Since the term “Invisible Disability” covers a huge area of disabilities I’m going to specifically talk about dating someone with autism. This advice is not for those of us who have autism we know what we’re like. It’s for those neurotypicals (normal boys and girls) who meet us and think we’d make a cool partner so they decide to get to know us better via the normal dating rituals and get frustrated when we don’t play by the rules.
By the time most people with autism reach adulthood and seriously think about the whole dating, marriage, kids and the promise of someone who loves us unconditionally we’re likely to be well into our late 20s or older. We’re also likely to be categorised into 2 distinct groups:
- Mistrusts EVERYONE – we’ve learnt the hard way that people view our disability as a weakness that leaves us vulnerable to manipulation and abuse
- Totally Sheltered & Innocent – these are the autistic people who’s family, friends, teachers, support workers and so on overprotected them so they didn’t get emotionally, physically or mentally hurt by others growing up.
Unless you are a manipulative sociopath looking for a victim to intimidate, control and terrorise or someone who has a pathological need to be a full time career it’s unlikely you’d even consider dating an autistic person you’ve seen in full not coping melt down or total system shutdown. And since most autistic adults have learnt that to freaking out in public is NOT acceptable it’s unlikely when you first meet us that we’ll show any signs of what 99.9% of the public thinks of as the typical indicators that someone is AUTISTIC. Since a HUGE amount of people still don’t know females can be autistic figuring it out without us saying “oh by the way I’m autistic” generally doesn’t happen. We might come across as a little nervous, socially awkward, a bit out of it, cool and frosty or distracted. If we’ve learnt to play-act the “social butterfly” part we can come across as happy, ditzy, flirty or the life of the party. Meet us in an environment we’re comfortable in with people we trust and you’ll get the quirky, witty, funny and intelligent version.
Even if we’ve been totally upfront and said to the person wishing to date us “by the way I’m autistic” your average neurotypical person is NOT going to understand what this really means. Popular culture has in someways made people more aware of Autism and in other ways it’s completely fucked up how the neurotypical public thinks of someone with autism.
If your reference for “autistic person” is
- The Big Bang Theory
- The A Word
- The Good Doctor
- The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night
- The Accountant
Then your preset idea of “autistic person” is firstly that Autism = male, followed by we don’t have a sense of humour, can’t have a normal conversations, always sound like we’re quoting textbooks, must follow strict routine, can’t do normal things alone like travel, can’t handle physical contact, don’t have a sex drive and so on and so forth ad nauseam. There is also a solid possibility that when the autistic girl says to her neurotypical boy or girl “by the way I’m autistic” they are not going to believe her because none of his/her above listed ‘Autistic Person Is’ reference material show autistic females who walk, talk and appear for lack of a better term “normal”.
The rule book for dating has changed a lot thanks to technology and even if in the unlikely event you’ve met your possibly future Mr/Mrs in person, the first stages of the dating ritual will be done via some Social Media Message App. Cue the comedy music as miscommunication will now start. We (the autistic people) do not interpret information the same way a neurotypical person does and 99% of the time we are both literal and logical thinkers so here’s some helpful advice:
- Make sure you are actually asking a question and do put the ? at the end. For example: “Hi I’m Craig we met at Shellie’s Party last Saturday” for Craig is the start of a conversation and he is now waiting for a response. For me (the autistic chick) this is a statement of fact so I’m unlikely to respond.
- Read the question you are asking us carefully and really think about what it is you want to know. For example “where are you from” —> in my autistic brain you are not asking me where I currently live you are asking me where I was born and thus where I come “FROM” and where I am FROM is far far far away from where I now live (thank god because I hate Canberra which is where I’m from originally)
- If you ask questions that require yes/no responses that is exactly what you’ll get. For example Craig “Do you want to go for coffee?”, Autistic Chick thinks he means now since no definitive time frame was included like *on Saturday* and looks at what she must finish today and text back “no”.
- Be prepared for information overload if you ask an open ended question that just happens to correspond with one of our obsessive topics. For example Craig “How do you find the hidden passageways in BlackOps Beyond Death?”. Autistic Chic – sends a 36 page email with screen shots, ratio brake downs, diagrams and an analysis of your current playing statistics that she found by hacking the server to look up your player profile and history (I did say we could be a little obsessive)
- Do NOT use acronyms, pictures or txt msg sht👋🏻 before getting to know me and know what I will and won’t understand without having to Google it. My autistic brain has enough shit to decipher and if I’ve had a long day, bad nights sleep or I am at stimulation overload point and I get a text message like this “❤️ U” or “txt u l8r” that I then obsessively have to figure out what it means you’re probably going to find yourself on the fuck off and leave me alone list as dealing with you is now stressful not fun.
- Think outside the box with questions because we are either obsessively focused or board shitless very quickly. So if you run with the standard format of “how old are you”, “Do you have kids”, “where are you from” by question 3 I’ve moved on. Try things like “what’s your all time favourite movie that was not a hit at the movies” – now I’m interested because I have to think about the reply and you evidently want to get to know ME as a person.
So now you’ve survived the first part of the dating ritual via Social Media Message and might have actually spoken to your potential autistic partner on the phone or via video chat (unlike but miracle do happen) and you want to go for an actual live and in person date.
I’ve read in articles about “Social Mating Rituals” that normal girls (or boys) apparently enjoy spending considerably stupid amounts of time trying every outfit in their wardrobe on to find the sexiest outfit, then do all the grooming stuff with lotions and potions. Spend hours straightening their hair before then adding more product to curl it properly and so on. They also seem to enjoy going to noisy, people filled places that have horrid lighting and the newer and more trendy the place is the better. After all the point of going on a date is not just to impress the potential boyfriend/girlfriend but to have everyone see how amazing you look, that you’re on a date so you’re so over that other jerk and that you still got it after all look at the sex boy/girl you’re on a date with.
As you can probably tell by the fairly large amount of sarcasm in that last section the words “autism” and “social/trendy/bright/loud/people-mecca” tend to be mutually exclusive and rarely combined. So no the Autistic Chick that Craig is trying to date does NOT want to meet him for drinks at the new club, pub, bar that’s just opened or any pub, club, bar or noisy people filled location. She also 110% does not want to go check out some rad band playing at x location, try the brand new restaurant that has opened where everything is cooked using evaporative ziplock bags or go with you to a Karaoke bar. Autistic Chick wants to meet Craig in a location of her choosing where she knows she’ll enjoy the 1 thing on the menu she always orders and it want be to light, bright, noisy, smelly or peoply so the risk of sensory overload is somewhat reduced.
In someways dating someone who is autistic is incredibly easy if you’re willing to toss out the “Dating Rule Book” and embrace our quirks. What do I mean by this?
- We’ll always be happy to go to the same location, sit at the same table and after about the 3rd date you’ll be able to order for us because we always eat the same food
- We’re low maintenance as far as the whole clothing and beauty routine is concerned because we’re unlikely to spend hours grooming as it’s firstly a huge waste of time and secondly most of the products are to smelly, itchy, oily, or whatever. Also we will wear the same 8 t-shirts and 9 pairs of shorts to death, we tend to buy in bulk if we like something. So no I’m not wearing the same t-shirt for the 4th day in a row I actually have 4 identical t-shirts (not kidding but in my case it’s jeans and I own 15 pairs of them).
- Making a set day/night be it daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly and time that is reserved as “date with Craig” is 100% ok with me because I can then put it in the schedule and not get stressed out about going on a “date” which would be outside of my routine.
At first we might come across as reserved, nervous, distracted or disinterested because we don’t show the normal none verbal signs of being interested in someone. Unless you really spend time with people who are autistic you really don’t understand what I mean by this so heres some help:
Normal None Verbal Signs of Interest or Attraction:
- Eye Contact
- Small facial expressions like eye’s widening, small upward curl of the lips, that odd thing where people put their head down but look up at the same time
- Open body language like arms uncrossed and leaning toward the person talking
- Fiddling with hair, touching necklace or earrings to draw attention to their body
- Does not make eye contact and is probably looking at everything in the room or studying their food in detail rather than looking at the person talking. Eye contact is almost physically painful for autistic people in my case it is actually painful as I get an instant stress migraine from trying to do it.
- Zero facial expression – I’m not just talking about the big things like an upward curl of the lips at something they find funny I’m talking full on so blank you scare professional poker players and intelligence officers because there is nada, zip, zero, zilch visible not even a micro expression to indicate what is going on inside your head
- Mismatched body language – wriggling in chair to get comfortable not because we dislike what you just said, leaning forward at the wrong time not to indicated interest in the speaker but to get a better angle to see something. Arms crossed over chest because it’s comfortable not because we’re disinterested or irritated.
- Playing with hair, necklace, earrings is to adjust them not to make you look at my cleavage. If I’m fiddling with anything it’s more likely to be on the table and not aligned correctly so I’ll be straightening the napkins or checking the lid on the salt shaker is done up correctly.
Verbal communication can be just as difficult especially in the first couple of getting to know you in person dates. Hopefully Craig by now has figured out via the texting, e-mailing or possibly video chat that Autistic Girl is not going to follow the normal rules of combat (ops I meant dating). The same rules for texting apply in person so don’t ask closed questions where we can say yes/no, think outside the box on topics, actually listen to what we say and if you get more than a 3 word response start digging on that topic as it’s evidently something we’re happy to talk about. Be prepared for the information overload if you get us talking. I really mean be prepared I once had a guy in my life who asked how I can breath at the same time as talking because my speech patterns don’t have breath brakes it’s just a continues stream of chatter. I also had a guy I worked with who was from Louisiana USA who I drove crazy because I talk very fast even for Australian standards and after the first 5 words out of my mouth he couldn’t decipher what I was saying.
Just because we don’t appear to be listening does not mean we did not hear what you said so don’t act surprised when we ask detailed questions that directly relate to what you were talking about. Oh and on the topic of hearing ours is supper sensitive so do not shout or raise your voice if god forbid we are somewhere noisy I can hear you just fine, in fact I can not only hear you, I can hear the people in the kitchen talking, the girls phone vibrating in her bag 6 tables away and the entire conversation the guy on his mobile across the street is having including the person he’s talking to’s response so the fact I’m “listening” to you means I really like you.
If I (the autistic chick) has stuck it out and gone on more the 1 physical in person date with you then you better believe I like you. This does not mean on the fourth date (or whatever the magical number is) I’m going to want to go back to yours for coffee followed by a quick snog and a good boinking. In all probability I’m NEVER going to want to go to your place especially if you have housemates, it’s not personal I don’t even like visiting my family because it’s not my space. And just because I invite you around to my place don’t expect it’s for snogging and a good boinking. It just means I want to get to know you better in a space I am comfortable in that is low stress, is unlikely to trigger sensory overload and I can relax and be me.
While we are on the topic of you actually getting to come into my home the likelihood is that the space will be clean but messy, we don’t tend to be very good at things like housekeeping. However like every rule there is exceptions and some of us (the autistics) are totally OCD about neatness. Either way please do not rearrange thing in our environment unless you’ve talked to us about it because we don’t cope with changes well. As a rule of thumb we’ve worked hard to gain our independence and we’ve probably had a lifetime of people interfering by doing things and deciding thing for us to be “helpful” not realising how irritating and frustrating it is to not have control of even the little thing in your life.
Now we get to the pointy end of the stick when it comes to dating…….Physical contact AKA Snogging and Sex. It’s not that we (the autistics) dislike sex or physical contact it’s just that the sensory receptors in our brain aren’t wired the same way as neurotypical people so we’re either
- Super sensitive to every sight, smell, sound, touch and taste
- Under sensitive to thing for example in my case I don’t feel pain correctly so I can’t tell if I’m injured until it’s bad enough to require a trip the ER
- A mix and match of super sensitive to some things and under sensitive to others (explanation – if you touch my feet or ribs I’m probably going to punch you because they are super sensitive but all other areas of my body require a fair amount of pressure for me to feel anything)
So things you might not even notice like your shirt is not cotton and the skin on your thumb is a little rough for me will be amplified 110% and make me feel like my skin is being rub with sandpaper, which is not going to make my magical honey pot moist with anticipation. However your natural scent or whatever body products you use might tip all the switches into the go-go green zone and after I’ve made you strip of the icky shirt and so long as your scratch thumb doesn’t touch my ribs I might get my knicker off and you mostly out of your jeans and nail you to a kitchen chair (and yes I mean that in the gutter brain sex way not literally).
No matter how fast or slow your autistic partner decides to take the physical side of the relationship two things are really important:
- LET US (your autistic partner) DECIDE – Just trusting you enough to let you into my space let alone actually let you physically touch me is a big ask so don’t get pushy about wanting snogging or sex. And once snogging and/or sex happens don’t always expect to be the dominant partner who decides on when, where and how fast or slow things go. Some of us and yes I’m firmly in this camp need to have control to feel safe and also I’m less likely to be distracted if I’m 100% into it. Since we can’t fake emotions and can’t lie for shit if we don’t enjoy what is happening then we’re probably going to tell you we’re not enjoying it or didn’t enjoy it (ego crusher moment and since we are often blunt about how we say things it might not be very polite).
- VERBAL COMMUNICATION – we (the autistic partner) don’t understand what any of the sighing, moaning, groaning or grunting noises mean so as porn movie cliche as it sound hearing “oh yeah baby just like that” tell’s me I’m doing the right thing. As embarrassing as this is to admit I once flipped out and started checking my at the time partner for injuries because I thought the groaning sound he made when I did something was from pain……no I’m not kidding.
The not so fun side of autism and it’s varied and multiple co-morbid conditions are many and they can be hard to live with. Trust me there I times I don’t want to live with myself and part of me just wants to scream at me in frustration for how I’m not handling something very well. Effectively if you are dating someone who is autistic than you are dating someone who is emotionally disconnected, possibly physically disabled and mentally ill (sorry but it’s the truth).
We struggle to understand and express emotions so you might not hear “I love you” ever but the fact your autistic partner spent 14hrs straight in an e-bay bidding war to buy you the mint condition SpiderMan comic you sold to pay off your parents house SHOWS how much they not only love you but pay attention to what you do and say. We (the autistics) will become obsessed about things and that might be all we talk about for days on end it’s ok to say to us “can we talk about something else” and we’ll try to not talk about our current obsession but our brain wiring makes it really hard and we’ll circle back to the topic again and again and again. Just because we don’t respond to a text, voicemail message, missed call, e-mail or social media post does NOT mean we are mad at you. It means we either got distracted and forgot or we’ve hit overload and have shut down completely.
Stimulation Overload is not fun for those of us who have to live with it nor the people in our lives who have to deal with it. The autistic brain is a bit like a computer that someone forgot to load filtering software on so our brains have to work seriously hard to figure out what is total shit (ignore), somewhat important (deal with later) and DANGER (deal with it now). As a consequence as the day progresses our ability to cope starts to drop and by the end of the day our systems have hit critical overload. Once we hit critical overload there are 3 possible things that will happen:
- Explosion – someone or something (normally unfortunately our partner or family) will do or say something that trips the switch from stressed to overload and we explode. I mean full on ranting, raving, screaming and wall punching explode probably with a fair amount of swearing and throwing of things like shoes, plates, glasses. Before we possibly swallow enough Valium to knock out an entire Army regiment and cry uncontrollable while sitting in a corner rocking back and forth while slamming the back of our head into the wall in an attempted to make our brain switch off until the Valium kicks in and we become a zombie. * Please Note: Not a lot of adults do this as somewhere in the learning to live with your disability work you learn to internalise rather than externalise your frustration.*
- Shut Down – this sometimes starts to happen before we’ve even gotten home to our “safe space” and we’ve spent the last hour on survival autopilot mode to the point we don’t actually remember leaving the office and driving home. Once we get home we stop functioning completely and will probably still on autopilot, strip on the way to the shower discarding clothes where they drop, turning all lights and anything that makes noise off as we stumble past it, sit in the bottom of the shower until we can then crawl (and I mean literally crawl) from the shower into bed still dripping wet and bear ass naked. Once in bed we might fall asleep or we might just lie there motionless and unresponsive for the next 2 days. For those of us that suffer from Migraines or Seizures this is the danger point because by now we are either in such seriously brain melting pain we’re capable of swallowing an entire packed of pain killers without realising it just to make the pain stop or we’ll have a possibly life threatening Seizure or set of seizures but be unable to tell you it’s about to happen. We will be incapable of telling you what is wrong because all our systems have literally shut down. There’s a good probability we won’t even realise you are actually in the house, room or bed with us because the systems that do all the sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing have shut down to the point of nothing in and nothing out. If we’ve hit this point don’t turn on any lights, make as minimal sound as possible, don’t try to feed us, check we’re still alive every now and again but otherwise leave us the hell alone.
- The Explosion-Shutdown Combo – as the name suggests at first we explode because someone or something jumped up and down on our last remaining nerve with steel cap boots and we lash out because we’re starting to not cope. Then we collapse into a none responsive heap who can’t say “sorry, I love you, can you help me into the shower before I vomit” and we go on autopilot survival mode and stop hearing or seeing you (cue zombie movie music) as we frantically kill all light and noise in the house, crawl into shower and then into bed.
If you’ve read to this point then you’re really interested in dating someone with autism and making it work. I wish I could tell you it get’s easier with time and magically one day your partner will be “abled” and “sane” or even just act differently but it won’t happen. As much as we’ll forget to say “I love you” or we don’t respond normally to a hug or get all happy dappy ditzy at the sight of the sparkly Dimond ring you just surprised us with don’t ever doubt that we do truely love you. People with autism spend their entire life isolated, tired, scared and alone so the fact we have not only let you into our life but let you see us out our most vulnerable and trusted you not to emotionally, mentally or physically hurt us says far more than spoken words ever will.