Autism & Dating: 3 Young Women Tell Us About Their Love Life

Photographed by Flora Maclean
"Last spring, I was in a relationship with a guy for two weeks because I just wanted to say I had a boyfriend and I’d never had one," says Robyn, a 32-year-old jazz musician.
"But once I was in a relationship I realised how much time boyfriends take up. I was relieved when it was over.
"The reason we broke up is that when I am tired, I just want to be on my own. We’d had a plan to meet up over the weekend, but I had a studio session on the Friday and I wanted to go home by myself. He took it very personally that I didn’t want to meet up so I told him I didn’t think it was going to work.
"I feel like I communicated in a clear way and that he pressurised me."
Robyn identifies as a woman with autism. She was diagnosed when she was 11.
Autism is a lifelong condition that affects how people communicate with others and interact with the world around them. Every autistic person is different. Some are able to learn, live and work independently, while others may have learning differences or health conditions that require extra support.
However, there are common symptoms that people on the autistic spectrum share. These include difficulty sensing and interpreting people’s feelings, and trouble expressing their own. People with autism might take phrases or figures of speech very literally, and have sensitivities to sound, touch, taste, smell or light. Some autistic people like to have a strong sense of routine and rigid boundaries. Others may get hyper-focused or obsessive about certain interests or feelings.
For everyone, dating can be a nerve-racking experience. For autistic women, it can be even more so, as they find interpreting romantic cues, flirting or working out whether someone is attracted to them particularly hard.
"I’ve always struggled with picking up on signals," Erin, 27, says. She works in the charity sector and identifies as a queer autistic writer and activist. "If I like someone I really like them, but I don’t know how to communicate that.
"Some autistic people are really good at dating, but I’ve never had a proper relationship.
"I went for a coffee with one girl I quite liked and told her I’d not really dated anyone before. She said to me: 'Oh, well, that has to change, doesn’t it?'
"She invited me back to hers to 'study'… and we actually did end up doing uni work for the whole time because I just didn’t get that she was flirting with me! I never saw her again. I think she thought I was a bit weird."
As amusing as the missed cues can be in retrospect, not being able to get your feelings across can be upsetting.
"I had strong romantic feelings for a guy at university, but I really didn’t know how to communicate that, and I was very awkward about it," she says. "My heart was broken when I found out he [found] a girlfriend before I was able to tell him.
"I can get quite obsessive, and my whole world became about my feelings for him. I had to come home from Wales to Essex because I was so distraught. And I stayed away from dating, thinking Oh this really hurt. I didn’t think it was something I could deal with."
What made things even more challenging for Erin is that, like many women with autism, she wasn’t diagnosed until much later in her life, at the age of 23. This meant she was unable to access the support she needed to explain some of the isolating experiences she was going through.
"I didn’t really enjoy being a teenager," she says. "I didn’t really understand who I was, what I was feeling, who was attractive, and everyone at school had started dating and going out and I didn’t want to do that. I think I fell in love with my best friend at one point, and I didn’t know what that obsessive feeling was."
There are a number of reasons why women with autism are under-diagnosed. One theory is that women and girls are better at masking their difficulties. Another is that there is a "female autism phenotype" which doesn’t fit the profile usually associated with men and boys with autism. Most assessment tools are based on men with autism, too, and are not always adjusted for assessing women.
Erin fought to get her diagnosis after an autistic friend she’d made on the internet through a mutual fascination with Doctor Who dropped hints that they had a lot more in common than an interest in the Time Lord.
"Getting a diagnosis allowed me to realise who I was and why I did certain things and allowed me to connect with a community that understood.
"It was a really defining moment in my life and one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Life is not always good, but it's led to very good things."
Of course, some of the issues with interpreting intent in others can leave women with conditions like autism particularly vulnerable.
Amy Gravino is an international speaker and autism consultant from New York. "I am a woman on the spectrum myself and I was diagnosed as a child," she says.

Being autistic is like experiencing bits of humanity with the sound turned up.

"All women want to feel loved and validated, but this need is particularly strong for autistic women.
"Many so badly want to fit in that their needs are subverted or forgotten altogether. We often are seen as vehicles of support for other people too. Many men, for example, are used to women caring for them and may assume that is the role of women.
"Low standards and low self-esteem with a high threshold to trust can be a recipe for disaster and heartbreak. And it’s hard to unlearn those things."
It’s something Robyn admits she has found challenging in the past, too.
"Being autistic is like experiencing bits of humanity with the sound turned up," she continues.
"I was so worried about it at first that when I started dating, I regularly had diarrhoea. I was concerned about low level abuse, how someone might manipulate a situation. I find it difficult to know if this person is telling me the truth."
However, in her search for a match, Robyn prefers to cast her net wide.
"I am made up of more than just my neurotype, and when I date, I prefer to match people on interests. I want to be more inclusive [when I’m dating] because I know how it feels to be excluded."
As a result, she uses mainstream apps like Tinder and sites like PlentyOfFish and to meet people. However, some women with autism prefer to use dating platforms that cater specifically for autistic people and those with learning differences.
Photographed by Flora Maclean
Michelle Watson, 40, founded dating site My FavouriteHello following her brother’s diagnosis with Asperger’s. They currently have over 1,000 members — and counting.
"We had our first engagement last week," Michelle tells us. "We’ve had about eight couples request that we cancel their accounts because they’ve had long-term partners, too.
"We match people on communication style, acceptance of change and emotional regulation. We’ve tried to create a comfortable, friendly place. We’re not suggesting in any way that people with autism should only date people with autism."
Lauren, 17, is a volunteer for Dimensions, an organisation supporting people with learning disabilities and autism. She chose to ditch the apps altogether and meet potential matches in real life.
Lauren has been dating a girl called Miley, who she met at college, for about a month.
"It was just kind of a friend that turned into something stronger," she says.
"We haven’t been dating for that long, it’s only been a month so far. Miley hasn’t been diagnosed with autism but she does have cerebral palsy.
"She makes me laugh really easily, she’s really caring… We like the same TV shows, and she has a really sweet personality, and our experience of both having disabilities gives us more in common as well.
"Occasionally I find it hard to speak, and Miley has been learning sign language to communicate with me when I can’t speak. People who are willing to go the extra mile and are really understanding about the difficulties I have — it just makes things one or two steps easier."

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