The world of dating and relationships can be tough to navigate. It requires complex, often tedious work to communicate clearly, interpret signals effectively, and understand if your feelings are reciprocated. Because people with autism often have difficulty reading social cues, managing sensory needs, and expressing feelings, relationships that involve dating someone with autism spectrum disorder someone can be particularly challenging to navigate. But with the right perspective and approach, dually autistic or interabled couples can attain and sustain long-lasting, healthy connections.
People with autism have all the same feelings as everyone else; in fact, studies have found that their feelings can be more intense than those of neurotypical people. However, autism makes it harder to show or express emotion in the ways that are socially expected of them, so they are often misinterpreted as apathetic. John Elder Robison, autism advocate and author of Look Me in the Eyes, has personally experienced this phenomenon: “Because we don’t show [our feelings], people make the wrong assumption about our depth of feeling about other people.”
When dating someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the individual can bring some unique strengths to the world of dating. One value that people with autism bring to relationships is their candidness: people on the spectrum tend to bluntly verbalize what’s on their mind. Their honest, straightforward communication style can be a relief in the dating world, where people are often too subtle with their self expression.
When dating someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one way the individual can articulate themselves in relationships is with honest questions that can provide helpful door-openers for effective communication. Many people with autism report that, because they are unable to read their counterpart’s body language, facial expressions, or other cues, they need to instead verbally ask, “Are you angry with me right now?” or “Am I annoying you?”
Don’t underestimate the value that candid, direct communication can add to any relationship. Imagine how much easier it would be to navigate relationships if nobody was expected to guess emotions, but could deliberately express or honestly ask about them.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when thinking about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is over-generalizing the behavior, quirks, and needs of people with autism. The truth is, just as with neurotypical people, each person on the spectrum is a unique individual, with very different preferences, needs, routines, and behaviors. If you are dating someone with autism, it is important to be open to learning about the unique person you are dating. Try to understand their likes, communication style, frustrations, and annoyances. Be patient with the learning process, and be patient with your partner in their ways of doing things.
From time to time when dating someone with autism, you may need to kindly explain to your partner why a particular behavior isn’t appropriate in certain situations. This is one of many tactics required to bridge communication gaps that arise in a non-neurotypical dating relationship.
A specific component of the dating world that people with autism struggle with is flirting. PEERS—a UCLA program that educates teens and young adults with autism about dating etiquette—breaks down tips for flirting into manageable steps that are easy for people with autism to grasp.
For example, PEERS offers the following list of tactics for initiating contact with another person:
Like everyone else, but perhaps more severely, people with autism fear rejection. To overcome this obstacle, they must keep in mind that dating requires practice and mistakes will be made. Alex Plank, founder of WrongPlanet.com, says, “It’s a numbers game, and because people on the spectrum are black-and-white thinking, they think they’re doing something wrong. I wish more people on the spectrum knew you need to practice, you need to go out on more dates.” If people on the spectrum approach new friendships and romantic relationships with self-compassion and do not give up on themselves or the people they socialize with, they will have thriving relationships in no time. In short, keep practicing and keep up your confidence.
The Adult Autism Center offers a variety of programs that teach essential life skills to adults with autism—including the social and communication skills that are critical when it comes to dating for adults with autism.
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