I have four dates coming up this weekend. One each evening from Thursday to Sunday. I know this sounds like a flex but I’m a bit stressed about it. I’m having to forgo any other socialising with friends to make sure I don’t overdo it, and to keep my energy levels in check. Why? Because I’m autistic.
The last time I did this amount of dating was back in my self-proclaimed Hot Girl Summer of 2019. That September, I had three dates on three consecutive days but I was also working a full-time office job, socialising lots and making bad decisions, and I was heading right towards a bad period of burnout.
Two weeks later I got a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which hit me like a train. I became very overwhelmed and unwell for a variety of reasons, and stopped dating.
I was still feeling rubbish when the pandemic hit but things got better as the summer came around and I adopted a cat. I ventured back onto dating apps but I didn’t date very seriously, knowing we’d be going back into lockdown at some point. I decided over winter that Zoom dates and cold, awkward walks weren’t for me so I’ve only been going on dates since April, when lockdown began to ease.
The autism diagnosis allowed me to unlock a huge amount of knowledge about myself that I couldn’t access before. So many things made sense: why I didn’t like eye contact, why certain noises caused me physical discomfort, why I’d always struggled in some social situations.
Women are woefully under-diagnosed when it comes to autism. The diagnostic criteria is very male-oriented because the condition was originally thought to affect only men and boys. Hence most autistic girls and women slip through the net. As far as I know, nobody ever suggested to me or my parents that I could be autistic. I only got diagnosed because I learned about what autism was really like in women, related to it, then pushed for the diagnosis myself.
Despite this, it was still a shock to be told, finally, "You’re autistic". It’s taken me a while to adapt to it and I’ve had to make some big life changes to accommodate my needs. The time alone during the pandemic has helped me work out what these needs are, and I’ve realised that living alone (with a cat) is the perfect situation for me.
I was going through the diagnostic process during the aforementioned Hot Girl Summer but I was still in denial about it. I made a lot of bad decisions and was definitely doing too much, with regards to dating and everything else (I think I went on about four holidays). Looking back with the ‘autistic’ lens, I was running away from myself and my life, trying to find fulfilment in any way I could.
Now, I’m the most tuned in I’ve ever been to myself and my needs. But dating is more difficult, because I’m constantly aware of all the social norms and unwritten rules. This is amplified by the COVID-19 risk – you may be adhering to all the rules at any given time but you’ve no idea what the other person has been doing.
There’s so much subtext in every conversation, which I struggle to read, and people don’t always say what they mean. Post-diagnosis me is hyperaware of this, so I overanalyse every little interaction. This results in me being quite upfront myself in dating interactions, which doesn’t always end well.
I’m also much more aware of my sensory issues. I struggle to hold a conversation in a busy, noisy place as I can’t filter out background noise (which I didn’t realise was an autistic thing before), and I’m much more aware of how uncomfortable I find eye contact. This makes the act of going on dates harder.
I don’t say that I’m autistic on my dating profiles but it comes up fairly quickly, whether over messages or in person. It defines so much of who I am – I can’t separate myself from the autism, which is why I prefer to be referred to as ‘autistic’ than ‘having autism’ – so I will often end up mentioning it sooner rather than later.
One reason I don’t mention it on profiles is because of the stigma. People have a very fixed, outdated view of what autism looks like and it’s not me. It’s Sheldon Cooper or Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man or their relative who is a boy under the age of 12 and obsessed with trains. There are so many stereotypes about how autistic people have no social skills, can’t have relationships and can barely communicate. Yet none of these is true for me.
Autism can look like a whole variety of things, including a 24-year-old woman with pink hair who goes on four dates in a row and enjoys it. We’ll see how it goes this weekend but two things are certain: I’m not going to shut up about being autistic, and I won’t stop dating because of it.
For more information on diagnosing and living with autism, please visit the National Autistic Society and check out their resources.