It’s hard to think of something that I’ve embarked on in my adult life more complicated than dating. I’d always had crushes and wanted to spend time with the young men I found engaging, but didn’t know how to go about doing so.
My first substantial crush occurred in sixth grade and lasted for six years. Once I had a crush, I was committed. Let’s call this person Chase. When the emotions of having a crush started, the increased heart rate, feeling nervous in his presence, and just not knowing what to do with myself presented, I was confused. I knew it was normal, but it was something that I didn’t know how to handle. My response to this emotion was to ignore it. We became close friends throughout middle school and high school. I never gave up an opportunity to spend time with him, even if it was at a birthday party where he and everyone else were playing video games while I sat and watched. His jokes could always brighten my day when I was sad or anxious. Throughout high school, I wanted to broach the subject of dating him, but I didn’t know-how. I had fantasies of him asking me to the school dance or saying he liked me, but I knew him well enough to know he was too shy for that.
I watched as many young women at my high school were pursued by either one or multiple men. I didn’t understand how they got the guys they liked to ask them out. I would observe carefully; however, whatever the trick was it never occurred to me. I observed that the girls who were asked out often were stereotypically beautiful, bubbly, and intelligent. I knew I could be outgoing, and I didn’t view myself as unattractive, but talking to the opposite sex felt awkward. My words were never smooth and poised. It felt like everything about me was clunky and discombobulated. Chase and I never made it out of the friend zone. I ended up going to Prom with someone else and my dream of us going together did not come true. We grew apart throughout the senior year and then once we went off to college we didn’t keep in contact anymore.
Once I arrived at college, there was even more dating science to observe, even though it made about as much sense to me as it had in high school. I watched my roommate fall in love and navigate a serious relationship. What I observed was that they enjoyed spending time together and they seemed obsessed with each other. It seemed like a pleasant experience, but it did occur to me that it seemed to take up a large amount of time. I didn’t go on my first date until the winter break of my freshman year.
I had my first relationship in the second semester of my freshman year of college. It felt as if I’d arrived at a developmental milestone; I’d long been either too afraid or too confused to reach. That relationship was short-lived, but it laid the groundwork for how I would view dating for the next several years. I was dating and looking for MY PERSON. If they didn’t have all the qualities I wanted on my list, they were out. Along the way, I learned some important lessons. Having a list is great, but people are often more complicated than a group of descriptors. Not paying attention to if someone is as invested as you are is a good way to take it more seriously than one should. Joking about marriage three months in will always be one of my cringiest dating moments; my boyfriend at the time looked pale and terrified.
My dating experiences throughout college were positive. I felt that even though I didn’t find MY PERSON, I’d succeeded in learning about myself and what I needed in a partner. The hard part of my love life came when I dipped my toe in and then dove into online dating. I experienced the typical strife that comes with swiping. I would be ghosted for no reason I could discern. Men would ask for photos I was never going to send. Men would send photos I would never want to see. I often wondered what the other women’s profiles looked like. I wondered if I was presenting myself in a way that was appealing.
While most of the dates that came from those were innocuous to pleasant, there was one that left an imprint on my soul. I’d gone out on two dates with this gentleman. We can call him Richard. I’d brought up my diagnosis on the second date and he proceeded to say that I should disclose that before going on a first date with someone. I was taken aback. Why did someone need to know about my diagnosis before we ate pizza? It was my own private medical information. He then explained that it would help them determine if they wanted to deal with me and all the apparent baggage I brought. I felt self-conscious enough, I didn’t want to discuss something so personal so early on.
I then went on to have more rejection from other characters and I began to wonder if my not disclosing my diagnosis was the problem. I can remember another date ending in disaster and coming home to my mom. I sat on the stairs and sobbed, I asked her if anyone was ever going to want me? I knew I didn’t pick up on social cues. I was aware of my limitations. It was painful to be rejected for what was out of my control repeatedly.
After that, I decided it would be best to disclose it before the first date. This was not a good call. As soon as I would say, heads up just so you know, I have level one ASD, the questions would start. Most if not all the men had not heard of it, despite it being diagnosed in one in every forty children in the US. If this is not a sign that we need to educate society about neurodiversity, I don’t know what is. After I’d explained what ASD stood for, they wanted to know what it meant. I cannot tell you the number of times I wanted to ask them to Google it before asking me any more questions.
I’m now at the point in my life where I don’t feel the need to explain myself whenever I meet someone new. If they have questions, they can ask. If I feel like they’re invested in me as a person, I can disclose it to them when it feels right. I want to encourage those on the spectrum who are dating or trying to date that it is hard but rewarding. It’s hard when you’re neurotypical, and it’s even harder when you have a hard time understanding the unspoken language of nonverbal cues.
Be patient with yourself. It’s okay to say that you need explicit and specific instructions. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve looked at a guy I was dating and said if you’re mad about something and you don’t tell me, I won’t have any idea. If there’s a way you want me to show you affection, tell me. If you communicate your needs and they choose to not communicate with you regarding theirs, you don’t want to be in a relationship with them anyways. Don’t fall into the self-loathing trap I did. No one is perfect and everyone has strengths and weaknesses. No one is a perfect partner, and there’s always room to grow for both parties. It’s okay to tell your date that ASD is difficult to explain and point them towards some good resources. It is not your job to educate them when there are articles, books, documentaries, and other educational resources at their disposal. If they care about getting to know you, they’ll do their homework. Everyone is worthy of someone who sees them at their best and worst and still loves them. I wish you luck finding the love you deserve.
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