Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Varinata
This is me: a 27-year-old woman with high cheekbones, cool-girl style, and over 4,000 followers on Instagram. My fans say I have a killer fashion sense, while my friends love me for my bubbly personality. I don’t mean to flex, but I’m a catch. Still, dating has never been easy because this is also me: a woman on the autism spectrum.
Diagnosed when I was 2 years old, being autistic has been a huge part of all my relationships, romantic or otherwise. Autism is a developmental disorder that affects a person’s social interactions. Each case lies on a spectrum that ranges from high-functioning to low-functioning. I have Asperger’s syndrome, which means I belong to the former category and am able to go to school, socialize, and adapt to new environments. I’ve also been undergoing treatment since I was young, which has helped a lot. But dating is a different beast altogether. Finding love is hard for everyone, but imagine having a Princess Fiona moment, not wanting your suitors to know that you turn into an ogre after sunset. That’s how it feels for me.
It’s a unique struggle that the reality show Love on the Spectrum tries to capture. It follows men and women on the autism spectrum as they navigate relationships and dating. It has received mostly positive reviews for being compassionate and actually showing genuine love (Surprisingly rare in dating shows). While not everything on the reality show is in line with my reality, it did lead me to look back on my own dating journey.
My first relationship was with Johan*. I noticed that he had traits of a person with autism but I never found out for sure. In any case, we were both misfits, so I thought that we would connect emotionally. We did our homework together and even went on a double date with friends. But we never got physical.
Because of sensory issues, many people who are autistic feel a light pressure when touched, leading them to refuse hugs or any form of physical contact. This is not a problem for me and I grew up in a family that hugged and kissed, so I felt rejected when Johan didn’t show me affection. I loved being around him and we would sometimes hug, but we never held hands or kissed.
I later noticed that it was also difficult for Johan to manage his emotions. He would either take out his anger on me, cry, or avoid me altogether whenever we disagreed. Once, he cried in public and I only later learned that it was because people had been teasing us about our relationship. I was always so open about showing my interest in him but he wasn’t the same with me. He snapped when I tried to comfort him, while I didn’t even shed a tear. Now I realize that just as he was uncomfortable showing affection, being on the spectrum made me indifferent to his feelings and unable to empathize. Our relationship never officially started and we eventually just slid out of each other’s lives a year later.
Autism can affect people in different ways and I quickly found that dating someone who is also autistic does not mean instant chemistry, so I tried dating people who weren’t on the spectrum.
I started putting myself out there when I started college, to see if I could land a proper date after putting off my love life in high school. There was Troy*, an aspiring filmmaker I met up with over tea and vegan food. He was cute and there was some flirting but we had nothing in common and he had some tasteless misogynistic jokes. He wanted to see me again but I ghosted him.
Steve*, an aspiring musician, and I met via a mutual friend in the summer of 2015. Though he was two years younger, our first date felt magical. We laughed, ate Mexican food, talked about music, and took a long walk around the Santa Monica Promenade. It ended with ice cream and kisses that were even sweeter. I felt like a princess, but it didn’t work out either. Something about our age gap and different music tastes got in the way, I guess.
I wasn’t sure how to handle rejection, whether I was the one who wanted to back off or the one being rejected. Like those on Love on the Spectrum, it’s difficult for me to go beyond a first date.
So, in 2018, like most people my age, I tried dating apps. I was busy with work as an intern at a fashion magazine and thought that it would be easier to meet people online. Sure, potentially meeting my soulmate by just swiping right appealed to me but, for the most part, I was just happy that it would spare me from getting humiliated in face-to-face rejections. Like that one time in 2013, when a Zac Efron look-alike ignored me and ran the opposite direction when I tried to hit on him in the gym. I was briefly interested in him but had no idea that he didn’t feel the same way because I failed to read his body language.
Apps like Tinder and Bumble are criticized for being superficial, where people judge based solely on appearance, but for me, they’re freeing. Instead of having to struggle with making the first move in person and letting my autism get in the way, people could first see me as how I want to present myself, who I truly am — a baddie with a heart of gold. Since a profile with a short bio is a visual mood board of our personalities and values, I feel that I can take more chances with apps without having to be overly self-conscious about what to say.
Luke*, an Australia-based expat and I had yet to go on a date, but we talked about restaurants to visit during his short trip to Singapore, where I live. I eat mostly plant-based food and I wanted to know what his diet preferences were before we met up. I would have been really nervous if I asked him in person, but it came off as casual on Tinder.
Many of those on the autism spectrum, like me, are afraid of saying the wrong thing. In an episode of Love on the Spectrum, one of the cast members, Maddi, had to rehearse lines with her mom before a date to make sure she can keep a conversation going. Maddi’s mom pointed out whenever she stumbled, like during a practice conversation about having children, when she said things like, “No, I think they’re a waste of time and money.” Seeing her run through the conversations over and over again was excruciating but also relatable. Slipping up in conversations is inevitable and sometimes, I struggle to articulate myself properly, even though it sounded perfect in my head.
Thankfully, I’ve learned that I don’t need to be perfect or avoid sounding awkward. On my first Bumble date, I accidentally called the guy the wrong name. I wanted to pull up my phone to check his name but figured that would be worse and so, I just laughed it off. He laughed with me.
Most of the time, I still don’t tell dates about my autism because it’s still painful to talk about, and that’s probably the main reason I’m still single. To establish a solid foundation for a relationship, I need to learn to be sensitive to other people’s emotions while being emotionally transparent myself. For love to bloom, I need to let my guard down and let them see all sides of me. And that means finding someone I can be my true self with, and who won’t judge me for the hell I’ve gone through.
*Names have been changed for privacy.
Michelle is the freelance fashion and beauty writer behind the blog Lapis and Layers. She is based in Singapore. Follow her on Instagram.