Dating on the spectrum

Illustration of two people standing on a staircase facing each other. One is handing the other a flower. They are both holding books that say "Going on a Date - A Social Story".

Written by Grace Blucher

Illustration by Hattie Reid

 

My name is Grace Blucher, and I am a cisgender, neurotypical psychologist who lives and works on Woiworung Country. While I do not have autism, I work with many clients who are, and we work together to navigate the complex world of sex, love and dating.  In writing this blog, I am not attempting to own or explain the experience of autistic individuals, but to share research, experiences and stories from the therapy room. While this article focuses on the experiences of autistic people, the information shared may also be relevant to other forms of neurodivergence.

Throughout the article, I have used identity first language (autistic, autistic person, autistic people). I realise that some people may prefer person first language (i.e. person with autism, person on the autism spectrum) and thus I would encourage the reader to supplement preferred descriptors where appropriate.  All examples and quotes used in this article have been deidentified and represent themes of client content.

Dating is an experience filled with nuance, subtlety and uncertainty. This can be confusing, stressful, and overwhelming for most people, and even more so for neurodivergent (or neurocosmopolitan) individuals. Building new intimate relationships relies heavily on both the spoken and unspoken - interpreting someone’s eye contact, body positioning, questioning style and interest. There are lots of unspoken rules and possible complications. For autistic people who experience depth and intensity in? social experiences, this uncertainty or confusion may be felt very deeply.  This is one of the main points of discussion in my work with autistic people in the therapy room. I often hear things like this from my clients:

“I had a good time, but then she didn’t want to hang out again. It was confusing.”

“We went on a picnic and I was supposed to bring cheese, but I didn’t know how much I was supposed to spend on cheese.”

“I don’t know what to talk to them about.”

“We were at a coffee shop, but it was too loud, and I had to go. I didn’t know what to tell him.”

 

What is autism?

Autism has traditionally been defined from a medical lens, with descriptors about difficulty with communication, social interactions and sensory experiences. However, autistic advocates explain autism in a way that talks to neurology: how and when information inputs and outputs are communicated from the brain to the body, and vice versa.  From this perspective, autism is considered to be a different neurology, whereby much more sensory information is experienced by an autistic person.  Due to this significant increase in sensory input, this can mean differences in how long it takes to process information, differences in how information is understood and differences in how the brain responds to the information it has deemed important or relevant. 

Previous labels of ‘high functioning’ or ‘low functioning’ autism may refer to external judgements about how well an autistic person appears to be ‘coping’ and ‘passing’ in a neurotypical world. This also brings up the idea of masking, where autistic people attempt to ‘fit in’ to a defined social norm in order to maintain safety. This includes conscious, rehearsed, learnt behaviours for set situations whilst concurrently suppressing natural behaviours or impulses - often at the expense of self-identity. 

 

Social scripts - helpful or not?

Dating and sex is inherently a mine field of vulnerability. For a lot of people, this can feel unsafe.  Autistic children learn very early on that many environments are not safe for them (either through real experience or a subconscious awareness leading to heightened anxiety). One way of managing this feeling of unsafety is to learn the social scripts (learnt behaviours) that are ‘appropriate’ for a social setting.

However, the use of these scripts in the context of heightened sensory input, for example the social uncertainty of meeting new people, and the vulnerability of showing romantic or sexual interest is, understandably, an overwhelming experience. This can lead to a push-pull dynamic where autistic people want sex, love and relationships; but understandably, they can feel overwhelmed in such situations.

Some neurotypical people may mistake this feeling of being overwhelmed in romantic or sexual situations for a lack of interest – but this couldn’t be further from the truth. While there is diversity in all of our relationship preferences,  relationships are an important and fundamental part of being human, and this is no different for autistic people. Sex and relationships are good for us too! Research tells us that autistic people in romantic relationships have a greater sense of sexual wellbeing and social and community belonging.

 

The impact of privilege

Dating is complex and multifaceted, and includes interpersonal, intrapersonal, and sexual factors. As neurotypical people, we need to realise that benefits are conferred onto neurotypical people by society, simply due to the fact that we are neurotypical. And this - boys, gals and non-binary pals - is privilege.

Recognising neurotypical privilege means being aware of the systems, structures, and sensory experiences that we can navigate without experiencing heightened sensory input, while also recognising that this is not the case for all people. In romantic and sexual spaces, this means actively noticing and considering how we, as neurotypical people, can better support and advocate for autistic people in these spaces. (For a brilliant piece on the sensory experience of autistic people having sex, please check out this article, and also this one. The onus is not on the autistic person to do the work, and clients have told me repeatedly how tiring self-advocacy is. However, autistic clients who I work with sometimes bring their relationship issues to the therapy room to talk about how they can support themselves, while other clients want to talk about how they can do better for their autistic partner(s). Some of these issues are listed below. 

Let me be clear not all autistic people need support. However, for those that do ask for extra support - and for neurotypical people who do want to do better - I would encourage the reader to read on.

 

Small talk

Some of my clients tell me about the difficulty they face in having ‘small talk’ with new individuals. Small talk is the introductory conversation that doesn’t lead anywhere or seek to achieve anything. This can be difficult for autistic people as this communication doesn’t conform to a learnt social script and isn’t direction oriented.

It can be helpful to utilise activity-based gatherings when trying to meet people or when with new individuals. Instead of small talk, activity-based gatherings give us the opportunity to talk directly about what we are doing or experiencing. It also provides small breaks in conversation as we turn our attention to the activity. For example, clubs, interest groups and activities can be a great place to meet people with similar interests, providing initial common ground (instead of small talk). 

Additionally, activity-based conversation reduces the experience of vulnerability, as we are ‘trying to find things to talk about,’ and may increase an autistic persons’ level of comfort with another or a group of people over time. If you are romantically or sexually interested in someone, complimenting their performance of the activity also provides a good opportunity to express your interest.

An important note – if you don’t like small talk, you don’t have to do it! Learning to engage in small talk is experienced by some autistic people as ‘masking’ – a disingenuous adaptation to the neurotypical world. Masking helps keep autistic people safe by pleasing others and prioritising the needs of others (usually neurotypicals) in order to conform to arbitrary social rules.

Some autistic people say that this helps them move through a world not built to support neurodivergence, while others say that it is exhausting, marginalising and fuels self-criticism. In an ideal world, the environment in which romance, dating, sex happens should be made safe in order to support autistic people. If you are dating or in a relationship with an autistic person, check in with them about what they might need you to do in order to help them feel safe and to reduce their sensory input - and proactively take steps to do this.

 

Dating can focus on interpreting non-verbal communication

Dating in the neurotypical world is usually centred on socially-based activities where there is a focus on nonverbal communication and interpretation. For example, consider going out to dinner or for a drink. In these instances, we are trying to ascertain if someone is interested in us platonically, romantically, sexually or not at all. This involves paying attention to body cues and language. Because there is such a strong focus on ‘making a good impression’ (especially early on), this can be particularly stressful for autistic people who may be suppressing their true selves (for the reasons explored above), while also trying to understand if the person or people they are dating are right for them. Not only are we contending with the stress of a new environment, the ‘pressure to impress’ and uncertainty about a new person - but also the sound, sight, taste, and touch experiences of bars, clubs and cafes. No wonder it’s overwhelming!

Some of my clients also talk about the confusion about unspoken social roles and “who does what” when newly dating. For example, many people can feel the gender role expectation of who ‘makes a move’ really challenging. There may also be power dynamics at play in terms of gender, sexual preference and relationship structure that make this murkier too.

It can help to make these unwritten rules and expectations clear either before the date or at the start. If you are going on a date with an autistic person, it may be helpful to flag these expectations early on. For example, “I think we should each pay for ourselves today,” “If today goes well, it is ok if I ask to kiss you?” “I would like it if we could talk again, but I probably will wait until Wednesday.” By bringing these worries, expectations and social scripts into the conversation explicitly, we are able to reduce uncertainty for all.

 

Liking someone = preoccupation and fixation

Finally, some of my autistic clients also talk to me about what happens when they are really into someone, and how sometimes, this person or people can almost become like special interest areas. They describe curiosity and early infatuation that comes with a new relationship can quickly turn into a preoccupation or fixation. I have worked with people who can spend hours upon hours on the social media accounts of their new love interests, trying to remember and research all the things that this new person is into just in case this is something that comes up on the date. This may sometimes be driven by anxiety, however also then becomes part of the mask that autistic people wear in romantic environments.

Being really into someone and wanting to find out all about them is wonderful, and setting up boundaries and consensual arrangements with a new partner(s) can be really helpful in understanding what is okay for all people involved. For example, it can be useful for the new relationship to think about how often you might want to spend time together, and what does communication look like when you are not together.

 

 

Dating, like anything worth having, can be hard at times. However, we as the partners, friends or lovers of autistic people need to recognise the privilege we bring to sexual and romantic spaces, and actively work to promote and support equity in these places.

At SHIPS, all our practitioners are knowledgeable and skilled with working with neurodivergent individuals. If you or your relationship may benefit from some extra support, please check out our website here.

 

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Sexual Health and Intimacy Psychological Services (SHIPSis a progressive psychology practice in Fitzroy, Melbourne. They provide sex, intimacy and mental health treatment in person and online. All SHIPS practitioners share inclusive and progressive values, are passionate about improving the lives of their clients and aim to create a safe space for you to get the help and support you need.

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