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I am not an expert on the subject of autism by ANY stretch of the imagination, but here are a few things I would want someone to know before getting into a relationship with me. All relationships are difficult at times, but how you handle a relationship with someone on the spectrum may be a bit (or a lot) different. My opinions are my opinions alone; I don't speak for anyone but myself.
11 Things You Should Know Before Dating Someone With Autism
1. Every person is different, whether they are on the spectrum or not. Don't say you're “surprised” that I am. I hate that. Yes, I'm high-functioning, but it's insulting to act shocked when you found out because at the end of the day I am still a person with autism. Because of the typical “oh my gosh I never would have guessed!” response, it's tough for me to even say the “a” word. I usually lead with a story about how my daughter was diagnosed with high-functioning autism and based on your response I may follow up with my diagnosis as well.
2. Eye contact isn't only uncomfortable for me, it can be physically painful at times. Many times people will think a lack of eye contact means someone is being dishonest. With me, that couldn't be more untrue. In fact, I can look you straight in the face (not the eyes – I stare at noses and foreheads a lot) and tell the biggest lie ever, but when I'm recalling something or telling a story and pulling in details, I'll look away and it may appear that I'm staring off into space, but I'm not. Likewise, when I'm listening to you, I can stare at your face and not hear a word you say, but if I look away I hear – and process – every single word.
3. I may need extra time to process things: decision-making, interaction with others, anything really. I shut down easily and often. It's nothing personal, I just need extra time to process everything. This includes social cues, so if we are out and about and someone is giving me a “cue” that I totally miss, please help me out rather than standing there looking confused.
4. I want to be left alone. A lot. Being with people all the time is mentally exhausting… one of the most draining things in the universe. If I ask to be left alone, it's nothing personal. It doesn't matter if it's my kids, partner, best friend, or whoever else, sometimes I just have to walk away. Getting butthurt will just make it worse so please understand sometimes I just need a little space – even if it's just me hiding in the shower for five minutes to recover.
5. Being treated as if I'm stupid because I don't “get” something is the worst. I'm a highly intelligent individual and expect to be treated as such. However, because things take longer for me to process (and because I do forget to listen at times), you may need to repeat something in a different way (sometimes more than once) for me to “get” it. My brain jumbles things up so if you say the same thing in a different way, it can help me “unjumble” it.
6. Dating anyone can be extremely frustrating at times, but dating someone with an invisible “disability” (I hate that word) can be downright infuriating if you don't understand their diagnosis. The more you learn about your partner, their diagnosis, and how they like to handle things, the better off you both will be. While I may seem uninterested at times because of the lack of eye contact, I assure you that isn't the case. In fact, if I didn't want to learn about you, I would not spend my time with you. I'm blunt if nothing else. Please tell me everything about you! I love to learn and want to be a great girlfriend.
7. Please don't assume that every quirk I have is autism-related. I'm a quirky woman, and those quirks are bound to come out. Hell, you may even fall in love with some of them. But calling them out like “oh is that an autism thing?” can be hurtful.
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8. It may seem like I get upset at “silly” things, or am triggered by “small” things that wouldn't bother you in the least. When your senses are heightened, it's easy to get carried away and even obsess over little things that others could miss entirely. Instead of saying “calm down” (dear god, for your sake, NEVER tell me to calm down), talk to me about coping mechanisms I have when I'm not angry so we can use them together when something gets me upset.
In fact, I was in a coffee shop this past weekend and there was a loud noise. It freaked me out, which then pissed me off. My boyfriend couldn't figure out what was wrong until he took a step back and realized he heard the noise too, he just had a different reaction than I did. He held me tightly and calmed me down, without repeatedly asking me what was wrong (that can get annoying). Sensory overload is REAL, and it can be triggered by anything (even a smell). That is just one example of something that can upset one person but not another. It's helpful to be attentive to your partner anyway, but especially when your partner is easily triggered you may need to pay more attention.
9. For me, most things are black and white, not gray. If I kiss you or grab you and you say “not so hard”, instead of doing it again in a softer way, I'll back off completely. If you tell me I'm talking too loudly, instead of lowering my voice I will stop talking completely. I noticed I do this a lot, but I'm working on it.
It's tough for me to explain and even tougher for a potential partner to navigate (sorry!) but once you “get” me, it's easier.
10. I have lots of interests, and they can easily become obsessions. In past relationships, I've caused problems by having too many “hobbies” or interests. Buying everything needed to enjoy said hobbies and then abandoning those supplies for a new hobby a few weeks or months later. On that same note, I've become obsessed with certain topics and for weeks or months, I won't want to talk about much else. If I love a song, I may play it on repeat for days (until you tell me your ears are bleeding), but if I hate a song I NEVER want to hear it (black and white thinking again).
11. Change is tough, but I like it. Depending on who you talk to, some people with autism absolutely hate any type of change. For me, I love change but it's difficult to deal with… if that makes sense. I like to change my hair, but it takes me months to actually do it. I like to travel, but I get anxious every time I think about my next destination. I want you to take me to a new restaurant, but inside I'm freaking out about what I will order… what the menu will look like… where the bathrooms are and if they're usable… if the wait staff will be nice or rude… if the food will be good… if the bill will be paid by you or by me… and a million other things. That doesn't mean I don't want to go, just realize it's not easy for me so I may need a few minutes of quiet time to myself before walking in.
Final Thoughts on Autism and Dating
Dating someone like me can be emotionally exhausting, I get that 100%. While I'm not an expert on the subject, I hope some of these points will at least make you pause and think. Make sure you're really sure you can handle it before you get serious with your partner. If it's too much, bow out gracefully early on.
Add your own tips to the comments!