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By Marianne Eloise
aina, 24, spent a lot of time feeling that she was “awkward and unworthy of love”. She watched the ease with which other people communicated and dated, aware that she was different.
“I was a late bloomer to everything romance related. Dating and relationships came so easily to everyone around me, so I thought I was asexual for a year or so because connecting with others romantically was so difficult,” she tells me.
After getting diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder last year, Laina started to realise that the social and sensory difficulties that made dating complicated are part of who she is.
There are many incorrect assumptions people make about dating autistic people.
“A big misconception is that we do not show affection and do not like to be affectionate or receive affection from others,” says Rachael, 23. “You often hear people say that people who are autistic struggle with interpersonal relationships, empathy, and emotional expression.”
“A big misconception is that we do not show affection”
But she says this is false: “I’m overly empathetic and I know many other neurodiverse individuals who would say the same.”
She adds that she has found many people assume we are “weird” or “loners” and don’t need human interaction.
In fact, we might just express it differently, have a different love language or need more time alone. More often, we struggle with casual connections; deep friendships or long-term relationships with more meaningful points of connection are easier than small talk or Tinder dates, but it’s difficult to get the former without the latter.
However, an aversion to casual connections can be a good thing, says Laina: “I want to know who you are at your core – your hobbies, fears, passions, dreams. I don't want to just do small talk and hook up. Being autistic means I want to know everything about you, and it also means I have to open up about so many aspects of my life and diagnosis that I have to really trust you,” she says.
Despite attempting some casual dates after her last serious relationship ended, Rachael is not currently dating. She tells me that she feels obligated to “mask”, a term for hiding autistic behaviours, which autistic women do more frequently than men.
“I find dating incredibly difficult, confusing, and hard to navigate. It is challenging to understand the social processes of others, so I tend not to pick up on cues that reflect their interest in me until I reassess the situation several weeks or months later,” Rachael explains.
That inability to understand intentions has a darker side: “I have found myself in toxic situations including cheating, controlling and manipulative partners and sexual coercion,” she says. That means Rachael has to be even more alert in dating situations, making casual dating feel unsafe.
Laina is currently in a long-term relationship, and believes that the reason they are still together is down to her neurodiversity: “Relationships are hard for me, so once I find a good one I am willing to make it work so I don’t lose the companionship, predictability, support and consistency that comes with it.”
“Dating advice for autistic or other neurodiverse people often relies on ‘masking’ – hiding who we are, faking understanding cues, holding ourselves back when we get excited”
Identifying as pansexual and polyamorous, Laina occasionally dates other people but gets exhausted from masking and finds herself pickier about whom she dates, as it takes so much energy to prepare and navigate ‘coming out’.
“I feel it's right to inform my date of my diagnosis up front, because I don't think it's fair to them to hide such a big part of myself. I also try to give them a heads-up about any of my major triggers or issues, such as food aversions,” she says. “All of this means that I tend to be very vulnerable on first dates, which is another reason why I don't date too much. I don't want to explain all of that to someone I'm not comfortable around.”
Every person is different, but there are certain things that can make dating more complicated for neurodiverse people: navigating others’ preconceptions, feeling safe, understanding social rules, going to new places, handling sensory challenges, and articulating our needs.
Last year, Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum attempted to shed light on these difficulties, but instead it reinforced many misconceptions. In matching autistic people solely with each other, rather than even attempting to match them with neurotypical partners, it perpetuated the idea that we could not possibly connect romantically with someone with ‘normal’ neurology. How can we show that we are capable of having productive, happy, warm relationships if nobody will even acknowledge that it’s possible?
Dating an autistic person if you are neurotypical may require some adaptation. But why would you approach dating everyone in exactly the same way? Rachael wants people to understand “it’s OK to ask questions, even though it may make them feel uncomfortable or they may question if it is coming across as inappropriate.
“For me, it’s important to have a partner who is very clear and straightforward in their delivery so that I am able to understand what is being said or what is being asked of me. Being able to learn and adapt to each other’s own quirks and idiosyncrasies over time also contributes to a successful relationship because just as I have mine, they also have theirs.”
Laina agrees, but adds that we are all different: “I want neurotypical people to approach dating a neurodiverse person on a case-by-case basis,” she says. Take, for example, the incorrect assumption some people have that all autistic people hate intimacy and touch.
“I have some friends who love touching and intimacy to feel close to their date. I also have other neurodiverse friends who would rather avoid anything other than hand holding for the first few dates,” she says, adding that, as always, it’s best to ask.
Dating advice for autistic or other neurodiverse people often relies on masking; hiding who we are, faking understanding cues, holding ourselves back when we get excited. This advice rarely considers the psychological stress this causes, or the fact that making a connection work depends on both partners.
Rachel New, a dating coach who often works with neurodiverse, especially autistic, women, says: “They are especially good at knowing which rule of social interaction applies when. They have often worked very hard at this already, and appreciate the subtle differences between social situations. For example, they are often very sensitive to when someone might be offended, bored or upset and can adapt on a date to the other person. But this can be a challenge at times as they can be too sensitive to the other person and take too much responsibility for how the date is going.”
While New works with her clients to navigate unwritten rules, she believes that it doesn’t all fall on them: “Remember neurodiverse individuals have just as much empathy and emotions as you – they might just express it in a different way,” she says. “If you’re not sure why they behaved in a particular way or said something, just ask them.We all make far too many assumptions about other people’s motives, and if you’re able to listen to their reasons, you’ll learn about them more quickly.”
So if you’re a neurotypical person interested in someone who is not, keep your mind and communication lines open.
Header image by: Ted Foxx / Alamy Stock Photo
Dating a neurodiverse person may require some adaptation, but why would you approach dating everyone in exactly the same way?
By Marianne Eloise