Dating on the Autism Spectrum

What it's like to look for romance when "a big smile can be frightening"
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The way to Paulette's heart is through her Outlook calendar. “Honestly, if you want to be romantic with me, send an email through Outlook and give me all the possible dates, locations, and times, so that I can prepare,” she said.

The former Miss America system contestant and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music-trained opera singer knew she had a different conception of romance than her previous boyfriends had and, for that matter, everyone else.

“People tend to think of romance as spur of the moment and exciting,” she told me. “I think of romance as things that make sense and are logical.” However, she didn't know why until this year when, at the age of 31, when she was diagnosed with autism.

The aspects of autism that can make everyday life challengingreading social cues, understanding another's perspectives, making small talk and exchanging nicetiescan be seriously magnified when it comes to dating. Though the American Psychiatric Association defines autism as a spectrum disordersome people do not speak at all and have disabilities that make traditional relationships (let alone romantic ones) largely unfeasible, but there are also many who are on the "high-functioning" end and do have a clear desire for dating and romance.

Autism diagnosis rates have increased dramatically over the last two decades (the latest CDC reports show one in 50 children are diagnosed), and while much attention has been paid to early-intervention programs for toddlers and younger children, teens and adults with autism have largely been overlooked—especially when it comes to building romantic relationships.

Certain characteristics associated with the autism spectrum inherently go against typical dating norms. For example, while a "neuro-typical" person might think a bar is great place for a first date, it could be one of the worst spots for someone on the spectrum. Dorsey Massey, a social worker who helps run dating and social programs for adults with various intellectual disabilities, explained, “If it's a loud, crowded place, an individual on the spectrum may be uncomfortable or distracted.” Sensory issues may also make certain lights and noises especially unpleasant.

Seemingly basic, non-sexual touching may be an issue, as well.

“It may give them discomfort for someone to kiss them lightly or hold their hand,” Massey said. “They need pressure, and that's not typically what you think of with tender, romantic love.”

Perhaps because so much of their behavior runs counter to mainstream conceptions of how to express affection and love, people with autism are rarely considered in romantic contexts. A constant complaint among the individuals interviewed for this piece is the misconception that people with autism can't express love or care for others. “I think a lot of times someone will go out on a date with someone on the spectrum and think they’re a robot,” said Alex Plank, founder of WrongPlanet.net, a popular online autism community. “It's hard to read us if we don’t explicitly say what we're feeling, but all the feelings are there.”

In fact, people with autism may have greater emotional capacities. “Studies have shown that people with autism can have feelings that are stronger and deeper than those without autism,” said John Elder Robison, bestselling author of Look Me in the Eyes and autism advocate. “Yet those feelings may be invisible to outsiders because we don't show them. Because we don’t show them or the expected response, people make the wrong assumption about our depth of feeling about other people.”

It’s not that individuals on the spectrum do not have the same desire for love; they just may not know how to find it. Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson, an Assistant Clinical Professor at UCLA said, “If you asked a person with autism if they wanted a romantic relationship, they would probably say yes, but they would probably also say they don’t know how to.”

Partially from the emphasis on early intervention treatments, there's a dearth of dating skills programs, or, rather, effective ones for people on the spectrum. “Early intervention can significantly improve the outcome, but kids grow up, and we don't have the proper services,” said Laugeson, who serves as director of UCLA PEERS, a program that teaches social, including romantic, interaction skills to teens and young adults on the spectrum.

Central to PEERS is the promotion of “ecologically valid” social skills, traits humans have been shown to exhibit in reality, rather than what we think we're “supposed” to do. “We know people with autism think very concretely,” said Laugeson. “Social skills can be abstract behavior that's difficult to describe, but we try to break it into concrete steps.”

For example, PEERS will take the seemingly mundane, but actually complex act of flirting and translate it into a step-by-step lesson. “First, a couple notices each other across the room. They make eye contact and look away, and they look again and they look away,” said Laugeson. “The look away makes it known you're safe, but the common error someone with autism can make is to stare, which can seem predatory and scare a person.” People with autism are also specifically instructed how to smile and for how long, since “another common mistake is to smile really big rather than giving a slight smile,” said Laugeson. “A big smile can also be frightening.” 

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Emily Shire is a writer based in New York City.

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