Dating while autistic: romance isn’t easy when you miss the social cues – and the red flags

To eight-year-old me, Grease was perfect romantic movie.

Back when going to Video Ezy on a Friday night was an event, I would peruse the aisles, pretending to consider other titles, and inevitably end up with the 1978 classic for my $1 weekly choice.

Maybe the appeal was the singing, the dancing, the costumes, or the promise of an adolescence that would never really be mine (acted out by people clearly in their late 20s/early 30s).

But recently I have been thinking about the small ways Sandy’s story paralleled my own early romantic experiences – although mine did not end so happily.

Like Sandy, I started my foray into dating with an earnestness that seemed to embarrass most people. When that was met with scorn, contempt and tons of early 2000s sarcasm, I learned to rein it in.

And when I met someone I liked, I enthusiastically overhauled my entire personality, trying to contort myself into the person somebody else wanted me to be. 实际上, I did it more than once. Happily. Being someone else’s idea of a person was much preferable to being myself, whatever that even meant.

An autism diagnosis in my 20s cast a different light on just about everything. I see now that was how my undiagnosed brain worked, constantly altering and tweaking my actions and personality based on negative feedback. 和, as many autistic people could tell you, there is a lot of negative feedback to work with.

I am not a fan of the diagnostic language that focuses so heavily on deficit, but I know that I struggle to understand social situations and the cues other people seem to pick up quite easily. Maybe that is why I love romcoms so much; they explain social dynamics in light and easily actionable ways.

When I first started reflecting on relationships, love and how being autistic might have affected those interactions, it was with a bemused sort of detachment. 哈, wasn’t it funny that I missed those signs. I thought we were just friends. And how strange that I found myself in that awkward situation without even realising it. Silly me. It was enough to get me started on a romance novel with a cute premise and lots of adorable misunderstandings. I had always wanted to write the kind of story I like to read or watch when I am in need of comfort.

But the more I wrote, the more I started to consider the real-life danger signs I had missed as well. It was funny to think about how naive and trusting I was, but not as funny to think about the people who pursued me because of that naivety.

When I started digging deeper, I accidentally hit trauma. The kind of stuff that isn’t likely to pop up in The Holiday or To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Like a giant boulder of basalt hidden below beautifully maintained turf in exactly the spot where you want to plant a tree, I had paid it zero mind until it posed a problem.

With hindsight, I see I have lived life constantly watching those around me for cues on how to get things right. I have more often than not gotten things wrong. In my coming-of-age years, those cues were that it was flattering for boys to like you and you should probably go out with them (regardless of your own feelings), but don’t be a slut. Or frigid. Don’t lead them on, but don’t blow them off. Sex was an inevitability, pushed for at all times, and probably best to just get it over with. Tell me about it, stud.

A lifetime of learned compliance and second-guessing my own experiences did not leave me well equipped to stand my ground. It was constantly shifting; the only surety being that I did not perceive things right. The lights are fine, that music isn’t loud, I can’t smell anything, why are you acting like that, stop being dramatic, get over it, don’t make this about you, he didn’t mean it that way, don’t be a bitch.

I just believed people, without closer scrutiny of their intentions, because I had been taught not to trust myself. As autistic author and advocate Clem Bastow said in her recent memoir, Late Bloomer, when you are taught compliance, coupled with difficulties in understanding social cues, “you have a recipe for possible disaster”.

This rings true – and it is devastating but no surprise to me that autistic people are at increased risk of being sexually abused. One study suggests autistic girls are three times more likely to be sexually abused in childhood and adolescence than their typically developing peers. Our experiences of moving through the world can leave us vulnerable. I was vulnerable.

In processing all of this – in learning that not everything was a “me” problem, and that I wasn’t the only person going through it – I was able to start to heal. I am earnest again, in a way that annoys some people, but I no longer care.

I think a lot about the next generation of autistic young people. Sometimes I am consumed with worry and other times I am more hopeful. Things do feel as if they are changing, and autistic people are leading the way. Australian organisations such as Yellow LadybugsAmaze are also doing incredible work in this area.

And I found the lightness for my novel, Social Queue. During the pandemic – when all I wanted to consume was romance, romance, romance – I wrote an awkward, butterflies-in-your-stomach, squiggly, head-rush, autistic teen romance story. I dreamed up first kisses, disaster dates and a happily ever after (for now). I wrote the teen romance I wish I’d actually had. The thing is, 尽管, I could not totally avoid the trauma. Small moments, suggestions really, seeped out of me like groundwater. I refused to put my protagonist through any of the pain of my own past, but I laid out red flags and gave her the chance to take a different path.

I don’t find comfort in Grease any more; there are so many better options to choose from. And I hope that if someone picks up my romantic novel, whether they are autistic or not, they will find comfort in the story of a young girl who does not have to change a single thing about herself in order to be worthy of love.

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