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Autistic Limerence: The risks of when a person is a special interest

by Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman

What is Limerence?

Limerence is one name for infatuation with another person. It is not a regular crush. It is all-consuming and intense. Some psychologists use the term to refer only to romantic infatuation, usually in a teen or adult. But others define limerence more broadly to include platonic infatuations as well. I prefer this broader definition, as it has been extraordinarily helpful for me to have a psychological term for a kind of infatuation that has happened to me since childhood.

Limerence and Autism: An Autistic Perspective

Autistic people's brains privilege deep, long attention on one or a few things at a time. When our attention gets focused on a particular topic, we call it a special interest or Autistic passion. It makes sense that for some of us, our deep, long attention will turn towards another human being, instead of towards a game, creative project, topic, genre, or any of the myriad of types of special interests there are in the Autistic community.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a person being a special interest. Deep interests are normal and healthy for Autistic people, and if it brings joy and regulation to the Autistic person and respects the boundaries of the other person, then there is no problem. Eventually the phase ends. No one gets hurt. I have had multiple experiences of a person being my short-term special interest where this is what happened.

But having a human being as a special interest can make an Autistic person very vulnerable in ways that other special interests do not. To understand why, we have to understand that special interests are a form of self-regulation for Autistic people. Spending time with them helps us feel safe, calm, and happy. (This is why caregivers should never use special interests as a reward. They are integral to Autistic wellbeing). They are often our most natural way into socializing and finding community.

If our special interest is a topic, new skill, social cause, or even a distant celebrity, we can access our self-regulation as much as our own limitations allow. We can study it, join fandoms, work towards completion of a project, decorate our clothes or room with its theme, etc. The object of interest does not make its own limits. Nor does it pay attention to us. We pay attention to it. We are in control of how we engage.

But when a person is the special interest, it's different. A person can choose to ignore us, give us mixed messages, trigger attachment patterns, make and break promises, be unavailable when we want them to be available, be uncomfortable with the attention we are giving them, or any other number of inconvenient truths.

With unpredictable access to the regulating force, the Autistic person (of any age) may begin to relate to the person more like a classic addiction. We may have intrusive thoughts, not be able to focus on other activities of daily life, and even engage in risky behavior that could violate our own safety or the boundaries of the other person in order to get a "fix" of what we are craving.

In addition, due to our vulnerable nervous systems, Autistics are at high risk of attachment wounds even when we grow up with secure attachment figures. This can also play a role in limerence.

So, we can see how a healthy special interest can skew into limerence - an unhealthy infatuation that causes suffering to the person feeling it.

I have had multiple experiences of limerence, as a child, teen, and adult. It is complex, overwhelming, and ultimately very painful.

For the rest of this post, I am going to focus on Autistic children who are limerent towards an adult outside the home, since I have seen very little online addressing this topic and it's where my experience lies. For children infatuated with a family member, the boundaries are much harder to navigate. I hope the information in this post will be helpful to an extent, but when a family member is the object of limerence the family may need more tailored neurodivergent-affirming support from a coach or therapist to support everyone involved.

My Story

When I was a child, I experienced limerence towards an adult in my school. The infatuation lasted for four years (ages 10-12). The object of my infatuation did not have any support in dealing with the situation. It was the mid-1990s. There was no school psychologist. Certainly no one knew I was Autistic (no one with my profile matched diagnostic criteria back then). No one knew the depths of my infatuation or the repercussions it would have.

All this made me extremely vulnerable. The adult, who I truly believe was doing her best to treat me compassionately, ended up doing things that increased the limerence. She pointed out things we had in common. She wrote me long letters. She gave me promises of further attention that she could not keep.

Then the adult abruptly ended contact with me, without any closure.

I felt ashamed, confused, and heartbroken. I did my best to hide how I felt.

I experienced this adult’s disappearance from my life as a traumatic abandonment. Since the adult had also many positive impacts on my life, it took a very long time to notice that I was suffering unconscious effects from the abandonment, including negative impacts on my romantic attachment patterns and on my sexuality. Twenty-five years later, I ultimately realized the depth of the trauma and worked with mental health providers to try and heal.

As I tried to heal, the shame would always resurface. My therapists would point out that I was a child who did nothing wrong. Plenty of kids have crushes on adults at school. I knew they were right. But something still didn't convince me. Yes, the adult acted in ways that would today be deemed unprofessional and inappropriate (though not overtly abusive). But deep down, I felt sure that there was something wrong with me because my feelings towards this person were not normal.

At age 40, after discovering I was Autistic, I learned the word limerence. It was extremely healing to realize that my feelings for this adult were part of a larger pattern of my brain wiring, and that there was a word for this kind of infatuation. Having a name for my Autistic wiring and a name for limerence healed me. Yes, I had been badly hurt. But given my brain wiring and the skillset of everyone involved at the time, what happened made sense. I wasn't bad or wrong, and the adult did the best she could with the information and training she had.




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