On Autism, Figuring Out Relationships, and Finding Love for the First Time

Our relationship isn’t perfect, but whose is?
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Ellie Matthews
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Our relationship isn’t perfect, but whose is?

For most of my life I truly believed I would die alone, doing something odd like raising a rat colony until the end of my days. I had accepted it, but my plans of becoming the weird rat lady next door changed when I met Cody.* 

I was 17 and he had just turned 20. We were the only people in our group of friends that barely spoke, and we both have autism. I messaged him once just to ask a quick question, but we ended up talking until three in the morning. 

We hit it off surprisingly quick, which was unusual for me. It always takes time for me to be able to have full conversations with someone new. However, being able to message people rather than talking in person makes things much easier. I thought he was cute and easy to talk to, but I had no idea he was interested in me. 

The day he sent me a message asking me to go to the movies I was excited and also confused. Is he asking me “OUT” out?! I had made the mistake in the past of casually going to the movies with a male friend, only to realize a week later I had been on a date. 

But this time I was going to be prepared. If it’s a “DATE” date, I will flirt! ...How does one do that exactly? I got the gist of it, but applying it to real life seemed a bit difficult.

For our first date, I was internally panicking. I was trying to look casual, but not like I just rolled out of bed, just in case it wasn’t a “DATE” date. So I wore sweatpants and a hoodie (real classy, I know). I attempted to straighten my long, curly hair. It didn’t go well, so up into a ponytail it went. I put on makeup, too much, and the wrong colors. I had no idea how to wear makeup, but I thought I did. 

When he finally found my house, I met him outside. He was dressed a little too nice for the movies, but I was a little underdressed for a first date, so it oddly worked. 

I told him my parents insisted they had to meet him first. Inconveniently, they were down the street at my grandparents’ house. He ended up having to meet my parents, grandparents, my aunt, and my uncle all at once. He pretended like it was fine, but the second we walked into the house, I could tell he was beyond overwhelmed. 

Not being the best at talking to people is a challenge to start with, and having to impress six new people was a challenge on hard mode. I tried to get him out of there as quickly as possible before my parents decided to bring up embarrassing stories or start asking him about his political views.

We were nearly silent the whole ride there, but I’m perfectly comfortable with silence. He decided we should go to the theater he worked at. I think he regretted it immediately.

“Aww look, he’s on a date,” some guy behind the concession stand announced while smiling at us.

Well, at least that cleared up any last bit of confusion about whether we were on a date or not. Cody took off practically running down the hall toward the right theater. I was trying to keep up behind him, wondering why we had to get there so fast. 

When we found a seat he apologized and told me he just didn’t want to miss the beginning, but I think he was trying to escape his co-workers. 

After the movie, we talked about it on the ride to dinner. We seemed to talk to each other very easily, which is rare for both of us. We got fast food for dinner, we’ve never cared about fancy restaurants. We didn’t have the money for that anyway. We talked, laughed, and had a good time eating our cheap tacos. On the way back home we both agreed that we wanted to go out again soon.

We grew closer as we spent more time together. We talked daily, we were fine just hanging out doing nothing at all. Although we were enjoying each other’s company, we kept our distance. 

I am very particular about my personal space. I don’t often like to be touched or hugged, even by close friends and family. Kissing someone on the first date sounds like an impossible task. A one-night stand seems like a total nightmare; how could I do that when I can barely make phone calls? We didn’t hold hands until a month into our relationship, we didn’t kiss until two weeks after that. We had gone out to the zoo that day, he bought me the cutest white tiger to add to my collection of stuffed animals. 

Afterward we were sitting in his car. He asked me if it would be  OK to give me a kiss. I thought it was very cute that he asked my permission, like something out of an old movie. But it was more than that to me. Since he respected my personal space, I felt very comfortable around him.

That was almost four years ago. Our relationship isn’t perfect, but whose is? We try our best to help each other through emotional meltdowns (crying, panic, anger, etc.). We have learned how to calm each other down and remove each other from a triggering situation. 

For example, something that will set him off is sudden, loud sounds. For me, I can’t eat most foods or touch a lot of fabrics due to texture issues, they feel revolting to me. Trying to make me eat a food that I have texture issues with is like trying to make me eat a plate of worms and broken glass. Sorry, can’t do it. 

Also, certain sounds make my skin crawl -- like a jacket being zipped and unzipped repeatedly. We both can’t handle crowds and a lot of scents. 

While we can help each other, sometimes we just end up making things worse. One of the biggest things we’ve argued about is miscommunication. Occasionally not being able to read each other’s body language or understand each other's emotions, along with accidentally saying offensive things can lead to problems. We would get upset at each other for misunderstanding if the other was actually angry, or playing around, or sad, or just bored.

When I get stressed by life, too many things needing to be done that I am not able to do, I have to curl up and hide under blankets. I get depressed and want to sit alone. Cody doesn’t understand, and tries to get me to come out and talk with him. It’s very frustrating to me. He is the complete opposite, he needs comfort and reassurance. He needs to vent about what’s bothering him more than once and wants to hug/cuddle. I know it frustrates him because I’m not always good at realizing when he needs it. We often feel lonely, but we avoid a lot of social situations, so we don’t get invited out often. Being cooped up together all the time, we end up getting on each other’s nerves.

Overall I honestly think we couldn’t survive without each other. We are very observant and soak up lot of information, especially when it comes to our relationship. Learning so many things about each other has made our relationship much stronger over the years. 

Although we do struggle at times, fighting is rare. We’re fine just doing our own separate things, but together. Words don’t always have to be used to know we love each other, and to know that we are both incredibly happy. We like to listen to each other get excited about our special interests. We tell each other all the little details from information we have collected about our much loved hobbies. My newest one is writing, and his has been learning new languages.

We’ve taken pictures together about 3 times in the 4 years we’ve been together. I always over cheese it while he just refuses to smile.

We’ve taken pictures together about 3 times in the 4 years we’ve been together. I always over cheese it while he just refuses to smile.

There is a stereotype about autistic people that I strongly dislike. It is that we all don't care about others, that we are uncompassionate and insensitive (though there’s nothing wrong with those who are incapable of doing any of those things). It is safe to say I have met the most caring and compassionate person I’ve ever known to love me. We had to figure out each other’s quirks in order to embrace the lovely weirdness we have together. He could make me feel safe in complete chaos, he cares for me when I don’t have the energy to care for myself. Even in my most depressed state he makes me feel hopeful. 

We’ve talked about life, marriage, our first home, and I cannot wait for all our odd adventures. Okay, I’ll stop being corny, just one more thing: I’m so excited to spend the rest of my life with the person who has taken every baby step with me to learn an entire new form of socialization: romantic love.