An Interview with Armando Bernal
Overcoming the Dating World
“An autism diagnosis does not define a person’s success but rather what they do after the diagnosis.” – Armando Bernal
By Armando J. Bernal, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA and Autism F.I.R.S.T.
The dating scene is hard no matter who you are, and dating as someone with autism has its own individual challenges. We interviewed Armando Bernal about his dating experiences, the challenges he faced, where he is now and more.
Armando was diagnosed with autism at three years old and was non-verbal for most of his early life. He is now a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), host of the podcast A Different Path and the founder of Autism International Consulting, PLLC. His goal is to help all individuals with autism achieve safety, independence and happiness.
Tell us the story of how you met your fiancé.
I met my fiancé, Becca, through chance and likely because of a funny joke I made on a dating app requesting a wedding date so I could have two pieces of cake. Yet, what started as a chance circumstance transitioned to almost three incredible years of experiences and adventures. I no longer needed to tell complete strangers what my favorite color was, but I could instead ask the woman I love if she wanted to go strawberry picking or visit the museum of science and that’s what makes it so special. She’s become my best friend and the love of my life all at the same time! I am familiar that dating, while on the spectrum, is no easy feat and it is difficult not just for the those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, but also the parents of those who are simply trying to see their son/daughter live a typical life and find someone who loves their child just as much as they do. I did not know my fiancé for a majority of my life and before her came consistent difficulties and hurdles that I needed to overcome with those I dated and within myself.
How did you approach the dating world?
Dating is hard. There is no easy way around this concept and I am not an expert on dating by any means. I started finding an interest in dating when I was in middle school and started realizing that my feelings for others were much more than those typically found in friendships. There I was, though barely understanding social cues as it is, and now being faced with the daunting task of putting myself out there in front of my crushes and hoping that me simply saying I like like them would actually work. It didn’t. The overall directness of telling those I had a crush on that I liked them often was not reciprocated and what I felt as mutual affection was just overall friendliness. Yet, I persevered because the society around me told me that I needed to. As I got older it was strange for those in middle school and high school to not have a boyfriend/girlfriend or at the very least have someone that they genuinely cared for. I wanted to be like my friends while growing up and feel like I fit in. Realistically, I didn’t actually date until I started becoming a bit more mature and learning how to appropriately describe my feelings to others. This took time, but was overall supported by my actual friends that I made while becoming older.
We are often swayed by the judgment of others and in the 90s and early 2000s the acceptance of others meant everything because I already felt so different as it was. Finally, in high school my directness became a quirk of mine and something that others just accepted as being who I was. Some of my crushes found it cute and took an interest in me. While I continued throughout high school I began to take part in more school activities and grow to a level of success that caught the attention of some of my crushes.
Did you have a specific place that you’d like to go to when you started dating?
I didn’t necessarily have a “spot” once I started dating, but it was important to me that I knew the location that the date took part in. Surprises were something I needed to account for because I would already be as nervous as it is. So for those looking for advice on certain locations that work best for a date I wouldn’t say I necessarily had a special location, but rather I considered locations familiar to me so that I could feel at peace and be myself.
How did you communicate your needs? Were some needs easier than others to communicate?
Communication for those with autism is not exactly ideal when it comes to speaking to those that are neurotypical and is even more stressful when it comes to the social cues required when dating. To this day I find it difficult to communicate my needs, but I am learning to get through this with the help of my fiancé. In order to get through the struggles of communicating and the frustrations behind those that may not understand a person’s wants and needs I think that having a support system in a significant other helps resolve this concern. My communication difficulties stem from my inability to communicate verbally for a portion of my life and then still expecting to be successful in school when compared to my peers. It is exhausting and difficult, but life moves on and if I didn’t adapt I would not be here today writing this article.
You talked about how you are always learning how to communicate your needs and that your fiancé and support system help you achieve this goal. Were there times the people you dated were not helpful and weren’t so positive?
In my experiences, relationships help shape a person into who they are. I have had different romantic relationships in my life that have helped shape me into the person I am today. However, it is also important to note that not every relationship I have had turned me into someone I am proud of. I achieved my success by modeling myself after the peers I surrounded myself with and unfortunately, there were times that I adopted a personality that made me someone I would not want to be around. It is difficult to admit, but I found it hard to accept my autism and so did a few significant others at the time. My autism was an embarrassment and something that caused others to look away when I would stem uncontrollably or not be able to truly express my wants and needs. Toxic relationships can impact any individual including those with autism spectrum disorder. Some may take advantage of those with autism and others will do what they can to have a person not accept who they are. We talk about communicating one’s needs, but it is also important for those with autism to never settle for someone just because they may pay a little attention to you. Surround yourself with those who accept you and your autism and if you can do that no one can hurt you.
Growing up, what outside factors influenced your view on dating?
Growing up, technology was an ever-present factor of my childhood but it had not nearly developed to the levels it currently is in our society. My understanding of dating came from movies and tv shows rather than an innate understanding of what to do when interacting with those that I had a crush on. It was through movies I learned that one of the best ways to approach others for a date was to do just that and walk up to those you may be physically attracted to and strike up a conversation. As someone with autism this was an absolutely terrifying interaction that I knew I would dread throughout my life. It was bad enough interacting in a setting with multiple people that I did not know with loud music or crowds, but to then speak to strangers in the hopes of having them like me back was unthinkable! Yet, unbeknownst to me I must have not been the only person in the world who felt this high level of anxiety when it came to dating because suddenly online dating became the norm. This was originally an idea that seemed ridiculous and way out of the ordinary, but as technology rose in popularity so did the preoccupation of others.
What are your thoughts on online dating? You mentioned earlier that you met your fiancé on a dating site. Do you have a preference on which platform to use?
Online dating was the best possible outcome for an individual with autism as thoughts and ideas could be written out, reviewed, and then submitted to those I found attractive rather than saying something ridiculous and being unable to take it back. I started with Tinder as an original dating app, but that quickly received a reputation that was not the best for finding a serious relationship. However, it was all I had while in college and I used it to primarily get to know others around me. College was already hard and was even harder without having people I could talk to and trust. However, even more online dating apps were developed and eventually Bumble came on to the scene. This is the app I choose among others because it is the app that allowed me to find my incredible fiancé. Not only did it allow us to meet, but it is a bit safer for women who may worry they will receive vulgar messages from men. Women make the first move on this and so, with Becca being able to make the first move came her witty comeback to my joke about cake I mentioned earlier.
What is communication like for you on these dating platforms?
Witty comebacks were the way to my heart and it is something that my fiancé is full of. Not only did dating apps allow me to think more carefully about what I wanted to say back to her to make her laugh and smile, but they also allowed me to further display my actual personality that is sometimes hiding behind my diagnosis. It allowed my fiancé for who I felt I truly was and allowed me to get to know her before ever actually meeting. Familiarity and peace have always been at the center of our relationship and it is something that drove me to propose to Becca. I recommend Bumble among others because it allowed me to gain a sense of familiarity with her and most importantly, it removed my fear of dating. It helped put me at ease and no longer have a sense of surprise and sudden change that usually leads me toward displaying undesired behaviors. Dating apps are an incredible intervention for those with autism looking to date because it takes away factors that contribute to loss and puts those with disabilities in a position that allow them to display who they truly are without considering the diagnosis and that is truly all a person needs in order to find someone who can truly love them for who they are.
Did you reveal your diagnosis to your dates? If you did, when did you reveal that information about yourself and how did it affect your dates?
Throughout my dating history, I rarely told others about my autism initially and certainly not on a first date. It was already something that, for a majority of my life, I was ashamed of as it was something that made me different from those around me. I desperately wanted to fit in and be like my peers, but that could never be the case. I looked at life differently and thought so differently that it hurt my chances at finding significant others who would accept me for who I was. This in combination with some significant others being embarrassed by my autism lead me to rarely tell others about it. I would be more careful with who was given this secret and would push toward learning more about others rather than giving away more information about my life. This, obviously, was not the healthiest way of managing this innate fear of being rejected and unwanted, but it was what I felt I needed in order to find a person who would give me a chance.
However, as I began to accept myself I also began to accept the consequences of letting others know about my autism. Letting others know about an autism diagnosis should be left to those who are facing this obstacle and should not be judged for releasing this information later into a relationship. Personally, I don’t have anything specific I let my dates know about beforehand, but I do attempt to provide them with my personality through the different dating apps that I took part in. Truly, the best thing that a person can do is to have a conversation without any preconceived notions or judgment. Ask each other about your favorite experiences or question one another about your love language. Getting to know the real version of me, you, or anyone comes from enjoying each other’s company and exploring the abundant different outcomes that can occur by taking a chance on someone.
What emotions did you go through while dating?
Emotions are something we all experience and need to manage in order to be a fully functioning adult and it is something that may be considered exaggerated for those with autism spectrum disorder. As an individual with autism, I grew up with consistent repetitive movements as well as repetitive emotions that, at times, overtook my entire concentration. The ability to find love is something I searched for my entire life and was something that eluded me for quite some time. I am not the first to feel this way and certainly I will not be the last. It is not lost on me that there are many individuals with autism that could be reading this article and are searching for an answer regarding how to properly manage emotions that may arise. However, I am not a solution that others can use as a template for their own well-being. It takes time and energy to be able to overcome the challenges that come from overwhelming emotions.
Now that you’re engaged, how do you handle emotions? Any advice for those struggling to find love and overcome certain emotions and thoughts?
To this day my emotions overtake me and have made it difficult to function and complete my everyday tasks. Yet, it was not until I received true unconditional support from the love of my life that I truly sought out ways to remedy these concerns. My advice for those searching for love, but are also struggling to overcome the thoughts and feelings that come with emotion is to look inward and see what is truly causing this to occur. Focus on reviewing the causes behind these emotions objectively and moving toward writing down solutions that can be used in order to prevent these from getting worse. It is important to look at what solutions you can think of that can make you a better person and then focus your energy into accomplishing these tasks. Yet, there are times that these feelings need to be regulated through the assistance of a doctor. I may have “overcome dating,” but I am still at a loss for how to effectively control my thoughts and emotions at times.
You mention seeking professional assistance in dealing with emotions. Can you expand on that?
There is no shame in seeking assistance from therapists and medical doctors. Just as the shame of having autism is coming to an end for so many people, so is the shame of speaking to professionals about our mental health. For the first time in years I feel like I am in control of my emotions and have a better handle of circumstances that can be considered overwhelming in my life. So for those seeking a solution I ask that you find support in those close to you, but to never be afraid to seek out those professionals who can make you feel complete and whole.
Most, if not all, people experience some kind of rejection in their life. Have you experienced rejection in your dating life? How did you cope with it?
For the sake of my ego and my pride I’d like to write that I have never experienced rejection. However, this is an article meant to promote honesty and overall growth that eventually leads to what some may call a happy ending. Rejection was something I had to become very familiar with in my life. It was hard enough to accept my autism as being a part of me and it was even harder for others to do the same. I was the weird kid for a majority of my life and someone that was different or odd. In the 90s and early 2000s this could be expected as it was not until recently that society has begun to accept and praise those that are different.
Rejection is something that those with or without autism should expect in dating as rejection helps a person grow, mature, and eventually find the person they are destined to love. This mentality helped me get through a lot of difficult break-ups and help justify why these experiences occurred. Yet, the most difficult part of all of this was accepting the sudden changes in my life. It hurt me for some time as I began to believe the best way to go through dating is to keep those I am dating at a distance because if they did leave then at least I would not be as hurt. These sudden changes would trigger panic attacks and result in a regression of my coping mechanisms I developed throughout my life. It led to a harsh reality that someone who I felt would always be in my life would no longer be around. Rejection helps a person grow, but it can also cause sudden changes that are difficult to accept. This is something I stress for those with autism and it is something I hope those providing support for individuals with autism can help others realize.
At the same time though, it is important for those with autism to also learn to reject others that may not be healthy to have in one’s life. Toxicity is real and it is something that can be experienced in relationships if a person is not careful. For those in a relationship currently I challenge you to think about your relationship and ask yourself, “are you happy?” If you answer no when thinking about this question then consider the different actions that need to be taken in order to be happy. Always consider your own self-worth and don’t let others take advantage of you. Rejection is hard, but it is a skill that needs to be readily available to those with or without autism in order to ensure a person is always cared for unconditionally.
Do you have any specific dating advice you would give someone? How did you self advocate?
As mentioned earlier, dating is hard. This is regardless of a person’s disability status and it is something that those with autism should keep in mind when beginning their path through relationships. Dating, regardless of what the self-help books may describe, does not come with a rule book and does not provide straightforward answers that those with autism may be searching for. Take it from me, I tried, and failed, to go on multiple dates and attempt multiple relationships before actually finding the woman I love and plan to marry. It is, overall, a learning experience and those moving through this should expect to fail at least once or twice. The beauty of dating though is that it’s okay to fail. This is how a person grows and begins to learn what they want and don’t want in a relationship.
Too often individuals are scared to fall and fail a few times when trying something new. In my experience, this is the best way we learn to grow in our abilities as well as increase our own self-advocacy skills. The best advice I can give to those with autism who may be starting out in the dating world is to never give up on searching for that person that makes you feel wanted and cared for. Expect change and provide yourself with self-management tools that are meant to assist you in overcoming these changes. Most importantly, look for someone who accepts your diagnosis and is willing to be there for you not when things are easy, but when things are hard. Grow together with your partner and be willing to compromise on your opinion for something that benefits you both. As an individual with autism I had to learn that my life decisions no longer impacted just me. I had to consider the feelings and emotions of my partner. Though this was difficult to accept, it was necessary to truly grow. When starting to date, look toward your partner for support and understanding. It is only through working together that real love and acceptance can occur.
What advice would you give to parents/guardians whose child wants to start dating? Do they need to have that “Never Say Never” mindset early on?
When I was a child, doctors and medical professionals told my mother that I might as well learn sign language because I was never going to be able to speak. This is difficult to express through writing to all of you, but throughout my life I was able to prove the medical professionals wrong regarding where my life was headed. There is this overall sense of emotion I receive from parents while working in my field that consists of saying, in so many words, that a child’s life is over before it begins when they are diagnosed with autism. I am not sure where this mindset stems from other than what is seen throughout societal norms. It may be difficult for a child to reach a level of independence that is appropriate for them, but it is certainly possible. A parent is a child’s biggest support system and if there is doubt being presented to the child regarding what he/she can accomplish then that child will certainly be able to feel it.
The same parents who feel like their child’s life will not amount to anything are the same parents who feel like their child’s life is over. We have to look at how we, as readers and writers, change that overall dynamic. It starts with you though and it is something each of you are doing just by reading this. You are here to support your child and you are here to give them the best chance possible at a “normal” life, so when your child starts dating consider the effects that your child will have if they start sensing doubt about their abilities to date and be an independent individual. Most importantly, think about all of the extra effort and stress you put on yourself for believing something that does not necessarily need to be true. For those parents looking for answers, I have none. Each of your children live a different life than I lived and because of that, they will have different opportunities at growth then those currently presented to me. However, what I can provide is my guidance and support through this and many articles after.
Look at the amount of growth your child has already accomplished and remember these little things that they show you each day. These little reminders are not for the benefit of the child, but rather for you to always consider all the good you have already given by supporting your child through these milestones you, at one point, thought they would never achieve. Let these little successes grow their independence to a level that is ready for dating and give them a chance. They might just surprise you regarding all the things they can do with just a little hope and support.
Society has become more accepting and inclusive and the autism community has been more represented within pop culture. What do you think of the dating shows that are geared towards individuals on the spectrum?
With a continual push by society to be more accepting of those with disabilities and to have an overall inclusiveness of others has also come different pop culture television shows such as “Love on the Spectrum.” This, along with other reality shows, help individuals find love that they may not have found by themselves. I think these shows provide a sense of awareness and acceptance that would have otherwise been lost on a majority of the public. It encourages a sense of normalness in our society that may have otherwise been lost. When considering my own dating experiences I can’t say that this encapsulates everything I went through, but I would also say my experiences would likely never mirror someone else’s experiences either.
These shows, for what they are, provide an excellent way of reaching the general public while also promoting a sense of acceptance that was otherwise missing from our pop culture. In addition, this show is incredibly wholesome and allows others to discover themselves just as much as they would if not being recorded through a camera lens. For those looking to better understand the dating world I believe shows like “Love on the Spectrum” grant a perspective that cannot be seen elsewhere. We spoke earlier about ways that parents can provide support and understanding for their child while dating and I believe this show can certainly assist with this. It continues to promote an encouraging view on autism and show that anyone can accomplish whatever they set their mind to, even love.
We’ve covered quite a few topics about “Overcoming the Dating World.” Do you have any final thoughts or advice you would like to share?
Dating lessons start early in life. It comes from the relationships we observe growing up and it comes from the actual lessons taught by our teachers, guardians, and parents. If we, as professionals, let something go that we find inappropriate we can inadvertently teach others it is okay to commit the same act. In order to teach healthy relationships we have to help show what is truly acceptable behavior in a relationship and mention this. For those with autism, consider what guidelines should be set up for them before they begin their journey. Providing a list of dos and don’ts that are understandable yet memorable can assist those that may be truly lost in understanding how to appropriately date.
I would argue as well that those reading this are already doing the hard part by listening to a self-advocate attempt to tell his experiences with love. Listening to those who have gone through this can provide a better understanding that would otherwise be lost on those who do not know where to even begin. Look at the current support you provide your child or patient and ask has it been enough? Are they truly ready for the world of dating? Maybe not, but that’s okay. That’s the point, but what matters is whether or not you have given them the tools to overcome rejection and change. Searching for love is one of the scariest and intimidating areas of social living out there, but it is also the most exciting. Look at my story as one example that can be told by many, but use my story as a way to encourage you to try dating yourself because one day you find that special person who accepts you for who you truly are.
About Autism International
Autism International’s mission is to spread the truth that autism is a vast spectrum of individuals each experiencing challenges in their own right, but still overcoming adversity. To educate those unaware of autism and the unlimited potential that each individual with autism has regardless of challenges. To honor those who were brave enough to share their story with the world and help grant the acceptance that each person diagnosed with autism deserves.
About Autism F.I.R.S.T.
Autism F.I.R.S.T. believes in Family, Inspiration, Relationship, Support, and Trust (F.I.R.S.T.). We recognize the profound impact autism has on the family and support system. At Autism F.I.R.S.T. our staff is determined and committed to providing collaborative patient, family, and caregiver services for your family’s needs with an advocate to help you navigate the process. Our services include ABA, physical therapy, sibling and family support, social skills groups, patient and family advocates, occupational therapy and speech therapy.