I was walking home in the cold when I got the dreaded rejection text.
“Sorry, I’m going to have to pass on a second date,” it read. “We didn’t have the chemistry I’d hoped for, and I don’t see us as romantically compatible.”
Cue Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria: my heart rate spikes and there’s a burning in my chest as everything I’ve been taught to hate about myself comes into sharp focus. This only lasts about ten seconds—until I can remind myself that the approval of relative strangers doesn’t reflect my value as a human. But even after the alarm turns off, there is one phrase banging around my brain, driving away all other thoughts and inducing existential panic: What the fuck just happened?
Feeling confused about social interactions is nothing new to me. As an autistic person, navigating a world built for allistic people (that is, people who aren’t autistic) routinely feels like playing a game where everybody else got the rulebook and I didn’t. Growing up, austistics face a higher risk of bullying and isolation, which can manifest as an ever-deepening well of self-loathing in adulthood. The differences in how we experience everything from sensory processing to social interaction are pathologized in allistic culture as “autistic traits,” symptoms of a disorder so broad that it encompasses seemingly every aspect of our being.
Understandably, allistic flirting can feel like a bizarre mating ritual. Eye contact, voice inflection, body language—all are incredibly important, yet completely unintuitive for many autistics. And online dating forces people into a labyrinth of word choice, emoji use and rules about when to text back. By now I’ve spent countless hours throwing autistic vulnerability into the digital ether, praying it impresses the little pictures of hot gays in my phone.
During my most recent endeavour, I had talked to a girl from Hinge for a few weeks while she was home for the holidays. She was really smart and the vibe was flirty—I was cautiously hoping this was someone I could actually date. We made plans to meet up when she got back and, with everything on lockdown, decided to grab a hot chocolate and walk around outside.
The date itself kind of sucked. Conversation flowed nicely, but between bulky jackets and runny noses there was no room to determine or establish chemistry. After the weeks-long buildup I was disappointed, but initiated a second date because we’d both tried our best in the miserable conditions, and had a good time chatting before that. Her initial response was enthusiastic: “I’d love to see you again!” She suggested meeting up at her place. I was waiting to hear back about her schedule when she sent the rejection text instead.
In my confusion I was sure I’d made some unseen error that ruined everything, so I crowdsourced advice from some autistic friends. But they were equally surprised. One was particularly reassuring: “This is just a person who doesn’t know what she wants.”
My friend was probably right. Allistics are often very confusing, and everybody has the right to be unpredictable. But I still can’t shake the anxiety that no matter how hard I try, I’ll always be one step behind everyone else.
“Allistic culture creates autistic vulnerability by framing autistic strengths as weaknesses to be pathologized, eliminated and replaced.” says Ander Negrazis, a non-binary autistic registered psychotherapist whose practice focuses on helping other queer autistics. “It doesn’t just get autistic people in trouble (with neurotypicals), it also gets neurotypical people into trouble with each other.”
Autistics tend to communicate directly and purposefully using very literal terms, prioritizing accuracy and depth of meaning over things like small talk. When embraced, this helps us get to the root of problems far more effectively, by doing away with frivolous niceties. Put simply: we know how to say what we mean.
Allistics have a tendency to interpret this as bluntness or rudeness, stemming from a failure to “read the room.” Yet when they miscommunicate key information, it’s not seen as their failure. Applying unspoken rules about communication to invalidate or silence autistic viewpoints is unfortunately a function of allistic culture.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Negrazis says. “But it’s very normalized.”
This makes autistics rely on lessons learned through social trauma to anticipate and react to allistics’ unspoken wants and needs. In my case, weeks of chatting, plus a relatively enjoyable date and encouraging follow up texts allowed me to calculate that I could feel secure about next steps. The rejection stung, sure, but suddenly realizing I’d misjudged the situation was far worse—it called into question my ability to handle just about any social interaction.
sitara has had similar experiences with dating. “It’s just tiring to be out in the world,” says the non-binary autistic artist from Toronto. “It can be difficult to understand how neurotypical people communicate … how they approach things like dating, or even connecting with people.”
sitara says they often feel the urge to put the brakes on attraction in order to avoid possible confusion or rejection, and hooking up or receiving verbal affirmation from partners does little to change that. Instead, they say, each interaction creates new opportunities for insecurity.
“Not only do I have to interpret what the other person is feeling about me, but I’m going to pick apart all my behaviours, and think about how I could have done things differently,” they explain. “I’m really harsh on myself, and I internalize the blame for things not going a certain way.”
This type of thinking can cause sitara to spiral. “[I think] ‘There could have been something here for me that was really great … Am I just sabotaging good things over and over again because I’m scared?’”
Negrazis agrees it can be hard for autistic people not to blame themselves for these experiences. But, they point out, “there are enormous problems with [neurotypicals] being vague, indirect, not thinking ahead to … even know what their boundaries, limits, wants and needs are.”
This is why Negrazis teaches their autistic clients that reversing this perspective is fundamental to healing autistic trauma.
For instance, this confusion is “not because autistic people are malfunctioning in their dating,” they say. “[It’s because] one aspect of neurotypical culture is that lack of communication, the absence of assertiveness, the absence of direct honesty.”
Negrazis says rather than shrink themselves to fit allistic expectations, autistics should embrace the strengths that come with autistic traits. This level of vulnerability can often make allistics uncomfortable, but embracing it is an opportunity for them to practice empathy and learn entirely new ways of being. For example, social awkwardness is seen as a shortcoming in dating, but it’s actually a very vulnerable trait that shows someone cares deeply and is being transparent with their discomfort.
“Find people who really celebrate you and appreciate you for who you are, and delight in aspects of yourself that otherwise get shamed,” says Negrazis.
And that’s exactly what I did. Three days after the rejection text I met up with a new Tinder match at a weed store. We smoked at my place and hooked up after, like, 15 minutes. Fuckboy behaviour? Absolutely, drag me. But guess what: we’re still dating. It’s awesome.
She’s not autistic, and she doesn’t have to be. I found someone equally slutty who says what they mean, and understands I can only do the same. She gives me space to be confused and ask questions; she makes sure to answer clearly and always asks her own. I can tell she’s listening because she turns off the ceiling light, lowers the volume to put on subtitles and traces little circles in the palm of my hand to help with sensory overload.
She also appreciates the intensity with which I show care and discomfort, and the silence that other people read as coldness. I feel safe infodumping, being goofy and going non-verbal; all parts of myself I’ve been taught to hate and hide.
As exciting as it is, I’m making sure to take Negrazis’ final advice to heart: “It’s okay to take a long time to trust somebody,” they say. “Setting a boundary is an act of trust, and people are very multifaceted and dynamic … meet their friends, lovers, chosen family, so you can get to know who they really are.”