Douglas LamanTwo smart, insightful and autistic people who like talking about relationships walk into an interview. What comes out is this fantastically rich conversation between Scarleteen columnist Douglas Laman and Love and Asperger's author and therapist Kate McNulty.
Over the last two years, I’ve penned several articles on Scarleteen with advice for autistic people about the world of dating. It’s a crucial topic, and not one that only I write about. Case in point: Kate McNulty, LCSW. A massively experienced therapist herself on the autism spectrum, McNulty has written her first book, Love and Asperger’s: Practical Strategies to Help Couples Understand Each Other and Strengthen Their Connection. It explores ways of confronting issues in relationships that include an autistic person. In exploring these issues, McNulty never sacrifices the humanity of autistic partners.
McNulty’s years of experience as a relationship counselor means she has wisdom to spare when it comes to how to confront problems in a relationship. Meanwhile, fictitious scenarios involving autistic people employed throughout the book reflect the all-too-real variety in the autistic community. McNulty also shatters the narrow societal perceptions of what who autistic people are. Such an achievement is one of the many impressive qualities that made Love and Asperger’s a book I couldn’t put down.
I desperately wanted to get to know this author better and, luckily, I got the chance to do just that by interviewing McNulty. We talked about her process of writing this book, how she wanted to improve on past books about relationship advice, and what she hopes everyone will ultimately take away after reading Love and Asperger’s.
Douglas Laman: You mentioned in the introduction to Love & Asperger’s that other books about dating with autism deal with only one side of the relationship. Were there any other aspects of these books that you were looking to subvert or improve upon?
Kate McNulty: I’m sure that other authors have valuable things to say, but I keep seeing these themes repeated about wanting the autistic partners to be [more neurotypical] more demonstrative, be more romantic, make more eye contact, and I think there’s just a lot of good intentions getting missed by the autistic person when they’re in a relationship with a neurotypical person. The neurotypical person just doesn’t understand how to read the signals that the autistic person is sending out of love and affection. It’s like they’re barely missing each other.
So, I’m hoping to give the neurotypical partner a sense of the autistic persons experience and help the autistic person find more language to explain their world to their neurotypical partner.
DL: The various anecdotes and scenarios involving autistic couples are quite interesting. Can you explain the process of crafting these segments?
KM: Well, y’know, I actually just made them up as I went along. So, it was a very imaginative process. None of them are based on real people. I find it upsetting when I’m reading books by therapists where the therapist is writing something that’s perhaps recognizable to the clients themselves. I just think our sacred responsibility is to honor people’s confidentiality. If people don’t think their information is going to be kept private, it’s hard to for them to be honest with us.
So, when I wrote the book, I intentionally did not refer to any real couples or people I knew. I just wanted to confabulate these stories because I have such a background to draw [on], so it was pretty natural and easy for me to have these fictitious couples to represent certain patterns that are familiar to me and my practice.
DL: An element I enjoyed in the book was the line “Complaining has a bad name in our positive/upbeat culture” in the section related to communication between couples. Would you say their other entities that get a “bad name” but are also important in the context of relationships?
KM: Well, the first thing I wanted to convey was that the sensory experience of autistic people is invisible to other people. We have a whole internal set of reactions or things we have to manage. I think a lot of what has happened with mental health professionals is that they’ve gone by the external observable indicators, the signs that someone’s autistic that they can view. But that doesn’t give them a window into an autistic person’s world.
I think it’s only been in the last decade that there’s been this blossoming of online reportage of generous autistic people who just really are urgent about getting their experience out into the world. I think there’s a rich reference base online among autistic people, but few people [still] actually go and explore that to find out what our inner world is like.
DL: The book juggles so many corners of the world of relationship. Was it ever overwhelming to try and juggle all that material in one book?
KM: I definitely learned that it’s easier to write more than it is to write less. I could have easily written a much longer book but that’s not what the book was supposed to be. So, I did have to refine my thinking and include the things that I was thought were most important to convey to a neurotypical audience, because that’s who the book is for. I find the term “special interests” condescending, but that’s the language people use. I think of it as “intense interests”. That’s one typical trait we see in autistic people; that’s a marker. Sensory needs that are different from the majority population, having social challenges.
I just wanted to make sure I expanded on those principles to make sure neurotypical people understood them and get a different slant of these key principles. I wanted to do justice to what I could with those concepts. and the other stuff had to be edited or maybe they’ll appear in more writing, I don’t know.
DL: Throughout the book, there are occasional visual aids, like the depiction of the Communication Matrix. To me, these come off as sparing but useful in how they’re executed, they’re not just shoehorned in. Was that a conscious decision to sparingly use visual aids?
KM: I think that it might be helpful for some people to have even more visual material, but again, that’s not the book the publisher wanted. In my office practice, I use a great deal of sketching things, diagraming things. I try to be very visual because I think a lot of us can key in and concentrate when we can key in [visually]. Many autistic people, and I must confess, myself included, really do have some struggles with auditory processing, so it’s funny that I chose the career that I did, because it’s all about hearing and talking.
But I find that I can do better with that when I’m fiddling with something, when I’m taking notes or when I’m sketching or doodling. Writing things out or having some kind of visual representation helps me keep track of what’s going on. I can really sympathize with people whose auditory processing is even less reliable than mine because it’s this internal sensation that the words are going out into the air and they’re getting drifty and you can’t keep track of what’s going on in a conversation.
DL: The book has a constant emphasis on bonding through vulnerability, such as in the section on emotional labor. Why would you say that vulnerability is so useful in uniting people?
KM: When you’re saying, “I’m going to trust you a little bit, I’m gonna be my whole self, I’m gonna let my guard down,” that’s what brings people together. Socially, it’s important that we be vulnerable with one another. There’s a lot in American culture about “looking like a winner”, there’s a lot of expectation for ourselves that we should…[be] propping up about how “good” our life is. The more we can dismantle that and show our struggles to other people, that’s going to give them a sense of our authenticity.
Seeing someone’s authenticity is quite compelling. That’s part of what I value about being a therapist. The Kleenex box is right there, and people don’t come in thinking they have to hold it together. They get to meet with me and other people in my profession and as the client your job is to fall apart and become disorganized in the session.
DL: Were there any other relationship books that influenced you and your writing?
KM: I certainly refer to the relationship training I received from the Gottman Institute and they certainly have books that are just helpful for anyone but especially appealing to autistic people because they did research on the strengths of happy couples. They identified the behavior patterns of couples who are doing well and what can we learn from them, instead of mental theories basing their ideas on theories and academia. They looked at thousands of couples. It’s a very logical process they laid out about what you need to have in place in your relationship to feel good and what kind of behaviors you need to get there.
I rely on their work quite a lot, though, of course, I’ve trained with a lot of people so it’s hard to narrow it down to one book. I have to say, because of my own struggles socially and with making friends and feeling socially comfortable and confident enough to have a conversation like this with you, through public speak[ing]. I’ve made a lifetime study of relationships as an intense interest for myself. I have many wells to draw from and I feel so grateful for all the people who have been studying about how to make friends and how to make fulfilling relationships in your life of all kinds.
DL: Your book makes sure to mention that autistic people are capable of engaging in acts of love with people beyond just romantic attraction, such as in your line about chosen families. Was that something you set out to incorporate into the text from the get-go or was that something that emerged while you were writing?
KM: I just think that’s an abiding philosophy of mine that we need a life that’s rich in friendship. I think in our culture, again, there’s an over-emphasis on love relationships being romantic in nature. I think the validity of having multiple kinds of love is important, that people should be living in communities and having multiple connections. I think the unhappiness comes from an over-reliance on romantic relationships — people over-invest in them. So, when a problem emerges in your romantic relationship, you don’t have the other people that they need to turn to for support, feedback and perspective. So, I think we all need to have a much broader set of connections than just a romantic relationship.
DL: I love the use of colorful language to describe certain parts of the social experience, such as thinking of conversation as a form of music. I would have loved to have those kinds of helpful descriptions when I was a kid first figuring out social conventions. Is that kind of terminology something you use in your sessions or did it first emerge while writing Love & Asperger’s?
KM: I wish I could remember. When you’re writing a book — this is my first book, I just finished my second — there’s a kind of state of immersion, a sort of self-hypnosis you have to go through. That way you can meet your deadlines, produce the content. So, I can’t really say where the ideas came from, I just build them out on the keyboard.
DL: You mentioned your second book, is there anything you can divulge on it right now or is that still entirely under the hood?
KM: Well, some of it…there are some vignettes, the next book will include vignettes about autistic families. But the book is mainly directed at parents of grown children who are struggling to connect with that grown child in one way or another. That might take the shape of helping a child achieve independence that’s age-appropriate, they might have a child who’s having trouble with drugs, there can also be estrangement in the family, people haven’t talked for a long time. There’s been a cut-off or disconnect. This next book will cover several different reasons why people are struggling to stay connected to their adult children and offer strategies to approach these very varied kind of issues.
DL: Finally, in a sentence, what is the biggest takeaway you want people to have from reading this book?
KM: I just want people to recognize that autistics are deeply human people. There’s a confusion about looking at us from the outside and seeing autistic people as robotic and less then feeling and less than human and that couldn’t be more wrong.
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