This guest post is from Sonal, a speech language pathologist from Los Angeles.
Acceptance in society and being able to function at a normal level is the key to building relationships, dating, marrying and starting a family for adults with autism and adults with Asperger's Syndrome. The biggest challenge these adults face is that they are perceived as not seeking emotions, love and are categorized as being insensitive. On the contrary, they are often rich with emotions, but just don’t know how to express them.
I happen to have become friends with Joel, a 29-year-old on the spectrum. Upon one of our discussions, he said he desires a romantic relationship and painstakingly prepares for dates but often encounters failure. He added, “No matter how much planning and preparation I do, it’s often difficult for me to sense and understand whether the other person is interested or not. Hence, the prospect of being in love and seeking love is beyond reach for me.”
I also noticed that he had a hard time differentiating between a stare and a fleeting glance, a smile and a continuous extended smile, a touch and a hug, which could be considered as a part of expression or an important aspect of being in a relationship. Due to the sensory difficulties with tolerating physical affection (hugs and kisses), it’s difficult for him to express his feelings readily.
Understanding jokes and also behaving in a particular way in a specific setting when on a date habe also been challenges. He was often misled or he misinterpreted friendliness as subtle cues of interest.
While sharing his experience, he said he was often intimidated by the girl and due to his lack of confidence, at times this aggravated the situation further. Anxiety often took over, especially when things didn’t go as per the plan. Over time, he has learned to be socially interactive. There are still times when he completely wants to be alone with his thoughts and enjoy his own company.
I know many adults like him are struggling and trying to be accepted in the society. Appropriate intervention, planning, practice and help can lead to successful relationships and wellbeing. It’s not impossible. A little patience and encouragement goes a long way.
The easiest way to approach the situation and this phase in life is to accept that you are different and be willing and determined to work on it. Many success stories include a partner with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
This is an area which hasn’t been researched much. Many adults under this spectrum hope to be successful in finding a romantic relationship like anyone else. A diagnosis of autism does not eradicate the desire in adults for intimacy, it’s present and we being communication specialists can work with them to fulfill it by helping them in building up there self-confidence, appropriate intonation pattern and tone while initiating conversation, use of word choices, interpreting non-verbal communication, engaging in unfamiliar topics of conversations and managing social anxiety.
Adults on the autism spectrum and with Asperger’s Syndrome are often very intelligent and have extraordinary talent. So, as an ice-breaker, the conversations can be initiated about their skills and talents, which will help them in thinking that they aren’t different. These steps will help in better topic initiations, maintenance and successful conversations
Working with Joel and other adults on the spectrum has taught me a lot about helping them with their communication. In spite of having so many challenges, they still have a ray of hope that they will meet their perfect one and are so diligent in working on their shortcomings. But one thing that shook me to the core was realizing that people on the spectrum are more thoughtful and sensitive about their dates than we are. In the present era, many of us try to put up a facade, be pretentious and act over-bearing. People with autism on the other hand are simple, well-planned and more organized, yet we can be so judgmental of them. They are often honest, clear, less manipulative, loyal and sincere in relationships, all qualities that are lacking in today’s dating world.
Joel has a girlfriend now and they have been dating and going strong for the past six months. Observing Joel’s life so closely has given me an opportunity to understand problems experienced by people on the autism spectrum. I have also understood that not everyone on the spectrum goes through these difficult phases in their lives. There have been times where things have worked well for them and many are happily married and in stable relationships.
I didn’t follow a strategy or an approach with Joel, but rather went along listening to his challenges and started helping him. An open approach and clear understanding of thoughts, acting considerate and being mindful are certain things we can consider while dealing with individuals facing these challenges. These people are truly the most beautiful beings with pure hearts. They just need to be understood and perceived in the right way.