"I’ve always noticed how I tend to lag behind other people and this is certainly something that makes me feel like I’m doomed to be perpetually behind."
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition. It is a spectrum condition, meaning it affects people in a variety of ways, and it is thought that one in 67 people in the UK are autistic, though many adults are not diagnosed. Autism changes the way people communicate and experience the world around them. This makes dating for autistic people, particularly autistic women, both harder and more dangerous. Research is ongoing but some studies show that autistic adults are nearly three times as likely as allistic (non-autistic) adults to experience unwanted sexual contact. Autistic women are particularly at risk.
Existing as autistic in a world where these are the mainstream opinions about autistic lives can be excruciating and perhaps contributes to the fact that death by suicide is three times higher among autistic people than the rest of the population. An autistic person will always be an autistic person, no matter how hard people work to stifle that fact.
Josefina traces this through her romantic experiences as a student. She met her first boyfriend during the Christmas break of her first year at university and explains that she didn’t know how to handle the fact that he was four years older than her. Quite quickly, he became controlling.
"He got me into doing acid tabs and MDMA with him, locked in his room," she says. "He wouldn’t really let me sleep in my own room even though it was right next to his." Josefina's struggles to communicate and understand vocal cues made it harder for her to respond to this controlling behaviour. "I had to ask friends from another college to help me break up with him as I was legitimately very scared."
This was also the first time that her (then undiagnosed) neurodivergence was weaponised against her, when he used 'autistic' as an insult in response to her discussing one of her interests.
After that relationship, Josefina struggled to learn what she calls a 'hooking up script', let alone work out if she wanted to engage in it. "Every 'normal' girl my age did that, everyone hooked up with people, so surely I could do it too — except it didn’t feel right. I copied what other girls did because I didn’t instinctively know how to hook up with random men. I remember meeting up with one guy, and that one guy being actually really nice, but what happened with that guy is completely blurred out of my mind."
Communication issues can throw up bigger issues about consent and being unable to identify clearly coercive behaviour. Josefina reflects on a particular instance during her undergraduate degree where one of the more 'popular' men in her year began talking to her in a flirty way. "You have to understand that I can absolutely tell there’s something dodgy about it but I can’t put my finger on what because on a surface level it sounds perfectly nice. Then two of his female friends say he ~really~ wants to go home with me, and I think a mix of feeling ugly and trapped in that situation meant that I did go back to college with him." On reflection, she says: "Ultimately this was clearly coercive."
These experiences have made Josefina even more wary of using things like dating apps to find potential partners.
"I am unwilling to just date to find someone to have sex with, as I didn’t even like that when I did try it. I was masking my autistic needs: I need familiarity first. Maybe men at my age are less predatory but we live in a culture where sharing what disgusting messages you’ve received on dating apps is not at all uncommon. Although extreme violence is statistically infrequent I still worry that it’s going to happen to me because I know I am easy to take advantage of. I can’t always tell the difference between truth and lies."
Now, nine years on from those first experiences, Josefina is taking stock of the key areas that make dating a struggle for her.
As well as facing communication difficulties, she is incredibly sensitive to sensory stimuli, which affects her in two ways. The first is as someone with a history of anorexia. "I think the reason I feel like my body is bigger than it really is is because I am highly receptive to sensory feedback and sex involves obviously a lot of touching, grasping, feeling etc. I myself didn’t (still don’t) want to be triggered in that way, and I didn’t want someone to see what I see."
This sensitivity to sensory stimuli also impacts dating itself: Josefina finds places like bars or restaurants impossible. "I can’t cope with multiple noises going at the same time nor places that smell very strongly. I can’t even go to a pub because I hate the smell of alcohol. What kind of normal adult would try to date someone like that? And how do I express these sensory sensitivities without causing offence or weirding the other person out?"
Josefina’s best bet, she thinks, is to socialise with others in her academic field. But with the pandemic pushing everything online, she’s not had her chance.
"I worry about reaching the end of my 20s with no romantic experiences whatsoever. So ultimately I think I’ve had to resign myself to being happy by myself due to a lack of essential social skills, absurd access needs and my own weird demands for other people, and find happiness, love and belonging elsewhere."
As told to Sadhbh O'Sullivan
How to navigate neurodiversity in dating
If you’re autistic and facing similar romantic barriers, Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, tells R29 there is no guarantee that you are facing the same barriers as another person. However, she says that one of the most important things you can do is be open about your autism and how it affects you. "When you're dating, you're looking for someone you can trust – and if someone isn't open to learning more about autism and accommodating your needs, that may not be the right fit."
This doesn’t have to be a big conversation; instead, drop it in whenever it naturally comes up. This is especially useful, she says, "if you are going to be in a situation where it's apparent that you're autistic (for example, if you need to wear headphones on the dance floor with a date, or if you might shut down on a date to a crowded location), I would disclose before that situation arises so that you have control over how the other person finds out you are autistic, what information you want to give them first, and so on."
She advises all people who are dating to take safety measures when meeting someone for the first time. "For example, meeting in a public place or setting up a check-in call with a friend at a certain time. For autistic people, taking these steps can help us feel comfortable if we're not sure whether we've correctly judged someone as safe to be around."
As for neurotypical people dating autistic people, Zoe advises letting go of any assumptions you have about autism as there is a lot of misinformation out there and those assumptions might not apply to the person you’re seeing.
"Learn how autism affects their life, starting with how it affects your time together. It's better to ask questions than to make assumptions. While all autistic people are different, something many of us do have in common is a direct communication style. We might not pick up on things that are being hinted at or communicated indirectly. So if you need something from an autistic partner or want to raise something that's bothering you, be direct with us as well – don't assume we should understand what you need without being told."
Emma Dalmayne, CEO of Autistic Inclusive Meets, emphasises that "it is rare to find a neurotypical partner that is patient and inclusive. The autistic partner is often left feeling that they are at fault in some way, when actually if their neurotypical partner was more understanding, checked themselves in their approaches and used clear communication it would be a lot easier for all involved."
"Basically no one should be made to feel less in a relationship due to their neurological make-up. If you are feeling that way, let the other person know or alternatively get out, because no one should be made to feel that way."
For more information on diagnosing and living with autism, please visit autistic advocacy resources like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.