Culture

Bad Advice for Autistic Dating

From The Atlantic this week:

The aspects of autism that can make everyday life challenging—reading social cues, understanding another’s perspectives, making small talk and exchanging niceties—can be seriously magnified when it comes to dating. Though the American Psychiatric Association defines autism as a spectrum disorder—some people do not speak at all and have disabilities that make traditional relationships (let alone romantic ones) largely unfeasible, but there are also many who are on the “high-functioning” end and do have a clear desire for dating and romance. …

Certain characteristics associated with the autism spectrum inherently go against typical dating norms. For example, while a “neuro-typical” person might think a bar is great place for a first date, it could be one of the worst spots for someone on the spectrum. Dorsey Massey, a social worker who helps run dating and social programs for adults with various intellectual disabilities, explained, “If it’s a loud, crowded place, an individual on the spectrum may be uncomfortable or distracted.” Sensory issues may also make certain lights and noises especially unpleasant.

Confession: I’m fascinated with the unique lives and challenges of people with Asperger’s autism spectrum disorders. I’m drawn to articles like this one because one of the characters in the adventure YA novel I’m working on right now shows Aspergian traits. He falls in love with a princess, and must endure all sorts of upsetting and routine-destroying adventures. To try and understand and portray how he would interact with his princess and other adventure companions, I’ve read a lot of articles and books about dating advice for people with Asperger’s Syndrome (which according to the APA doesn’t exist anymore, but that’s a different blog post). I love Penelope Trunk’s ruthlessly honest writing about her life with Asperger’s. And I love how people with Asperger’s have gained new mainstream attention (and widespread acceptance) through portrayals in shows like The Big Bang Theory (Sheldon Cooper) and Community (Abed Nadir).

So, what’s wrong with this article? It doesn’t really delve into the challenges that are very thoroughly specific to relationship-seekers with Asperger’s. In fact, most of the challenges the article describes just sound like the foibles anyone puts up with when dating. I don’t doubt that people with Asperger’s suffer them to a higher degree, and possibly have less wiggle room to adapt their personal outlook to overcome them. I just think that: 1) There could have been a much more in-depth article written about the truly unique dating challenges that only people with Asperger’s face; and 2) an article like this perpetuates the myth that anyone who experiences the challenges it describes, when dating, is “weird” and very different from the rest of the dating masses, and that they’re doing it all wrong.

Some of the challenges the article describes include feeling uncomfortable in traditional dating and mating venues, like bars; having difficulty understanding how much eye contact is enough to attract attention without coming across as “creepy;” and maintaining confidence in your carefully-learned flirting skills after repeated rejection.

That sounds pretty much like my dating life since the age of 17.

And I’m not alone; most girls I’m friends with (even though we’re all still in our supposedly raging twenties) really dislike meeting guys at bars. It’s noisy, most of the guys there are only looking to hook up, and when people are talking with their own clusters of friends it can be hard to find a graceful way to break in.

Virtually every guy and girl I know has a funny story about how their unique flirting technique spectacularly failed or wound up making the other person (falsely) believe he/she was “creepy.” It’s the stuff of rom com “accidental” encounters: when the hero runs into the heroine, who awkwardly tries to explain that she had a real reason to be in that place and isn’t actually stalking him. Neuro-typical people have a better time interpreting social cues, but that doesn’t mean we’re mind readers or flawless communicators (or never liable to make bad decisions).

Finally, who hasn’t felt their confidence dinged by one too many rejections? Even those of us who do pick up on social cues still need to learn acceptable flirting techniques, and everyone has that line or look that they think is the cincher, only to see it fail. It’s all part of the silly hilarity of dating (after all, the best flirting technique is simply being yourself) but no one’s immune to the sting of rejection and the self-doubt that follows.

I definitely recognize that people with Asperger’s face some different dating challenges than other folks. But a lot of the hurdles they face are really the same as everyone else’s, but to a higher degree. Comparing them to neuro-typical daters as if neuro-typicals have got it all figured out and people with Asperger’s don’t is unfair to everyone.

That attitude doesn’t help anyone. It sets up the myth that somewhere out there is a special set of people who are just the awesomest at dating and know how to do everything right, and that the goal of both relationship-seekers with Asperger’s and the neuro-typical-but-awkward is to become one of those Perfect Daters. Not true. The goal is to find a partner who fits with you. Being better at “flirting skills” might help you get closer to that. Or it might not, to be perfectly honest. Life is funny like that. If you do want to seek help in getting better at dating, flirting, and meeting new people (no matter who you are), just make sure that the coaching you get focuses on letting you be who you really are, while maybe bettering your communications skills a bit. Don’t buy into the myth that somewhere out there is advice that will turn you into a Perfect Dater who will never again experience the rejection and disappointment you’ve been through already. What you’ve already experienced is actually perfectly normal. The first step in being more comfortable dating is to realize that your flaws and quirks don’t make you undatable, and that being yourself doesn’t always mean  you’re doing it “wrong.”