From today Netflix is streaming ‘Atypical’, a comedy-drama about an autistic teenage boy who wants to start dating. But what’s it like navigating sex, love and romance when you’re a woman on the spectrum? Here filmmaker and autism rights advocate, Carly Jones – 35 and a divorced mum of three – skewers some stereotypes.
People assume all autistic people are like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, an awkward genius with zero social skills. And when it comes to autistic people dating, it’s The 40 Year Old Virgin cliché: sheltered and desperate.
In fact, some autistic women lose their virginity much earlier than their peers due to naivety or curiosity. As a teenager I truly believed that if I liked someone then they must like me too. Some autistic people can have difficulty with the ‘theory of mind’, which is understanding that other people might think differently to you. For me, it made me a bit vulnerable with boys – if I thought, ‘I will alway treat that person nicely’, then I just assumed they would always treat me nicely too.
I was a teenage mum and married at 18. It wasn’t a fantastic marriage – we divorced when I was 26 – but I enjoyed the security, I liked that things stayed the same. And yes, autistic people do get married: in fact I think we find comfort in the routine, whereas other people might get bored.
Since getting divorced and starting to date again, I’ve realised that I’m demisexual – this means that I’m attracted to the way someone thinks, rather than how they look. (Which is good – because I’m not great at flirting -I’d say something weird, like, “your face looks nice”, then walk off.)
Dating apps obviously don’t work for me. And like a lot of people with autism, I also have face blindness. I can’t recognise people out of context. For example, I always see my dentist in his uniform and office – if I bump into him in the supermarket I won’t know who he is. I can’t remember faces, so I use other cues, like what someone is wearing.
It doesn’t always work: I went to a New Year’s Eve party with a then boyfriend (now ex-) and he was wearing the same t-shirt as another man: midnight comes and I’m really getting into this kiss, when I get a tap on the shoulder…
Telling a potential date that I’m on the spectrum isn’t really a problem. I’m proud of being autistic, so when I meet someone, I will literally say ‘hi, I’m autistic’. It’s a good icebreaker. Most people respond with: ‘oh my god, you don’t look autistic’. (FYI no one looks autistic). Recently I met someone at a networking event, and when I told him I was autistic, he said ‘I’m glad you said that, because I thought you might be’. I wasn’t offended – it made me really happy: it means people are becoming more aware.
There are definite upsides to dating someone who is on the autistic spectrum. There won’t be any games. We can’t fathom playing hard to get. I can remember a friend saying to me, ‘If he texts you don’t reply for three days’. I thought: I’m not hard to get! I’m so eager! I’m just going to ring him.
And we don’t understand lying – so you can expect complete honesty from us. (Just don’t ask a question if you can’t handle the truth).
It’s a myth that autistic people don’t have empathy. I think it’s the opposite – we actually hyper-empathise. I walk down the street and I can pick up if someone’s really sad – it makes me want to hide away. So people think: oh she can’t socialise. But actually the world is really intense – and we’re picking up on everything. We do have empathy, we may just not show it in ways that non-autistic people do, so we’re perceived as lacking in it.
Atypical is very funny, and it certainly captures how unfiltered we are. But it’s a shame that the autistic character, Sam, is another example of the ‘male and pale’ stereotype. Because we’re not all like that. We’re not all white, and we’re not all men: much of my campaigning is about increasing awareness of how autism presents in women and girls, and fighting for equality in our diagnosis and treatment (two of my three daughters are autistic like me).
While Atypical shows that people on the spectrum can and do have relationships – it doesn’t reflect the LGBT members of the autistic community, or those who are gender fluid. It’s a missed opportunity – because one of the greatest misconceptions is that all autistic people are alike: but we’re all so different. So strike up a conversation and get to know us.
For more information visit The National Autistic Society (NAS) at autism.org.uk
Carly Jones is a supporter of the NAS and Scope, one of 21 charities part of the #happytochat initiative to fight loneliness. She also leads a TED-Ed Club for autistic teens in Berkshire. To find out more about her projects visit her website or follow @CarlyJayneJones
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