It’s a relation thing.
“It’s a relation thing.” This is how Hannah Gadsby responded to the question posed by the talk show host, Fredrik Skavlan.
Skavlan was trying to get at what stops Gadsby from feeling comfortable with people in a social situation. He said, “So, is that the thing… so as long as you are home with yourself… autism is like nothing?”
Gadsby, an Australian comedian continued. “Yeah… when I am by myself, I’m smooth. I’m good at life… but when someone else comes in… with all of their facial expressions and stuff and it really throws me for a loop.”
The first time I heard this odd expression (“It’s a relation thing) it was from my former husband, Howard. He actually wrote it in an email to me, shortly after we separated. In an attempt to understand why our marriage was failing, he wrote, “I think it’s a relation thing.”
Since then, I have learned a lot about “Asperger Syndrome.” I not only recognized the Autism in my former spouse, but also in my mother and my eldest daughter Bianca. Being surrounded by Autists all of my life, you might think I understood them better. Instead, they had the opposite effect on me. They puzzled me. They made me feel like something was always wrong with me. Our relationships were oppressive and tragic.
It’s a relationship thing.
Take a good look at this word — relationship. How do you feel about it?
Now look at these two phrases:
It’s a relation thing.
It’s a relationship thing.
Do they feel (or sound) the same to you?
NeuroTypicals (NTs) have relationships with others. I perceive the world this way too — through my relationships with others. But for Gadsby and Howard and others on the Autism Spectrum, they exist in relation to others — separately and discreetly.
Gadsby is overwhelmed when others enter the room, “. . . with all of their facial expressions and stuff.” She prefers being alone rather than in the world of relationships, where all that “stuff” is part of the interactional and connecting world of NTs. When she is alone, autism is not an issue, because autism is only relevant in relationship with others — where it stands out and feels odd.
Yes, the energy of interactional people is a lot to track, but if you are NT, you just jump into the flow. You don’t worry about categorizing or listening to every word. Instead, you engage in a friendly exchange.
If you listen to people, their language reflects their underlying belief system and view of the world. In this very brief interchange between Gadsby and Skavlan you get to observe how a transactional woman and an interactional man discuss the same topic — social situations — but from dramatically different points of view.
For Skavlan, he wants to know the person. He encourages Gadsby to open up about herself, revealing what makes her tick. For Gadsby, she answers the questions and nothing more. With each of Skavlan’s questions, she politely gives an answer, along with a quirky facial expression that makes the audience laugh— and then waits for the next question. She has observed that Skavlan likes to ask questions, so as far as she is concerned all she needs to do is answer those questions.
Skavlan is an entertainment professional so he can handle his guest, but does he wonder why she doesn’t engage — engage in relationship building? She ignores the other guests on the show. Do they wonder too? Skavlan and his guests all keep smiling but there is no opening to engage with Gadsby.
Autists are intimidating.
Gadsby is puzzled that people find her “intimidating” (her word). She doesn’t intend to be intimidating. In fact, she wants to make people laugh. Yet she admits in this interview that she is not the least anxious when she performs on stage. As she puts it, she feels “dead inside.” That sounds intimidating to me.
That “dead inside” expression tells me a lot. She is not engaging her audience the way an NT comedian might do. In a transactional manner, if the audience laughs, she is successful. On the other hand, if an adoring fan wants to hug her after the performance, she rejects the hug, thereby rejecting the person. It’s OK not to want to hug strangers, but an NT would offer a kind gesture instead, such as a smile, or a handshake, or a high five — or an autograph — something to let the fan know they are appreciated.
I suppose appreciation is not what Gadsby is after, either receiving or giving it. If it’s just “a relation thing,” then all of that dynamic, interactional, friendly give and take is not necessary. It may seem unkind to think of Autists as intimidating but for NeuroTypicals the lack of social reciprocity leaves us cold.
Love is more than “a relation thing.”
Hearing Gadsby use that phrase, “it’s a relation thing” and describing herself as “intimidating,” and watching her ignore Skavlan’s bids to connect — this brought clarity to me about why I have felt alone most of my life in my relationship with my “Aspies.” I kept trying to have a relationship with people who saw me as a transactional object. In relation to them, I served a purpose. If I served the purpose to their liking, I was accepted. If not, I felt discarded. They answered questions or asked them. Once they got what they were after they moved on.
I remember a moment with Howard when I discussed filing for divorce. He looked surprised and said, “But I thought we were getting along better.”
Even though this was a painful moment for me, I was amused by his response. I said, “Howard, I understand why you thought we were getting along better. That’s because when I decided to get a divorce three months ago, I stopped talking with you.”
Howard was quiet for a long time. He sat very still with his eyes closed. He must have been thinking about what I said. When he finally opened his eyes, he said, “I think you are right. We haven’t been talking.”
This was his world, a world in which all was well as long as Howard was satisfied — and left alone. But for me, love is much more than “a relation thing.” It is an alive, exciting, energetic give and take between people that helps us both grow personally and interpersonally — stronger, smarter, more creative, kind, and aware — over time.
When Howard spoke those words, my resolve crystalized. I had spent over two decades with a man who was cocooned in his own world and seeming oblivious of his wife and children. He literally watched TV, while listening to NPR with earbuds, and at the same time sitting in front of his computer working on legal briefs. There was no room to invite me (or the children) into his world, nor would he step into ours. After 23 excruciatingly painful years of this mistreatment, I quit.
I felt invisible to my NeuroDiverse mother, husband, and child. Serving a purpose in the lives of NeuroDiverse family members is a role — in relation to — not with them. A purpose or role does not feel affirming, or appreciative, or known, or loving.
I spent a lifetime not understanding the irony of being in a family where the NeuroDiverse were satisfied when I left them alone, while I desperately wanted to connect. I missed the joy of being in relationship with those I loved because they didn’t know how to love me back, interactionally, as NeuroTypicals do. This has been a terrible loss for me to come to terms with — a lifetime without love.
However, with this discovery of my authentic self, I recognized an incredible opportunity. I am grateful that I prefer creating relationships — or loving connections — to a “relation thing.” This means that I am free to feel and enjoy the love all around me, anytime I choose.
It’s also true that I can freely honor those with NeuroDiversity like Hannah Gadsby, to choose the comfort of being alone. I find it odd, but I get it — I just wouldn’t choose it for me.