What is Valentine's Day like if you're autistic?
Valentine’s Day is one of the most polarising holidays of the year.
For every person who absolutely loves the flowers and the chocolate, there’s another who can’t stand the sight of anything remotely mushy.
And, love it or hate it, it's hard to escape. Restaurants are full to the brim with couples or mates, there are hearts everywhere, and everyone’s wondering whether or not to ask their crush to be their valentine.
This can be quite overwhelming for lots of people, but in particular, some autistic people. We spoke to Andy, 27, who is autistic, about what the romantic celebration (and romance in general) is like for him and his fiancée Nicola.
Andy met Nicola in 2013 through social media. They chatted online for a while before meeting. This meant they could find out lots of different things about each other, which Andy said “took away that anxiety that the first date can often bring.”
They spoke about work and their taste in music, and it also meant that they had almost pre-prepared talking points for the first date when it came around.
Andy explains: “This really helped me when meeting Nicola for our first date as I’m always nervous meeting new people as I’m not sure if they will like me.”
While Andy doesn’t necessarily think it’s more difficult for autistic people to have relationships, he thinks it can be difficult to find partners who are accepting of autism:
“There is a lot of misinformation about autistic people, such as, we are not very social or have difficulties in social communication.”
He says this can be true, but looking past that, autistic people want love and compassion just like anyone else.
However, he thinks this is difficult to fully get across in the context of a first date. If they’re meeting the person for the first time or the environment is unfamiliar, Andy says this can lead to anxiety which can make the date a lot more difficult.
However, he says if you’re willing to put in the time with an autistic person, or if you are autistic yourself, and you’re clear about what you find difficult, then you can work together and have a wonderful relationship.
He says: “It’s all about having an open and honest conversation with each other, and trying to find some solutions together.”
Once you’re in a relationship, there can still be things to work at together. For example, Andy explains that his and Nicola’s approaches to affection differ slightly. Nicola is apparently “more of a hugger” which Andy sometimes finds uncomfortable. However, he explains that because Nicola is so understanding of this, it has become easier over time.
Andy prefers showing affection by looking after her when she’s poorly (which she does in return) and buying her presents to cheer her up when she’s down.
He said: “I think overall, we do have different approaches, but I think this is what keeps a relationship healthy really, by showing affection in your own way that is still meaningful to the other person.”
His first piece of advice for people dating someone with autism is to “try and not jump to conclusions”. He explains that it might be easy to jump to stereotypes about autism, but the key is taking the time to understand how their autism affects them as an individual and to respond accordingly.
Valentine's Day is a good example of where Andy and Nicola do things differently. This year they aren’t doing anything particularly outlandish as they’re getting married soon - he said they’ll likely “watch a film and just enjoy each other’s company”.
In general though, Andy explains, he’s not very traditional about Valentine's Day, as he thinks it’s important to show your appreciation all year round. He does this by giving Nicola flowers, and taking her out to Pizza Hut. In fact, when they first started dating, they went to the same one for nine months. He admits, this “doesn’t sound very romantic”, but it was the perfect spot for them as it was always quiet and intimate.
For Andy, it’s important on Valentine’s Day to “celebrate how you want to celebrate and just be yourself”, especially because, for someone with autism, “the traditional Valentine’s Day can be overwhelming.”
Whether or not this is the case will vary from person to person, but there are many different reasons for why it might all become a bit too much. First up, there’s asking someone to be your valentine. Andy explains: “This be can difficult because an autistic person might really like someone, but are not confident in saying this or they worry that if they say this then the person they are asking will react negatively.
“This has happened to me before and it knocked my confidence.”
Then there’s the actual Valentine’s Day plans. If you’re going out for a meal, and it’s a restaurant you’ve never been to before, Andy says it “can be equally as challenging as asking them in the first place.”
Not only can the uncertainty of what’s on the menu come with its own challenges, he explains the atmosphere can be quite difficult too: “For example, if I am in a loud environment with a lot of people talking and different sounds, I personally find it hard to keep track of conversations as I need to really focus on what is being said, which can be really draining for me.”
Andy’s advice for people planning Valentine’s Day celebrations with an autistic partner is to firstly ask them what they want to do. He says “every autistic person is different” and so some, like him, may not go for the traditional style and prefer low-key plans, while some people might be really happy to do something a bit more extravagant.
He says: “Putting your autistic partner at the forefront of the planning, I feel is key to not only Valentine’s Day, but other celebrations or times of the year as well. Maybe consider doing an activity that isn’t romantic as such, but something you both get enjoyment from.”
Andy’s social media following have told him single autistic people can find Valentine’s Day particularly difficult, as it can be disheartening if they’re not spending it with a “special someone”.
Because of this, he says it could be nice to reach out and organise Valentines Day plans with autistic friends as well - or as some people call it, Palentine’s Day.
He explains: “You can show your autistic friend your love and affection for them as a friend. It doesn’t have to be a date or anything formal, but I think that doing something positive for autistic people at this time of the year that might help them feel appreciated.”
Andy also has advice for autistic people thinking of celebrating Valentine’s Day: “If you are autistic yourself and you like someone, then Valentine’s Day is a good opportunity to express that feeling to them in a card or another medium to help you, maybe find that special one this Valentine’s day.”
The key for Andy is communication. As long as you and your partner are talking about what makes you both feel comfortable, then your Valentine’s Day, and every day, is likely to be absolutely wonderful.