Autism and dating is a hot topic of discussion right now. And, this is especially true for the high-functioning autistic teens and adults that I work with at my autism therapy clinic in California. There’s a popular misconception that autistics are not capable of being empathetic, but that is far from the truth. In fact, neurodiverse people are extremely caring and very capable of having happy, loving, and successful relationships. But, that doesn’t mean dating on the autism spectrum isn’t without its challenges. Today I want to address common challenges autistic teens and adults have while navigating romantic relationships.
Dating on the autism spectrum can be challenging because of lack of confidence and skills, and fears of being rejected.
Many teens and adults with autism struggle with social communication and social anxiety, so the concept of dating can be extremely daunting.
Common reasons why autistics experience social anxiety and have dating difficulties:
- Dislike small talk
- Difficulties reading social cues
- Trouble understanding facial expressions
- Not sure how to start a conversation
- Hard to identify or articulate how you feel
- Don’t feel safe being open and vulnerable
- Difficulties understanding others’ points of view
- Confused by non-literal language and things that may go unsaid
- Brutal honesty hurts others’ feelings
The trouble with flirting…
One concept that alludes many autistics is flirting. It is a challenge because they’re often very literal. When someone is flirting, they do or say things, that in a literal sense, don’t make sense. This non-literal behavior can be very challenging for neurodiverse adults to understand. Furthermore, there are other unwritten social norms that allude many neurodiverse individuals when it comes to flirting. How to smile and make eye contact are perfect examples of this. For example, a neurotypical may look at you, make eye contact to let you know they’re interested, then look away. A neurodiverse individual may continue to stare, not knowing when to look away and be misunderstood as predatory. They may also forget to smile and come off as being rude or aggressive.
But, one of the main challenges many of my clients face is the self-deprecating thoughts they hold about themselves. They might have low self-esteem and feel like they are not good enough. Often, this is caused by a history of trauma or being misunderstood. But, it affects their confidence, and that makes their social anxiety even worse. It can also put them at risk for choosing the wrong partner or being taken advantage of. Unfortunately, many people with autism may be quick to date the first person that shows them interest, regardless of if that person is a good match for them.
Dating on the autism spectrum can be challenging because many neurodiverse adults struggle to pick good partners
As an autism therapist, I’ve noticed that many of my autistic adult clients have trouble understanding that a relationship should be reciprocal. This means both partners should provide mutual value, love, respect, and support. I see many neurodiverse adults choose to be in a relationship with someone they need to take care of. For example, they may decide to date someone with severe health needs or physical limitations or someone who has serious mental health concerns. It can feel good to help someone. Many autistic people have been socially rejected in life, so it feels good to be wanted and needed.
However, taking on a caretaker role does not create a healthy, balanced romantic relationship. This does not mean you shouldn’t date someone with physical or emotional difficulties, but rather it is important to understand your role as a romantic partner and how that differs from a caretaker role. In a future blog in this series on dating, we will explore how to set healthy boundaries with your partner.
Sometimes, autistic people date extroverts and this presents a challenge for them. The environments that an extrovert thrives in, may be uncomfortable for an individual with ASD. These environments drain their social battery and can cause sensory meltdowns. When an extrovert and an introvert date, this may cause conflicts that are challenging to navigate. Although it is certainly possible to navigate, a couple may need some guidance to discuss their boundaries.
Dating Tips for Autistic Adults
If you’re on the autism spectrum, you may be looking for some specific tips to help you navigate dating and meeting people. But, I want to remind you that everyone with autism is different. Autism is very diverse. So, these tips are general. In fact, they can apply to neurodiverse and neurotypical people alike. If you’re looking to learn skills that are more specific to your needs, then I would encourage you to look into autism therapy.
Know your self, values, and interests:
- Make a list of the values and traits you want your romantic partner to have. The purpose of this list is to help you identify what’s important to you in a potential partner. But remember, this list is not concrete, and a person does not need to have all these traits to be a good partner.
- Think about when and how you want to disclose your autism to a potential romantic partner. This is a deeply personal choice, but an important one if you’re considering being in a relationship with someone you care about. After all, the purpose of dating is to get to know someone. And although your neurodiversity does not fully define you, it is a part of you and your life. The more your partner understands your neurodiversity, the less likely they will misinterpret your behavior. If you are afraid of revealing your neurodiversity to your partner, you should ask yourself, “Do I really want to be with someone who wouldn’t accept me.”
- Look for dates who share similar interests. For example, maybe you’re very into playing a musical instrument, art, or a particular video game. You could look into ways to meet other people who share these interests, like joining a local orchestra, taking an art class, or attending a gaming party. Or, maybe you’re into anime, consider attending a social event held during an anime convention.
- Choose date spots that work for you: If you have particular sensory sensitivities, this can be especially important. For example, if you’re someone who prefers quiet settings, you may not like meeting dates at a crowded bar.
- Consider physical intimacy and define your comfort level with it. This includes touching, hand-holding, hugging, kissing, and sexual acts.
Consider autism therapy and autism group therapy to learn more about yourself, relationships, and dating on the autism spectrum.
If you’re on the autism spectrum and struggling with issues like dating, I encourage you to consider autism therapy and autism group therapy. At my autism therapy clinic based in Palo Alto, CA I help neurotypicals navigate challenges such as dating, making friends, going to college, working in a professional setting, and more.
I offer the following online social skills groups for autistic adults living in California:
- Neurodiverse Working Professionals Group
- Autistic Women Group
- Neurodiverse College Group
- Neurodivergent Young Adults Group (Post-College)
I also offer an online autism parents group to help parents navigate the challenges their teens may be having regarding dating, friendships, social skills, independence, and more.
Begin Online Autism Therapy in California
I offer a variety of services for high-functioning teens and adults on the autism spectrum and their families and I can help you or your teen with autism navigate social challenges such as dating. If you are interested in my autism therapy services, follow these steps to begin online autism therapy in California: