves.

      And yeah. Infighting, it is everywhere! I don’t get it, either.

      Comment by Sciatrix — February 1, 2011 @ 9:46 pm | Reply

  4. […] And to wrap it all up, I wrote about my problems with being stereotyped as emotionless for being autistic, aromantic, and asexual in On Being Incapable of Love. […]

    Pingback by Spectral Amoebas: Round-Up Post « Writing From Factor X — February 1, 2011 @ 7:14 am | Reply

  5. “It’s hard to think of yourself as a hyperrational data junkie when you’re freaking out because your routine got destroyed, for instance.”

    This! I don’t understand why people see logic and emotion as being mutually exclusive. I’m very logical as well as very emotional, although sometimes those two things don’t get along very well together. I can strongly relate to the results of the research that Stephanie mentioned, which I’ve heard called “Intense World Theory”. While it’s hard to say there’s such a thing as having “too much empathy”, sometimes I definitely feel overwhelmed by it, to the point of having difficulty functioning. I remember reading an essay by Joanna Macy about “carriers”, people who, she says, carry the pain of the world. That’s basically how I feel, very burdened with the suffering of people, animals, and the environment. I keep being told that because of this, I will have the motivation to really change things, but my level of overwhelm makes that difficult.

    Comment by Ily — February 1, 2011 @ 3:50 pm | Reply

    • Do you happen to have a link to that essay? My mom thinks that, seeing as how some people on the autism spectrum are really hypersensitive to physical stimuli, my Asperger’s causes me to be analogously hypersensitive to negative ongoings in the world–I didn’t really buy the theory but if there’s been some more in-depth analysis of this I’d be very interested to find out more.

      Comment by anonymous — February 1, 2011 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

      • I’m trying to find the info online, but I can’t. I originally read it in a book called “World as Lover, World as Self”. If you look up Joanna Macy, you can find a fair bit of material on her general philosophy, like this:


        But I didn’t see anything about “carriers” in particular. Maybe they’re just people who are more in touch with their pain for the world, versus people who are in denial about it. Like you, I’m hypersensitive to negative ongoings in the world, but I’m not sure I buy your mom’s theory either. I think she might be confusing correlation and causation. Because autistic people are by no means the only “carriers”. And I’m betting there are a number of autistic people who don’t care that much about world events, too.

        Sciatrix, apologies if this is too off-topic.

        Comment by Ily — February 1, 2011 @ 5:08 pm | Reply

        • Thanks for the green light on the tangent, Sciatrix! I’m not sure that correlation/causation would be the problem here, simply because autism can manifest itself so many different ways it’s not surprising if one particular way only affects some people (i.e. I have a rather standard tolerance for sound and light, but many autistic people and probably some non-autistic people don’t).

          Comment by anonymous — February 1, 2011 @ 10:40 pm | Reply

    • Too much empathy is actually pretty analogous to my experience a lot of the time, too. Like, I can’t watch certain kinds of embarrassment humor because I empathize so strongly with the character getting embarrassed that I start writhing with discomfort and need to leave the room physically or otherwise hide. I’ve had that problem with characters in movies or television in other situations, too, but embarrassment humor is the one I have the most issues with. I don’t have the problem of overempathizing nearly as much with books, which may be one of the reasons I seriously prefer book format for stories to video format.

      Although I don’t think it’s the same thing as pain carrying as you describe it, because when I overempathize it has to be to someone right in front of me (or, as I mentioned, who I’m identifying with, even in the middle of a story). Environmental suffering or animal cruelty don’t do it–not that those things aren’t horrible and things I feel sad about, but they don’t flip that switch between me and the other person and make me lose my sense of self for a moment in shared emotion.

      And yes yes yes on logic and emotion not being mutually exclusive. Sometimes they’re not the same thing–one of the big things I have had to learn is that I can’t reason myself out of bad feelings very well–but they’re not always different, either.

      (Also, regarding the upthread discussion, go for it! It’s pretty interesting to read.)

      Comment by Sciatrix — February 1, 2011 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

      • Thanks 🙂 It’s always interesting to read about people’s experiences that are “similar but different”. During awkward movie scenes, I don’t feel as uncomfortable as you do. (I remember watching “Hannah and Her Sisters” with some presumably NT people, and they thought one scene was so awkward, they were hiding their eyes. Maybe I squirmed a little, but I didn’t find it as unwatchable as they did.) I’m wondering if for a lot of NT people, they have more “boundaries” to their empathy, or their empathy is proportional to how well they know the person, or maybe how closely they relate to the person. My empathy, on the other hand, seems more related to how powerless or victimized the person or being is. Like, I’ve definitely felt empathy towards inanimate objects, which seems to be a common autistic trait, although by no means a universal one. If “no one cares”, that only adds to my empathy. Sigh. It’s hard to know how to regulate all this, without over-compensating and trying to be overly callous.

        Comment by Ily — February 2, 2011 @ 8:47 pm | Reply

        • Mmhm. And I mean, I experience empathy of the “no one cares, so I need to, and I care a lot” kind, too–it’s a large part of why I run this blog, actually, because I often feel that no one cares about asexuals but ourselves–and I worry about it taking over my life, but more in a sense that social justice work and activism work in general can’t become my life, because I need to do other things like have a job and eat and go to classes. (Er, it doesn’t help that I think I have some special interest things tying into social justice and feminism type things, and so I have been having a hard time hauling my brain to do something else lately, and that can be harmful–I don’t know if you saw it, but Kaz wrote something about trying not to do that and finding a balance a while back on zir blog.)

          I’m just not quite sure I tie that specific kind of overflowing empathy back to autism for myself, because I have the other sort I mentioned upthread and that is very strong for me and has caused a lot more problems for me over the course of my life, and for longer, than the “caring a ton about activist causes” part has. And also because I know a lot of NT-identified people with similar kinds of empathy. When I experience overempathizing, it’s more like my boundaries of the emotions I myself am feeling, as opposed to the ones someone else is feeling, get washed away.

          On overcompensating–I do know what you mean. I think I mentioned in the original post, I found the “callous and unfeeling” thing extremely attractive at one point in my life, because it would have been so much easier not to care. Some of it was bullying, but I think the same thing relates to caring too much about others, too.

          Comment by Sciatrix — February 2, 2011 @ 10:31 pm | Reply

  6. You’ve sparked my curiosity to read about Aspergers and the autism spectrum; I know practically nothing about this (so forgive me if I ask ignorant questions).

    But on a curious note…. I’m NT (neutotypical? as far as I’m concerned…), but my emotions and behaviours seem to be exactly the opposite of the ones you’ve described – highly logical, too rational, and zero empathy. I’m emotionally hypersensitive but only when it comes to situations directed at me (ex somebody scolding me), other than that I don’t have strong emotions. Plus I have no tact whatsoever, and I’ve had to learn most social interactions. AND I’m romantic. Seems like a strange combination no?

    Comment by maddox — February 20, 2011 @ 1:57 am | Reply

  7. I’m not autistic but I found your post by searching online for aromantics and information about them, which I found underwhelming and very disappointing.

    I’m 23, finishing college. I already consider myself childfree after long research and consideration of the issues involved with children. It’s easy, I don’t want any. I have an extended family, very young siblings, cousins and nephews: I care for all of them, spend time with them when I can, am satisfied with that.

    I can’t say I understand all of the prejudice you’ve endured, but I find that my social progression has been much like yours: I was the bright loner in primary school, the loner who spent all her time in books and online during high school and I emerged socially in college to find that most people were (are) obsessed with the opposite sex or, well, with sex and relationships in general. I consider myself aromantic because while I can find people attractive, I’ve never been in love in the romantic sense, though I have very good friends. The attraction I’ve felt at times was on a purely intellectual level, people with whom I could debate and argue in a way that enriched both of us.

    I’ve never felt that yearning for sexual or romantic connections, never been on the ‘hunt’ for a significant other. Actually, I can’t even imagine being in a relationship and I don’t want one.

    As a woman who’s both aromantic and asexual, I can hardly believe how judgmental people can be. I’m not a robot, I don’t lack feelings, I don’t want to be alone all the time, I don’t shun connections with other people. I’m not a monster for not wanting kids, for not wanting, or expecting, to fall in love. I’m not a machine for not wanting sex. I’m not, of all things, inhuman or detached. In all truth, it would be easier to be detached from other people, but I’m not. I can’t be, because platonic and familial love are there and strong. I feel just as much as other people, I hurt sometimes, I can cry, I can feel ecstatic joy.

    And I can get angry when I’m told I’m selfish, cold, that I lack empathy and humanity.

    And I can be hurt when I know that this kind of prejudice is what I can expect for a long, long time.

    Comment by Jennifer — March 14, 2012 @ 2:03 pm | Reply

    • Yeah, I think that… that really gets to the heart of it, honestly. It hurts to be told those things, especially when they’re not true, and it hurts to know that it’s never just going to be the one person saying it, that you can expect to hear it from many people. I’m sorry you’ve experienced the same kinds of things–I’d actually prefer if it was just me, because no one else should have to hear that, you know? At least there’s solidarity in numbers, I think.

      Comment by Sciatrix — March 14, 2012 @ 8:52 pm | Reply

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