Finding The One is tricky enough, but what’s it like for people with autism? Anna Moore meets some of those who have to date differently.
In many ways – all the important ones – James Sinclair and his fiancée Carolyn are like any other young professional couple trying to get on with their lives as far as Covid will allow.
Their wedding is booked for April next year at the Eden Project in Cornwall although, of course, it’s shrouded in uncertainty. They’ve just bought their first home together in West London – which has suddenly doubled up as their joint office (Carolyn, 27, is a paralegal, working towards becoming a lawyer, and James, 26, works in technology). They’ve become proud parents to Velma, a cavalier king charles spaniel puppy.
If you look a little closer, you might notice a few quirks. James’s Funko Pop Bobblehead collection (figurines from popular culture, including horror movies, some quite grotesque) are quietly vying for more space in their new home. Carolyn had hoped James would take most of them to work, but now his office is closed, she’s battling to get them back into a bag. James has promised to build them a shelf.
Then there are the stretches when James plays Pokémon nonstop. ‘I’ll make a huge pot of pasta to last a week and I might as well have a “do not disturb” sign on my head,’ he says. ‘No one can go near me.’ Carolyn says she’s fine with this – she takes ballet classes, sees friends and plans things without him. If the couple are on a night out and James finds a certain noise distracting – someone’s laugh on the next table, a weird echo – they might have to relocate or go home. And if James is rambling to friends and family, lost on a tangent, it’s not unusual for Carolyn to stop him by saying, ‘James – no one’s interested!’
James’s hobbies, collections, passions and sensory issues are all part of his autism – he was diagnosed as a young child and blogs about it at autisticandunapologetic.com. Although he struggled through adolescence, spending a year in hospital with anxiety and an eating disorder, his life looks very different now. Carolyn and James met at Leeds Festival when they were 17 and from the start Carolyn – who is neurotypical (the term used for someone who shows no autistic or atypical patterns of behaviour) – found much to love. ‘James was headstrong, clear about the world. I didn’t know what autism was. I saw that as confidence, I liked it,’ she says.
She also liked his straightforwardness, his absence of game-playing. ‘In those early years, we went to different universities and even lived in different countries for a while, but James doesn’t lie – he’s totally truthful, and I never, ever worried about him cheating,’ says Carolyn. ‘Routine is important to him so we would plan a timetable – when we were going to see each other, when we were going to talk –and he was always reliable. It felt very easy.’
Anyone who has watched the hit Australian Netflix show Love on the Spectrum will know the special challenges that finding a partner can pose for someone with autism. For James, understanding unwritten social rules – body language, flirtation, figures of speech, facial expressions – does not come naturally. Meeting potential partners in loud, crowded places can be extremely stressful and exhausting when you’re prone to sensory overload. Recognising attraction, knowing how to capitalise on it, then keeping a relationship going when you need your space and a routine in order to function… for a person with autism, all of these issues can seem insurmountable.
While the show follows singletons with autism as they seek partners, it also profiles long-term happy couples – people who are deeply in love, celebrate each other’s quirks and understand one another’s challenges. It shows successful relationships are not only possible but life-changing.
In the UK, there has been a growing recognition that love and relationships can be transformative for adults with autism – as they can for everyone – yet helping to facilitate them has long been overlooked. Dr Claire Bates is founder of supportedloving.org.uk, which campaigns to raise awareness around this. Members of her network include support workers and disability activists as well as specialist dating agencies and dating coaches. ‘When it comes to supporting people with autism or learning disabilities, the emphasis has been on living independently, or finding employment or providing activities,’ says Bates. ‘Having a relationship is seen as something “extra”. It shouldn’t be. For those of us who are neurotypical, finding love and enjoying a relationship is a priority. Adults with autism are often quite isolated.’ In fact, a new report on the impact of the pandemic by the National Autistic Society, Left Stranded, found that autistic people were seven times more likely to feel chronically lonely than the general population.
Michelle Watson was so frustrated by watching her younger brother look for love – and by the lack of support or options available to him – that she launched her own online dating site, myfavouritehello.co.uk, designed for people with autism and learning difficulties. Her brother James, 28, a legal assistant, was diagnosed with Asperger’s (a form of autism) when he was 16. ‘James is a really gentle soul,’ says Michelle. ‘He’s incredibly intelligent, generous to a fault with his time, his effort and energy. He’s just a gorgeous human being. As a family, there isn’t a lot we wouldn’t give up if it would help him find a partner.’
In 2015, after leaving university, James accepted an invitation to go on the Channel 4 show The Undateables (which follows people with a variety of long-term conditions, including autism, as they go on dates). ‘Our family was shocked. We asked why he’d want to do that,’ says Michelle. ‘He said, “I want to meet someone more than anything else in the world – this is the only chance I might have.”’
James enjoyed the experience but didn’t find a partner – and hasn’t been on many dates since. He’s acutely aware of how autism impacts his chances. ‘At school, you tend to get isolated but you think it’s not your fault, that they just don’t understand you, and that when you go to university people will understand you,’ he says. ‘Then at uni it’s more of the same. You realise the issues are more deeply ingrained. The best analogy I can give is that the whole of society is in a play and everyone else has the script except you. If I’m on a date, I don’t know if I’m talking too much, or how the date is going, how to gauge someone’s reaction. I’m having to learn all the skills that other people get naturally.’
As James was largely ignored on mainstream dating sites, Michelle devised one better suited to his needs, juggling this with her full-time job as a digital customer experience executive. ‘I wanted a different environment for people with social challenges, quirks and fabulous characteristics that neurotypical people may not understand,’ she says. ‘I’m not suggesting that people with autism should only date others with autism – not at all. This is another option: a safer space where you can be completely honest and fully accepted.’
My Favourite Hello doesn’t give members access to the whole database but matches them on an algorithm which takes into account their communication styles and ‘deal-breakers’, and also comes with conversation starters and advice for when they’re on the date. James says he’s ‘thrilled’ by what his sister has built – but he’s taking a break from searching. ‘I need to work on my self-esteem before I start dating again,’ he says. ‘I’m having therapy and, before lockdown, was going out with friends, forcing myself to attend social events and regular meet-ups. When I’m ready to date, my sister’s site would be a good place to start.’
According to Claire Bates, specialist dating agencies and expert support are localised and very patchy. ‘There are only a few in the UK,’ she says. ‘They provide support and guidance, they show members the red flags to watch out for, highlight the importance of not sharing too many details – it can’t work like Tinder. This costs money, and it’s often not funded. Some people who run agencies do it alongside their full-time jobs.’
One agency in Lancashire, Meet N Match, was founded by Sue Sharples who now provides ‘dating workshops’ alongside Sue Slevin, who works for the National Autistic Society. ‘We cover every stage, starting with attraction,’ says Slevin. ‘Some people with autism might struggle to recognise that feeling of attraction or whether someone is attracted to them, so we role-play around that. They might not understand innuendo and vagueness and can be very literal. We might have to explain that asking, “Do you want to have sex with me tonight?” is not an appropriate conversation starter.’
‘A busy bar, a nightclub or a restaurant can be the worst places to meet,’ says Sharples. ‘We suggest activity days – maybe bowling, where you can take turns – or a shared interest such as a comic-con event.’ They have also created prompt cards to aid conversation, such as ‘What’s your favourite film?’
Even at the end of a successful date, arranging another might not come naturally, either. ‘People say, “Bye,” and don’t think about getting a phone number, or texting later in the week,’ says Slevin. ‘We need to be giving people the skills and knowledge. A successful relationship makes such a huge difference to wellbeing and mental health, it’s absolutely vital – but in social care, we’ve overlooked it.’
A successful relationship can also provide the kind of care that a ‘carer’ just can’t. Anthony Leivers, 27, a tour guide who lives in Nottinghamshire, has autism and lives in supported housing. For four years he has been in a relationship with Anna Hopkinson, who has learning disabilities and lives locally.
Before lockdown, the couple had a routine that worked well for both of them. Anthony would stay at Anna’s place on Saturdays and Mondays. He cooks, she clears up. If they need time apart, Anthony may play on his Xbox while Anna watches TV. Although Anna is prone to anxiety, Anthony is helping expand her world. ‘Last year, I took Anna away from her home and we stayed in a hotel for a night,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t far away, it doesn’t sound like much, but it was a big thing for her. I want to eventually take her further but I have to do it slowly or she’ll panic.’
At the same time, Anna is able to provide Anthony with a safe space. ‘For me, it’s having someone I care about, and somewhere I can escape to,’ he says. If Anthony is having a ‘meltdown’ – he finds change difficult to cope with – Anna is the only person who can calm him down. ‘If I see that Anna’s upset, that’s the only thing that snaps me out of it,’ says Anthony, who attends regular events at the Mansfield-based disability support group One Conversation (oneconversation.co.uk), where he loves to talk about Anna and show that long-term, intimate relationships are possible.
James Sinclair has also found that his relationship with Carolyn has opened his life up – in the way that only love can. ‘I can get so stuck in my routine that I don’t look for other options, I don’t push myself,’ he says. ‘I work in front-end development and I love it – and it was Carolyn who suggested I look at changing direction. I was working in digital marketing before and I’d have been doing that for ever if she hadn’t set me on a new career path.
‘It was Carolyn who suggested we move to London and who wanted to get a puppy. People thought these changes would be too hard for me to handle, but as long as Carolyn’s there, I know I’ll be happy. I just build new routines around her. She makes life bigger.’
Online dating and autism: How to stay safe
Dr Claire Bates from choicesupport.org.uk and Supported Loving offers her advice.
- Rejection is very common on any dating site, so be prepared for this. It’s very difficult to deal with; people can be much meaner online than they would be in real life, so speak to someone if you are upset.
- Do not give out too much information – this includes images, phone number and address. Online dating can attract scammers – people who will ask for money or groom vulnerable people for sexual abuse. Read and follow the safety advice on a dating website, and report any worries to someone you trust.
- Think about using Skype or FaceTime before you meet someone in real life. Then be sure to meet somewhere public, take a fully charged mobile phone – and remember, you can leave at any time.
- There are specialist dating and friendship agencies dotted around the country that come with more protections than mainstream dating websites. These include Love4Life (fitzroy.org/love4life), Luv2MeetU (hft.org.uk/our-services/empowering-individuals/ friendship-and-dating/luv2meetu), Friends and Places Together (friendsandplacestogether.org.uk) GR8 Mates advisory group (livingitupevents.co.uk/ friendship-and-dating), Safe Soulmate (safesoulmate.org.uk), Happily (happilydating.co.uk), My Favourite Hello (myfavouritehello.co.uk/aboutus) and Embrace Wigan and Leigh (embracewiganandleigh.org.uk/love/).