What It’s Like to Date When You’re on the Autism Spectrum
“I can recall every conversation we ever had, and use it against you in a fight.”
Photo via Flickr user Charles Thompson
Dating is complicated. Dating when you have autism spectrum disorder is… like herding blind cats into a volcano that is directly across from the World Fish and Catnip Museum.
I have autism and if my dating experience were a résumé, it would be blank on both sides. During the simplest of interactions with a potential love-interest, my brain is working overtime. For the sake of my sanity I've taken to online dating recently, though the results have been only incrementally better. Trying to interpret the meaning behind the little gestures, the closeness, or lack thereof, the little lulls and crests of conversation—It's like trying to crack the Da Vinci code for me. Even the thought of attempting to make—God-forbid—physical contact with my date causes me to short-circuit into a spiral of failed social calculations and crippling anxiety. Needless to say, I don't get many second dates.
My own romantic debacles have often left me wondering how other Aspies have fared. Surely some must have more luck than me. With that in mind, I did what any writer would do in this situation (I assume). I reached out with a list of questions, and I must admit the answers I found may not have revealed the secret to true love or anything like that, but what they did reveal… surprised even me.
VICE: How have you met most of your past partners?
Lana: I've had five boyfriends, four of which I met at either a bar or a party. Alcohol is a great social lubricant.
How old were you when you started dating?
I was sixteen when I had my first boyfriend. We didn't really date in the classical sense. I dreaded the concept of meeting with someone with the express purpose of talking to see if you're compatible. So we basically just drank beer, listened to music and made out for one glorious month.
How consistently have you been in a relationship over the course of your life?
I've been in a relationship for most of my adult life. I'm 31 now, currently in a four-year-long relationship.
Have most of your partners known about your ASD? If so, when do you tell them?
I was diagnosed while with my current partner, so there was no coming-out of sorts. I told him that my shrink (whom I was seeing for depression) wanted to evaluate me for autism, which came as a huge shock for me as I had never considered that as a possibility. He told me it didn't matter to him at all. He loves me for who I am, and suddenly getting a label didn't change that.
What's the hardest thing about dating?
I don't really pick up on hints. People often think I'm flirting with them, when I'm just being sociable. I've lost count of the amount of times I've invited a male friend over to watch a movie, only to have him get upset with me when he realized I really intended to watch movies, not have sex. I used to have a lot of male friends, but I've lost most of them due to misunderstandings such as this.
I also have a lot of anxiety. I've never really dated in the classical sense of gradually getting to know someone over drinks, dinner, and a movie. I get incredibly anxious when I make plans to just hang out and talk with someone I don't have feelings for, so much so that I often end up cancelling. Meeting someone for a real date? Sober? I don't even think I could.
What do you think is the best thing about dating an Aspie? The worst?
The best thing? I'm a force to be reckoned with at bar trivia. The worst thing? I can recall every conversation we ever had, and use it against you in a fight. But on a more serious note, I don't think there are any specific upsides to dating an Aspie. I have quite a few "Aspie superpowers" but none of them are especially useful in a relationship. It's one of those things where my normal, scientific approach is quite useless. There are a few downsides though, mainly my inflexibility. I can't handle unexpected visitors, I can't handle my boyfriend being late, and I can't handle when things are not in their proper place. I'm a very calm, collected and friendly person, never violent, but when I lived with my previous boyfriend I once flipped a towel rack because he folded the towels incorrectly.
"Kink really 'speaks' to me, because it's all about rules and boundaries, which is basically Aspie porn."
What are some things that you and past partners have had disagreements over that were related to your ASD?
We mostly clash over my rigidity. My boyfriend is a very spontaneous guy. He doesn't like planning things, he doesn't really pay attention to the time, and he's not the best at picking up the phone. I need to plan things out carefully or I get stressed. This is obviously not the best combination. When I tell him he needs to be somewhere at 8:30, I'll start stressing at 8, wondering whether he'll be on time. He'll call me at 8:45 to let me know that he's about to leave. Yeah, we fight sometimes…
How have you handled sex and physical intimacy in your relationships?
I have no trouble with this. I like sex, and I've been quite promiscuous in the past. I have no trouble separating emotions from sex. That can be a bit tricky for some partners though. I have no trouble having sex with someone I don't like as a person if the sex is good. This confuses people into thinking we're dating sometimes. I once got into an incredibly painful situation when a guy I regularly had sex with introduced me to his friends as his girlfriend, and in my surprise I blurted out "Haha, no way in hell," and then the guy cried his eyes out in the club, and his friends hated me, and I left, wondering how this misconception came to be. Needless to say I never slept with him again after that.
In what ways do you think your ASD might have influenced your attitudes towards love and sex?
I'm a bisexual kinkster in a monogam-ish relationship. I do think being an Aspie makes it easier for me to be sexually adventurous. Because I'm capable of separating sex and emotion I get to enjoy sex as a fun activity. Sex with my boyfriend is a wonderful experience with a deep emotional significance. Sex with someone else is just fun. Kink really "speaks" to me, because it's all about rules and boundaries, which is basically Aspie porn. I have a very rational outlook on love, sex and relationships and I can't really tell whether that's the Asperger's or my personality speaking. My neurotypical boyfriend feels the same. We're both pretty nihilistic.
VICE: How do you feel about sex and dating?
Brodie: Quite honestly, I'm asexual, so I would not want to have sexual intercourse. Hugging would be alright even before getting into a relationship, but kissing would only be okay after we get into a relationship.
How long have you know that you didn't experience sexual desire?
For the longest time. When I first learned what sex was, I decided that I didn't want to have sex until after I'm married. However recently, I decided that I never want to have sex at all, even after I get married. Basically I want to stay a virgin for life.
What would a perfect relationship for you look like? Your ideal partner?
A perfect relationship? That's hard to imagine for me. I guess someone who shares the same interests as me. My ideal partner would be somebody who is very kind, and sweet, and innocent, just like the girl I had feelings for this past year. She's the only girl who I've ever felt was basically perfect for me.
How do you know somebody's "the one" for you?
In particular, this school year that just passed, there was a girl that I ended up developing feelings for. All throughout university I was telling myself, "I'm not going to get into a relationship. I'm not going to develop feelings for anybody." But then at the beginning of this year, I started talking with this girl who I didn't talk to very much last year. I ended up visiting her suite, quite frequently and eventually I developed romantic feelings for her. And in particular, this girl felt like "the one" to me because in my opinion, she was the kindest, most innocent girl I had ever met. That was the only crush that I developed in university, and if I hadn't met that person, I probably wouldn't have developed a single crush in university at all.
Do you see any downsides to dating an Aspie?
The worst thing about dating me might actually apply to a lot of Aspies. I tend to role play a lot. One of my intense "Aspie" interests is that I enact scenes from movies or animes. Sometimes I think that roleplaying can come across as strange or annoying to others.
VICE: Have most of your partners known about your ASD? If so, when do you tell them?
Anna: Typically I don't tell someone I'm on the spectrum unless we're pretty serious, like if we've been dating several months. I've never been in a relationship where I felt it was necessary to tell the other person that I'm on the spectrum. My friends and family have always told me that I shouldn't tell someone I'm on the spectrum unless I feel it's necessary and will benefit the relationship.
What's the hardest thing about dating?
If I feel like I've made a guy upset, I'll keep texting, and texting, and texting until he replies, which makes the situation even worse. Eventually he comes back an hour and a half later and tells me to stop texting, which then makes me feel like he's even angrier so I keep texting, and texting, and texting all over again. It's an ongoing cycle. When people give me mixed signals it freaks me out. I need to have straightforward, direct signals: interested or not interested—nothing in between.
"When people give me mixed signals it freaks me out. I need to have straightforward, direct signals: interested or not interested—nothing in between."
What do you think is the best thing about dating an Aspie? The worst?
The one thing I've really enjoyed about dating someone else who's on the spectrum is that they don't play stupid dating games like waiting several hours to text someone, an entire week after the first date. Aspies get straight to the point. Their intentions are very easy to decipher. The one thing I do not like about dating an Aspie though, is that they can't pick up on social cues that a neurotypical would. For example, if a neurotypical tries to hold your hand or kiss you on the first date, they would give you direct eye contact and know that if the person doesn't move, that's their signal saying, "it's OK to kiss me." An Aspie wouldn't pick up on any of that, and wouldn't understand that if the person backed away that was a signal that they were not with comfortable kissing them.
Can you describe to me what your experience has been like with online dating? Would you recommend it to somebody else on the spectrum?
I would definitely not recommend it, because a lot of the guys on those sites are players. They like to play with girls, and I've noticed that a lot of girls on the spectrum tend to get played with. When you're talking to people online, you can't see their facial expressions, so if you say something inappropriate or weird, you're not going to see your facial expression. Getting stood up has also been a problem for me. Nearly every date that I tried to meet up with on those sites has done that to me.
VICE: How old were you when you started dating? How consistently have you been in a relationship over the years?
Claire: I'm not sure how to answer. I had my first date at 19, but it was an isolated event. I started "looking" at 21, and found a partner at 22 that I've been with ever since, in addition to many other partners over the years as I am polyamorous. I'm 27 now.
It's really interesting that you practice polyamory. What drew you to that particular lifestyle?
I've always had the inclination to be poly. I kind of buried it though, thinking of it as the fantasy of an adolescent. One thing about polyamory that really appeals to me as an Aspie is that people on the spectrum tend to like very clear rules and boundaries, and in polyamorous relationships, those things have to be talked out to make it work. Other than that I've found poly to be much harder. ASD affects communication and poly is all communication. I get less alone time to recover because I have to make sure all of my partners get the time that they need, and since I don't drive, that makes arranging dates with each partner more difficult. Since I rely on disability for money, trying to figure out a living setup that works for all has been—Well, we haven't figured it out yet.
Have most of your partners been aware that you were on the spectrum? If so, when did you tell them, and what are some of the reactions you've gotten?
Oh, I'm very open. So much so that my ex never got explicitly told, and somehow didn't know for five months. Whoops… As for reactions, I guess they've been all over the board, with the best reaction I ever got being when one partner told me, "that's not gonna scare me off," and the worst one—well, it didn't happen when he found out that I was on the spectrum, but when one of my exes found out what my limitations were, he was pretty mean about it.
What's the hardest thing about dating?
Trusting someone not to hurt me. Risking getting mocked every time a new partner finds out how little adult independence I have. I've had some bad experiences. One of my exes basically accused me of being a sheltered wuss once he found out all the things I can't do, or do safely. He also gave me the classic, "but I knew someone with Asperger's and they could…" Another partner forgets that I need more time to process when I'm upset. I often get talked over during arguments.
How have you handled sex and intimacy in your relationships?
With communication and compromise. I don't want to get into too many private details, but the main thing is that I thoroughly discuss things with my partners. It's sad how few couples discuss likes and dislikes and how each can please the other better. There are some acts that I don't do or that I have to modify. I've had to try workarounds for my sensory issues so that I can still please my partners. I warn my partners that I can go non-verbal and we discuss ways to work around that safely. I have selective mutism that acts up during sex due to all the sensory input and emotion. It used to happen a lot when I was younger, but I've adapted to try avoid the overload and anxiety that triggers it. These days it usually only happens during sex or when I'm very anxious and physically ill at the same time.
If you could tell your current or next partner anything about your diagnosis what would it be?
That I hate the negatives as much as you, but I'm doing the best I can.
*Names have been changed.