In this personal essay, STEM master’s student and contributor Abi Hunter reflects on dating another autistic individual, and how her relationship helps to remind her of the great variety of autistic experience. Finally, she discusses how campus resources and groups can help students meet others with similar interests and identities. These connections can provide support, and they often form the basis of students’ collegiate communities.
I got a message on Tinder at 8:06 AM on a Saturday. It was from Katherine (21). She said: “When you say Love is Strange, do you mean the film or the Life is Strange fan-made visual novel?”.
“The fan-made visual novel, of course,” I replied.
My Tinder bio, at the time, had a line that said “I learned all my flirting skills from Love is Strange”. As Katherine had just pointed out, this was a fan-made spin-off of a video game I had fallen in love with earlier that year. The original game, Life is Strange, is a mystery narrative; Love is Strange is a dating simulator. I wasn’t sure how much Katherine cared about Love is Strange, but hopefully it meant we were compatible.
Lots of college-age autistic people find themselves unlucky in love. At the end of my freshman year, I’d found it a mixed bag. I had about two dozen Tinder matches I’d never messaged, I’d had one summer fling with completely asymmetrical commitment, and my last dating prospect had introduced me to the aforementioned video game before unceremoniously dumping me. I hadn’t cried. Even before Katherine, college was where I’d begun to hit it off romantically and explore prospects. I went on some dates, found out what I liked and didn’t like in a partner. The freedom college gives you is a freedom in many domains. I chose my major, refined my academic interests, and realized how much I love computer science at the same time as I navigated bad dates and good dates.
Every date with Kat(therine) was a good one. A few days after we met, we both started dropping heavy hints about our diagnoses, talking about our respective special interests (Me: politics, Life is Strange, Alan Turing. Her: Disney, Life is Strange, Pokemon Go) and sensory issues until we finally picked up on each other being autistic. Not only was she cute, not only did we have a lot in common, but we shared this one fundamental thing. When she asked me to be her girlfriend two months later, I said “yes”.
Most dating advice for people on the spectrum focuses on, perhaps even presumes, a relationship between an NT and an autistic person. Some of this information is helpful. “Connect through common interests”, says Psychology Today. “Build your relationship online”. They also say “learn NT social cues”. This last piece of advice might have helped if either of us were dating an NT person, but for Kat and I it not only makes no sense but has caused us anguish. “If an NT person had changed the subject like that,” I told her, “that would have meant they disagreed.”
“Well, that’s not what I meant,” she said.
I protested, but explaining the social cues I’ve learned over the years from observation and my therapist is like trying to correct someone’s grammar in Mandarin. I might know a few phrases, but I have no business giving anyone lessons. The neurotypical-centric ways in which both of us have adapted to our past partners and friends have no place in our relationship, and can even wind up causing harm, but they’re hard to unlearn.
At the same time, a lot of dating advice for autistic people can be helpful in any relationship. WikiHow, which is not my go-to for relationship troubleshooting, but is still one of the top hits when one Googles “autism dating advice,” recommends finding common interests. Kat and I found an immediate connection through our shared interest in a video game. It’s small, it’s nothing to base a relationship on, but it was the initial spark that got us talking. Shared interests (or special interests) don’t just give you something to talk about: they can reflect shared values and shared tastes that will build the foundation for a lasting, loving relationship where you never run out of things to talk about.
Neither Kat nor I were especially adept at bringing up our respective diagnoses. At one point it just fell out: she mentioned it offhand, I mentioned it offhand, and we had both suspected it for a while. There’s no ideal way to bring it up. I could put it in my bio, but that might cause prejudgements that I don’t want. On the other hand, do I want to date someone who would make assumptions about me just because I happen to be autistic among many other things? That’s a fine balance. Some people are misinformed but not malicious, and they could make fine partners. Some people are unwilling to learn, and they don’t.
Because Kat and I are both autistic, those weren’t my concerns. Instead, our hiccups have emerged over the course of two years of dating. Sometimes we disagree over subtext in things people say, write, or do. Noises and smells that I don’t mind at all can be completely overwhelming for her. When I’m upset, I become cold and withdrawn. She becomes emotional. Neither of these are unheard of in other autistic people, but when the experiences coincide, I have to take account of the fact that just because we are both autistic does not, in fact, mean our experiences always align. Autism shapes our experiences of the world, but in different ways, and that was never something I expected. We can tend to get into our own heads, to generalize our experiences, particularly with autism. In a relationship, where cognitive empathy can be key, this can cause all kinds of friction.
It can also solve problems, or stop them from developing. We have fewer communication issues than many couples around us, because we tend to be frank and straightforward with each other. We’re both quiet, although we enjoy parties, we also like staying home and playing Dragon Age. We don’t tend to conflict over which to do; we both know our own limits, and they’re very similar. Despite the ways in which we differ, we can also be wonderfully in sync: she tells me about Disney, I tell her about Bletchley Park. We both listen intently. We both have pain behind our experiences during school, and that pain somehow feels less acute when we can share it together. We have a lot in common. Autism is just one of those things.
Kat and I found each other through Tinder, but I found my first real girlfriend through an LGBT+ society on campus. For other students who identify as LGBT, this can be one of the best resources, not just to find romantic partners but to find friends with something in common with us. For everyone, including autistic students who identify as straight, it can be helpful to join both interest-based societies as well as identity-based societies like the organization called the Symposium on Autism and Neurodiversity on my campus. Many campuses have similar societies and clubs when autistic students can meet others with at least a few things in common. I wouldn’t recommend walking in with the explicit goal of finding a romantic partner, but expanding one’s social circle in interest- and identity-based ways can lead to more rewarding and fulfilling friendships, and even lead to something more.
What are some of the campus groups and societies that have helped you transition from high school to college while you navigate new relationships with friends and partners? Let me know in the comments.