Dating with Autism – to be or not to be? 

Two young people are standing facing each other talking about dating with autism.

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Hello! I’m Niamh – a Gen NOW ambassador at The Mix. I love Harry Potter and animals. In September, I will be starting a degree in Psychology at university.

TV’s portrayal of dating and relationships

Social media and television surround us with the myth of the ideal partner and the perfect relationship. Reality TV shows, such as ‘Love Island’, cast young, slim and popular individuals to compete in the name of ‘love’. For the majority of the population, these standards are misleading; not every woman is a size four and not every man has a six pack. For 18% of the population, it may feel as though we will never meet the mark, because even if we were a size four, or had a six pack, our disability; whether visible or invisible, may be holding us back.

Love and dating may seem baffling to any average Joe, but for those with disabilities, it can often seem like a minefield and something that is just out of reach. So, what if you are trying to navigate the world of love and dating with a disability? Niall Aslam from ‘Love Island 2018’, a young man with Autism, left the villa because of the negative impact the villa environment had on his mental wellbeing. Does this mean that people with Autism are unable to find love?

Dating with Autism in ‘The Good Doctor’

Not according to NOW’s drama series ‘The Good Doctor’. By following the life of Dr. Shaun Murphy, a surgical resident with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at St. Bonaventure Hospital, the series dispels the stereotypes associated with having ASD. Throughout the series, Shaun overcomes one obstacle after another; within his family life, work life, and – as the series progresses – his love life. We are exposed to Shaun’s sensory difficulties, from sensitivity to certain levels of lighting. We also see him training himself to become used to being touched by others, especially by his girlfriend, Carly Lever.

Expectation of dating vs reality

As a child, I could see everyone else making friends and as we got older, everyone’s expectation was to be in a relationship. People even ask young children if they have a boyfriend/girlfriend. My friendships have never exactly been stable, so I started to wonder if I would ever be in a relationship; or if I’d ever kiss someone. I can hardly tell if someone is being sarcastic, so flirting is out of the question.

Whilst Freddie Highmore’s portrayal of an Autistic man is somewhat stereotypical, I could see myself in Shaun; the longing for more, but also the confusion as to how to get there. This was perfectly summarised by the Autism consultant for ‘The Good Doctor’, Melissa Reiner, who said that for people with Autism, “Their soul, their heart, their being, their true selves – it’s all in there; we just can’t always see it. They desire to connect. It’s always there even if they don’t know how to do it.”

My (limited) dating experience

Last year, I worked in a shop. It was a small shop and most of the staff were sixth formers/school leavers, whom I got on well with, but we were work friends, not friend friends. One day, I got home from work and saw that a guy from work – let’s call him Jeremy – had messaged me, asking me out on a date. I had absolutely no idea what to do. Jeremy was a nice neurotypical guy, who was the same age as me, but all I could think was that he’s only seen me at work. As soon as we go out, he’ll see the real me: a mentally unstable Autistic teenager with a baffling Functional Neurological Disorder that even I don’t understand.

Preparing for a date

After encouragement from my family (and a busybody sister), I replied with a well-rehearsed message of acceptance. The date was a week away and I had no idea what social expectations it would entail, so I spent the week watching the Netflix documentary, ‘Love on the Spectrum’ and reading articles about what should and should not happen on a first date. I felt that ‘Love on the Spectrum’ expected the individuals to be unable to find love, and perceived their ASD as more of a hindrance, so I stuck to the articles.

Each article seemed to contradict the other; some said not to kiss on the first date, whilst others said that you had to kiss if the date went well. But, all articles emphasised the importance of eye contact. Sigh. I can barely look my mother in the eye half of the time, never mind Jeremy – on my first ever date, in a loud and crowded pub, in the midst of a pandemic. I filled my head with expectations, and naturally over-complicated everything, but it turned out to be perfectly imperfect.

The pub was full, so we sat in a nearby park and just chatted. We were sitting next to each other on a bench, so we didn’t have to make eye contact. It was comforting that Jeremy was just as nervous as I was, and all expectations flickered away. He was honest with me, so I was honest with him. I told him about my Autism and tried to explain my Functional Neurological Disorder. Thankfully, he didn’t come out with the cliche of “you don’t look Autistic”.

Nothing and nobody is ever perfect

Jeremy and I are no longer together, but we live and learn. We weren’t right for each other, in the same way that Shaun and Carly weren’t right for each other. That’s ok. Everyone dreams about the ‘perfect’ relationship; date, or first kiss, but nothing is perfect and it would be boring if it was.

If you need support with disability and relationships

Read this resource from As I Am and read this inspiring advice for young autistic people, written by autistic adults.

Get in touch with the team at The Mix for free and confidential advice.

Read Paddy Smyth’s interview about being gay with a disability.

Read our article about disability and sexual confidence.

Next Steps

By Niamh Brigid

Updated on 19-Aug-2021

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