By Jodie van de Wetering
Looking for love is a minefield at the best of times, but if you're navigating life with a disability, it can be even trickier.
We're not just up against the usual odds of finding someone whose preferences, politics and peculiarities match our own.
There are extra obstacles: the cliche that people with disability are inherently childlike and aren't interested in romance, the risk of predators looking for an easy target, the lingering stigma around disability and difference, and — for people on the autism spectrum — the very nature of our disability making it harder to connect and interact.
The TV show Love On The Spectrum follows several adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as they meet new people and go on dates.
Throughout the program participants learn a range of social skills and dating tips.
Queenslanders Rachel, 39, and Paul, 42 (who asked we don't use their surnames), are both on the autism spectrum. They're living examples of how successful an autistic life can be: married, with children, working and studying.
With Rachel and Paul's lived experience, and what we see on Love On The Spectrum, here are five dating tips we can all use:
1. Look for a kindred spirit
Kelvin features on Love On The Spectrum. With plans to date, he worked with a coach to improve his conversation skills.(Supplied: Love On The Spectrum)
In Love On The Spectrum, most of our lovebirds-in-waiting are trying their luck with other people also on the autism spectrum.
While there's no rule that sharing a diagnosis is key to a successful relationship, it can help to have something so significant in common.
Paul was diagnosed as a youngster while for Rachel, like many women with ASD, it wasn't picked up until adulthood.
"It wasn't until years later that I was diagnosed as autistic, and I realised why I didn't understand the differences he was trying to explain to me in those first few weeks," Rachel says.
"It also explained why our relationship felt so 'easy' compared to other people. I had always known I was different, but I internalised that to mean there was something wrong with me or I wasn't trying hard enough."
Having similar experiences and a similar world view can help you find connection when you're looking for a partner.
2. Embrace technology
People on the autism spectrum can have an aptitude for technology, either because we tend towards nerdy interests or because human interaction can be easier through a screen.
These days, there are any number of digital wingmen to help find and screen potential partners, but sometimes chatting online through something that's not about dating at all can help.
"We met on an old internet chat site called ICQ," Rachel says.
3. Have something to talk about
Dinner dates can be daunting. It's a good idea to prepare some topics you can talk about to help keep the conversation flowing.(Supplied: Love On The Spectrum)
Once you've met someone, the next step is actually go on a date to get to know each other better.
Love On The Spectrum includes a look into pre-date planning, as relationship expert Jodi Rogers helps our hopefuls work out what to say and do.
It's very much a learned skill, even if neurotypicals like to think it's instinctive: everyone has felt a conversation run dry and flailed around for something, anything, to break the awkward silence.
Having an obvious topic of conversation, like the movie you've just seen or the museum exhibits around you, means less flailing and one less thing to stress about in an already stressful situation.
"It's much easier to get to know someone when you are in a situation where you have something to talk about," Rachel says.
"When we first met, we talked about the movie we just saw, and then then conversation flowed onto other topics."
4. Be ready to grow and compromise
Dating for the first time is a huge learning curve, and established relationships still need maintenance.
It can be hard for anyone to admit they don't have it all figured out, but even harder for people on the spectrum if we like to set rules and find change challenging — even when we know it's for the best.
"We have had some trials along the way, but we learned to always talk about problems and not expect perfection from others," Rachel says.
"Successful relationships are ones where the couples keep working at it and continually learn new ways of problem solving."
5. Be yourself — dinosaur collection and all
It's a good idea to be open about your interests and passions when first dating. If your love of all things bats puts them off, better to know now than years down the track.(Supplied: Love On The Spectrum)
It is a big cliche to just be yourself when you're dating, but as many people on ASD feel they have to put on a mask when socialising to be accepted, it's extra important to learn to drop that when you're dating.
Sure, you might scare someone off — but if your 4,537 action figures or your memorisation of the afternoon TV schedule from 1998 is going to be a deal-breaker, it's probably better to find out sooner than later.
Because wouldn't life be better if we all spent less time trying to be cool and impress people and spent a bit more time nerding out about dinosaurs, video games, trains and the quirky, wonderful life that make us happy?
Jodie van de Wetering is an autistic writer, performer, and generator of creative mayhem based in Rockhampton, Queensland.