I’ve been in a happy relationship with an allistic (non-autistic) woman for nearly five years. Whenever someone finds out my partner is allistic, they always ask the same questions. Don’t you struggle to communicate? Why would you put yourself through that? Allistics just don’t understand how normal people work. What about sex? (That last question comes up a lot!) I understand why people ask this. Dating a person with allism can be very challenging, but if you’re willing to take the time to understand them and meet them on their own level, it can also be one of the most fulfilling experiences of your life. So, as someone who loves a person with allism, I’m here to offer answers to these questions for anyone who is considering dating a person with allism.
Please note before continuing that most people with allism prefer person first language – that is, “person with allism” rather than “allistic person”. For clarity’s sake, I will be using a combination of the two, but it’s always better to use person first language unless told otherwise. Remember, people with allism are more than just their allism!
The most obvious challenge about interacting with allistic people, whether you’re dating, friends, or colleagues, is that their communication style is incredibly complicated. Something as simple as a greeting can carry multiple meanings to an allistic person – or no meaning at all! For example, when an allistic person asks you how you are, they may not be at all interested in the answer – or they may even expect an inaccurate answer, such as “good, thanks”.
When you are first getting to know an allistic person, it’s best to keep things simple so as not to confuse them. Assume they either do not want an answer to their question, or want a very simple answer. If you attempt to give a detailed answer to questions such as “how are you”, as you would when asked by anyone else, you risk sending an allistic person into what is called input overload.
Input overload usually happens because allistics ask questions to which they do not desire an answer. No one is quite sure what causes overload. It’s something that seems to occur only among allistics. The experts’ best guess is that the allistic brain interprets question-and-answer interactions as formulaic, rather than having a logical goal, and attempts to mimic this interaction without fully understanding its import. When they attempt to imitate this formula, they find themselves overwhelmed with information they did not want. This is input overload.
When I was first seeing my partner, I made this very mistake. On our first date, she asked me to explain the book I was writing at the time. Half an hour later, she faked a family emergency to get away from me. It wasn’t until a mutual friend explained my mistake to me that I even realised I’d made one. I initially assumed she was just a rude person. Naturally, once I understood, I apologised to her, and I will be forever grateful that she gave me a second chance. (And by the fourth date, she actually meant it when she asked about my book.)
Unfortunately, what happened to us is a common experience. Because most allistics often aren’t aware they’re experiencing overload until after the fact, their friends and family may have trouble spotting it. Many allistics complain about input overload and blame others for “causing” it, or for “being insensitive”. After all, overload is stressful, and makes them want to lash out. But while allistic brains are obviously not able to absorb as much information as regular brains – through no fault of their own! – if they hadn’t asked for the information in the first place, they would not now be dealing with overload.
If your allistic friend or partner is blaming you for their overload, try and be patient. When they have calmed down, you can try explaining why it happened and work on creating a way of communicating that works for you both. Try not to blame them for the way their brain is wired. Remember, they can’t help it. All they can do is try and make the best of it – and you can help with that!
Most importantly, do not attempt to engage with them in these repetitive formulas. Encouraging the use of formulas only leads to misunderstandings and stress over the long term. The best solution is to gently teach your partner to break their formulaic communication style in favour of one that is more logical.
A second confusing aspect of allistic communication is that they use a tonal language. That is, they interpret things differently depending on the tone used. For most of us, language means precisely what it means, regardless of the tone in which it is spoken. Allistics, however, will read emotional content over the top of each sentence, and even over individual words. More astonishing, they will usually assume this tonal interpretation is factual, whether it is or not. Some allistics will refuse to let go of their initial interpretation, even if they are explicitly told they are wrong. They may base decisions on the perceived emotional content of another person’s words, even if that perceived content goes against the literal meaning. And, vice versa, they will assume they have portrayed a particular message through tone, even if they have not expressed this through language.
My partner and I still struggle with this, especially when we’re arguing. (Yes, even happy couples still argue!) The worst miscommunication happened two years ago, and almost ended our relationship. Like most people, I have days where I am not highly verbal, and my speech is even more monotone than usual. On one of these days, I mentioned to my partner that we had run out of coffee as I left for work, since she worked near a supermarket and could get some more. She believed my tone indicated that I was angry with her for our coffee-less state, even though my words as I walked out the door were: “please get some more coffee before you come home”. She dwelled on her misinterpretation all day, which resulted not only in a refusal to purchase the required coffee, but with her shouting at me as soon as I returned home. It took nearly a week for us to move past that argument, all because she listened to the tone of my words, rather than the actual words.
At this point, it might seem that maintaining a relationship under these circumstances would be impossible, or at the very least, not worth the effort. For some people, that may very well be the case. If you’re not up for a challenge, dating an allistic person probably isn’t for you. But, just as with input overload, it is possible to work with your partner on these difficulties. Before I talk about how to do that, however, there is one other aspect of allistic communication that we need to address.
Allistic people will often actively avoid vocalising what they want and/or need, regardless of whether it will be damaging to either themselves or their partners. This can be seen in something as simple as a compliment. It took me a long time to realise that my partner often offers a compliment she does not genuinely mean, simply so she can receive a compliment back. Even after so long with me, she will still sometimes tell me how much of a “mess” she is, not because she believes it, but because she wants me to contradict her. This is obviously very unhelpful – not to mention confusing! Many allistics call it modest to refuse to acknowledge what one likes about oneself, but it is important not to engage in this allistic discourse. As my partner herself will tell you, it is not modest, it is dishonest.
Sometimes this not-saying can be explained by an almost staggering adherence to formulaic communication patterns that allistic activists often refer to as “manners” or “politeness” (modesty is considered the height of “good manners”), but there is no objective reason behind it. Some studies have suggested allistic people fear rejection or humiliation if they vocalise their needs. Some others (which I feel should be taken with a pinch of pepper) assert that this failure to communicate stems from an innate respect for others. Whatever the reason, however, the result is the same. Communication is nigh impossible when one party actively refuses to participate.
With both tonal interpretation and manners, it is important to have a conversation with your partner very early in your relationship, and establish an understanding about your expectations of each other. Don’t be afraid to call your partner out. Set guidelines, and be clear about the expectation that literal communication is your baseline, and all other forms are unhelpful. It will be difficult for both you and your partner at times. The argument I mentioned before took a long time to resolve because my partner was unwilling to admit that she was at fault. She thought I should accommodate her tonal interpretations, even though they were objectively wrong. Naturally, I refused – and in the end, she took responsibility for her mistake and has since worked hard on improving her communication. Be respectful when you confront these issues. Remember they cannot help it. If you love a person with allism, you need to be prepared for these challenges.
The final thing to remember is that allistics have difficulty with nuance. They look at life through binaries – male/female, black/white, young/old, and so on. This is particularly important when it comes to sex and dating. As most of us don’t tend to think this way, it can be a real shock when someone forms expectations about what genitals you may have, or what things you will like simply because of your gender or gender expression. My partner was convinced for the longest time that I knew how to change a tyre just because I have a beard!
Part of the problem here is that allistics don’t consciously process social interactions or sensory input. This goes a long way to explaining why they rely on formulas and binaries – they don’t have access to all the information we do, or the ability to process it. While most of us consciously assess each message that comes into our brain, allistics don’t do this! It sounds bizarre, I know. But this is why they are able to tolerate loud, crowded environments, bright lights, strong smells, and other extreme sensory inputs that most of us find unbearable. Their consciousness simply isn’t processing it.
Of course, this makes it easier for them to tolerate certain environments or jobs, but it also makes it a lot harder for them to interact with people logically – and they miss out on a lot of wonderful parts of the world. Next time you’re feeling frustrated with your allistic partner because they can’t communicate, or because they can’t smell what you smell, or they’re making assumptions about people because of how they look, remember: their brain is denying them opportunities you take for granted. They’re doing the best they can. We are lucky not to be allistic. They have struggles we simply cannot understand, and they deserve our sympathy.
There are a hundred other things I could include in this blog, but as my partner loves to remind me, there are as many ways of being allistic as there are people with allism. What I have covered today are merely those traits that are common to the vast majority of allistics.
There are those who claim it is anti-allistic to expect allistics to change their behaviour to suit non-allistics. I don’t claim to have all the answers, of course, but I can tell you that I love allistic people. If I could make the world easier for them tomorrow, I would. But the truth is, when we don’t help allistic people to live more effectively in our world, they are the ones who suffer.
Remember: allistic people will not always tell you they are allistic. Some even reject the label outright, claiming it’s limiting and offensive. But most will be happy to answer your questions and help you understand where they’re coming from. Remember to always respect the way they talk about themselves, and to use person first language wherever possible. Allism isn’t all of who a person is!
PLEASE NOTE: This is satire. It is designed to poke fun at, and expose the problems with, articles written by non-autistic people about what it’s like to date autistic people. As an autistic person, I wanted to flip the script on these frankly awful “think pieces” and “advice columns”. It is not intended to be taken literally, but as a comment on the kind of ableism that autistic and neurodivergent people face on a daily basis.
All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017