Dating: Tips for autistic teens and adults
February 13, 2020
This is a guest post written by Lindsey Sterling, Ph.D. and Siena Whitham, Ph.D. Dr. Sterling 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.
Dr. Whitham is a licensed psychologist working in Los Gatos, CA. provides evaluation, treatment, and consultation to children, teens, and adults.
A few years ago, we posted a piece on the Autism Speaks website, ‘Ten Steps to Help a Teen with Autism Navigate Dating.’ This is such a pertinent topic, and perhaps equally if not more important for teens and adults themselves to have tips to navigate the complicated dating world.
The term dating means seeing someone with a purpose and being romantically involved with them. Dating activities are often the same as socializing with friends, but the person’s thoughts and feelings differentiate dates from friendship. Often, people date with the hopes of establishing a committed relationship.
Being in a romantic relationship can have a lot of benefits, including providing a source of social and emotional support and having someone to enjoy shared activities with. Many people (whether they have ASD or not!) find it confusing and intimidating to initiate and maintain a romantic relationship.
There are a few factors that can make dating uniquely challenging for someone on the autism spectrum. It can be important to keep these challenges in mind when navigating the dating process, both in terms of self-awareness of your own needs as well as the potential needs of others.
A common characteristic of someone with ASD is the inclination to develop intense interests in particular topics or even in people. This intense focus can be beneficial when it comes to being knowledgeable or having expertise in a topic, though it could be misinterpreted by someone who is the focus of the fixation. Even with the best of intentions, intense attention like repeated text messages can feel threatening to someone else. Make sure this attention is being reciprocated before making your next move.
Let’s face it, the majority of people meet online these days! Dating sites can be a great forum for connecting with other people. Just keep in mind that electronic communication can be difficult to interpret, since we don’t have tone of voice, facial expression, or other clues to help us. This goes both ways (in terms of sending and receiving electronic messages), so take the time to clarify and think through potential interpretations before hitting that send button!
Everyone has different thresholds in terms of what feels comfortable to them. When choosing a venue for a date, keep in mind noise and other sensory stimuli that may be distracting to you or your date. For example, maybe choose a restaurant that has an outside patio as an option, in case the inside has too much going on. Similarly, when it comes to touch and other physical connections, make sure you and your date are on the same page about what feels ‘right’.
Rejection is the worst, for everyone! It can hurt, it can feel surprising, and it can be confusing. Everyone has a right to turn down a date or physical advances. It’s okay for you to say that you are not comfortable with something. Similarly, your date (or potential date) can say no, even if you were under the impression that he or she was interested in you. Unfortunately, dating does not always follow concrete ‘rules’ and people’s feelings can change. We don’t always get clear reasons for these changes, but we have to accept that both people have to be on the same page about what they want.
Reading and sending signals
The social signals involved in dating and flirting can be complex, inconsistent and subtle. Interpreting them presents a challenge for most everyone. It can be particularly difficult when ASD interferes with the ability to read and respond to social signals. This can produce confusion, discomfort and frustration. When social cues are missed, your “date” may feel that their messages or feelings aren’t being heard or validated. This takes some extra attention and communication on your part; it is important to ask follow-up questions and clarify if you are not sure how to interpret a subtle cue.
With these potential challenges in mind, here are a few tips to follow when navigating the dating world:
- Asking someone on a date: When asking someone out, you want to think about how best to approach it. If you’re asking someone out in person, it’s a good idea to ask them out when no one else is nearby or listening. That way you both have some privacy during the interaction. Further, it’s good idea to ask an open-ended question when first asking someone out, such as, “Do you want to go out sometime?” so that date logistics (like when and where you’ll go) don’t get in the way of making a plan. If you’re asking someone out that you met online, it’s best to keep it casual as you’re both still figuring out if you like each other. Often, it’s a good idea to ask someone out pretty quickly after connecting online since you won’t know if you truly like each other until you meet in person (it’s amazing how sometimes you think you’ll really connect with someone but when you meet them in person you realize you aren’t actually that compatible!).
- Picking the right place: As noted above, it is important to keep in mind potential sensory stimuli when choosing a venue. Other factors may also be important to consider, including distance (how are you both going to get there? Is it convenient?), cost of the restaurant or activity, and the right amount of time for the date. Meeting at coffee shop or scheduling a shorter activity (e.g., going on a walk) 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!
- Going with the flow: Plans change and feelings change. This can be really difficult, especially when we have a vision of how things are going to go. When it comes to dating, it’s best to expect some unpredictability. Sometimes your date may run late or have to cancel plans last minute. It’s important to be understanding when this happens. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is not interested – sometimes things come up that are unexpected and out of the person’s control.
- Being open to dating more than one person: Though most people ultimately want to find a partner, it’s important to keep an open mind when dating. Often when people start dating it is considered normal to not be “exclusive” (meaning dating only one person at a time). Many people date more than one person at that same time until they develop a close, meaningful connection with one person. Dating more than one person can also allow you to figure out who you are most compatible with. However, it’s important to be open and honest about the terms of your relationship. Communication about expectations around dating is essential. If you want to date more than one person at a time, communicate your preference to whomever you’re dating. If you want to be exclusive, share your feelings with the other person. There’s no one “right” way to date but making sure each person is okay with the terms of the relationship is vital.
- Asking questions that the other person will love to answer: The best way to get to know someone is by asking questions about the person! When on a date, you can show the other person that you’re interested by asking him/her thoughtful and relevant questions. When your date shares something make sure to ask follow-up questions to learn more about the person. Generally, people really enjoy talking about themselves and the things that they’re interested in!
- Be interesting/be interested: Have you ever heard that dating is hard work? One of the reasons people say this is because when you’re starting to date someone, people often try to present the best version of themselves. This doesn’t mean you should pretend to be someone that you’re not, but it’s a good idea to try to present your best self! When on a date, you’ll want to make sure you have ideas of things to talk about and questions to ask the other person. You’ll want to try to stay off your phone as much as possible. Frequently looking at your phone can be a nonverbal signal to the other person that you’re not interested. If prolonged conversation is hard/tiring for you, it can be a good idea to keep the first few dates short and/or pick an activity that can distract you from constant conversation (e.g., mini golf). After going on a date, you may find that you benefit from alone, decompression time!
- Make good eye contact: Eye contact is one of the main ways you show someone that you’re interested in them. Looking away from someone can unintentionally make that person feel like you’re not listening or interested in them. If making eye contact is hard for you, you might consider telling your date that it’s difficult for you so that they understand that a lack of eye contact isn’t personal. It’s important to think about when you might want to share this information with your date. Usually, people disclose more personal information as they get to know someone better.
- Be aware of body language: One of the main differences between a friendship and a romantic relationship is physical intimacy. When dating, it’s important to think about what your body language is communicating. When first getting to know someone, it’s a good idea to make sure your body language is communicating interest. You can do this by facing the person and smiling and nodding as they talk. As you get to know someone better, you’ll want to think about your body language in terms of physical intimacy, such as touching your date’s arm when they’re speaking, moving your body close when walking, holding hands, hugging, and kissing. Each person and relationship moves at a different pace when it comes to physical intimacy so it’s a good idea to ask your date directly if they are interested and comfortable before engaging in physical intimacy.
- Be aware of how you present yourself: As mentioned above, people generally like to present their best selves when dating. Often, this includes making sure you look your best when going out on a date. It’s important to not only consider what you wear but also your personal hygiene – How do you smell? How is your breath? Are your clothes clean? How does your hair look? Additionally, you’ll want to think about where you are going when deciding what to wear. It’s a good idea to try to have your outfit match the activity.
- Be safe: Safety is important to consider when dating, especially if you don’t know the person you’re going out with very well. When first getting to know someone, you’ll want to make sure to meet in a public place. It’s a good idea to let someone else know where you’ll be and when they can expect you home. When thinking about getting intimate with someone, you want to make sure to only do things that both you and your date are comfortable with. Directly asking is the best way to know for sure what your date is thinking and feeling!
Dating can be intimidating and discouraging for everyone, but it can also be exciting and lead to something that is ultimately rewarding. It takes practice along the way!