A characteristic of autism seen in many people is the deficiency in reading social cues and acting appropriately in social settings. While many aspects of life can be taught through early intervention, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy, and other therapies growing up, learning how to sustain a romantic relationship is something that gets dusted under the rug, rather than addressed head on. Articles on therapy methods for autism are abundant, however many of them only cover cognitive skills. This makes it difficult for teenagers and adults who are diagnosed with autism to learn the “rules for dating.”
Former Miss America contestant Paulette Penzvalto knows how difficult dating can be, as she was diagnosed with autism at age 31. According to Penzvalto, “honestly if you want to be romantic with me, send an email through Outlook and give me all the possible dates, locations, and times, so that I can prepare.” [i] This view on dating is not typical for your average 31-year-old. Many first dates occur at a noisy restaurant or bar, but for people with autism these settings can be quite intimidating and provide sensory overload.
Social worker Dorsey Massey understands the challenges people with autism face, as she runs a program for dating and social skills for adults with developmental disabilities. Her goal is to teach these skills, so her students can go on to have healthy, romantic relationships. A common misconception is that people with autism do not desire these relationships and while that may be true for some, most people are in fact looking for that special someone. The problem they face, however, is how to get there and maintain the relationship.
UCLA PEERS program also provides training for teenagers and adults on the autism spectrum on social skills regarding dating. This program tries to break down the concepts of flirting and dating into step-by-step directions, as many people with autism needs concrete instructions, rather than abstract ideas. The students are taught how to interact with someone they may be interested in, while maintaining comfort and confidence.
While dating can be difficult for teenagers and adults with autism, more and more programs are being developed to address these challenges. The notion that people with autism lack the desire for a romantic relationship needs to be removed from people’s minds, so this population can successfully learn the skills necessary to have these relationships.
[i] “The Atlantic” Dating on the autism spectrum. 5 Aug 2013. Web. < http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/08/dating-on-the-autism-spectrum/278340/>