a woman and autistic man smiling together
2 Mar

Finding love again, with an autistic partner

'I didn't have to tell him what to do or say when he met my autistic children because he is autistic. He knew.'

How Jo Abi found love again after years of being a single mum to two (maybe three) autistic children

Here is the story of how I found love again, after five years of singledom and swearing on TV, on podcasts and in written form several times including in articles and a book, that I would never be in a relationship again. I meant it when I said it, each and every time. I was terrified of letting anyone else into the life I had carefully constructed my children and I refused to entertain a relationship in any serious way.

I did go on two 'dates' but these were assignments from my psychologist at the time and they were okay, but to be honest all I wanted was to go home to my children. They felt like a waste of time.

I was living independently for the first time in my life having married young and enjoying everything about it. Plus, my children needed me. I have two ASD boys and my daughter is currently being assessed.

So there we were, a perfect little team of four, living our best lives, when my dad died. To understand what happened next, you have to understand how much my father meant to me and my children. 

He was the only person in my family, my ex-husband included, who made the effort to truly understand us. He accepted us and was there for us, spoke with us but most importantly, listened to us. Then, he was gone. It was like the rug was pulled out from under all of us but particularly me.

I felt homeless, untethered, fractured and utterly alone. 

Two months later I had a very inconvenient minor nervous breakdown and in the course of trying to hide it from my children I lashed out at others who have all since forgiven me, including my brother and my bosses.

By April I was feeling better, having taken the necessary medical steps to get better. I have always told my children and in particular my eldest who has suffered from mental ill health for years that it is okay not to be okay, but then you have to take steps to help yourself. Sometimes that means doctors, sometimes that means therapy, sometimes that means medication, sometimes that means going for a walk.

Then I received an invitation to an event being held by Autism Awareness Australia, a farewell for outgoing CEO (and cupid) Nicole Rogerson. It would be held in a bar in the city. My brother had previously worked with Nicole at a company called Rockmelon so agreed to come with me.

We hadn't spent time alone together since our dad died and our conversation in the car on the way to the event reconnected us. We talked the entire time about how we were feeling, how much we missed dad, everything. As we approached the city we started wondering who would be at the event. I showed my brother the flyer for the event that was on my phone and he said, "Oh, Shamus is going to be there."

"Who's Shamus?" I asked. My brother explained he had worked with Shamus at Newscorp years ago. I was happy he would know someone there.

We were among the first to arrive. Shamus arrived later. I remember Biagio saying his name. I remember he was wearing a purple jacket. 

My brother introduced us and we started chatting. I quickly realised he had been on the flyer because he was an ambassador for Autism Awareness Australia. We spoke a little about him being ASD and then I started pumping him for information about his life, wondering how the hell he had a career and was in a crowded bar in the city at night when I couldn't get my 18-year-old autistic son out of the house most days and couldn't imagine him holding down a job.

I was whisked away by others but when I glanced over to check on my brother, I saw he and Shamus were deep in conversation. At the end of the night I went back to my brother and we sat down and grabbed some food. I hadn't eaten so was shovelling it down when I looked up and Shamus looked over and smiled at me.

Boom. What?

My brother and I left soon after but I was already secretly plotting to somehow contact Shamus. I knew I wanted to talk to him about his life and ask his advice about my son Philip. I wanted to see that smile again. I'd have a (very) new, cute friend.

I didn't want to ask my brother for his contact details but cleverly found his Instagram account and messaged him the next day. A couple of hours later he responded. We made plans to have coffee that Saturday.

Knowing what I know about autism I offered to come to his local cafe, knowing he would be more comfortable there. We spoke on Instagram all week.

He knew my work.

He had read my book.

He only realised that night that the person whose work he had read was the 'Jo' my brother used to speak about when the worked together.

When I arrived for coffee I felt nervous for some reason, but also excited. Knowing Shamus was autistic I instantly knew I could be myself, speak openly about my children and just relax. And we had a head start having spoken all week.

I was trying to find the cafe when I saw a cute man in a navy shirt standing outside. He turned and I saw it was Shamus. I know, I know, this is sickening right? I'll whizz through the rest.

Our coffee catchup lasted for four hours. We hugged at the end of it but not before confirming we were both comfortable doing so. Shamus told me later he made sure to contain the hug to the top halves of our bodies and avoid the bottom halves pressing together, which was an early insight into how much thought he puts into every single word and every single action.

We met up the next week and the week after, chatting on Instagram the entire time. He asked for permission the first time he kissed me. I had never been kissed like that before. I don't know how to describe it. It was very... deliberate or something but also the world disappeared. Poof. I did freak out afterwards.

I can't be in a relationship.

I can't risk anything impacting my children.

My children need me and I love my freedom!

Then I remember something my therapist had told me when I'd said this to her. She said: "The right will add to your life, not take away from it." Then I remembered an exercise another therapist had me do where I wrote what I wanted in a 'perfect' partner. I had described Shamus, years before I met him. And Shamus was calm the entire time I melted down. He would accept whatever I could give him, he told me, and me meant it. Huh.

I'm not sure if it is because of our previous relationship experiences or because Shamus and I are both of the autism world but we have always been honest and direct communicators. We tell the truth. If we aren't sure of something, we ask. If there is a miscommunication, we talk it out immediately. For this reason our relationship has been on an accelerated program. One week for us is like a month to neurotypical couples, we realised.

Our relationship is easy, uncomplicated. 

I prepped my children to meet him using the exact same method I have always used with my boys. I started with mentions of Shamus, the fact he was autistic, more mentions, waited for them to ask about him... he met each of them individually and I didn't have to tell him what to do or say when he met my autistic children because he is autistic. He knew.

Watching him develop unique relationships with each of my children is extraordinary and beautiful. He seems to enjoy spending time with them too. They are smart, funny, amazing kids and they accepted Shamus from the moment I told them we had decided to be together.

It has been nine months now and we know we will be together forever. I don't know how we know, we just know. I used to roll my eyes when people would say that. I didn't believe it. Now I do.

I just didn't expect it to happen when I was 46 with three children, two of whom have been diagnosed with special needs. I have never been with someone who makes me feel so secure, who accepts me for exactly who I am, who adds to my children's lives, who sees the world in exactly the same way as I do.

And Shamus is an extraordinary man for so many reasons. He describes his life as an autistic man as being on "hard mode" and that is the best description of it I have ever heard.

When I first told my loved ones about him, they thought it was funny that I was dating an autistic man but I am not dating Shamus because he is autistic. That's just how we met, through autism. I just went to a work event, met a cute guy and fell in love.

The fact he is autistic is a bonus to me and the fact I have autistic children is a bonus to him. We are a perfect neurodiverse tribe. 

I could go on and on and on about how much I love this man, about how my life is now complete, about how I watch romantic movies now with new eyes, how my children have noticed how much happier I am and how I feel seen and found for the first time in my life. But I'll just end it here by saying this.

I have never been with a partner who celebrated Valentine's Day and for this reason I have never enjoyed Valentine's Day. This year I feel so excited about it, for the first time in my life. 

Valentine's Day for me isn't about gifts or chocolates or grand gestures. It's about being with the man I love, having finally found love, true love, the kind that songs have been written about.

For those who have found love, Happy Valentine's Day. For those who haven't yet found the one, never lose hope, but don't make it your focus. Concentrate on living your best life and it may just find you.

Article written by Jo Abi, senior writer at 9Honey, media commentator, author, mental health/autism advocate.

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