The Square Peg: My Experiences with Love and Autism
Author Laurie Kennedy with illustration of the word Love

Understanding Love and Autism

By Laurie Kennedy

I’m sure a lot of people have heard of the prominent stereotype that people with autism struggle to feel emotions, empathise or understand emotions in general; I want to share my perceptions on this take and I’m going to be referencing my experience as an Autism Support Worker, a Director for an autism non-profit organisation, and also some of my own experiences being on the spectrum. I want to stress that my interpretation of autism is not perfect and is purely a snapshot to share a glimpse of the autistic experience and how it may manifest in some.

Who am I?

My name is Laurie and I am a 20-something creative that loves digital art, cycling, writing, film, music and videogames. I was diagnosed with autism on 3 separate occasions, to keep a long story short, this was due to each diagnosis beforehand not being wholly legitimate, which as you can imagine caused quite a bit of confusion.

My family has practically known I was autistic since I was really young, I struggled to keep eye-contact, I stimmed and also became nonverbal shortly after learning to speak then regained my voice a few years later. I was seen as an “unruly child” in primary school and an awkward anxious mess in secondary school just trying to fit in.

Now, I am an awkward anxious adult that has a lot of awkward stories to tell about my experiences with emotion.

My Experience with Young Love

Love has been quite a journey for me and there seems to be a lot of different takes on how people with autism express and feel love.

At an early age, I think about 6 years old, I was made aware of everyone’s innate drive to find love by my father who one day asked me, “Do you fancy any of the girls in school?” It was probably the most confusing thing I had ever heard, “only family members can love each other, surely?” I thought. The game has changed.

From that day I had a new goal in my life, I MUST find a girlfriend. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I felt inside myself that it was the secret to my future happiness.

The first girl I ever had an eye on was the only girl in my year at my school. It was slim pickings but the clock was ticking and I was going to be 7 years old next year, that’s only 33 years from middle age!

So, I took to the playground and found her skipping with some friends with a long rope. I gave her my best smile and asked, “Hi, can I play with you?” She agreed. Excited, I went and got jumping. I had to impress her jumping as high as I could. I failed and the rope hit my foot and I was out. I was grumpy little child with my tail between my legs, I stumbled away and thought to myself, “I can’t love her. She’s stupid and likes stupid games.” With this fantastic Casanova-inspired love encounter, I decided to take a break from this whole love business until I find someone special…or at least a new girl joined my year at school.

I was in year 4 when a couple more female students enrolled in my class. It never occurred to me that it helps to know someone or start a conversation before asking someone out, it just seemed like busy work really.

I was in a queue to go back into class and I saw her near the front, so I pushed ahead in the queue and asked her if she’d go out with me. I was pretty upset with her answer, it never occurred to me that she could say “No.”

For the most part from then I never really asked people out, rejection and confrontation are probably the scariest things in life for anyone; especially for someone on the spectrum. The unravelling scenario in my head would play out in repeat of me asking someone out and everyone laughing at my ineptitude and mock my feeble attempt.

Love for many is quite confusing and what I find really bothersome as someone on the spectrum is that it is mostly unquantifiable. Everything in my life is measured as perfectly as possible and all follow strict rules and processes in my mind, I count the seconds I water each of my plants in my garden and do things in my routine in an unchanging order. To have something so important to the human experience as love be unmeasurable and living in an inconceivable grey area is as infuriating as it is at sometimes exciting.

The funny thing about all this is that even in the presence of a concept that requires levels spontaneity and feeling a very certain way, I still give myself steadfast rules when it comes to love and relationships. As a bit of a flavour of this I have shared some of the unwritten rules I use for romance below.

The Rules of Love I Gave Myself

Here are my inner rules for engaging someone I want to start a relationship with:

  1. When messaging them, don’t send more than 3 messages. After that point, it’s over unless they contact you.
  2. Never just say “Hey there”
  3. After 3-7 days of talking depending on how much has been said, ask them if they want to meet up for a coffee.
  4. Don’t lie, you are terrible at it.
  5. Keep talking, don’t breathe. – This rule really needs to change.
  6. First date, meet near them. Second date, meet halfway. Third date, meet near your house.
  7. Third date has to have a kiss and ask if they want to be a couple.
  8. Test them by acting weird or saying odd things at points to see how they would react if you did something peculiar.
  9. Always compliment their clothing.

Love as an Adult with Autism

At this point I have pretty much learnt how to swallow a lot of my doubts and anxiety around love, there is no real way around it. As an individual with an impaired ability to analyse certain behaviours in others and whether flirting is legitimate or ironic, it’s very easy to spend hours of time combing through messages and actions and their implications.

I never feel like I am in the know and feel like information is being kept from me that everyone else already knows. Paranoia and jealousy never crosses my mind when in love, as I believe in the best in people which has led me to be naïve and easily manipulated in the past.

One thing I find a lot in individuals with autism is when they’re in love they find it hard sometimes to know if they are enjoying love or not; there’s a lot of doubt and worry. Questions like, “Is this love or am I just being shallow?”, “Are they too good for me?” and “Am I burdening them?” find themselves being quite common and cause utmost distress as the fear of confronting a partner. Or, the anxiety it causes oneself to even contemplate asking.

The best advice I would give to someone with autism seeking love or being in love is to enjoy it; don’t question or dissect it or you will find yourself going down a rabbit hole of hypotheticals and questions that can likely not be answered. Focus on the fun side of it. Do things with your partner that make you both happy and try things that you wouldn’t usually when single. You don’t need to have a partner, see them more as the cherry on the cake that is your life.

Ways to connect with Laurie Kennedy:

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