The Pony Problem

The other week, this happened…

The Internet—the global system of interconnected networks that’s become an increasingly central means of commerce and communication capable of bringing far-flung civilizations together—reached its apex this week, after a man claiming to be the fiancé of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic character Twilight Sparkle contacted a user of online community DeviantArt to demand he stop drawing sexual pictures of his imaginary pony-bride. The request was made in a letter that was then published in full on the Internet, which no longer has any reason to exist, having achieved everything it has ever set out to do.

My initial reaction to this was to track down a ‘Brony’ and yell STOP IT!! JUST STOP IT!! NOW!! at them for a while, but on reflection I think I can offer some explanation on just what is going on with this person, and perhaps light the way to reintegrating them into sane, non-cartoon-pony-marrying human society.

I would guess that our pony fancying friend is autistic. Yeah, not so much of a leap given that he’s intending to share his life with the plushy version of a cartoon pony, but bear with me. What I’m intending to explain is why to the autistic brain, sharing one’s life with the plushy version of a cartoon pony might seem like a good idea.

It is my contention – based on reading lots of articles in New Scientist and on that fact that I’m an autistic person myself – that the autistic brain doesn’t draw a distinction between people and non-people. I suspect that neurotypicals have some kind of system in their brains that detects when the thing they’re looking at/dealing with is a person, and places it into a privileged mental category – a category that says ‘this is a fellow human being with whom you can have some kind of social relationship’. This system isn’t perfect of course, but generally it does a good job of dividing the world into two classes – people (eligible for social relationships) and things (not eligible for social relationships).

We autistics lack this system. For us the world is made up entirely of things – it’s just some of those things happen to walk and talk. For us a person is – on a fundamental neurological level – no different to a telephone pole, so we have to learn how to tell what things are suitable for social relationships. A useful starting point is ‘Is it animate?” Another is “Does it talk?’ Yet another is ‘Does it appear to engage in social relationships with others?’I think you can see where I’m going here…

Up until the 20th century this probably worked pretty well. The only animate, talking, social things around were human beings. But throw in film and  suddenly you’re exposed to animate, talking social things that aren’t actually people – they’re recordings of people. And then throw in animation and you can be exposed to animate, talking, social things that plain don’t exist – like magical ponies. Show this kind of thing to an autistic person whose method for identifying people isn’t robust enough, and the stage is set for all kinds of inappropriate weirdness.

Interesting, you may say, but it’s just a theory. Well I speak from more than just a theoretical perspective. Many years back I myself fell prey to this particular social-neurological trap and developed a particularly strong attachment to a fictional TV character (not, I am relieved to relate, a cartoon pony – or for that matter a cartoon anything). I never reached the levels of delusion required to refer to her as my fiance, or to write letters to random internet people defending her honour, but I did spend a substantial amount of time daydreaming about our ‘relationship’ and building up a fairly detailed mental dossier of our ‘time together’. It was all mad as a meat axe, sure, but years later I still think of her fondly.

And the truth is that an imaginary relationship has a lot of advantages – particularly for the lonely,  socially inept autistic. All aspects of the relationship are entirely under your control. Your ‘partner’ has no hard to understand emotions, they have no need for time or attention you don’t feel like providing, they’re always up to hang out, and conversely don’t get upset or offended if you’re not in the mood to see them, you don’t need to buy them gifts or take them out on expensive dates – it’s all so simple!

And while the ‘affection’ you get from them isn’t as good as the real thing (not, in fact, being anything at all) it’s better than nothing. Hell, if you’ve never had a real relationship it’s the best affection you’ve ever had! And the opportunity to express affection to someone, and have them accept it – even when they don’t technically exist – is just as intoxicating. It’s a nasty, addictive and unhealthy trap to fall into – regardless of whether you make a fool of yourself professing your love for a cartoon pony or not.

So I get where this guy is coming from. I think I understand it. But, seriously, dude, dump the pony and try to get out there and find a real person. You might fail, but at the very least you’ll no longer be the poster boy for internet mediated pony based insanity.

Single by No Choice

Forever alone!

So, the other day I was talking to a friend (you know who you are 😉 ) and the subject of valentines day came up. They mentioned they were having a rough time with it because they were single, then backtracked and acknowledged that I was single too, but that I’m “single by choice” and so it’s not quite the same thing…

Well. The thing is I’m not single by choice, I’m single by no choice.

I’m austistic. Now, being autistic has about as many different effects on people’s lives as there are autistic people, but the major debilitary effect it has on my life is a near complete lack of social instincts and a general inability to pick up on those mysterious channels of non-verbal communication that all you neurotypicals take for granted.

This is not terribly unusual for us autistics, and there are ways around it. Intensive study, social counseling and general life experience can help. Hell, the last one is the sole reason I can fit into society at all. But I wasn’t diagnosed with aspergers syndrome (my particular flavour of autism) until my late 20’s, by which point it’s hard – not to mention expensive – to try and undo years of damage from living in a society that’s essentially completely alien to you (and not realising why everything is so damn hard).

So, as a result of both my neurological state and years of unintentional abuse from a world that makes no sense I just don’t know how to do the whole relationship thing (and please note: in the term ‘relationship’ I include everything from living happily ever after with one’s soul mate to a quickie in a nightclub toilet stall). I don’t know how to approach someone, I don’t know how to talk to them, I don’t know how to indicate interest, I don’t know how to recognise any interest that may be being directed at me and, if I did somehow manage to recognise it, I have no idea how to reciprocate it. That kind of thing is just not in my skillset – and it would have to be in my skillset, because it’s not in my instinct-set either.

Now at this point some may scoff and make noises about how I’m overthinking things and I should just relax and let things happen naturally. Well, I’ve been doing that for over twenty years and no dice. The thing one has to realise is that the autistic brain just doesn’t work the way a neurotypical one does. The automatic systems that do all the heavy-social lifting stuff, quietly and in the background, are either unreliable or missing entirely. So social stuff is work. Hard work. And work that you need to be shown how to do, because you’ve got absolutely no idea where to start. The vast savannah of all possible behaviours is laid out before you, and you don’t have even the most rudimentary map to show you what path leads to the tourist lodge and how to avoid the lions.

There’s also the fact that not only am I congenitally socially incompetent, I’m also massively underexperienced. By your mid-thirties you should have basic social interaction – let alone social interaction of a more intimate nature – pretty much sorted out. You can make judgements on what to do and what not to do based both on your inbuilt social instincts and your years of experience. Well I don’t have those years of experience. Social interaction is hard enough without the added pressure of making some kind of rookie mistake that everyone else has been avoiding since their teens.

Add it all up and the stress and difficulty is just overwhelming. As a result I’ve more or less resigned myself to not experiencing the relationship component of life, and given up trying.

So, I’m single by no choice. Does this mean I sit around at home in the dark wailing in loneliness? No (mostly). I may not have a choice about being single, but I do have a choice about how I can deal with being single. I can wallow in self-pity and complain about how unfair it all is, or I can pull myself together and focus on the good stuff in my life. Good friends, good food, good music, a stable society, a safe place to sleep at night, socialised health care, access to funny cat videos on the internet, etcetera. It’s not always easy, when work or life or the state of the world are stressing me out it can be soul-wrenchingly hard to come home to an dark apartment and an empty bed, but on the whole it ain’t so bad. I can at least laugh about it and spend my valentines day’s considering how much money I’m saving not having to spend $20 per stem on hothouse roses and overpriced chocolates 🙂

Forever alone!

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