It started as a tweet from @frogautistic to my friend, Shannon: “Would you know of any guides for adult autistics wanting to stay safe and differentiate between Good & Bad people.”

Shannon replied:

Shannon’s response included a link to my TPGA article about social reciprocity, in which I analyzed some research on how non-autistic people respond much better to Autistic people when they read our words, compared to when they interact with us in person.

I am always happy to make time to help people and I am very grateful to Shannon and The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism for helping me help others. So I thought about the question as I was waiting for sleep to overtake me, and I woke up thinking about how complex a question this actually is.

See, I’m 50 years old and I’ve met a lot of “good eggs” and “bad eggs” on the long path from my original birthday to today. And I’m (mostly) getting pretty good at spotting the bad eggs and steering clear of them after all that time, but it’s hard because there really aren’t clear, simple, easy rules for that. And what guidelines do exist are not very easily boiled down to 280 characters. So if you can forgive me for spreading out into the larger space an essay affords, I would like to do what I can to provide some guidance, such as it is.

Here are a few basic but important rules for filtering people to let the good ones in and keep the bad ones out: Slow Down, Set Boundaries, and Watch for Red Flag Patterns.

Slow Down

In looking back through my own life and thinking about what would have helped me steer clear of people who were harmful to me, the number one piece of advice I would give myself—and thus you—is to slow down. I’ve noticed that when I get lonely and rush into a friendship or other relationship, I miss seeing warning signs that I might be headed in the wrong direction. People call these warning signs “red flags” and that’s a good name, because they really are like a construction worker waving a red flag at you to let you know you are headed toward danger.

Blonde white teen girl whispering into the ear of an adult white woman with long brown hair and bangs.

People have red flags, too, and usually don’t even realize they’re waving them at others. When we move too quickly, we don’t always notice those red flags waving. Relating with others happens so fast it can be overwhelming. The emotions of getting to know new people can also be overwhelming. When we slow down and take our time, we have a chance for our minds to catch up with all that information that has been coming at us when we are with the other person and interacting together.

In fact, moving too fast is a red flag itself. This is a really important thing to remember: the red flags of relating with others aren’t just the things that you want to watch out for from other people. They are also the things you want to avoid doing yourself. It makes sense when you think about it: I’m not the only person who notices patterns in how people are with each other. Anyone else who notices patterns will eventually realize that bad things happen when people get too close too quickly, and if you aren’t working to keep things slow enough to take care of yourself, you will also be waving a big red flag at the other person. A person who notices patterns and has noticed this one before will back away from you, both physically and emotionally, if you are moving too fast.

What does moving too fast or slowing down look like? Well, the speed that makes people comfortable will vary from person to person, but comfort is not always the best gauge. One reason why people who have been abused often keep getting abused, again and again, is because the behaviors that make it easier for other people to abuse them are the only way they have learned to be. It feels safe, familiar, and comfortable to keep being the way we have always been, even despite past negative consequences. I have noticed this pattern in myself, and I have noticed it in other people.

Slowing Down Is Important in Seeking Love

I dated a very nice woman who had been abused by both her mother and her last girlfriend before she dated me. Chances are good it had been a lifelong pattern for her, and everyone she had been close to had been abusive. As a result, I could see her being very uncomfortable with our relationship and intentionally trying to start fights. When she wasn’t being yelled at and threatened, it made her panic. She had learned that people yell at you because they care about you. I wasn’t yelling, so maybe my feelings were not deep enough? Maybe I didn’t care enough about her to yell at her? So she did things to try to make me upset enough to yell. I didn’t even realize on my own that this was what was happening: It took a counselor to point out the pattern. Once we saw what was happening, it was life changing for us both.

The point of telling you about this relationship is to illustrate that you can’t always trust what feels comfortable and familiar, especially if you have been abused in the past. It might feel very comfortable and even ecstatic to meet someone on Monday, never separate longer than it takes to use the bathroom (if that!) all week, and be living together or even engaged to be married by Thursday. But that can be very risky behavior. While you might be lucky and have suddenly found just the right relationship (it does happen), the odds are against that, and it is probably an extreme example of what moving too fast looks like.

When I was starting to notice these patterns, and resolved that I was not going to move so fast anymore, I was terrified. What if I really had just met the perfect person and I was trying to slow things down and then lost them as a result of hesitating? But now I realize that if someone really is perfect for me and I’m really perfect for them, our relationship will survive moving more slowly. It may actually strengthen our relationship to take our time with things.

Slowing things down will also give you time to recognize when you are heading into a relationship that will be trouble for you. Slowing down is also not at all likely to chase off a relationship that would be good for you. If you are keeping things slow, and it is frightening to the other person and no matter what you say, they just keep pressuring you and finally deliver an ultimatum (“do this or I am leaving you”) and then break up with you, you have just learned that they were not able to trust you and go the distance with you. They might otherwise be the greatest person in the world, but they were not able to stay calm enough to give you what you needed to be safe, and so they weren’t a good choice for you regardless. When you are with someone who loves you, they are willing to give you the space and time you need to feel safe and strong. That is a big part of what love is.

A slower pace can mean waiting on sex to give time for an emotional bond to develop first. A slower pace can mean waiting to tell your deepest secrets until there has been time for you to see how the other person behaves when they are very anxious or in a crisis. You don’t want to trust someone with your secrets until you know if those secrets will be safe even when things are bad or stressful. A slower pace means you are spending some time apart as well as some time together. Time apart gives you room to think about what is happening without the pressure of being in the middle of everything while you are trying to think about it.

Slowing Down Is Important For Friendships, Too

Last year I met a person who was interesting but was also moving our friendship forward way too fast. We were together pretty much around the clock for days. She essentially took over my whole life and I didn’t notice it because I barely had any time away to think about what was happening. It was almost like being under a magic spell, even though I’m not saying that to excuse myself from responsibility. I was entranced—not by magic, but by her presence. Some people are really good at weaving themselves into other people’s lives and we Autistic people are especially vulnerable to those sorts of people.

It was only when she called me “special” as an insult that her spell was broken. She was using “special” as a euphemism for the R-word, and it really stung. And once she insulted me like that, I was able to look back at the two weeks we had spent together and see that she had been insulting and manipulating me every day, but I had been ignoring it because I was allowing things to move too fast to see the red flags. When she called me “special” and I stopped in my tracks, we had already become roommates. I had paid rent but I packed up my things and walked away from everything because I realized that she was really bad for me and I had been moving too fast to see it, until it had gone so far. I lost money and had to endure her yelling at me for leaving our apartment and breaking the “friendship” and I even felt some fear that she might do something bad to me. I now know that if I had refused to let things move so fast, I probably would have known better than to try to be roommates with her.

Set Boundaries

How I slow down now: I sat down when I was not in the middle of a new friendship or other relationship, asked myself hard questions, and came up with a set of friendship and relationship boundary rules. I can’t tell you what your rules should be, because only you should decide on them. And every time you have an unpleasant encounter with someone, you should revisit your rules, and ask yourself if you broke any of them. If you didn’t break your rules yet still ended up in a bad situation, then ask yourself if you need to modify any of your rules.

In coming up with your own rules, don’t just think through my questions below: Write your answers down somewhere, and put them somewhere you won’t lose them. Look at them periodically. Put a regular date on your calendar to review your rules. Revise them as necessary but never in the heat of the moment. When that very attractive person is asking you for sex? That’s not the time to revise your personal rule about how long and how well you must know someone before having sex with them.

  • When you are first getting to know someone, how many hours are you willing to be in their presence before you ask for a break? A first date probably should not last a week. You might find yourself in situations that go against the rules so think about that, too. For example, if you are at a weekend retreat and meet someone, how will you handle together time? Know that you will feel pressure to spend every minute with that great person you just met. How will you counter that pressure from them or from yourself? Maybe you will have a different set of rules for situations like that? Or maybe the same set of rules no matter what?
  • When you are dating someone, how will you decide it is okay for you to be sexual? Will you decide based on an amount of time you’ve spent together or length of time you’ve been dating? Are there personal “road signs” that will let you know it’s okay? Decide what your rules are before you meet someone special and stick to those rules to protect your body and your heart.
  • How will you decide that you trust someone enough to tell them your secrets? What will you do or say if they start to tell you very personal things about themselves before you’re ready to tell them personal things about yourself?
  • How well should you know someone before becoming roommates? How close should you and a romantic partner be before moving in together?

These are all just suggestions. Take some time to get to know yourself well and look back over your life’s patterns, and you will see where you could benefit from adding more structure to your life. You will be a good judge of what rules you need and what limits to set. Trust yourself to make good decisions when you are thinking about these things while you are alone and calm. You also might want to talk about your rules with a therapist you trust or someone close to you in your life that you trust.

This is called “setting boundaries.” You decide what you want from life, and what you will not put up with. You make personal rules about those boundary lines. And you protect those boundaries by refusing to let others violate them. That includes you, by the way. All of us can be our boundaries’ worst enemy. Setting and keeping boundaries is as much about staying strong in your own sense of self as it is about refusing to let someone else push you farther than you wanted to go.

If it helps you to recognize your patterns, try writing down the names of all the friends and lovers who have turned out to be unpleasant experiences. Write down what went wrong, and how you might have recognized those red flags sooner. A list like that can be depressing—be ready to comfort yourself when you tackle it—but it can also be very enlightening. That is exactly how I came to recognize my own patterns that were holding me back from the kind of life, and community, and love I wanted for myself.

Watch People For Red Flag Patterns

Slowing down helps you to recognize your own patterns and gives you time to see the red flags the other person is waving. Watching them, and thinking about how they are treating you and others, is how you notice those red flags.

Clearly if they hit you and yell at you a lot, you will know they are not good for you. But also watch how they treat other people: A person who insults the server at a restaurant, yells at the clerk at the grocery store, or intentionally cuts people off in traffic while saying nasty things is not someone you should trust, even if they are treating you marvelously at the same time. It is a red flag: the way people treat others is the way they will eventually treat you.

If someone is with you because they are cheating on someone else who doesn’t know about you, that’s another red flag. I’m not talking about open relationships or polyamory where people are dating or having sex with more than one person and doing it ethically by being honest with everyone. If you are sneaking around with someone, they have just taught you that they are not someone you should trust.

I dated someone whose wife had died and his adult children were not ready for him to start dating again. He wanted me to sneak around with him and hide our relationship from his children. That was very emotionally damaging for me because it triggered memories of my childhood abuse. It was also a huge red flag. He was willing to lie to his children and he was willing to force me to sneak around and hide. I could never trust that he would tell me the truth and not sneak around and hide people or other things from me.

The reason I say to watch for patterns is because anyone can lose their temper. Anyone can become so anxious they shout at you. If someone loses their cool once, and they did not call you nasty names or hit you while they were angry or afraid, decide if you want to give them another chance. But if they lose their cool, and use demeaning language toward you, or physically hurt you or your pet or someone you love, you’ve got to protect yourself.

I once had a partner who yelled every day. He was in a health crisis and experiencing a lot of pain, so even though I didn’t like the yelling, I understood. He would yell when he was in pain but he was not yelling at me—he was yelling at the pain—so I stayed with him (I can understand someone yelling because they are in pain. I don’t like it, but I can forgive it). But after he had been sick for a long time, the yelling turned nasty, and he said lots of hurtful and demeaning things to me. That’s when I left him.

There is never an excuse for being hurtful toward others. Someone may try to tell you they didn’t mean the things they yelled at you when they were in pain or drunk or in some other incapacitated state, but adults who love you will not say harmful things to you even when their self-control has been worn down through personal suffering. It is your choice whether you want to forgive someone for yelling, but I beg you to refuse to put up with being verbally abused or battered.

Going slow and watching for patterns are your two best tools for staying safe with people. People have patterns of behavior, and if you take your time getting to know them, they will fall into their patterns. Watch for red flags and decide ahead of time what you will accept and what is unacceptable. Keep things slow so you can spot the patterns. Don’t get too intertwined with someone else until you’ve had a good chance to see what their patterns are, especially how they are when they are sick, tired, or under stress. Take time apart while you are getting to know each other so you have space to think about how things are going and decide how you feel about their red flags. Everyone has red flags, so if you haven’t spotted any at all, slow down some more and pay closer attention to their patterns. Everyone has red flags but some are flagging you about behavior that you can live with while others are flagging you about behavior that you do not want to be trapped in.

Stay strong, set boundaries and keep them, stay safe. May you find loving friends and happy, healthy relationships with others, always.