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Autism and Dating: Practical Tips for Parents

Navigating the dating scene is not easy for anyone, whether or not they have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Dating is filled with many challenges to maneuver, resulting in awkward situations. These awkward situations happen to almost every young adult who dives into the dating scene. However, young adults with ASD must hurdle more obstacles than their non-ASD peers in order to thrive in dating. The aspects of ASD that can make everyday life challenging – reading social cues, understanding humor, anxiety, and engaging in small talk – can be magnified when it comes to dating. Many young adults with ASD would like a romantic relationship, however the prospect of loving and being loved seems impossible to reach.

Heidi Hillman PhD, BCBA-D

Heidi Hillman PhD, BCBA-D

There is a great deal of research on social skills and early intervention programs for children with ASD, but little research focuses on young adults with ASD and dating, especially facilitating successful dating relationships (e.g., Attwood, 2006). It is important to focus on dating behaviors and romantic relationships of young adults with ASD for several reasons. First, many teens with ASD struggle with social isolation (e.g., Anderson, Maye & Lord, 2011; Shattuck, Orsmond, Wagner & Cooper, 2011), and the common characteristics of ASD – discomfort with physical affection, difficulty with eye contact, and high levels of anxiety – that lead to social isolation can really get in the way of maintaining romantic relationships. Second, many young adults with ASD say they would like to date but do not know how. Hence, providing encouragement and opportunities for these young adults to learn relationships skills at various points on the dating continuum is of the utmost importance.

I conducted a small research project focusing on teaching relationship skills necessary for dating relationships. The participants: four high school seniors with ASD. The ultimate goal of the project: attending the senior prom with a date – a goal all four students desperately wanted to complete. In the research project, the four high school students learned relationships skills needed for dating, how to communicate to someone that they like them, how to go about setting up a date, and going on a date. First, we conducted role-plays where the students with ASD partnered up with non-ASD peers, focusing on how to talk about one or two interests (e.g., practicing on keeping a conversation going but not so much as to take over the conversation). Second, working in peer groups, the students followed a script of what to say when asking a person out on a date. Working in our favor was the way that some high school students currently use cards or signs for prospective dates to read when asking them out to prom, adding a visual cue of what to say. In addition to teaching the students what to say when asking someone out on a date, each student with ASD, with the help of their non-ASD peer, developed a “will you go to prom with me?” card. Third, we discussed appropriate times to ask a person out on a date. Fourth, the teens with ASD and the non-ASD peers role-played on asking someone out on a date. Lastly, all the students in the research group (as one large group with several adult chaperones) went on a “date” to a casual restaurant followed by going to an arcade laser tag fun spot.

What I Learned from the Research Project

The teens with ASD were sensitive about their dates needs, almost more so than the teens without ASD. They wanted to make sure their dates were comfortable, happy, and the date was well planned and organized. They could not go out on a date with only a few hours’ notice. The teens with ASD were very sincere, what they said and how they acted was what they meant. With that said, they missed jokes that everyone else understood – one teen was jokingly asked when he found time to sleep when he discussed how many extracurricular activities he was involved in, and the teen responded, “I don’t get it.” Another example was that a gentle touch of the date’s hand on their arm meant their date liked them – rather the teens with ASD actually thought their date bumped into them. Hugging, primarily touching, was a challenge due to sensory issues. At the start of the research the teens did not elaborate on talking. After several sessions of continual prompting on back and forth talking, the teens were more social and could keep a discussion going for a few minutes longer than at the start of the research project.

Six Practical Dating Tips for Teens with ASD

In no order of importance here are the top six practical tips parents can use with their teens with ASD when it comes to dating:

  1. Rehearse the date ahead of time – Young adults with ASD are very anxious about social interactions and how to interact, which can lead to more anxiety. Caregivers are encouraged to rehearse dating behaviors before each date (e.g., how to keep conversations going, how to act) in addition to reassuring the teen the date will go well. A great example is a mom of a teen who was in our research group conducted a practice run with her son before his prom date – driving to the date’s house, driving to the restaurant, driving to the school where the dance was being held, and eventually back to the date’s house and home – alleviating some of his anxiety.
  1. Practice conversation skills – Parents can encourage back and forth talking by having their teen call family or friends on the phone and practicing carrying on a conversation. Another way is having the teen get involved in a hobby or interest group where there are opportunities for making acquaintances. The more teens practice carrying on conversations, the better they will be.
  1. Plan ahead and practice flexibility – Parents are encouraged to allow their teens to specifically plan out dates, all the while asking their teens questions such as, “What if this does not work? Then what could you do?” Essentially, this is teaching the teens to have a plan B if plan A fails. I learned from the research study that if allowed, the teens with ASD would perseverate on the details of the date. With respect to the date, the focusing on the details made for a better outing for both the teens and their dates. However, focusing on the details lead to more anxiety for the teens. Flexibility is an important social behavior when it comes to dating. How many times have you gone out on a date and everything went as planned? One way to teach flexibility is to go on an outing and make an unplanned detour, and ask the teen how to handle the situation. For most of the teens in the research project, the mere thought of a detour would increase their anxiety. Hence, we taught that anxiety is a normal feeling that all people feel; it means you are out of your comfort zone. We asked them, “How can you get back into your comfort zone?” For the four teens in the research study, they found comfort knowing they could call their parents if they found themselves in anxiety provoking situations. The more the teens were put out of their comfort zone in practice, the better they reacted when outside of their comfort zone during a date.
  1. Focus on others rather than just on oneself – Since young adults with ASD have a tendency to focus on themselves, teaching how to focus on others is a must. An example was a dad of a teen in our research group who taught his son to bring enough snacks for the four other family members when he got a snack. Rather than teaching his son to ask if others wanted a snack, the dad taught his son to just bring back snacks. According to the dad, at prom when his son went to get a soda his son automatically brought back one for his date. We can see how bringing back just any drink could backfire if the date did not like the drink, but in the prom situation the date was happy with the drink selection.
  1. Discuss rejection and emotions – In addition to teaching teens how to focus on others, parents are encouraged to also teach that others may have different views and emotions of situations. For example, one of the teens in the research group (we will call him David) asked a girl out to prom and she said no, which sent David into a depressed state for the rest of the day. When I asked David what happened, he said the girl said no because she did not like him. Was that true? I did not think so since David was an extremely likeable person. However, David believed it to be true. We talked about whether David could control what the girl said or did, whether it made him a better or lesser person. The girl had her own reasons for saying no to David and they may have been different from David’s view on why she said no. Rejection is a hard, yet valuable, lesson in how two people can have different viewpoints of one situation. On a positive side, a week later David asked out another girl to prom and she said yes and was excited about going to prom with him.
  1. Practice, practice, and more practice on social skills – Unless the social skills are reinforced in daily life, across all situations, they will not maintain. Parent involvement is crucial to social skill development because no one else interacts with teens in varied social settings as much as parents do. Social behaviors we take for granted must be practiced over and over for those on the autism spectrum. The teens in the research project practiced a social behavior an average of five hours before they could perform the behavior automatically (e.g., learning that holding hands is a sign of affection or engaging in small talk with another person). It’s easy to assume teens knows certain unwritten rules, but in reality teens with ASD often need the skill to be explicitly discussed and taught step by step.

When it comes to dating, it is not just the teens that get anxious about dating; parents also become nervous. What parent does not get a twinge of anxiety thinking about their teen going on a date? As intimidating as dating can be for anyone, I encourage parents of teens on the autism spectrum to support their children’s desires in the area of dating. Many teens on the autism spectrum want to date and be in romantic relationships. Learning about dating and romantic relationships is an ongoing process, and one that can be a positive experience for both teens and parents when framed as something that can be a positive experience.

Heidi Hillman, PhD, BCBA-D, is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Eastern Washington University. She can be contacted at hhillman@ewu.edu.

References

Anderson, D.K., Maye, M.P. & Lord, C. (2011) Changes in Maladaptive Behaviors From Mid childhood to Young Adulthood in Autism Spectrum Disorder. American Journal of Intellectual Developmental Disabilities, 116(5), 381-397

Attwood, T. (2006). The complete guide to Asperger’s syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Shattuck, P.T., Orsmond, G.I., Wagner, M. & Cooper, B.P. (2011) Participation in social activities among adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder. PLoS One, 6(11), e27176.

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