I recently (7 months ago) went through the most difficult breakup of my life. It was, and still is, so hard for many reasons, not least of which was that I was still head over heels about Person of Interest when I broke things off, but a major one of which also relates to my disabilities.
Anyone who knows anything about autism probably realizes that for autists, entering the dating scene, or any romantic interaction from flirting to sex, is a steep uphill climb. Among the many roadblocks we face are:
1) Cluelessness about body language. This is a definite disadvantage, since much (maybe most?) of flirting takes place via this medium. I know when someone is interested in me if they repeatedly comment on my appearance or explicitly ask me out, but this mainly happens with creepy dudes in parking lots. If people are sending me signals through gaze, tone of voice, or other more subtle cues, I am oblivious, and will assume they are uninterested.
2) Difficulty with daily functioning. It’s hard to feel like you could ever be attractive when you have trouble making it to appointments, checking your mail, returning phone calls, attending classes or work, eating a balanced diet, and keeping up with self-care. When you’re disabled, people around you begin to treat you like an incompetent child because of your different needs, and it’s easy to internalize this paternalism. Most people are looking for an equal partner, and it’s sometimes hard to envision how you can fulfill that role when it’s difficult even managing your own life. Of course, autists and other people with disabilities have plenty to contribute to a relationship and the world in general, but especially since we aren’t often taught that message, that doesn’t mean being disabled doesn’t affect our self esteem.
3) Fear of rejection. A combination of my first two points enhances the indefatigability of the third. When you assume that you are unattractive to others both because of your nature and because you can’t perceive positive reactions, each interaction assumes higher stakes. It can be rare to find a person you really like and who you think might like you, so the idea of having your courageous advances rebuffed can be hard to take– it’s easy to assume you might never find another good dating candidate, or at least not for a very long time. Raising the stakes makes it all the less likely that you’ll summon what social skills you’ve learned and let them know how you feel. (In my case, this difficulty has been reinforced by the fact that my the conditions of my breakup were less than self-esteem-boosting.)
4) Nitpickiness. People with autism are famously reluctant to change the tried-and-true methods and routines that have helped us cope with the world so far. Having things a specific way comforts and insulates us. If we’re lucky, we find someone very accommodating; otherwise, in long-term relationships, we gradually adjust our routines to incorporate the needs of our partners. Either way, both readjusting to single life and opening ourselves to the demands of a new relationship, with the quirks and desires of another complex human being whom we don’t know that well yet, can be cause for extreme distress. And once you have gotten used to being alone again, connecting with someone new can seem all the more daunting and disruptive.
5) Sensory and intimacy issues. Personally, I really enjoy cuddling and closeness, but can’t stand abrupt, aggressive displays of affection. Many people with autism find that pressure is soothing, while a light touch is uncomfortable. In addition, more autists, especially women, than neurotypicals describe themselves as being on the asexuality spectrum. Whatever the particulars are of a given autist’s sensory differences and intimate preferences, it’s assured that there will be more than a little awkwardness when getting physically close at first. Anticipating this bump in the road deters pursuing romantic relationships.
I’m sure there are other potential complications that I’m missing, but it should be clear by now that dating while disabled is no easy matter. And thus the extra shoe thrown into the machinery of my breakup: I question constantly, what will my life be like from here on out? Will I ever find another person I feel this attracted to, let alone with whom I can stand to spend my hours? Will anyone ever show interest in me again?
So, for seven months, I convinced myself that this was the end of my romantic and sexual life. I became totally okay with the idea of being celibate, dedicated to my other goals, not dependent on anyone. And then– after many odd conversations with my ex-partner and best friend about my attractiveness, desirability, prospects and needs– I began to realize that I was interested in another person.
I am still struggling with this realization, and trying to determine whether the best course of action is to stick with my celibacy plans and trust that this, too, shall pass, or to pursue this attraction at risk of rejection and further hurt. I can’t even answer this complex and painful question for myself, let alone any other disabled people, but I know that whatever path I choose, it’s undeniable that being an autist has played a crucial role in my decision. I only hope that one day the world will be supportive and accommodating enough that the impact of these difficulties will lessen, and more and more people with autism and other disabilities will be able to freely pursue romantic relationships if that’s what they desire.