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PFA Tips: Dating – He Said/She Said

By Amy Gravino, International Speaker and Consultant, President, A.S.C.O.T Consulting, and John Miller, ASD Teacher M. ED ESE, Autism Consultant

Download a printable version of “Dating: He Said/She Said”

While romance comes with excitement, navigating the dating game can be challenging. For anyone. Period. But are there additional complexities experienced by people with ASD that make dating and relationship building even more overwhelming? Amy Gravino and John Miller share their insights.

What is your definition of any intimate relationship?

AG: For many individuals on the autism spectrum, the relationships in our lives are chosen for us. We’re often told, “This person is your therapist” or “This person is your teacher,” and are not given the opportunity to offer input. In contrast, an intimate relationship is one that we choose ourselves. An intimate relationship can be platonic or romantic, emotional or physical, and at its core is a mutual sense of trust and respect between people who have formed a deep connection to one other.

JM: When one speaks of intimacy you need to look at the non-sexual aspects first. In my mind an individual has to be intimate emotionally and physically (non-sexually). Knowing what makes your significant other tick is incredibly important. This involves listening, reciprocation and giving of yourself to them. Tied in with this is the necessity of open communication. This allows one to foster an openness with their significant other or spouse, helping to build tighter bonds and evolve as a couple. Furthermore, it enables you to avoid conflict and really get to know one another. An important element that is part of this equation is to be genuinely considerate of your partner’s needs, desires and feelings. Letting your partner know you appreciate them, what they do and that they are important in your life. Without this it will be very hard to have sexual intimacy that is fulfilling.

Beyond the emotional realm is non-sexual physical intimacy—touch that is not implicitly sexual, like hugs, cuddling, caressing and other forms of touch. Beyond feeling good, it is a form of affirmation and strengthens bonds. In a sense you are extending yourself and allowing yourself to be susceptible to your partner in a positive way. Sexual intimacy cannot really succeed unless the former are achieved. Sex should not be a means to an end. It needs to be an expression of your relationship. If you are not open, communicative, and are willing to be susceptible, sex will be an empty expression.  When I’ve had sex with women with no connections that is what I felt.

What do you think is the biggest misconception in the typical world about people on the autism spectrum and romantic relationships?

AG: There are several misconceptions that neurotypicals have of people on the autism spectrum and relationships. One that has been most prevalent is the idea that autistic people are not interested in romantic relationships. While this is certainly true for some people, problems arise when this image—perpetuated by television shows such as The Big Bang Theory—starts to dominate the narrative.

Another misconception, which is possibly the most hurtful one out there, is that autistic individuals cannot love. Love and intimacy may look different or be expressed differently by people on the spectrum, but we are no less capable of it than neurotypicals. Yet the idea persists that we are emotionless robots who are unable to give or reciprocate the deepest of emotions. The repercussions of this are catastrophic and encourage further stigmatization and isolation of autistic individuals throughout our adult lives.

JM: People feel that individuals with autism do not want friendships or relationships. They are totally content being alone. Nothing can be further from the truth. As a group we are not a homogenous collective like the Borg (I couldn’t resist a Star Trek reference).  Stephen Shore said, “If you met one person with autism you met one.” Just as egregious is the perception that we lack emotion and empathy, which are two elements that are incredibly necessary for a successful romantic relationship. If that was the case I’d be a sociopath. My doctor checked me and I’m not. Jokes aside, there is a difference between the lack of emotion and not being outwardly emotional. One needs to think of the emotions of a person with autism akin to a raging river covered by ice.  Although you cannot see the raging river, it is below the surface of the thick ice. People in my life at times have claimed I’m not emotional but suffer from a retinal disorder brought on by stress. The problem for a person with autism is expressing their emotions.

With empathy a distinction needs to be made. One empathy where we feel for others is off the chart. In fact, I often have to change a channel if someone is embarrassed or hurt on TV, even if it’s fictional.  However, the concept of empathy where one is able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes is quite problematic for a person with autism due to neurological differences. We need to learn perspective taking and to comprehend how others feel. This is examined quite well in Peter Vermeulen’s “Autism as Context Blindness”. In addition, I’m working on a manuscript titled, “Autism and the Myth of Normality,” which focuses on social perceptions of autism.

What might be some accommodations a person on the spectrum might need to be in a successful relationship?

AG: It almost seems strange to use the word “accommodations” in reference to relationships. When neurotypical people begin a romantic relationship, they naturally make a space for the other person in their life; yet when the same is done or needed to be done for individuals with autism, it becomes an accommodation. There certainly are challenges than can rise for autistic people trying to enter or maintain a relationship, many of which revolve around communication. If a partner can be open to someone with autism communicating in a nontraditional or unexpected way, and can set aside the tendency to take autistic behavior personally, that can go a long way to helping individuals on the spectrum succeed in a relationship.

JM: There are a multitude of things individuals must strive for if they want a successful relationship.  They must be willing to attempt to communicate openly. This is significant because it will help create the conditions for a relationship to be successful and to evolve. In addition, it will help avoid burgeoning disagreements and arguments. Another important element is considering their partner’s feelings. This means at times you are going to do things she wants to do that you are not keen on doing and vice versa. This involves listening to what she has to say. If she feels you are not listening to her (desires, feelings and needs) she will possibly become alienated and may move away emotionally. People want to feel important and needed in someone’s life. It is important to be honest and open about one’s autism.  With that being said it cannot be a defining element in the relationship. Be open in discussing how autism affects you so your partner will understand and be able to be more empathetic in dealing with challenges.

What might be some accommodations a typical individual might need to be in a successful relationship with someone on the spectrum?

AG: Many neurotypical individuals either don’t have a full understanding of what autism is, or tend to apply what knowledge they do have in broad strokes. It is entirely too easy for neurotypicals to feel they are dating autism, rather than an autistic person. While every autistic person shares a common diagnosis, we are all different not only in personality, but in how we experience autism. The best thing that a neurotypical can do is listen to what an autistic person tells them about their experience and feelings without invalidating them by valuing their neurotypical opinion over that of the autistic person.

JM: One of the most important considerations would be understanding that people with autism need to have their space and down time. This is especially true after a very difficult day. This can be due to too much sensory exposure. If I don’t get that time I will be in a very bad mood and will have significant difficulty interacting with others. The down time or space allows an individual with autism to decompress. Another accommodation that would be important for a neurotypical person is to be flexible and understanding of what a person with autism may deal with socially and environmentally.  This will help by allowing the person to be themselves and helping them learn to adapt to challenging or difficult situations. To be clear, this does not absolve the person with autism of rude and insensitive behaviors. In my mind, to be treated like others we need to be held accountable for our behavior and the necessity to adapt.

How do sex and intimacy relate to one another? Is sex necessary to have an intimate relationship? Is intimacy necessary to have a sexual relationship?

AG: Sex and intimacy seem to inherently go hand in hand, but they are not mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible to engage in intimacy without ever having sex with someone, an important distinction especially for people on the autism spectrum who identify as asexual. Similarly, intimacy is not always needed to have a sexual relationship, such as one-night stands. For some people, intimacy is absolutely a prerequisite for a sexual relationship, while for others, it is optional. What is important is to first establish boundaries with your partner before entering into any intimate or sexual relationship, and to then respect those boundaries during the relationship.

JM: Physical and emotional intimacy need to be established in order to have a healthy sex life. If you cannot connect with someone emotionally and physically (in a non-sexual manner) you are going to have meaningless sex. What will one really think and feel?  You need to be very comfortable with the person you are with. This is buoyed by proper communication, openness and respect. This is especially important for a person with autism. They will be less likely to be reticent, unsure and filled with anxiety about sex.

Thank you to Peter Gerhardt for providing the interview questions.

Additional Resources

Decoding Dating: A Guide to the Unwritten Social Rules of Dating for Men With Asperger Syndrome” by John Miller

PFA Tips: Romantic Relationships

Dating & Relationships for Self Advocates – recorded webinar

Romance 101: Dating for Adults with ASD

Teach Your Family Member About Sexuality and Relationships

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