By: Catherine C.
I never realized that the boy who sat behind me in my grade twelve math class liked me despite the fact that every day he would pull the little curl at the back of my neck and watch it rebound like a spring. I didn’t understand that touching was often a sign of interest. So, a few years after graduation when he was home visiting and he tried to kiss me—I panicked and ran away. I remember thinking that it didn’t make sense. He was friends with some of the boys who had bullied me. How could he possibly believe that we were a good idea? What did he even see in me? Despite all of my confusion and even after all of these years, I can still recall the look of hurt on his face when I backed away. The girl who had spent her life being rejected had just hurt and rejected someone else.
My dating history reminds me of those videos you see of people rifling through the rubble after a massive hurricane. Some sweet moments buried beneath heaps of debris and devastation. That’s what happens I suppose when you combine a girl desperate for love, with the gullibility and naivete that often comes with autism. Looking back, I can see that dating for me wasn’t so much about wanting a partner but wanting to belong. I spent the majority of my formative years on the fringes of social situations as well as experiencing intensely painful moments of being actively excluded. I wasn’t seeking someone to “do life with” but someone who would make me feel worthy. I didn’t know then that it’s not possible to find worthiness outside of ourselves; but boy did I try.
“Our research indicates that almost 9 autistic women out of 10 are sexually victimized, at huge costs for their mental and physical health” (Fabienne Cazalis et al 2022). These statistics hurt my heart. Not only for myself but for the millions of other autistic women who perhaps aren’t as well equipped as their typical peers to protect themselves from abusive and predatory behaviours. I wish I had a manual to teach me about the nuances of dating that forever escaped my understanding. Instead, I spent much of my twenties living an addicted and chaotic party-girl lifestyle desperate for the false hits of worthiness that the male gaze could offer. I regularly found myself in incredibly dangerous situations without realizing exactly how it was I got there. I can recall two terrifying moments in two very different Canadian cities where I ran for my life while being chased by men. I didn’t know it wasn’t safe for me to walk home after dark by myself.
Entering my mid-twenties, I found myself cohabitating with a boy I had only been dating for a few months. He convinced me that it would save us both tonnes of money to live together. About a month before he had convinced me to get cable because he wanted to be able to watch the Olympics at my place. We dated for less than a year and somehow, he convinced me of enough things that I went from having my own apartment and a decent savings account. To living with him and slowly accruing more and more debt and more and more bills. I wish I could say that I realized what he was doing and dumped him but unfortunately, that’s not the case. I never realized all of this until years later in therapy. He dumped me and I was heartbroken. I remember one moment shortly before we broke up so vividly. I was having a hard time at work and life, in general, was overwhelming. I didn’t yet know I was autistic but I did know that I loved deep pressure. It helped to calm me and allowed me to breathe more fully so I asked my boyfriend if he would lay on top of me and squish me. I will never forget the look of disgust on his face as he derisively called me a “hug-o-holic” and begrudgingly laid on top of me. He was looking at me the same way all those kids in school used to. I had made a mistake in asking him. I had made so many mistakes.
There is a happy ending to this story, I promise. It just took me a while to get there. About ten months after my ex and I broke up I went out with a boy who bought me flowers on our first date because that’s what he thought you were “supposed to do”. He had never actually been on a date before. Also, something you should know about me is that when I like someone I will tell them I like them. Even though all the unspoken rules of dating encourage nonchalance I continue to be the least “chalant” person in the world. The phrase “zero-chill” describes me quite well. One of the challenges this new boy had was that he never knew when girls were interested in him so you can imagine how exciting my complete lack of nonchalance was for him. He was certain I liked him because I told him I liked him—almost immediately! And my ex, well he just so happened to come crawling back after I met this wonderful new boy and I got to tell him he was too late. It was even more satisfying than you could imagine.
Shortly after my new boy and I moved in together I tentatively asked him if he would squish me. I remember feeling a bit nervous and maybe even unconsciously asked him as some sort of test. If it was a test he passed with flying colours. As he lay atop of me giving me the deep pressure I longed for he smiled softly and said, “Oh, this is nice.” That boy is now my husband and we will be celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary this summer. We’ve moved across the world together, bought and sold houses together, become puppy parents together, and discovered our autistic identities together.
When I think of autistic love I don’t think of two autistic people who just so happened to find each other. I think of all of the work I put into discovering my own inherent worthiness and my husband supporting me through the messiness of that. When I think of autistic love I think of someone seeing me, all of me, even the parts that everyone else told me I should hide and instead of shying away turning towards me and saying “Hey me too”. When I think of autistic love I think of the younger version of me who was so vulnerable, who was so desperately sad, and I give her all the love she could have ever hoped for. When I think of autistic love I think of honesty, and how beautiful it is to be with someone who values it just as much as I do. When I think of autistic love, I am filled with even more love than I ever thought possible. And perhaps most importantly, when I think of autistic love I think of belonging.