DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Earlier this year I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism and it made my entire 21 years of life make absolute sense. I don’t want you to have an image in your head of some introverted monotone robot (in my experience that’s just a caricature of an aspie).
In my case, I want you to picture a skinny literature student with floppy hair and eccentric dress sense who has a close group of friends, loves going to parties, was heavily involved in his university’s drama society (on the committee and directing two self-written plays), everyone likes, everyone somehow thinks is an absolute comic genius, but has never had anything close to a romantic relationship, or even a deep one-on-one connection.
This is going to get quite rambly – I’m sorry in advance.
Quite frankly, I think of myself like a clown. I’m a spectacle people admire from a distance and have fun with. Everyone likes me, but no one wants anything to do with me outside a pleasant conversation (and even then, I tend to be the one having to start those conversations).
But I do start those conversations – I try to be that outgoing person. At parties when me and my friends don’t know anyone, they’ll rely on me to waltz up to a random group and introduce everyone. Unable to navigate nuanced social mechanisms, I just bulldoze through in the hopes it works (something like “Hi! I don’t know anyone here. Who are you?”). It works just fine for parties, but in my experience it won’t allow me to build a connection.
Because flirting is all about subtly, right? Well that’s beyond me. My idea of flirting is seeing a girl I’m interested in, starting a conversation … and then usually end up lecturing her about the finer points of Godzilla (I say ‘lecture’, but I’m not so conversationally clueless that I’m not letting her speak or listening to her – I’m not an idiot). This is a tiny exaggeration obviously; I don’t literally suddenly start talking about Godzilla, but I always end up talking about silly things that don’t matter (Godzilla, Fun Facts that I’m not even sure are true but have repeated so much anyway, the beauty of the Yu-Gi-Oh GX dub, etc). Well, again, that’s still a slight exaggeration: I do also still talk about more normal things like the other person’s life and interests, but it never builds to anything. To put it simply, I can *only* do small-talk. But people like talking to me: they laugh at my jokes, admire my quirkiness, seemingly enjoy my company … but that’s it. Like I say, I’m just a clown.
I’ve tried Tinder. On the blue-moon occasion I get a match, nothing ever develops. This is despite the fact that I think I have some great pictures and am (although realistically speaking, a niche taste) not unattractive.
Even when it comes to friendships, I have no goddamn clue what I’m doing. I have a fantastic close-knit group of friends who I adore and who care about me, yada-yada. But I can’t help but feel I’m only friends with them because we live together, and I definitely think of them as being much closer with each other than any one of them is to me.
I try to keep my head up. I’m only 21. I’ve just graduated uni and my whole life is ahead of me. But at the same time, I don’t want to be a clown. Or rather, I don’t want to be just a clown. I want to be a clown people don’t just like being around but want to be around. A clown people would choose first, a clown who has one person they know better than anyone else does. Or even just a clown people want to f
k, quite frankly.
Sorry with the rambliness. But does a person with my neurological condition have any hope of interacting with people like a normal human being? (Rhetorical question obviously; intellectually I know it’s possible, but intuitively I struggle to understand how.)
DEAR HORNY PAGLIACCI: Let’s start with the last question first, HP: Yes, clearly you’re capable of interacting with people like someone who’s neurotypical or without causing a fuss. I mean, you have a tight-knit group of friends, you have a lot of hobbies and interest that keep you social and your friends rely on you to actually start interactions with other folks. You’re able to get through your day like everyone else. Clearly: you’re not having problems where you’re not able to interact with mainstream society.
But that’s not the question you’re asking. The question you’re asking is: “is being neuroatypical going to prevent you from being in relationships?” And again: the answer is no. I mean, I know far too many people on the spectrum of all genders who are happily partnered up to one degree or another. Being autistic doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to being single or unlovable.
Nor, for that matter, is the issue that you can’t be subtle. Yes, some styles of flirting can be subtle. Hell, some can be so subtle that folks have no goddamn clue whether they’re being flirted with. But other styles of flirting can be as subtle as a brick to the head. As I’ve said many times before — including to Organic Chemistry yesterday — flirting is just the way you tell someone you’re interested in them. For some, this is all about the wordplay and banter. For others, it’s like being a much-less creepy and touchy Pepe LePew. That’s not the issue you’re having.
The main issue that you’re not really connecting with people. The clue here is in the way you describe yourself: as a big clown who makes people laugh and plows through the awkward like a bulldozer.
A lot of folks who can make people laugh often have a hard time going from there to building the sorts of romantic or personal connections with other people. It’s very easy to just keep going for that laugh and those good feelings… but at that point, you’re not flirting, you’re putting on a performance, not connecting with them. I suspect that, like a lot of folks, once you realized that you could make people laugh, you came to over-rely on that. After all, women do like men who can make them laugh. The problem, though, is that you have to be careful how you use it. It becomes far too easy to end up putting on a performance instead of connecting with people.
This is something I actually had an issue with in my early days; I got too good at making people laugh (and too reliant on pre-scripted routines) that people didn’t feel like I was flirting with them, they thought I was workshopping a bit for the next open mic night at Capitol City Comedy. That can put people off, especially when they were expecting a conversation, not a Night at the Improv.
That’s a big part of your issue: you don’t turn it off or turn it down. Not that enthusiasm is bad or that having passion is bad, or that you’re passionate about things other people aren’t. Passion is great, intensity can be great; most people don’t have passion in their lives. However, it’s possible to be too intense to a point that it’s overwhelming. It’s not just a case of “My Godzilla facts: let me show you them” (and trust me, I’ve got a good friend who’s got you beat on the Godzilla fandom), it’s that it sounds like you tend to be at a 10 and they need you at a 3. It’s very easy to end up with far too much of a good thing, especially in a flirting context. Robin Williams was one of the funniest people to ever walk the earth, period, but he would be exhausting if he was going full-tilt boogie at all times. It can be hard to have a conversation with someone if it becomes the equivalent of trying to drink from the firehose every time you get spun up.
You may not be cracking jokes all the time, but if you have just two settings with one being “normal but uninterested” and the other being This One Goes To 11, then folks are going to have a hard time feeling like they’re getting to know the real you. So you need to put some practice into learning how to turn the dial back a little. Passion is great, having interests in geeky s
t is great. But going into either wacky clown or lecture modes makes it hard to really connect with people and jokes can quickly become a shield against intimacy.
And it’s entirely possible that this is a defense mechanism as much as part of your being on the spectrum. Connecting with people and building attraction means building emotional intimacy; that requires being open and vulnerable. It can be scary to do that, especially if you have a difficult time with gauging how much is appropriate and how much is too much. But keeping that shield up through the performative clowning keeps them from connecting to you at all beyond a very surface level, which isn’t what you want.
I think the best thing for you will to be practicing dialing back the Pagliacci act and letting people see beyond the grease paint. It can be hard, especially if you have issues with grasping social nuances, but it can be learned. It will mean having to take risks and be willing to make mistakes as you try to find the lines between “appropriate” and “too much”. But if you’re willing to be brave, to take chances and to learn from them? Then you’ll start finding the ways that you can incorporate your humor and gifts for making people laugh into connecting with people and becoming the person they want to get to know well.
And then you won’t have to be the clown that’s crying on the inside.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com)