Ten steps to help a teen with autism navigate dating
January 12, 2018
What advice can you give parents on how we should talk about dating and intimacy with our teens who have autism?
Guest post by psychologist Lindsey Sterling, PhD, and doctoral student Siena Whitham - autism researchers and therapists with UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. During a now-completed Autism Speaks predoctoral fellowship, Dr. Sterling deepened understanding of the physiology of anxiety in adolescents with autism. Such research helps advance the development of tailored therapies.
We’re so glad to address this question, given how many teens and parents express interest. For many teens with autism, the issues of dating and sexuality come up later than one might expect. But every teen is different. Some are eager as young teens, while others don’t appear interested until much later. Regardless, the physical changes that accompany adolescence make these issues relevant for most families.
Of course, dating tends to be an exciting but challenging part of any teen’s life. However, some difficulties tend to be particularly relevant for teens with autism. None are insurmountable. Just keep them in mind while helping your teen navigate the dating process.
Social versus physical maturity
First, remember that your teen’s social maturity may not be in line with his or her physical maturity. In other words, many teens with autism feel the physical desire for sexuality before they have the social competence for successful dating. It helps to remember that most teens learn the social rules of dating while socializing with their friends. Many teens with autism simply don’t have as many social opportunities for learning these rules.
Reading and sending signals
Also remember that 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 autism interferes with the ability to read and respond to social signals. This can produce confusion in your teen and discomfort and frustration for the other person. When social cues are missed, your teen’s “dates” may feel that their messages or feelings aren’t being heard or validated
Considering what to consider
Dating also involves finding a good “match.” However, many teens with autism fail to stop and consider who might be their “good match” before jumping into a relationship. It can help to discuss this with your teen. Of course, you and your teen may disagree about who makes a good match!
Some important questions come up around dating, and each family approaches them differently. For example, should your teen tell the person he or she wants to date about being on the autism spectrum? Should your teen date someone else on the autism spectrum?
With these challenges in mind, we’ve compiled some tips for helping your teen approach dating and intimacy. They are just general guides. How you apply them should depend on the age and experience of your teen.
- Encourage an open dialogue. You want your teen to feel comfortable sharing information about dating. It can help to “normalize” the issue. For example, remind your teen that most everyone finds dating challenging. It’s not an easy process!
- Be proactive. If your teen hasn’t already brought up the topic, look for a time when he or she is in a good mood and mention your willingness to talk about dating and sexuality when your teen is ready. Highlight that each person becomes interested in these experiences at different ages, and that’s okay.
- Don’t delay discussions if you think your teen might be sexually active or is dealing with opportunities for sexual activity. In this situation, it’s crucial to discuss safe sex even if your teen feels resistant to talking about it. For example, gently but clearly make sure your teen understands how pregnancy occurs, how sexually transmitted diseases spread and how to take preventive steps. If sexual activity has already occurred, we recommend consulting with your teen’s doctor about related health issues.
- If your teen is open to role-playing, try running through some classic dating scenarios. While role-playing, observe how your teen shows interest, expresses compliments and responds nonverbally (e.g., smiling, nodding in agreement, making eye contact). Explain that these behaviors send positive messages to the other person. Mention how everyone likes to have someone show genuine interest. Model behaviors that show interest. Together, brainstorm possible topics of conversations.
- Discuss who, when, where and how to ask someone out.
- Who is appropriate to ask out? Someone your age, who you like and who talks to you and is nice to you.
- When is it appropriate to ask someone out? Once you’ve gotten to know each other, once you’ve sensed that the other person is interested.
- Where is it appropriate to ask someone out? Usually when other people aren’t around.
- How do you ask someone out? Ask if he or she is free. Assess interest. Make plans for an activity of mutual interest. Make sure you have contact information so you can confirm before the date.
- Explain that everyone gets rejected at some point. Discuss possible reasons that someone might not be interested in dating. Maybe the person is dating someone else, too busy with schoolwork, or maybe just not interested in a relationship with you. At the same time, make clear that it’s impossible to know for certain why someone does not want to go out on a date.
- Discuss the practical and specific steps involved in going on a date. Make sure your teen knows when and where the date will take place and how the couple will get to and from the location?
- Would your teen like to hug or kiss at the end of the date? If so, help your teen manage related signals. Discuss that this may include politely asking for a hug or kiss, if it’s not clear that the date is interested. Encourage your teen to role play how to say this politely.
- Discuss the different levels of intimacy. For example, holding hands or walking arm in arm is less intimate than kissing. Kissing is less intimate than certain other types of touching, etc. Remind your teen that it’s important to stay at a comfortable level. Discuss that this may be different than what others are doing or what is shown in the media.
- When it’s time for the date, help your teen dress appropriately and otherwise look his or her best. If your teen made the invitation, encourage him or her to pay. If he or she was asked out, make sure he or she has enough money to offer to pay at least his or her share.
As intimidating as dating can be for anyone, we encourage parents of teens with autism to support their children’s desires in this area. Despite the challenges, try to frame dating as something that can be a positive experience and ultimately rewarding.
Editor’s note: Also see this related blog post: Promoting Teen Social Skills.
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