As a fifteen-year-old on the autism spectrum, still fifteen years away from knowing “what’s wrong with me,” in the 90s, I turned to AOL and forums for emotional support.
Depression and panic attacks were already wracking my body; like elementary school, it felt as if teenage wouldn’t be gentle with me. I’d menstruate for ten to twelve days at a time, and every month, at one point, I’d feel bedridden.
Internet in the 1990’s
My Internet use as a minor was restricted to one hour a day; my AOL account was both password locked and set with this timer. An adult would have to enter the password for the timer to begin, and sometimes, that meant waiting until later at night to get help. This was “for my protection,” as well as a way to maintain an open LAN line, because the Internet rendered the phone useless with the almighty power of dial-up.
Yet an hour a day is all I needed to wet my appetite for this new world filled with words. Online, I felt like a genie popping out of a bottle, like my intellect was set free. The communication issues I’d inherited from autism, my upbringing, and my environment were not enough to stop my emotions from flowing into an interconnected, keyboard-accessible world.
In the ’90s, the Internet was a socially healing place for my writing to continue its bloom.
Then I met a sixteen-year-old boy in Northern California who was also going through depression. We were on a forum for teenagers trying to help one another, rather than cause self-harm. At the time, I lived in Southern California.
The Internet enabled our exchange of stories for months, times when we felt scared, confused, and hurt. It helped thin the blanket of loneliness I felt smothered under. For a while, he even moved to Southern California, where we could continue our recovery together, in real life. He attended my high school.
He felt like a fascinating relationship in my youth, one that helped me relax my fear towards men. And this lasted a year and a half, until he moved back north.
Internet in the 2000’s
Next I am at seventeen years old, searching through AOL profiles to message local people who listed “Dungeons & Dragons” in their interests. Again, the Internet felt like a communication tool from the very beginning, like a bridge closing the gap of what once felt like a social-emotional deficit.
Only this time, I was more proficient in how to employ that new power; I knew how to find specific, local people online. And I’d worked up the courage to play in a “real life” tabletop role-playing group, so I could get out of the house.
Using AOL profiles as my vehicle of courage, I found a Dungeons & Dragons group one bus ride away.
With innocent intentions, I’d sent e-mails out to many gamers, mostly men (women didn’t play Dungeons & Dragons as frequently). Email after email, AOL user after AOL user, I inevitably stumbled on a profile photo that I crushed on a little.
Cue the second relationship that started online. Cute guy, tabletop RPG group?
Felt like a win!
I stayed with the Dungeons & Dragons guy for nine years, and I’ll talk more about that during my next post, when I put an analytic lens over a relationship abandoned in the middle of Azeroth.
Internet in the 2010’s
But for this post, let’s fast forward another decade, into the choppy currents of the mid-2010’s. Now I am in my late twenties, when the online dating climate had since turned into a crowded thoroughfare, and the Internet is no longer a magical tool, like a separate thing. Now the Internet is our culture.
Gone were the days of nerds with dial-ups, trying to find a photograph that’d look good, despite pixelation. In was Tindr and dick pics. (I never used Tindr, but unfortunately, no matter what online platform I tried, I seemed to receive unwanted dick pics.) Since my sister met her husband on OKCupid, I decided to explore there the most.
I met my fiance, Chase, on OKCupid in 2016.
I’m pro online dating, and though I have some horrendous stories to tell, I think the Internet is as good a place to meet people as anywhere else, whether for romance, activities, or shared interests.
But I am also over the moon I never have to date online again.
So is the Internet Safe for Autistic People to Find Love?
I have mixed feelings about this word “safe,” not for autistic people, but for women. Of course the Internet isn’t safe; but that’s because women, in general, are objectified and undervalued. This is not an Internet-exclusive problem, and whether you’re online or not, women won’t be safe until they’re equal.
It’s not like a dude at a bar can’t find a way to trick you into the back of a truck. Or a dude at a college. Or a dude with an orange toupée.
But in terms of autism…
I questioned whether it’s real life that feels more dangerous.
The dude at the bar or college has better skills at both using, and reading, nonverbal communication; the dude at the bar or college could win a naive autistic person’s trust much faster. Even on phones, I feel at a disadvantage, since tone of voice is a nonverbal communication trait, and once my amygdala’s triggered, people walk all over me.
(I fear phone conversations because I’ve had some awful ones, where I didn’t know how to hang up, where I just listened as I said, “Okay,” “Okay,” “Okay.”)
As a woman, I’ve never felt like any climate is safe, online or not; and as an autistic person, I’ve felt empowered against that fear with writing. So I’ve enjoyed the tide of the Internet as connection.
Now that I’m in 2018, approaching the 2020’s, engaged to the best man in the world, the Internet’s still a bridge of love: through blogs, social media, e-mail, and text messages, I stay connected to friends and family in Southern California and across the world. I write posts to dispel myths floating around autism, like this one. And I read the stories of other suppressed voices, so at last I can feel part of a narrative outside of my body.
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Kourtnie has an MFA in Creative Writing from CSU Fresno and a BA in English from CSU Fullerton. When she isn't writing or making art, she's moonlighting as a professor at community colleges. Read her writing at Kourtnie.net or Wattpad.com/user/KourtnieNet.