On a Date with Neurodiversity

“The more I read, learn and experience from the other side of my diagnosis, the more I realise that a lot of the complex emotions I feel around dating are very understandable.”

In my bag I have my essentials for the first date: my lipstick, a book for the journey, and the mask that I’ve spent my life hiding behind. With each step closer to the bar, I dredge up another question to keep in my arsenal for the awkward lulls. Checking my reflection in a car window, I barely recognise the woman looking back. I practice a smile and swallow my nerves. Before every first date, I wonder why not everyone feels this way.

You see, the thrill around dating is one that has passed me by. To allow yourself to be vulnerable with someone new, and yet uphold social conventions is a balancing act that exhausts me, rather than excites me. In June 2022, just a few months ago, I was diagnosed with Autism and ADHD. It was a long journey to reach this diagnosis, which included ten years of seeing various therapists and more medication combinations than you could count on one hand. Finally, this diagnosis felt right. It was as though I’d been looking at the world through the wrong prescription, and swapping out the lenses allowed for clarity.

Since then, I’ve been able to put things I’ve experienced into words. An example of this is the concept of a ‘social battery’. Let me introduce you to the concept if you are lucky enough to be unfamiliar with it. If the capacity to be social was a battery, mine is one of those you take camping that recharges with a wind-up handle: a whole lot of work for a few hours of life. When that battery runs out, you know it will take a lot of elbow grease to get it going. For those who know and understand that my ‘social battery’ is rather antiquated and impractical, this is not an issue. “I need to recharge” is a phrase often recognised by my partner, who directs me to my bed and commands me to scroll TikTok for a while. But when meeting new people, it’s harder to explain. How do you explain to a stranger that it’s not their company that’s drained me, but the idea of company itself?

This has proved especially difficult in romantic interactions. Once, I was on a first date with someone I had met a few days prior on Tinder. There was nothing wrong with them and we had a nice enough chat. But they were a bit quieter than I anticipated, and the energy it took me to maintain conversation absolutely floored me. I knew we lived near each other, but to avoid more of the forced interaction I pretended I lived in the opposite direction than them. Once they disappeared over the horizon I sat on the pavement and cried until my taxi arrived to take me home. I spent the next day in bed.

It’s not just the effort exerted to continue conversation that frightens me about first dates, it’s also the pressure to impress. For as long as I can remember, I have struggled to hold my own sense of identity. I have a tendency to mirror the actions, words, and interests of the person I am interacting with. You mention a film: I have obviously “heard of it”. You like classic literature: well, now I do too! I struggle to identify the things I am truly passionate about now, because many aspects of my personality are borrowed from those I admire. When trying to impress a new person, I can’t help but reflect their own personality back to them. That’s how I’ve learned to survive: emulate them, and they will like me.

Another hurdle on the path to romance is my hyperfixation tendencies. This essentially means I have my blinkers on and can’t see out-with my current ‘fixation’, whether it be subject, thing, place or… person. When I fall, I fall hard. A crush is not a throwaway concept for me. If I get my sights set on someone, it’s very hard to shake. Ask any of the people I liked in high school. Often, I put these people so high up on a pedestal that even if I had the nerve to talk to them, they wouldn’t hear me from lower down. Thus, I rarely spoke to those people who I held so fondly. I created a false image of them which no mortal could possibly live up to. When I talked to them, years later, when the spell had most definitely broken, I could see how foolish I’d been. But by that time, my blinkers would have settled on a new victim, and the cycle would continue.                

With all these hurdles in place, it’s a wonder how I ended up where I am now: in a happy, healthy, loving relationship. When my partner and I met for the first time, something felt different. It felt like someone was seeing who I am and the mask I wear as separate entities. They saw past the glitter and shiny beads I’d adorned it with, and noticed the flawed, complicated, and nuanced human being that was hidden behind. Our first date lasted 22 hours. I didn’t need to recharge once. That’s not to say it’s been plain sailing. Being in a relationship with a neurodiverse person, whilst navigating your own issues, is not an easy task. My partner and I are constantly learning new ways of navigating each other. We have different ways of moving through the world which are not always sympatico.

But really, such is all relationships. Many of the challenges I face are not exclusive to neurodiverse dating. But there are certainly some things that, since receiving my diagnosis, I have looked upon differently. The biggest journey that I’ve been on has been my journey of self-compassion and self-love. Throughout my life I have tried to fit myself into different frames of reference, but the dimensions were always slightly off. Now, I’m much more able to view my behaviour, reactions, and emotions through the lens of neurodiversity: not to excuse, but rather to explain. The more I read, learn and experience from the other side of my diagnosis, the more I realise that a lot of the complex emotions I feel around dating are very understandable. When you’re on a date, you’re supposed to have fun. But for me, when I’m playing a stage-version of myself, the pre-show nerves and fear of fumbling a line take me to a place of heightened emotion. I have been performing all along, and now I can take the mask off. I wish I’d been diagnosed sooner, but for a myriad of reasons, this didn’t happen. But, through the power of reflection, I can confront my inner critic. I know my own limits now and can communicate them to others. I am my own person, and that is a person I have chosen to love unconditionally.

This piece is taken from the author’s own experiences of dating and does not pretend to reflect the opinions or experiences of the neurodiverse population as a whole. 

We would love to hear your experience on this topic for an upcoming article we are working on. If you would like to have your opinion included, please email meli.clitbait@gmail.com. Please specify if you would like to remain anonymous, and we greatly appreciate any and all submissions! 

Featured image by Lucia Villegas