The Unholy Din of First Dates for Someone With Autism (And How To Avoid It)

Close your eyes for a moment. Visualize the first location you think of when you hear the phrase “place for a date.” Not the perfect romantic⁠ hotspot, mind you, just an average place for two people to meet. Chances are, you and anyone else reading this likely have different pictures of what such a spot would look like. Some might imagine a restaurant, others could picture a concert and still others might conjure up the image of a local tavern. But amongst all these options, a recurring element emerges.

Specifically, all of the usual date settings share the trait of being extremely noisy.

The clattering of plates and talking patrons in the restaurant, the overwhelming loudness inherently interweaved into a concert, or the cramped space and hubbub of a bar. The constant presence of overwhelming noise is a problem for people on the Autism spectrum, who frequently experience sensitivity⁠ to loud noises and crowds. As part of larger systemic issues that gear everything toward neurotypical individuals, these two cornerstones of the traditional western dating scene can provoke anxiety in people on the Autism spectrum, and make what could otherwise be a great date into a terrible experience.

This is true of even the places one might consider to be softer alternatives to a boisterous tavern. Somewhere as seemingly neutral as a café can turn a quiet afternoon coffee for two into an overwhelming quest to navigate a barrage of coffee-craving crowds and clatter. From top⁠ to bottom⁠ , the options for people on the Autism spectrum looking to go out⁠ on a date are few.

Speaking from personal experience, this lack of options can help to compound problems people on the Autism spectrum already have with dating. Navigating social hurdles, like avoiding over-talking, while being on a date is, on its own, a plenty daunting prospect. Realizing that the options for a backdrop to a date are exceedingly limited is just adding salt to the wounds. Together, these challenges can make a person feel like the prospect of going out on a date at all is far more trouble than it’s worth.

It might seem like the best choice is just to meet and hang out at someone’s house or apartment. But for first or new dates, it’s really not: unless you already know someone very well from already being in a different kind of relationship⁠ with them, that just isn’t safe.

One must consider safety in a dating scenario. The one big advantage to all those noisy places where dates normally transpire is they are public and that provides safety. It’s very unlikely, for instance, that someone will sexually assault a date in the middle of a restaurant: the same cannot be said of a private apartment. If you’re just meeting somebody for the first time or still getting to know a person, it’s smart to have other people around you can ask for help if things go sideways, and to be somewhere where it’s easy for you to just leave if you feel uncomfortable for any reason. Even when everyone in a date is safe, it’s hard to get to know someone and enjoy yourself if you don’t feel safe.

Just as a person on the Autism spectrum should have their needs regarding noise and crowds recognized, so too should any person’s need to be safe when on a date be respected.

Luckily, some more relaxing options that also provide the safety of public places and other people around exist. Bookstores, for instance, can serve as much more relaxing destinations to connect with somebody. Many have their own coffee shops, which tend to be far more tranquil than the bustling standalone alternative. Many cities also have relatively soothing musical performances, such as live Jazz concerts, that can serve as a welcome departure from the overwhelming chaos of a pop music concert. One mustn’t forget that movies and plays have been go-to places for dates for decades for a reason. Quiet museums or public parks, gardens or walking trails are other possibilities.

These kinds of locations can be fun for many people, but for people on the Autism spectrum, they can be relaxing places of both safety and consistency. In these environments, other people are generally keeping quiet and to themselves, and any noise tends to be minor and from isolated and easily discernible locations.

That practice of recognizing one another’s needs and desires is something desperately missing from the conventional wester dating scene’s one-size-fits-all approach. While people who enjoy boisterous, bustling locations should be free to enjoy them, the need for more creativity and communication⁠ regarding date locales is woefully apparent. People on the Autism spectrum deserve to be both safe and comfortable on dates, rather than having to navigate so much anxiety at default hotspots for dating.

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  • Lisa Laman

Being autistic, some things just haven’t come as naturally for me as they seem to for other people. Unfortunately, these have included hallmarks of American life often used to symbolize being “an adult” like driving on my own or getting my first paid job. But human beings are not on a strict timetable to do all the same things at the same time. This is just as true of dating like anything else. Just because you (or I) haven’t been actively dating when a lot of other people in your life have doesn’t make you (or me) a failure. You’re just on your own timetable. So am I.