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Many people assume that those with autism aren’t even interested in romance, but it’s simply not true. In 2017 autism got major representation in the Netflix series Atypical, a comedy that follows Sam, a teenager on the spectrum, as he begins to navigate dating. Although humorous, it brought up many memories of a young Andi. In many cases, I was figuring out how to attract suitors only to realize I didn’t know what to do with them.
Romance is notoriously tricky business, rife with unwritten rules and full of surprises. It becomes especially difficult if, like me, you have a disorder that impacts communication and socialization (two key components of dating). Please keep in mind that I am only one person with autism. I will not have the same struggles as all other autistic individuals. Despite this, I hope that by sharing my knowledge and experiences I can help others on the spectrum and provide hope for the parents of autistic children that we can, and do, find romance.
For me, dating has always been a bit of a science experiment. I’m constantly learning and categorizing what works and what doesn’t, figuring out how to bring the odds into my favor. After 6 years of trial and error I can confidently say that the biggest contributing factor to dating success is being open about having autism. The world has become far more accepting of neurodiversity than it used to be. Usually I am met with curiosity and questions rather than judgement. When looking for a partner, you want someone who is ready to accept you for exactly who you are. This means telling them you are on the spectrum within the first 3 conversations you have. If at this point they begin to lose interest, no problem! You have saved yourself strife and heartache over a closed minded person. Once you’ve opened up about being on the spectrum you’ve set the stage for a conversation that can help your relationship be a positive one.
Most people have a basic understanding of what autism is. However, it would be unfair to your new partner to assume they know how it impacts you. I’ve found it helpful to explain the ways in which I struggle. That way my significant other can not only recognize me struggling but, sometimes anticipate difficulty before it happens (this may sound very familiar to autism parents). Things to address may include:
Not Liking Surprises (Even Good Ones)
Many people with autism do NOT like surprises. In middle school I had a meltdown when I found out that my family brought me to the airport to leave for Disney, not to meet the Pittsburgh Steelers as I had been told. To an outsider I must have looked like an incredibly ungrateful child. In reality, I was reeling from a change in my anticipated schedule. This is why it’s important to tell your significant other that surprises are not particularly fun for people with autism. If they’re neurotypical, surprises may be an important part of relationships for them. Fortunately there are ways to compromise. For example, my current boyfriend has learned that surprises are okay if he tells me ahead of time that there is going to be a surprise. This gives me time to wrap my brain around the idea that something unexpected is going to happen. I can trust that he knows me well enough that the surprise will be a good one!
One of the best parts of dating can be going to new places and trying new things! Unless you have autism and trying new things is actually terrifying because in unfamiliar situations the likelihood of a sensory meltdown increases significantly. Educating your partner on the things that trigger sensory meltdowns will help them choose suitable date activities.
I want to preface this by saying that you never have to do anything that is uncomfortable or unenjoyable for you, and your partner needs to respect this. If they are pushing you to “get over it” you are within your rights to push them out of your life. Physical affection can be difficult for those with autism. It’s important to discuss what you do and do not like. Maybe tight hugs are okay but light or unexpected touches are painful. Perhaps you like holding hands but not if they’re sweaty. Maybe you don’t want anyone to touch you at all and that’s okay! Although uncommon, there are relationships where physical affection is not a component. Take advantage of the bluntness that frequently accompanies autism spectrum disorders to directly communicate what you like and do not like. Keep in mind that your preferences may change over time.
A frequent side effect of autism is taking things very literally, meaning that sarcasm simply does not compute. One way to work around this is to have a cue for when sarcasm is being used. What worked for me is having people put their hands up and do “spirit fingers” to indicate that I should not take what’s being said seriously.
At first glance it may seem like dating someone with autism is nothing but work for the other party. However, there are many reasons dating someone on the spectrum can be great! My boyfriend likes that I am very open with my thoughts. When I’m having a problem I let him know about it right away. We’re able to have discussions that are based in logic where many might become overwhelmed by emotion. I’m excited by even the tiniest things and bring a unique perspective into his life with my bluntness. I’m able to make friends with anyone because I’m not concerned with upholding social norms. Different does not mean bad!
In a healthy relationship your partner will care about and want to help you in any way they can, but it’s up to you to advise them on how to do that. Helping and supporting you may include noticing when you are overwhelmed and helping you get away from adverse sensory stimuli. It could also be them making sure to explain things fully without assuming that you will fill in the blanks, or understanding that plans need to be communicated in advance and that the anticipated schedule should be stuck to as much as possible. Most importantly, be direct with your feelings and emotions. Communication is the most important thing!