Dating on the spectrum
Written by Grace Blucher
Illustration by Hattie Reid
My name is Grace Blucher, and I am a cisgender, neurotypical psychologist who lives and works on Woiworung Country. While I am not on the autism spectrum, I work with many clients who are, and we work together to navigate the complex world of sex, love and dating. In writing this blog, I am not attempting to own or explain the experience of people on the autism spectrum, but to share research, experiences and stories from the therapy room. While this article focuses on the experiences of people on the autism spectrum, the information shared may also be relevant to other forms of neurodiversity.
Throughout the article, I have used person first language (i.e. person on the autism spectrum, person with autism). I realise that some people may prefer identity first language (i.e. autistic person, ASD person) and thus I would encourage the reader to supplement preferred descriptors where appropriate. All examples and quotes used in this article have been deidentified and represent themes of client content.
Dating is an experience filled with nuance, subtlety and uncertainty. This can be confusing, stressful and overwhelming for most people, and even more so for neurodiverse individuals. Building new intimate relationships relies heavily on both the spoken and unspoken- interpreting someone’s eye contact, body positioning, questioning style and interest. There are lots of unspoken rules and possible complications. This can be really difficult for people on the autism spectrum, and one of the main points of discussion in therapy. I often hear things like this from my clients:
“I had a good time, but then she didn’t want to hang out again. It was confusing.”
“We went on a picnic and I was supposed to bring cheese, but I didn’t know how much I was supposed to spend on cheese.”
“I don’t know what to talk to them about.”
“We were at a coffee shop, but it was too loud and I had to go. I didn’t know what to tell him.”
ASD is characterised by challenges with verbal and non-verbal communication, leading to difficulty with social interactions. While people on the autism spectrum often gain social skills with age, some young people on the autism spectrum enter adulthood with less skills, knowledge and scripts to initiate and maintain romantic and sexual relationship with others. This can lead to a push-pull dynamic where people on the autism spectrum want sex, love and relationships, but also feel overwhelmed, confused or ill-prepared for all that entails.
Because dating can be more challenging for neurodiverse people, from the outside, people often assume that this indicates a lack of interest – but it couldn’t be further from the truth. While there is diversity in all of our relationship preferences, they are an important and fundamental part of being human, and this is no different for people on the autism spectrum. Sex and relationships are good for us too! Research tells us that people who are on the autism spectrum and in romantic relationships have a greater sense of social and community belonging and great sexual wellbeing.
Dating is complex and multifaceted, and includes interpersonal, intrapersonal, and sexual factors. (For a brilliant piece on the sensory experience of people on the autism spectrum having sex, please check out this article, and also this one). Here are some challenges and helpful tips for dating on spectrum:
Challenge: Small talk is difficult
Some of my clients tell me about the difficulty they face in having ‘small talk’ with new individuals. Small talk is the introductory conversation that doesn’t lead anywhere or seek to achieve anything. This can be difficult for people on the autism spectrum, as they prefer communication to be direction oriented. For example, talking about the weather or if you found the café ok may seem like a useless question to a person on the autism spectrum, but seem appropriate to someone who is neurotypical.
Tip: Base dates around activities
It can be helpful to utilise activity-based gatherings when trying to meet people or when with new individuals. Instead of small talk, activity-based gatherings give us the opportunity to talk directly about what we are doing or experiencing. It also provides small breaks in conversation as we turn our attention to the activity. For example, clubs, interest groups and activities can be a great place to meet people with similar interests, providing initial common ground (instead of small talk). If you are romantically or sexually interested in someone, complimenting their performance of the activity also provides a good opportunity to express your interest- “Wow, you are really good at tin whistle. I think that’s really cool.”
Challenge: Dating can focus on interpreting non-verbal communication
Dating is usually centred on socially based activities where there is a focus on nonverbal communication and interpretation. For example, going out to dinner or for a drink. In these instances, we are trying to ascertain if someone is interested in us platonically, romantically, sexually or not at all. This requires us to pay attention to body cues and language. Because there is such a strong focus on ‘making a good impression’ (especially early on), this can be particularly stressful for a person on the autism spectrum. Not only are they contending with stress of a new environment, the ‘pressure to impress’ and uncertainty about a new person, but also the sensory experience of bars, clubs and cafes. No wonder it’s overwhelming!
Tip: Try social scripting & make expectation clear
Some of my clients also talk about the social scripting of “who does what” when newly dating. For example, many people can feel the gender role expectation of who ‘makes a move’ really challenging. There may also be power dynamics at play in terms of gender, sexual preference, and neurodiversity that make this more murky too. It can help to make these unwritten rules and expectations clear either before the date or at the start. For example, “I think we should each pay for ourselves today,” “If today goes well, it is ok if I ask to kiss you?” “I would like it if we could talk again, but I probably will wait until Wednesday.” By bringing these worries, expectations and social scripts into the conversation explicitly, we are able to reduce uncertainty. Check out this great post by Autism Spectrum Australia with tips about how to ask someone out, what body language to look for to tell if someone is interested, how to show interest yourself, and ways to maintain healthy relationships. It might also be worthwhile organising a low sensory environment for the date, particularly if you notice you are anxious beforehand.
Challenge: Liking someone = preoccupation and fixation
Finally, some of my clients also talk to me about what happens when they are really into someone, and how sometimes, this person or people can almost become like special interest areas. Some research has even found that people on the autism spectrum can show intense courtship and sexual behaviours that sometimes looks like stalking (but with no malicious intent). The curiosity and early infatuation that comes with a new relationship can quickly turn into a preoccupation or fixation. I have worked with people who can spend hours upon hours in the social media accounts of their new love interests, trying to remember and research all the things that this new person is into. The difficulty people on the autism spectrum face in knowing and understanding social cues can mean that while well intentioned, some people may find these advances overwhelming and inappropriate.
Tips: Set up clear boundaries
Setting up a boundaries and consensual arrangement with a new partner/s can be really helpful in understanding what is ok for all people involved. For example, it can be useful for the new relationship to think about how often you might want to spend time together, and what does communication look like when you are not together.
Dating, like anything worth having, can be hard at times and particularly for people on the autism spectrum. However, the uncertainty, miscommunication and confusion can be reduced should we make a conscious effort to have conversations about these factors, rather than overlooking them, avoiding them or hoping they will go away. On the autism spectrum or not, clarity in communication is often the best way of knowing where you stand with someone, and we can only do this by having (often uncomfortable) conversations with others.
At SHIPS, all our practitioners are knowledgeable and skilled with working with neurodiverse individuals. If you or your relationship may benefit from some extra support, please check out our website here.
Sexual Health and Intimacy Psychological Services (SHIPS) is a progressive psychology practice in Fitzroy, Melbourne. They provide sex, intimacy and mental health treatment in person and online. All SHIPS practitioners share inclusive and progressive values, are passionate about improving the lives of their clients and aim to create a safe space for you to get the help and support you need.
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