How A Mother-Daughter Team Is Trying To Change The Dating Game For People With Autism

<em>Art by Eva Hill</em>
Art by Eva Hill

Kirsten Fitzpatrick doesn't know when her husband is mad, sad, frustrated or irritated unless he specifically says so. She's unable to process the subtle hints or body language cues that indicate how he is feeling at a given moment, so the couple must practice very clear-cut verbal communication.

In past relationships, partners described Fitzpatrick as "weird," "eccentric" and "intense," she recalls, which led her to be constantly anxious in social situations. "I was aware that I was 'different' and was made to feel ashamed because of it," she told The Huffington Post. Fitzpatrick was diagnosed with autism in her 30s, which she considers a turning point. All of a sudden, things made sense.

Now, the 37-year-old and her husband of 14 years have the information and tools necessary to make their relationship work. Fitzpatrick's 18-year-old daughter, Olivia Cantu, is also on the autism spectrum. Cantu has experienced social difficulties, similar to those her mother described, that have negatively impacted some of her relationships.

That's why the Santa Clarita, California-based mother-daughter duo launched Spectrum Singles, a dating and social media site "created BY people on the spectrum FOR people on the spectrum," in January.

<em>The Fitzpatrick family in 2011.</em>
The Fitzpatrick family in 2011.

"Many of my nonautistic friends did not understand some of the difficulties I faced with overwhelming sensory environments," Cantu said. "I wanted to find people I could be free to be myself with."

After researching what tools were available to help people with autism make social connections, Cantu was disappointed. Some of the dating sites she found included a description of autism, which Cantu said would be just as silly as a site like Christian Mingle outlining the definition of Christianity.

"Created by individuals not on the spectrum, I found that these dating sites tended to paint us in a negative light," she said.

Cantu was inspired by eHarmony's compatibility test -- which primarily measures personality traits of people who aren't on the spectrum -- to create a questionnaire specifically for people with autism. She turned to Fitzpatrick, who used her background in research design and methods to create The Spectrum Compatibility Test (SCT) for their site.

The SCT is a 184-question test that asks about social preferences, sensory tolerance or intolerance, and views on sex and physical affection. Spectrum Singles members are assigned a color based on their results, which matches them to other users -- either for a romantic relationship or a friendship.

The test was designed only for social matching purposes, Fitzpatrick said, noting that it is not intended to be a tool for diagnosis.

What It's Really Like To Date With Autism

“Decoding their intentions is exhausting,” said Meranda Jacobs, an engineer from Nashville, describing the most difficult part of meeting new people. Jacobs, now 33, was diagnosed with autism three years ago.

The autism spectrum includes people with a vast range of abilities and disabilities. What one person with autism struggles with doesn't necessarily hold true for another. But psychologist Sarita Freedman said that many of her clients have a hard time communicating.

"Sometimes they don't understand deception or the concept of lying -- sometimes they don't understand that just because they like someone doesn’t meant that person will always like them," she said.

Kerry Magro, a social marketing coordinator at Autism Speaks, an organization focused on autism advocacy, is familiar with the latter situation.

The 27-year-old remembers his first relationship in high school -- in the eternal tradition of teen rom-coms, he was the varsity basketball captain and she was a cheerleader. Magro was positive they’d stay together through college and eventually get married. He didn’t notice that his girlfriend was trying to tell him otherwise, for months. “When I had my first breakup… I was kind of a deer in headlights,” he told HuffPost.

Magro, who has now written two books on the subject of autism and love, attributes that shock to his difficulty understanding social cues and body communication. “I wasn’t really able to understand other people’s perspectives, especially early on, which led to a lot of misunderstandings when I was in relationships,” he said.

Jacobs summed up that feeling: “I never know what they want or expect. I upset partners. They think I don't care, and I'm bewildered.”

Inability to pick up on nonverbal communication cues is something Lei Wiley Mydske, the community outreach coordinator of Autism Women's Network in Seattle, can relate to. The 39-year-old said she’s often described as “quirky” or “charming,” but it’s the disabling aspects of that quirkiness that makes it hard for her to date -- or even maintain friendships.

“I have been described as ‘painfully shy,’ but it is really what has been called ‘selective mutism,’" she said. "I literally lose the ability to speak in some social situations. I don't always know when to participate or how to participate in conversations ‘in real time’ because it's hard to pick up on the cues.”

Mydske also has some of the sensory issues that inspired Cantu to start Spectrum Singles. “Loud noises aren't normally that scary for me,” Mydske said, “but unexpected noises and too many noises at once, like lots of people having different conversations, is something I have a hard time with because I just can't process all that auditory input. So, I tend to zone out in crowds and even though I am better about being safe now, I have in the past done things like walking right into busy traffic without realizing it.”

Why Going Online Could Make Things A Whole Lot Easier

Making connections online is something Mydske considers a game-changer for her and individuals like her. “It really is easier for me because talking is not something that is easy for me," she said. "Especially small talk. Typing and interacting in a more controlled environment relieves some of my anxiety about socializing, so talking to people online is a lot less stressful for me."

Cantu and Fitzpatrick said they hope Spectrum Singles members will feel at ease on their site for that very reason. They also believe their autism-only model eliminates a level of stress that people with invisible disabilities face on traditional dating sites. “Many struggle with questions like: Should I say I am autistic in my profile? If not, when do I tell the person I am interested in that I am autistic? Immediately or after the person has gotten to know me a bit? If I decide to wait until I got to know the person a bit, how will they take the information when I tell them?” Cantu explained.

Freedman and her partner, psychologist Susan Mandel, hold relationship workshops for adults on the spectrum, and note that the do-I-disclose-my-autism anxiety comes up often when their clients begin to date. Mandel always recommends that her clients prepare what they want to say to a new dating partner in advance, and suggests being specific about the areas in which they struggle.

For example, someone might say, “I’m really shy, and sometimes I don't always understand. Sometimes I don’t get the little things you might say or the little jokes, so don't be offended if I don’t.” Freedman also believes that sometimes a label encompasses a stigma, and describing exactly what makes you unique can help to break that down.

Considering 500,000 individuals with autism will become adults in the next decade, eliminating that stigma is important.

“Autism doesn’t define me," Magro said. "I define autism in everything I do in my life. In our lives we all want to feel that we can be loved by someone.”