Call Me, Maybe?
Oh the wild world of dating! It’s confusing enough for most to navigate, but teens and adults with autism can face additional obstacless while learning the fine art of flirting. Starting a conversation, reading non-verbal body cues, and knowing when someone shares your romantic interest are a handful of the dating nuances may be lost in translation for some people with autism.
For better or worse, widespread use of the internet, cell phones and social media have drastically changed the dating scene over the last decade. Now more than ever, people test the waters of a new relationship via online dating sites and apps. Online dating can help take away a lot of the anxiety of meeting new people. It offers individuals a chance to get to know each other, based on mutual interests, and then decide if they would like to meet in person.
Online dating can sound like a dream come true, particularly for those of us who tend to be more introverted; but subtleties still exist, and precautions need to be taken. Because difficulty reading social context is a core symptom of autism, people on the spectrum (and neurotypical people as well!) may not recognize that behaviors like repeatedly messaging someone with no response, asking for personal information like addresses, talking about sex without asking first, or sending or asking for sexual photos can be unwanted and may even be seen as threatening to a potential partner. Online dating also has its own set of safety concerns, as not everyone who joins a site shares the same intentions. For numerous reasons, individuals with autism may not pick up on “red flags” that can indicate that a potential partner is not trustworthy or respectful of boundaries, and can find themselves in coercive or dangerous situations.
How can individuals with autism navigate the complexities of the dating world and learn the skills to find and enjoy fulfilling romantic relationships? First and foremost, everyone needs information about safe online behavior! Teens and adults with autism should look to parents, healthcare providers, teachers and other trusted adults for information about dating and sex, and seek advice as needed when starting new relationships. Likewise, parents, providers, and trusted adults should not be shy about broaching the subject with teens or young adults with ASD. Adults and teens with ASD can learn skills for dating and building relationships and then practice these skills as a part of therapy or with trusted friends. For individuals who feel uncomfortable asking their parents about sex and dating, AutismNow and the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) developed Relationships and Sexuality, a toolkit written for and by people with autism. The CAR Autism Roadmap™ website also provides dating guidance in the article Romance 101: Dating for Adults with ASD. Additionally, group interventions exist that use theater and role playing to help teens with autism cope with the many uncertainties of dating and develop the skills needed for healthy intimate relationships.