It’s a Date!

If you’re the single parent of a child with autism, just when do you mention the “A” word to your date? 

I’m sitting across the table from a gorgeous blonde woman who I met on a dating website, enjoying conversation over drinks and appetizers. She’s leaning forward, making lots of eye contact, and there’s an air of flirtation in her voice. I’m having a nice time. We chat about our jobs, our tastes in music, and a variety of topics common to a first date. So far, so good.

“So, you have a really cute daughter,” she offers, turning the conversation to my home life. And yikes. A little devil appears on my left shoulder, and an angel on my right. And they’re competing for attention!

Devil: “Dude, she’s HOT! Don’t mention the autism! Have fun first!”
Angel: “Erik, yes, she’s pretty… but look. She’s a career woman, has a “type-A” personality, never been married, no children, clearly high maintenance. DITCH HER!”

I decide to listen to the angel. I explain that my daughter has autism, and over the next minute and a half, I see the spark fade from my date’s eyes. I can tell we’re done—the conversation that follows is feigned interest at best. I scared her off, and to be honest, I knew it would happen. But while autism is a tough sell in today’s dating market, there’s no getting past the fact that at some point you have to tell your date you have a child with autism. So do you do it sooner or later, after you’ve become better-acquainted? In practice, both of these approaches have their benefits and drawbacks.
To start this off, I’ll share my experience with both approaches, as well as those of two mothers I’ve spoken to, who have had several years of dating experience.

The School of “Sooner”

To be up-front about your child’s autism, whether it’s mentioned on your dating profile or in the first few telephone conversations—or even the first meeting—is, to some, a way to “weed out” the unwilling or unable. It can take the pressure off and allow you to be yourself. If your “prospect” is open to dating someone so directly impacted by autism, then you can just focus on getting to know each other without worrying about how to reveal your child’s autism or how it will be received. Colleen, a mother from Illinois, told me, “If they want to talk to me again, that’s their choice. It removes so much pressure and stress to just put it out there immediately, before the decision to ask you out is made. It’s just part of the package, something that has to be considered.”

In fact, “sooner” was always my approach initially. However, with the exception of two longer-term relationships I had with women who had first been friends, I repeatedly noticed that the “A” word scared dates away. No second dates, no follow-up calls: just a treadmill of one- or two-date relationships.

There were times when I’d be surprised at their reticence. Perhaps it was a mom with one or two children where, on paper, we’d seemed like a good match. Certainly a parent is more likely to accept someone with a special needs child, as opposed to somebody without children and all the freedom  in the world, right? Not necessarily - In their minds, your child’s special needs might make it too difficult to “be there” for him or her and the kids. Your child would always take precedence, and to avoid the risk of an emotional investment, most will play it safe and back out. Kim, a friend from California, had several instances where mentioning her child’s autism sooner put an abrupt halt to the new relationship. In fact, she once mentioned it as a way to get rid of someone. “He was a university professor,” she told me, “But everything about him had the air of ‘I’m better than you,’ and he was stuck on his ivy-league education.” She didn’t want to get involved with this man, so when he asked her, “What are you passionate about?” she opened up about her son’s autism and her advocacy. “I decided to tell him about the autism and watch him run for the hills—and that’s exactly what happened!”

While that’s a humorous anecdote that turns a “con” into a “pro,” in the end the decision whether to take this approach depends on your honest assessment of what it is you want in a relationship.

The School of “Later”

I’m on another date. This time, I’m determined to see if I can establish a chemistry with the beautiful brunette sitting across from me. Maybe she’ll like me enough to give things a chance when I decide to spring the “A” word.

Things seem to be going well. Through the course of our date, I learn she’s a schoolteacher, loves listening to R&B music and enjoys camping. I like her already! Eventually, she asks me about my daughter, and I’m purposefully vague. After a few superficial questions, her queries become more pointed: “Does your daughter know that you date? How has she handled that? Does she ask you a lot of questions?”

It’s at this point that being vague no longer works and I am faced with either telling her about Miranda’s autism, or evading the questions all together. I feel that pressure on my shoulders again. The angel and devil are back.

Angel: “Erik, long-term success only comes through mutual trust … and besides, she’s a school teacher. Maybe she can handle it. Tell her!”
Devil: “Dude, she’s another hottie! Don’t worry about the long-term right now. This chick digs you. It would be nice to get close for a change, wouldn’t it?
Angel: “Stop thinking with your PITCHFORK!”

Having decided to create a different outcome, I ignore the angel’s advice. “Oh, Miranda handled our divorce like a trooper,” I reply airily. “She seems okay with me dating. She doesn’t ask many questions.” Yikes, that’s stretching it, although technically everything I said is correct. My nonverbal child doesn’t ask many questions (or any at all, for that matter…). Hey, sometimes I just want to be a regular guy! So the date goes off without a hitch. I pick up the check, we say our farewell and she kisses me goodnight! Hooray for me! Hooray for the guy in the red shirt! Sorry, angel…

In the following weeks, we see each other twice more and I get to the point where I feel comfortable telling her about my daughter’s autism. We discuss what autism means for my daughter, her challenges, her strengths and how I’ve been involved in advocacy for biomedical research, etc. the last several years. While my date is outwardly interested, there is an air of concern in her voice and mannerisms, and I can tell she has some contemplating to do. In fact, we ended up going out for another week or so, but it ended shortly thereafter. She  gave me a short speech about her goals in life and how we wouldn’t be a good fit for the long term. Naturally she never mentioned it was about autism, but I’ve been down this road so often I couldn’t help assuming her motivation.

So why did I side with my “inner devil?” Simply because there may be some wisdom to mentioning it later. In my mind, I wanted to let someone get to know me a little better, to see if there’s chemistry on which to base a relationship on. If she can see me as a happy, well-adjusted guy with whom she enjoys keeping company, then  maybe the revelation about my daughter’s autism won’t be so jarring. Perhaps whatever preconceptions she has about autism will take a backseat to how she feels about me. Theoretically, I consider that valid… but that approach, statistically, has never brought me a lasting relationship. It seems, however, to lend itself nicely to casual dating. So let me just say that mentioning autism later has a theoretical value and a probable value, depending on what you’re looking for.

Both Colleen and Kim have something to say about the “later” approach. Colleen recounts a particularly painful story where she withheld discussing her son’s autism for over two months. “It was probably about two and a half months and I had known him about two months before we dated. I met his kids and we spoke about my kids, but I never mentioned autism. I had feelings for him; I felt we were a lot alike. I felt there was a connection between us, but when I finally did tell him, he was like a deer caught in the headlights, and I never heard from him again. It was the first time that autism scared someone away, and it hurt. It shakes your confidence.”

While Kim, on the other hand, didn’t regale me with a story about using the later approach, she told me, “I’d hate to develop feelings for somebody and find out that guy’s a jerk. I advocate getting it out a little sooner.”

So while “later” can theoretically provide an opportunity to gauge a potential relationship and manage the introduction of your  child’s autism in a controlled fashion, there’s a  possible danger of false  intimacy and disillusionment.

Summary: Getting What You Want Is Knowing What You Want!

As I type these words, it’s my wish to leave you not with a set of directions or hard advice, but maybe a “terrain map,” the course through which you’ll choose an approach, based on what you’re looking for. Are you serious about commitment and finding your soul mate? My impression and that of my friends Kim and Colleen is that “sooner” is a filter… the control method by which this experimental process of finding love is measured. You’ll weed out the runners and most of the casual daters fairly quickly.

If, however, you’re just too frazzled or not ready to offer someone commitment, casual dating has its own rewards. By withholding the “A-word” from your dates until later, you more often get the opportunity to meet a variety of people and get a feel for what you seek in a partner. Or perhaps even practice some face-time with other adults. Because let’s face it… having a child with autism can be isolating and it’s nice to get out from time to time. I think that’s something upon which my inner angel and devil can both agree.

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