Dating tips for autistic adults

By Brigid Rankowski, Dr. Lindsey Sterling, Lydia Wayman and Dr. Siena Whitham
close up of two people holding hands

Dating is broadly defined as two people in a romantic relationship. People who date often do things together that two or more friends can do, like go out to eat or see a movie, except there are different thoughts and feelings involved. Some date with the hopes of establishing a committed relationship, while others go on dates with a variety of people to figure out what kind of person they like and/or figure out if they even want to be in a committed relationship.

Romantic relationships can have a lot of benefits, including social support, emotional connection and even better health. But there are a few factors that can make dating uniquely challenging for someone on the autism spectrum – like social and communication differences, sensory issues, and a need for routine.

So here, with the help of autistic adults and psychologists who work with autistic adults, we provide the following advice to help you navigate the dating process.

Dating Tips for Autistic Adults

Who to ask on a date

It’s best to go out with someone who has things in common with you. This could be shared or similar interests, hobbies or values. This will give you something to talk about. It is ok if you also would like to date someone who meets your idea of attractiveness. But asking people on a date solely because of what they look like may not get you very far in forming a relationship. There needs to be more beneath the surface to form a connection.

How to ask someone on a date

If you’re asking someone on a date in person, it’s a good idea to do it privately. You could ask a general question like, “Would you like to go out with me sometime?” Or you could pick a couple of days and times and say, “Would you like to do something on Saturday or Sunday afternoon?”

If you want to ask someone on a date who you met online, it might be a good idea to first just ask if they would like to meet in person sometime. Sometimes people are different in person than they are online or over text messages, both in how they speak and how they look. When you meet face-to-face, you can get a better idea if they are someone you would like to ask on a date.

Online dating

Dating sites can be a great forum for connecting with other people, but there are some important things to keep in mind.

  • Text-based communication can be challenging. It can lack tone of voice, facial expression, sometimes context and other clues to help you figure out exactly what is being said. Take the time to clarify and think through potential interpretations before replying.
  • Be careful with what you send and share. A good question to ask yourself is: would you be comfortable with others seeing what you wrote? If you are not sure whether something is appropriate to send, check in with a trusted friend or parent.
  • You never have to give personal information or send images. Anyone who really cares about forming a relationship with you won't pressure you to do those things.
  • Always trust your suspicions. If something doesn’t feel right with someone you are communicating with, stop communicating and block the person, if possible. Don’t be afraid to report profiles of people who are ignoring your boundaries.
  • Set up a video date before you decide to meet, so you can get to know the person face-to-face and see if it’s someone you may be interested in meeting in person.

Picking an activity

It’s important to pick an activity and location that appeals to and is accessible to both you and your date. Consider issues like noise levels and crowds and the potential for sensory overload. Other important factors include distance and transportation, cost and time. Meeting at a coffee shop or a park may be a good choice when you’re first getting to know someone. This allows you to spend a limited amount of time with your date until you know that you’re compatible and like spending time with each other.

Be safe

Safety is important to consider when dating someone you do not know very well. Plan on meeting at a public place for a set time. Until you really know the person, do not invite them to your home, go to theirs or pick each other up. On a first date with a new person, it’s also a good idea to let someone else know where you’ll be and when they can expect you will return.

Go with the flow

Plans can change, and sometimes unexpectedly. This can be difficult and disappointing, especially when you have made plans and had a vision of how things were going to go. But when it comes to dating someone new, it’s best to expect some unpredictability. Your date may run late. They may have to cancel plans at the last minute. They may experience anxiety and be unable to go through with the date. It’s important to be understanding if this happens. It does not necessarily mean that the person is not interested. Sometimes things come up outside of the person’s control. Try to give them another chance. Remember too, if you are going to be late or need to change plans, communicate that to your date as soon as possible.

Getting to know someone

Before going on a date, it’s a good idea to plan some questions to ask and things to talk about. It is always a safe bet to ask them about how they got involved in your shared interest or shared experiences. If prolonged conversation is hard or tiring for you, it can be a good idea to keep the first few dates short and/or pick an activity that doesn't require constant conversation (example: mini golf or an outdoor concert or public speaking event). An activity that offers something to discuss can also help keep the conversation going.

Be aware of how you present yourself

While you should never pretend to be someone you’re not on a date, you still want to present your best self. One of the most important considerations is personal hygiene. Make sure your hair, body, breath and clothes look and smell clean. Even if your looks aren’t as important to you, you still want to think about dressing appropriately for the weather and activity. You do not need to be overly formal but keep in mind that good manners show the other person that you’re thoughtful.

Decisions about disclosure

When you’re just getting to know someone, it can be hard to know how much personal information to share and when is the right time. Some people prefer to share their autism diagnosis the first time they meet someone. But other people prefer to wait, and that’s okay. Since things like body language can play a big role in communication, and therefore in dating, you might want to use “soft disclosure.” For example, if making eye contact is hard for you, you can simply say, “I have a hard time with eye contact.” They will then know it isn’t something personal or wrong. Body language, like smiling, facing toward them, and nodding along when they talk, usually signals interest. If this doesn’t come naturally for you, it can help to say something like, “If I turn away when you’re talking, it isn’t because I’m not listening but because it makes it easier for me to really process what you’re saying.”

Open communication

Open communication is key in a healthy relationship. Talking about expectations around how often you’ll text, call, and go on dates can ensure both people feel heard. You may also want to talk about whether you are both open to dating other people or if you prefer an exclusive relationship. There’s no one “right” way but making sure each person is okay with the terms of the relationship is vital.

Consent and red flags

A person should check in with you before initiating physical affection, from holding hands to a kiss to more intimate behavior. Likewise, you should check in with a date before you engage in physical affection. You should talk about your boundaries and what is off limits, so no one is surprised, uncomfortable or made to feel unsafe. Consent to any physical interaction can be withdrawn at any point in time. If someone holds your hand and then does not like it and pulls there hand away, that means they do not consent. If you are unsure or cannot tell if your date consents, then the answer is no, they do not consent.

It’s also important to be aware of “red flags,” or warning signs, that a relationship is becoming unhealthy. A red flag is a concerning behavior to be noticed and never ignored. It may be difficult to bring a red flag up. It may seem easier to minimize the behavior. But if you are noticing concerning behaviors, either at the beginning of a relationship or after getting to know a person, you can always take a step back and de-escalate the relationship. It is far better to find out that you were wrong about a red flag than it is to stay in an unhealthy, uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situation.

Rejection is a part of dating

Be prepared that you may ask a person out on a date and they may say no. Have a response ready like, “Alright, no problem. I hope we can still be friends.” Similarly, if you are asked on a date and you do not want to date the person, be polite and say, “Thank you for asking but I prefer to just be friends.”

You should also keep in mind that you may go out on a date with someone and end up not liking them after the date. Or, you may date someone you like that does not like you back.

It is even possible to go on several dates with someone and then find out they are looking for things in a relationship that may not be compatible with what you want and so you decide not to date anymore.

All of this should be expected. Do not be discouraged. Dating involves a bit of luck and practice. But as cliche as it sounds, when you continue to try to be your best self, you really do start to attract people who are best for you.

Contributors:

Brigid Rankowski is a self-advocate who writes and presents on various disability topics with a specialization in autism. She is a founding member of the Maine Youth Circus, a social circus program that uses circus arts to empower and unite youth of all cultures, abilities and backgrounds. Her work for Autism Speaks includes the Adult Autism Diagnosis Tool KitLGBTAQ+ issues, the Roadmap to Self-Empowerment for Autistic Adults, and articles on Coping with Disrupted Routines, among others.

Lindsey Sterling, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in Southern California, specializing in the evaluation and treatment of children, teens, and adults with ASD. During now-completed Autism Speaks predoctoral and NIH postdoctoral fellowships, Dr. Sterling deepened understanding of the physiology of anxiety in youth and adolescents with autism. Such research helps advance the development of tailored therapies.

Lydia Wayman is an autistic advocate with a B.S. in education and an M.A. in English and nonfiction writing. Through her presentations, writing, and art, she uses her experience to support families and professionals by helping them understand how autistic kids see the world. She has worked at an autism resource center, mentored youth with disabilities, and spoken at Girl Scout events, parent-led groups, and conferences with her autistic peers. Her writing has appeared in magazines, books, and newspapers, and she has helped to develop several training programs and professional courses. Her work for Autism Speaks includes the Adult Autism Diagnosis Tool Kit, the Roadmap to Self-Empowerment for Autistic Adults, and articles on coping with the holidays and Social Media, among others.

Siena Whitham, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist working in Los Gatos, CA, provides evaluation, treatment, and consultation to children, teens, and adults.