Much has been written about the basic safety considerations of online dating, yet little research has been conducted to understand the nuanced difficulties that may be present for individuals on the autism spectrum who date online. A survey by Roth and Gillis (2015) found the most commonly reported online dating concern for individuals on the spectrum was related to safety. Safety associated with online dating typically refers to prescribed guidelines such as “meet in a public place” and “do not disclose personal information,” but there are additional difficulties that may be present for neurodiverse individuals. These more specific safety concerns may result from lack of experience in relationships, difficulty understanding social conventions, or perpetuating negative social experiences. Technology and written communication make connecting online increasingly accessible and appealing, and more neurodiverse individuals turn to online dating to form romantic connections. While this may facilitate easier opportunities for initial connection, it may also pose specific risks and dangers. This article aims to offer additional information about the landscape of online dating for individuals on the spectrum, and to better support those who wish to successfully and safely connect online.
Individuals on the spectrum tend to have fewer romantic relationships that begin later in life than their neurotypical counterparts (Attwood, Hénault, & Dubin, 2014). While the onset of puberty and interest in relationships occur at the same time as their peers, embarking on dating is often delayed for neurodiverse individuals (Hénault, 2006). This translates into less experience in dating, interpersonal relationships, and understanding the progression of relationships. Dating skills are primarily learned through experience, exposure, or psychoeducation. If an individual has not gained in vivo relationship skills through friendships or past dating experiences, it is imperative that therapists or parents provide psychoeducation on the social conventions of dating. While this supports healthy relationship development of any kind, it also decreases the risk of a neurodiverse individual misunderstanding the social contexts of online interactions. In addition to better understanding standard relationship development, previous experiences or psychoeducation may also make individuals on the spectrum less vulnerable to negative intent online. By strengthening this understanding and supporting skill development, individuals on the spectrum will better decode the nuances and meanings of profiles and written messaging from others.
Another important component of psychoeducation related to online dating is boundary setting, including saying “no” to unwanted interactions. Since individuals on the spectrum typically have fewer positive social connections throughout life, they may hold the perspective that they need to make connections with anyone who shows interest in them. By being taught about consent, boundaries, and self-worth as it relates to dating, neurodiverse individuals can be more empowered to disengage from people online who they are not truly interested in pursuing. This may become problematic when an individual on the spectrum receives less replies and subsequently feels the need to communicate with anyone who responds, regardless of interest or fit. Psychoeducation around interests, attraction, and desirable qualities of partners can help equip individuals on the spectrum to know what they are looking for before they embark in online dating.
In the online dating world, there are many covert communication styles that signify everything from sexual proclivities, to personal disclosures, to expectations for the progression of a relationship. Many of these messages are subliminal and meant to signify something specific to interested readers. When social context and limited experience cloud the way an individual on the spectrum is interpreting these profiles, it could lead to unwanted involvement or exposure to individuals or situations.
In a similar regard, deciphering “fake profiles” can be especially challenging for individuals on the spectrum. Deciphering a profile, which is often taken at face value, can be extremely challenging because of the subtleties and limited context. Despite having other online interactions, such as chat rooms or gaming sites, the stakes are higher for knowing if someone is who they say they are, in online dating. If individuals on the spectrum struggle to identify when something is amiss, they can be at increased risk of being deceived, “catfished,” or vulnerable to a scam. While some fake profiles are easy to detect, including those that are specifically asking for information, money, or sex, others are much more realistic in appearance and interaction and can lead to disappointment and further potential rejection.
Along with deciphering others’ profiles, individuals on the spectrum must write their own profile in order to have an online dating presence. Often, neurodiverse individuals tend to be honest and candid when asked to describe themselves (Baron-Cohen, 2007). While this is a positive quality in many regards, it can cause challenges when portraying oneself online. Individuals on the spectrum can struggle to understand the social context of how their profile may be perceived by others and what they may be inadvertently disclosing about themselves. This may also be true for choosing images to use on dating profiles. It can be helpful to seek advice or review from peers or other supports in an individual’s life when they are creating a dating profile.
Support from Others
Roth and Gillis (2015) suggested that individuals on the spectrum would most benefit from further support on how to engage in online dating in safer, more successful ways. While this is often the goal of supportive therapists and family members, it does not always result in a positive outcome. Many well-meaning supports in an individual’s life may become overly involved in their online dating success, which can result in over-involvement in creating a profile, managing communicating over texts, or reminders of social conventions and rules throughout the process. While these can be helpful learning tools, especially for individuals who are new to online dating, it can also cause disparities between online communication and in-person meetings. These discrepancies can then lead to rejection and further social isolation upon meeting someone for a date. Along with exacerbating in-person social challenges, many therapists are not always up-to-date with dating trends. This may lead therapists to offer advice or dating website suggestions that are not current, which can lead to further failures in dating. Working with a provider who is well-versed in dating and forming romantic relationships is essential.
Psychoeducation related to dating and intimacy is the biggest tool individuals on the autism spectrum can receive related to online dating. Understanding social conventions and progression related to dating can help individuals not only strengthen these skills but have a greater awareness when something is awry in their online communication. By better deciphering fake profiles or potential dangers, we begin to eliminate some of the most significant safety concerns. We also allow an individual to grow in their knowledge and ability to romantically connect with others in an authentic, successful way, which is the ultimate goal.
For more information about Leslie A. Sickels, LCSW and the clinical services she provides visit LeslieSickelsLCSW.com or contact her directly at LeslieSickelsLCSW@gmail.com.
Attwood, T., Hénault, I., & Dubin, N. (2014). The autism spectrum, sexuality and the law: What every parent and professional needs to know. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2007). I Cannot Tell a Lie – what people with autism can tell us about honesty. Retrieved from http://incharacter.org/archives/honesty/i-cannot-tell-a-lie-what-people-with-autism-can-tell-us-about-honesty/
Hénault, I. (2006). Asperger’s Syndrome and Sexuality: From Adolescence through Adulthood. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Roth, M. E., & Gillis, J. M. (2014). “Convenience with the Click of a Mouse”: A Survey of Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder on Online Dating. Sexuality and Disability, 33(1), 133-150. doi:10.1007/s11195-014-9392-2