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Relationships

Tips for Neurodiverse Dating

| 07/21/2022

dating and sex during covid Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

Neurodiverse dating can be more complicated, but no less fun and interesting, than neurotypical dating. 

Neurodiverse people function differently than neurotypicals. While neurotypicals have “typical” neurological development, neurodiverse people have changes in their brains that cause unique strengths and challenges, such as difficulty navigating social situations. 

Many people aren’t aware of their neurodiversity until they’re adults and have better access to research and testing. Whether you’ve known about your neurodivergence your entire life, or you’ve only recently discovered it, having a diagnosis can give you the tools to navigate and understand your romantic life better. 

Even if you’re neurotypical, there’s a good chance you may end up meeting or matching with someone who isn’t. More than 2 percent of U.S. adults are on the autism spectrum, and over 4 percent have ADHD

The most important thing to remember in neurodiverse dating is that everyone is different. Nothing will work quite the same for everyone. Dating is a process of self-discovery and social exploration. That’s why it’s important to reflect on your journey as you go along to see what’s helping and what’s hurting.

Here are some tips to help neurodiverse singles stay comfortable as they enter the dating world. 

Take Stock of Your Neurodiverse Needs

It can be really hard to know what you need in a relationship when you’re new to dating, especially when you struggle with social contexts. But if you have an idea of what you are and aren’t comfortable with, it can be much simpler to vet potential partners and avoid those who won’t be understanding of your neurodiverse needs.  

When considering what you need, think about not only what makes you feel safe, but also what you want out of your ideal relationship.  

One example is the type of relationship you’re looking for, such as monogamous or polyamorous. It’s also good to know if you’re in the casual dating game or looking for one or more life partners. You may even be interested in companionship that isn’t strictly romantic, as in the case of queerplatonic relationships.

The beauty of neurodiversity is it can allow you to look at relationships in a unique way, outside of traditional systems. Labels should adapt to fit your needs, not the other way around. 

It’s also incredibly important not to put your mental health on the back burner while pursuing partners. This is true for everyone, but especially neurodiverse folks. There may be a temptation to allow a new partner to “fix” your life, but regardless of how happy you are, neglecting yourself will only make it harder to make new connections. 

Maintaining a healthy relationship with yourself is the best step you can take when entering the dating world. The happier you are with yourself, the more fulfilling your dating experience will be. 

It’s also helpful to know your love languages. This can make it easier to communicate your feelings in ways that come naturally to you, and let your dating partners know how to expect attention. It can be difficult for neurodiverse people to show and receive affection. Love languages can act as shortcuts to expressing yourself in a consistent way. 

You don’t have to know the answer to all of these questions right away. A lot of them will come with time and experience. Try to be open to adapting as you encounter new challenges. 

The most important thing to understand is that you don’t have to settle. If someone isn’t willing to accommodate or understand your neurodivergent needs, they’re not a good fit for you. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, or that you’ll never find someone who is. You come first. 

Try to Communicate 

You’re likely aware of the importance of communication in relationships, but it’s even more vital (and complicated) when you’re neurodiverse. 

It can be difficult to be honest and open, especially at the very beginning of a potential relationship, but it can help you have a better experience in the long run. It’s your choice when and if you talk about your neurodiversity, but there is no reason to carry any shame around it.

Be sure to be clear about your communication style, because it isn’t as obvious as you might think. 

Some people struggle to express their needs verbally and prefer to convey them through body language or a physical communication system. 

Sharing this with your dates can make it easier to establish a system that works for you. Numbered finger taps work great for some couples, while others find sign language more efficient. 

Many neurodiverse people don’t use or understand social cues or indirect communication. When talking with new or potential partners, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification, especially when you’re unsure of their intentions. 

When you need accommodations, such as a quiet date spot where you won’t get overstimulated, it can be terrifying to even think of asking for them. But you deserve to feel comfortable in your dating life, and your potential partners deserve a fair shot at meeting your needs. 

If you’re one of the many neurodivergent people who are on the asexuality spectrum, it may be best to be open about sex not being an option. If you easily get overloaded by touch or other stimuli, practice ways to communicate your sensory needs to your dating partners. 

The more you are aware of your partner’s needs, and vice versa, the more you will enjoy each other’s company and be able to plan dates that accommodate your individual sensory needs. 

Find a Support System 

It’s incredibly important and helpful to have other neurodivergent people to talk to about your dating experiences. Not only can they help you navigate confusing situations, but they can validate and support you as you find your way through the dating process. 

Neurodivergent adults, especially women and people who are assigned female at birth (AFAB), are at a higher risk for romantic and sexual abuse. Having a community can give you a layer of protection from abusers and manipulators who could otherwise isolate you. Members of your circle can point out red flags you may have missed and provide resources if you get into a dangerous situation. 

Additionally, more experienced daters in your support system may be able to give you advice on communicating, going on dates, and accommodating sensory needs. 

Your support system may look like a group of close friends, an online group of neurodivergent adults, or even a neurodivergent book club. If you’re ever unsure of a romantic situation, check with your support system and see if they think it’s safe. 

Take Your Time

Dating is intimidating for almost everyone. Neurodiverse people may feel pressured to go faster than they are comfortable with to appease potential partners. But there’s nothing wrong with taking it slow as you get into the rhythm of it and learn what makes you comfortable. 

Don’t be afraid to express your concerns and preferred pace from the get-go. If you’re comfortable, let your partner know the nuances of your neurodiversity and how it impacts your comfortability in new relationships. Setting expectations takes the pressure off of you to take the next step before you’re ready, and saves your prospective partner the insecurity of not knowing where you stand. It’s also a sign of trust–be open with them, and they will likely be honest with you. 

It’s possible that you’ll talk to someone who wants the relationship to progress faster than you’re prepared for, who is unwilling to slow down to accommodate your needs. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It just means that it’s not a good fit. You deserve partners who will let you take your time in every stage of the relationship, from meeting for the first time to making it official. 

Remember, your neurodiversity doesn’t take away your autonomy. You are in control of your side of the relationship. You can slow down or speed up whenever it feels right to both you and your partner. 

Keep an Open Mind

Neurodiverse dating can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be unenjoyable. Just like with anything new, if you open yourself up to new experiences, it’ll get easier as you go along. You may get lucky and find your perfect match on the first date, or your journey may take longer. 

As long as you prioritize your needs, communicate with your prospective partners, and surround yourself with supportive neurodiverse people, you’ll likely have an altogether positive experience and learn a lot about yourself along the way.

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