Originally published on Autostraddle and republished here with their permission.
Editor’s Note: This article is written from the author’s personal experience and opinions and is not meant to represent and will not apply to all autistics’ experiences.
I’ve always had trouble understanding social relationships. Cracking open the cover to the Lisa Frank unicorn journal from my childhood, I found evidence in the words of my eight-year-old self:
This is the true story of…the day me and Philip the bad Parted (secretly). I wanted to marry him when I grew up — Until now. …I stepped Philip’s foot — by mistake. He Yelled an ear-deafing Yell and said to me ‘NEVER STEP ON THE MASTER’S FOOT!’ I went out, crying.”
“Philip the Bad” wasn’t my friend, much less a grade-school love. He was just a fifth grader who was also in the church choir. The relationship was entirely 100% in my own head.
Dating and relationships are foreign territory. I do my best to tread them, and I think I have the important parts down pat, like how to love people and be kind to them, but the subtleties of body language, the knowledge of appropriate responses, and the idea of being in touch with my feelings escapes me.
It’s just the way I am, part and parcel of my autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
WTF Is Dating, Anyway?
Just the other day, my social worker at a recreational program I attend asked me if I wanted dating support. I went off on a long and vague tangent before stopping, staring at her, and admitting, “Honestly, I’m not even sure what dating is!”
Activities that are entrenched in our social world mystify me. I’m the type of person who tries to intellectually analyze emotional happenings because they make little logical sense to me.
In childhood, I used my stuffed animals to stand for different people in social situations that I acted out before bed. In middle school, I came up with seven qualities that would be required in a romantic match and committed them to heart. In high school, I used graph paper to chart the people I knew: Were they “friendly acquaintances,” “friends,” or “close friends?”
I’ve turned to my journal, my therapists, and my family members to share my rational reasoning behind feelings and social life.
My sister informed me that my number-based formula, which credited people in my life on ten different qualities and items on a 1-to-5 scale in order to figure out who was my friend, was completely ridiculous and lacking.
But if I don’t understand people from the social perspective, then I can analyze them intellectually.
I categorize people in relation to me, sometimes in highly questionable ways — for instance, I notice that my bullies somehow made it into the “friendly acquaintance” or “friend” lists of my teen years.
When I started college, I didn’t have any dating experience.
While there’s nothing wrong with a romantic start in adulthood, there’s a stigma around it. I felt ashamed and unwanted. That low self-esteem led to even lower priorities. I ended up having a “boyfriend” for three weeks freshman year, counting the five-day Thanksgiving vacation. I felt nothing for him. My reasoning was “Nobody else will ever want me anyway, so if somebody shows interest, jump in.”
It was a “relationship,” if you can call it that, for the sake of having a relationship — all surface. Like a disgusting cake with beautiful frosting, it lacked the ingredients for happiness.
Floundering at Flirting
“Remember that time you were ten and the boy at the Christmas party tried to flirt with you?” asked my mom.
We were waiting on a rather long line to talk to Santa, who was nice enough to come by my dad’s company’s office party, and this annoying kid was tearing sheets of paper into bitty shreds, raining it over my hair, smiling at me, and following me around. A rule-obsessed, serious child, I told a grown-up that he was bothering me because I felt rather harassed.
“He was so mortified,” said my mom. “He just wanted to be around you.”
Oops, my bad!
Flirting is daunting, though. My very limited experience suggests that it depends a lot on reading facial expressions and instantly guessing what the other person is thinking, then acting in a timely manner.
Inaccurately reading body language is a deficit when dating.
I took a face-reading test — basically, you look at a series of photographs of eyes and choose the multiple-choice answer that corresponds with what the eyes emote. Although I was proud that I correctly identified happy and scared eyes, there was one glaring pattern at the end of quiz. All of the eyes I thought were furious were apparently flirtatiously giving me the come-hither look! How utterly inconvenient for me to read certain sexy eyes as aggravated.
After extensive data interpretation, journaling, and mulling over, I can understand body language. Flirting, though, is fast-paced, occurring in moments dripping with subtext. The time to act is now, but it takes longer for me to process social information. I might not realize what to do until days, weeks, or years later.
I was at Babeland, and I struck up a conversation with the fabulous girl behind the counter about how funny it is when people leave sex toy stores hiding the bag and looking down. When I bought a vibrator, she smiled at me and said, “I’ll throw in the batteries for free!”
Was it just some special I was unaware of? Was she being friendly? Or was giving away free things from behind a sex toy counter actually some strange and admirable type of flirtation laced with sexual overtones?
Whether or not she had been flirting with me, it was too late. I did nothing to further investigate her aim, so my conclusion is that I wasted a moment.
Saying nothing gets me nowhere, but my overly-enthusiastic approach gets me in trouble, too.
When I was fourteen I journaled about Internet communications with a crush:
He started IMing with me! We sent smiley faces! It was awesome fun! He also said that I did a good job! Yipee. Maybe he does like me after all. Well maybe I shouldn’t have sent the kissy-face in the IM, but he probly forgot about it already.”
Based on the fact that he mysteriously stopped instant-messaging after I’d sent the said kissy-face, I find it hard to believe that he forgot about it. It’s further proof of how I find it way too easy to misinterpret the signs that people are — or aren’t — interested.
Where’s the line between friendliness and more-than-friendliness? Why do people flirt without ever intending on becoming romantically involved?
Flirting is a social game with ambiguous rules.
“My soldier,” she said, planting a kiss — impulsive or planned? — on my cheek. She was an academic with her hair nobly shaven. I was smitten. I “dropped by” with homemade cookies, read her tarot cards, listened to her woes during midnight phone calls, and visited her when she was sick. There was something about the way she treated me or looked at me, tension in those eyes or smile.
One evening, as I was leaving, I couldn’t figure out the lock on the way out of her apartment so I looked at her and boldly said, “I guess I am staying tonight.” But then the moment was gone, one breath, breathe in, breathe out, the next. When even our fragile friendship had dissolved, I became frustrated.
How Can I Say This?
With the academic, I felt frozen. I didn’t speak up soon enough.
“What are you thinking?” she asked, staring into my eyes, willing me to speak.
I thought for sure she could tell. Maybe she could, but maybe she also wanted me to romantically pursue her and tell her how stunning she was. Unsure of my actions, my mouth super-glued shut, I stayed silent.
Difficulty communicating effectively is part of being on the autism spectrum.
For me, that difficulty is both in expressing myself and in understanding the complex hidden meanings in language, which is itself social.
“Hey, how is your new year going?” read the message. Naturally, I answered honestly. Is it okay to say “I have bronchitis” as a conversation starter for online dating? Because that’s exactly what I did.
Misunderstanding language plays a large role in the way that dates and flirts fail.
I have a tendency to take things literally — it’s taken me years to effectively understand sarcasm, and I often miss the point of “dirty” jokes or innuendo. Or, to the contrary, I overcompensate and get lost in searching for the secret meanings behind words.
There was this one time that I accidentally went on a date on OKCupid. We had messaged back and forth for a few weeks. They had started off the conversation by saying “I’d really like to be your friend.” I was so excited at the thought of making friends that I took the words at face-value, which is apparently a dangerous thing to do when online dating sites are involved.
We met at a park, and as we took the long loop around the park, we covered quite a bit of area with which I was unfamiliar. At one point, we saw a little wooden bridge. They stopped on the path and looked at me and said, “How romantic!”
Pause. Oh no.
My brain froze. Was this a date?
Noooo, this can’t be a date. Their first message to me ever, they had started off the conversation by saying they’d really like to be my friend.
But in order to deter those looking for one-night stands, I had mentioned on my dating profile that I was only interested in dating people who wanted to be friends first.
As I mulled over the perceptible shift in our time together, brought on by the supposedly romantic presence of a small wooden bridge, I made my choice. I did not want to give any romantic overtones a chance, so I laughed and kept walking.
“We can still be friends,” he said.
One of the greatest confusions in the dating world lies in this traditional break-up phrase.
I sincerely believed it when it was directed at me, despite hearing that this phrase within neurotypical society often means “We definitely can’t ever be friends again.”
Why would you lie and say you want to be friends when you don’t? I would prefer if somebody told me “We really can’t still be friends” because then, I wouldn’t waste my time trying only to be met with bewildering resistance.
Why Did I Do That?
Having autism spectrum disorder is like lacking social instinct. So I do my best at making it up.
She was the kind of college classmate who made that mustard-yellow floral print dress look pretty instead of like a curtain.
One sunny spring day, she invited me to go skinny-dipping with her. This was a liberal hippie college I went to, and there were waterfalls and forests on the campus. My crush invited me to swim naked. Instead of being in my right mind and saying “yes,” I didn’t respond to the question. I just wandered away in the opposite direction downhill, leaving her bemused and confused. I had no idea what to do, so I did nothing.
On a rare occasion that I attended a party with a friend, I very openly checked out a hot queer and tried my best to flirt, with no discernable response. Five minutes later, my friend introduced me to the same attractive person as his new lover, putting me a highly embarrassing situation.
Satisfactory social responses are often more obvious to nonautistic individuals. My behavior can be misinterpreted as ludicrous excuses or just being a jerk, when I’m simply lacking social knowledge.
“So it’s a date?”
The phone call that started with my teeth clamped shut was much more enjoyable than I’d expected. “Yes!” I cried enthusiastically.
Twenty minutes later, I was busy mulling over the meaning of the phrase “So it’s a date.” Figuratively, it would be a good way to confirm, “Our plans are set.” Literally, it’s a nice way to ask, “So we are going on a date, yes?”
To calm my jitters, I watched an episode of the PBS cartoon Arthur, but became even more confused when Arthur the aardvark told Buster the bunny, “So it’s a date?”
I doubted the wholesome comic animals were in a secret relationship, so perhaps this phrase was normal to say to your buddies? But I had to take the context into consideration. My mind spinning, I decided to “clarify” that we were hanging out “just as friends.”
After I went to dinner, it was like my feelings caught up with me, and I immediately regretted my clarification.
Emotions are messy and complicated, and so are relationships.
I want answers, but sometimes, there is no clear-cut line between friends and more. I accidentally sabotage myself, bungling involvements before they have a chance to grow. For that reason, I’ve worried that potentially romantic interactions are too distressing to be worth the trouble.
Yes, some sexy eyes make me feel threatened since I think they are on the angry attack. It takes extra work for me to communicate effectively. But no matter how many corners I hide in, I have to keep trying. We risk so much by trying, but more by not. Without giving relationships a shot, I may be less drained, but I’ll also lose out on the great satisfaction I find in the few connections I keep.
In my teenage years, I felt trapped in a Catch-22: I believed that I would never get any romantic or sexual experience because nobody would want to be with somebody without experience. Only by continuing to try and by working through my relationship mistakes did I find somebody who could love me.
Through my experiences with this wonderful person, with whom I am in an open relationship, I have learned more about how to communicate than any how-to guide could teach.
And while I’m never going to be the first one who shouts out “That’s what she said,” I’ve improved at catching innuendo and body language — or at the very least, I’ve gotten more direct at asking, “What does that face you’re making mean?”
I know social relationships are harder for me, but the last thing I want to do is use autism as an excuse. Acknowledging my autism spectrum disorder makes me remember I’m wired differently.
I like to think that, although my romantic relating is bumpy, I get points for passion and loyalty — clumsily executed, but obviously full of love.
For those of us with ASD, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that we have to overcompensate for autistic qualities in order to make good dates or partners. Our good qualities are inseparable from our autistic selves, from the person inside who is labeled with autism or Asperger’s syndrome.
It’s in all of our best interest widen the level of acceptable ways of making friends, showing romantic interest, and participating in relationships.
We may have to try harder to flirt, much less date, but in my (albeit, limited) experience, the right people are willing to try harder too, learn to communicate in our different language, and see us — and like us — for who we are.
Emily Brooks is a Brooklyn, New York-based journalist who works with kids and teens with disabilities. She spends her free time playing in ways usually reserved for children and researching her various passions. You can see more of Emily’s writing at www.emilybrooks.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilybrooks89.