Twenty years ago, I worked at a small company with two Mikes. One Monday, Mike A and Mike B were walking down the hall together, each dressed in the same shade of khakis and a light blue oxford shirt. As they drew close. I joked about their uniform appearance. Mike B replied, “The real question is, are we wearing the same color underwear?” Before I could think of a response, he added, “It’s a trick question. I’m not wearing any.”
That is the funniest thing I have heard in my life.
Ever since, when it strikes me, I repeat those words—sometimes for hours—delighting in each iteration. “It’s a trick question. I’m not wearing any.” When with dear friends, they appreciate my glee and suffer my repetition. The person who suffers most is my wife Karen, my closest confidante. With her, I can be my unadulterated, ridiculous self. With her, I can be purely autistic while being accepted and cherished.
But it was not always so.
I met Karen when I was 48, a year after I realized my decades-long harrowing battle for functional competence in human society (see Letting Him Out) was due to my autism. When we started dating, I told Karen I was autistic. Her response: “Ah, that’s why you don’t play the games other men do. I can trust your words and actions.” For the first time in my life, I knew who I was and was accepted for it.
But Karen is my second wife. My first wife didn’t know I was autistic because I didn’t know myself. Knowledge is everything. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is torture.
Ignorance led me at 30 to believe my first marriage, barely one year old, was solid. Nothing seemed amiss. I was surprised, then, when my wife told me our relationship was in trouble. We plunged into rounds of couples therapy where one message stood out: I wasn’t giving my wife what she needed. This took many forms. I was unwilling to communicate satisfactorily. I wasn’t listening to her in the right way. I chose to isolated myself, not giving her enough of my time. I was obstinate. I was at fault.
I didn’t have the tools—the knowledge of my nature—to defend myself, to say, “This is just who I am.” I faced, voiceless, into a howling headwind of blame. With enough marriage counseling, my square peg was pounded into the round hole of a typical human relationship. The wind calmed. I believed we were on an even keel.
We were together for another decade and a half with barely a complaint. The floor fell from beneath my feet, again, when my wife decided I wasn’t giving her what she needed, again, and this time her best option was to seek it from another man. And again, we ended up back in a therapist’s office. And again, it was my fault.
The matrimonial duct tape we applied during that counseling lasted more than a year. When my wife sought the embrace of yet another man, we unraveled once more. This time, for me, logic prevailed. I forced myself to look at my relationship rationally, to ignore the plaints of my incompetence. Even from a statistical standpoint, it was unlikely the fault was always mine. There was a different direction to steer and I chose that course. I was just beginning to understand what it meant to be autistic, and that I was allowed to be different. It wasn’t okay for her to betray me. I could be, should be, on my own, away from toxic rejection.
Though ignorance was torture, knowledge did not automatically result in bliss. Rather, knowledge of my autism functioned as a nautical chart—navigating me away from the hull-rending shallow rocky bottom—as I met Karen, as love grew between us. There’s another joke, less humorous, but with a message: “I said to my doctor, it hurts when I put my arm over my head. He said, ‘Don’t put your arm over your head.'” If my autistic mind would be blindsided by the expectations of typical human relationships, then it made sense not to establish a normal relationship. As this dawned on me, I made it clear to my new love that she shouldn’t expect the expected. Rather, we could both revel in the unordinary, perhaps even create the extraordinary.
I had to believe something extraordinary was possible. And it was. And it is. It is Karen.
Karen reads books about living with an autistic spouse. That floors me. She wants our marriage to work. She wants to understand. She doesn’t read books about how to change an autistic spouse, or how to bear up under the yoke of autistic oppression. She wants to understand why I do what I do, why I am how I am. Sometimes she even asks me. Imagine that.
I want to understand her as much as she does me. I watch and listen to Karen intently, taking nothing for granted. Being autistic helps me do that. I catalog the observations from that detailed scrutiny. I have survived amongst humans by developing the skill to consciously study them and put that knowledge to work in everyday interactions. I use that ability as I work hard to understand what makes Karen happy and to steer in that direction.
Karen is my partner as I navigate this human world. After a holiday party, we will debrief on the drive home. While I can still talk—before I collapse from the exhaustion of maintaining an acceptable appearance—Karen will point out when I was convincingly social and when I let my guard down. Karen supports me in this way, helping me to avoid the shallows and find that sweet, deep channel.
Before a family gathering, as we close in on the location and I ask Karen for the fifth time to run through the cast of characters for me—arms flailing with spastic stress—my wife will gently say, “Jim. You’re acting rather spectrum-y. Let’s go over it again.” To me, there are no greater words of love. This woman has my back. She has my heart.
Love does not imply inexhaustible patience. Nor should it. “Jim, that’s the tenth time you’ve said ‘It’s a trick question. I’m not wearing any’ in the last 3 minutes. I know how funny it is to you. But it is getting annoying. What are the chances you can stop, at least until after dinner?” Love is bidirectional. Sure, I can do that.
I help Karen understand me by making sure I understand her. “You’ve just used a pronoun, but I don’t know who you’re talking about. You need to use some other words. Who is ‘she’ in this case?”
“Not her daughter? You were talking about her too.”
“No, my literal autistic husband. I meant Amy.”
“Oh, in that case, you’re right. Amy shouldn’t have said that to you. It was inappropriate.”
I love clarity. I love not being blindsided. I love that I can open up the hold and show my wife what is below deck. Of course the question is, what about everything inside I want to keep hidden? It’s a trick question.