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Disclaimer – Though I will endeavour as much as possible to address this in a way that is valid for as many people as possible, there is a high likelihood that what I say will not ring true for all autistic people.
The short answer is of course – yes; however before addressing the question properly, I think it is first important to identify and understand the fact that ‘autism’ is an umbrella term which covers a huge range of symptoms and people.
When we hear the word ‘autism’, I’m sure all of us have an image which jumps to mind. For some people that’ll be someone Sheldon-esque – high-functioning but totally inept socially – someone controlling with no empathy, who can’t cope with change but excels academically. For others, they’ll picture a child-like adult who still lives with their parents, can’t hold down a job and can barely interact with the public. Though these are accurate depictions of some autistic people, they are far from a comprehensive or complete picture. The autistic spectrum is exactly that, a spectrum; which would more accurately be described as a spectrum of spectrums.
Any individual person’s experience of autism can be affected by a huge number of factors, which mean that the chance of any two people finding things the same is hugely unlikely. It can be affected by age, gender, childhood life, diagnosis, support, and then the sub-diagnosis (e.g. Asperger’s Syndrome, PDA). This huge range of differences means that a question like ‘should autistic people date?’ is rather silly. Of course they should, however, whether they choose to or not and how successful any individual is at dating is a different issue. So I’m going to look at what dating might be like for an autistic person and how it could be more difficult for them. For the most part in this article I’ll be considering dating from the point of view of someone to the higher-functioning end of the spectrum who can interact with the world and public to a relative degree. I will also be considering dating in two contexts – dating in the context of meeting and forming a relationship and then dating in regards to being in a relationship. The majority of the content will apply to both aspects of dating, but it is worth bearing in mind that though some things will get easier with time, new points might arise.
As a very generalised statement, something that the majority of autistic people will struggle with is the ability to read people (important to note here, this is different to the ability to empathise and I’ll address that later). This difficulty can manifest itself in a number of ways, but primarily it means that an autistic person will probably struggle with the subtle nuances associated with flirting. Reading body language and tone of voice tend to be hard and, given this, an autistic person will probably either miss signals entirely or read far too much into everything because they may struggle to differentiate between an important hint and an inconsequential action. Therefore if you’re dating someone who is, or you suspect to be autistic, then the best thing you can do is be up front about everything – whether you’re interested or not; what you’re looking for, and how you feel because they probably won’t pick up on things otherwise. If you’re not up front about everything, this can cause additional anxiety to some autistic people as they stress about what your actions or words meant because they know they could be misreading them.
Continuing on the theme of misreading people, something that can be very difficult for a person with autism is knowing if someone is interested in them and in what way they’re interested. A common sign of autism is a tendency to form a very close attachment to a person or object, in some cases this can border on obsession. For some people, this will take ages to form but be extremely strong once formed, for others it will be just as intense but more transient and will be formed and broken quickly. However, both of these can manifest themselves unhealthily in relationships with the autistic person potentially becoming overly attached to the other too quickly – whether or not the other party is interested at all. In some autistic people this can manifest as stalkerish behaviour, in others it will just mean that they overthink everything, causing anxious feelings as to whether you’re actually interested. Again, the single best thing to do in any of these situations is to be up front and honest, don’t try playing games or just dropping hints.
Over the last couple of paragraphs, I’ve mentioned feelings of anxiety many times. People with autism are extremely likely to develop mental health problems; most commonly depression, anxiety, a combination of the two, or OCD. Often autistic people (especially those who are on the higher end of the spectrum) will try extremely hard to hide these problems. They will often appear totally together in front of everyone else, only melting down in private. As with anyone with mental health problems, if an autistic person takes you into their confidence it means a lot because being in touch with their feelings enough to be able to identify that there is a problem, and feeling a close enough connection to you to tell you about the problems will be hard for them. Likewise, if you have known someone/been with someone for a while and they then tell you (or you find out) about their autism and other mental health problems, please don’t take it personally – it’ll probably take most autistic people a while to be able to trust someone enough.
I mentioned in an earlier part that I was going to talk about empathy. Once again with autistic people, empathy is a scale. Some autistic people will seem to express such little empathy that it borders on the sociopathic, however, some autistic people go right to the other end of the scale and feel such strong empathy that it can cause physical or emotional pain to them. People at this end of the scale may physically feel others’ pain, both in films/books and in real life, they are also susceptible to those who are emotionally manipulative as their moods are often heavily affected by others around them. These people may be overly attached to inanimate objects, struggle with throwing things away and can also be overwhelmed by some media or social situations. The difficulty autistic people with extreme empathy often find, is that they may feel someone’s emotions (e.g knowing someone’s upset) but not be able to tell why or know how to help. They may also struggle to predict how their words or actions will affect others or be perceived by others.
On the other side, those who lack empathy may appear not to care because they don’t pick up on your feelings, which often becomes easier the better they know a person. Most autistic people learn to read people and their moods by trial and error (as non-autistic people do at a younger age) – it is not instinctive for most with autism. This means that upon first meeting people they may struggle to be able to read the person and to pick up on their feelings. This makes dating very difficult and sometimes overwhelming. Those who over-empathise will probably also find dating overwhelming because they’re picking up on all of the feelings without necessarily being able to actually read them on a person.
In summary then, of course autistic people should date if they want to. At the end of the day, ours is a neuro-typical world and it is not reasonable to expect the whole world to change to fit around those who are a bit different. What would be good though, is if everybody went out into the world a little bit more informed about the difficulties others face. Autism doesn’t have to be a disability but it can mean that things like dating are harder and may mean more than they do to someone else. This article cannot even hope to cover dating from every different facet of autism, but hopefully it has given a little bit more of an insight into how dating can be for some people with autism. Though not comprehensive, hopefully it will give some pointers on how someone with autism may find dating and the obstacles they may have to overcome.
If I can highlight just one thing from this article to take away into the world of dating it is this: whether a person is autistic or not, be upfront and honest about your feelings. If you’re interested, tell them; if you’re not, tell them. If you love them, tell them; if you need some more space, tell them. Just be honest in the long run it’ll be easier for everybody.