relationships on the spectrum

Autism, Dating and Socialization

Relationships

People on the autism spectrum, can be divided into:
  1. Those who date or are otherwise engage in intimate relationships.
  2. Those who don't.

Dating is a threshold issue for Autistics. The single most significant issue for Autistics is socialization in general and establishing couples relationships in particular.

A Few Definitions...

The Autism Spectrum
"The Spectrum" generally means the autism spectrum, which would include the now-disused classifications of Asperger's syndrome (not a separate diagnosis under DSM-V), HFA ("high functioning autism", which never had any defined meaning), PDD, Kanner's autism (not separately diagnosed) and other autism spectrum conditions. Many people "on the spectrum" are comfortable with the generic reference of "autistic" (or "Autistic", capitalized to describe the cultural aspects of autism).

"intimate relationships"
Different types of personal relationships can be considered "intimate". This article focuses on intimate romantic-type relationships.

Dating
The activity of "going on a date" in a traditional sense is no longer a universal form. The dating ritual (in the sense of "going on a date") is not the focus of this article. Similar types of "intimate relationship" socialization are equally valid.


The Issue

Because of difficulties in "reading" body language and cues, people on the Spectrum have a difficult time in negotiating the complex art of social interaction. This isn't an impossible thing, and most of us have learned to do this, but we have to learn it. NTs (NeuroTypical people or non-autistics) have to learn the same things, but the additional difficulties that autistics have make it more difficult for us to "get started".

This is much like driving -- once you get a beginning level of skills, you will learn no matter what your native aptitude for driving is. One difference -- in relationships, there is very little public transportation.

(The word, "intimate" has various meanings. For the purposes of this article, I am using the term to describe couples-type relationships, associated with dating and life partnership. There are of course other meanings to the word "intimate". For example, a sincere personal discussion can be considered "intimate".)



The Prime Directive

Do whatever you can to facilitate getting started in dating or other relationship socialization. That's the threshold to cross.

Dating or establishing intimate relationships is a threshold issue for us to the extent that we can be divided into two groups -- those who date (or are otherwise involved) and those who don't. This is stereotypically in the form of "dating" but the actual form of meeting and activity can be varied.

so.. "The rest is details. Go and study."



The Prospects

I have seen reports that fewer than 10% of people with Asperger's syndrome (a former category of autism) are successful in their ability to achieve good relationships. I don't believe that is really the case because:
  1. That conclusion was made before autism was commonly diagnosed. Diagnosis is important to autistics for self-understanding.
  2. There are a significant number of Autistics who have done very well at relationships.
  3. The assessment was probably based on a determination that marriage is the only valid form of a successful relationship. (This is in addition to a significant number of apparently successful AS marriages.)
  4. There are a large number of anecdotal reports of good relationships involving Autistics.

If you divide Aspies in particular and autistics in general according to whether they have crossed the "dating" threshold, the likelihood of success in relationships increases significantly for those who have started to date (or the equivalent). Then take into account the effect of diagnosis, which is significant with AS -- instead of being "weird" the person understands he/she has AS. With knowledge of AS comes a much greater tendency to engage people who enjoy the company of someone with AS characteristics.

These changes make it easy to approach the NT level of 50% marriage success rate. If one considers non-marriage relationships, it is likely that Autistics will start to have the same degree of success in life relationships as everybody else.

On a more basic level, once an autistic crosses the threshold of dating, he/she will improve their knowledge and ability in handling relationships. Often they become particularly social.





Educational Television

Kids (and adults) on the autism Spectrum should watch as much "adult theme" television as they can enjoy. The subtle interactions -- more accurately, the depictions of subtle interactions -- between the characters are especially important to learn.

The flood of "adult theme" television programming that some parents complain about are ideal for kids on the autism spectrum! There are certainly differences from what's depicted on TV and real life, but autistics who hadn't learned that are in serious trouble anyway.

Cinematic depiction of emotions is particularly good as an educational tool.

The fictitious issues in these "adult theme" programs are sometimes based on sensationalism, but for the shows to be successful they must mimic or parody real-life emotions. In a peculiar twist on reality, the emotions depicted of even the more outrageous characters are often more mainstream than real life!

Try to find something which has some degree of interest to it. Some of the HBO shows are particularly good, but any TV show or movie which depicts adult themes and adult emotions is a trivial but real educational experience. (HBO produces high quality programming for the North American audience, often with sophisticated adult themes. The availability of similar types of programming varies internationally, but is probably at least available in the movies.)

If one doesn't like TV -- That's easy. There are far more intricate descriptions of social interaction in books.



Autism and 'Singles' Dating Sites

In a separate document,singles.html, I detail the use of singles dating websites. These are best suited for age groups beyond college, but offer an alternative to "face to face" introductions. These dating sites are ideal for Autistics.

Meeting people for relationships is a lot easier with these on-line services. I think autistics may even have an advantage over NTs in the use of this media!

It seems that these sites have at least two advantages over meeting in-person. First, as I mentioned before, the entire "first three minutes" of a face-to-face meeting are not critical because the face-to-face doesn't need to happen until after the introduction.

There are other advantages. Selection criteria is, by the design of these sites, based on information other than directly reading "body language". The personal information is necessarily sketchy, but it is that way for everyone. Everyone gets to read the same kinds of comments from the poster.

It's actually hard to misread "signals" on one of these sites. Someone listing on a dating site expects to be considered available for dating. You almost certainly will be rejected but you won't be criticized for making the approach!

NOTE: There is some duplication of text between here and the singles.html webpage. Just skim over the duplications.





You're ... REJECTED!

There are many reasons for rejection, and only a few of them are because of your approach. Even those attributable to "you" are likely to be a matter of personal preference of the particular individual.




Are You *Anybody's* Type?

"Physical type" may be shallow but one of the major issues for dating and relationships is physical attractiveness. If a person is looking for a faithful companion and doesn't need to be physically attracted to the companion, you'll find them looking at the local animal shelter to adopt a pet.

Obviously there are ideal physical types, but even there, variation in taste exists. Fortunately there are no universal ideals!

Even a "sex goddess" is going to evoke a "what do people see in her?" response. There are people who find just about every "look" in people attractive. Incidentally, men are often visually attracted to women who are not their type, and will often not be interested in dating women that are most likely to catch their eye on the street.

Unfortunately the major exception is weight. It's not that there aren't people who find overweight people attractive; it's just that there seems to be many more overweight people than people who are interested. The answer in an ideal world is to do whatever is necessary to bring the weight down. You will live longer and enjoy life more.

Select the criteria which are important to you and work around the criteria which are not. This is particularly true of on-line dating services, which can be very statistically oriented (an advantage!)

If your personal taste has you competing against too many people, see if there is a comfortable way to adjust the criteria. The idea is to find someone you would like; not someone who you wouldn't like but have to accept.

Consider your selection criteria. Most of us have heard people suggest that we be less picky and date people who (fill in the blank). The problem is we don't want to date people in that category. If you wanted to date someone who is (fill in the blank), wouldn't you have already done so?!!   Let the people giving you the advice tell themselves what their own likes and dislikes should be!

Fortunately there are categories of people who would be very acceptable, if not preferable. It's only necessary to determine what they are. If this is approached carefully, it is possible in most cases to find someone who comes reasonably close to your criteria of an ideal date.

(Incidentally, when I mention "categories", I mean identified characteristics; not the value or worth of a person. I believe everyone is worthy.)



Faux Pas

The following is for people who have trouble with saying "inappropriate" things. Actually most of us do, but some have been fortunate to have had sufficient training to avoid making too many faux pas.

If you are relatively inexperienced, I guess just about everything is a potential faux pas. That's why I think it essential to get started. Like driving a car, you won't learn how until you start.

In engaging in conversations, it should be easy to separate "sensitive" subjects from casual ones. You really don't have to be careful when discussing your likes/dislikes about things like television shows, etc. Politics is fair game unless you're in Iran or Syria or something. Be very careful not to perseverate on a personal opinion, however! It's easy for autistics to do that.

The criterium is whether you are lecturing to the person or otherwise boring the cr*p out of the person. If a conversation tends toward an academic discourse, make sure your audience has more than a passing interest.

Personal subjects of any kind are best avoided, ignored or deferred until you are sure they can be discussed. If unsure, just say, "I don't know if it is inappropriate to talk about this in this right now."

Obvious subjects that take reflection are sex, intimacy, the other person's appearance (except superficial things like hair colour), and women's age. (If women object to age being taboo, then they are welcome to bring it up, but a guy can have his head handed to him if he brings that one up.)

There's a book in the "For Dummies" series titled Dating For Dummies. I don't particularly like the For Dummies' approach to computing but their task-oriented approach is ideal as a good, uh.. HOWTO for dating. A companion (no pun intended) book is Etiquette For Dummies. After reading a few selections from these, you can go back to your O'Reilly novel.

In most subcultures, it is almost always a "sin of the system" to ask someone out with a sexual suggestion.

(Temple Grandin classifies rules of society as "courtesy rules," "illegal but not bad things," "really bad things," and "sins of the system". Sexual suggestion is probably closer to the category of "really bad things". Grandin, February 1999; Grandin, Thinking in Pictures. Sexual suggestion can range from almost de rigueur (expected or required by etiquette) to "a sin of the system", depending on the circumstances or sub-culture).





Compulsiveness

Compulsiveness about is probably the biggest "turn-off" when meeting a potential partner. This particularly affects men on the Spectrum.

Most people, and especially autistics, have learned this. If this is too obvious, please skip to the next section.

Probably, the reason compulsiveness affects autistics is the lack of experience in meeting partners.

Getting to know someone is a casual series of events. Expressing too much urgency about it could intimidate or dissuade the person you're trying to meet. Often the person you are trying to meet is nervous about the new encounter and would be overwhelmed by intense interest.

It is also important to allow the other person to make up his/her mind on their own; otherwise they will either never be interested or quickly lose interest. This may seem like the NT custom of playing "hard to get", but being somewhat stand-offish in the beginning of a relationship is often necessary.





Reality Check

Sometimes you don't need good judgement. If you're unsure of something, ask a friend. (Be sure you can trust him/her!) As long as the friend is someone who you trust and who has pretty much your values on the subject, the two of you are going to be smarter.

But be careful what you tell people. If a secret can't be kept by you and you're the one who needs secrecy, someone else won't keep it secret either. A friend you tell a secret to has only a vicarious interest in keeping the secret. Also remember Monica Lewinsky's confiding in Linda Tripp about her personal life with President Clinton -- not everyone who is friendly is your friend!





Getting Intimate

This is another place where it is frequently difficult to avoid committing a faux pas. How do you know when it is okay to get more amorous or physical?

First, if you don't know what the other person wants to do sexually, you can't easily know what's okay. Okay, doing nothing is safe, but it would be nice to know when it's okay to be more physically intimate.

More details are at this website, which has yet another webpage about sex.

Decisions about sexuality should be according to your own wishes and desires. Don't be restrained by others' value systems. You should also not be afraid to say "no" if you're uncomfortable about something, so if you don't want to get intimate, don't.

The same "if you don't want to, don't" philosophy applies to any part of involvement in a relationship. Make decisions because you want to.





Romance is Difficult to Define

It is very important to be romantic and creative in a long term intimate sexual relationship. Each person and each couple is different, but the idea is to keep sex from becoming mechanical or routine.

Some ideas:





Most Relationships End

There are a lot of NT expressions about this, which I'm sure you've heard. The only thing I have to add is a saying often used by Italian-Americans, "Don't let it bother you."

No matter how ideal your partner is or was, there is always someone else. Life is an adventure and meeting people can be a good part of that adventure.

Don't try to figure out why. It is possible that one thing bothered the person, and there are certainly things that both of you can point to toward the end of the relationship which led to its demise. But the real reason you broke up was that at least one person wasn't interested anymore. So if the person didn't like you for you, "Don't let it bother you."

Once it's over, don't try to bring the person back. The person made up their mind. Depending on circumstances, you may remain friends for life, or never want to see each other again. In either case, give the hurt of separation time to heal first.

A different situation is where people meet, start to date and never really "hit it off." From a dating standpoint "let's just be friends" is the last thing you want to hear, but if neither of you see a dating relationship, you may still decide that friendship is a good thing. (Incidentally, intimacy in a mere friendship is not incompatible, but does introduce a great deal of complexity into the relationship.)





Sex Appeal

There are some people who are seen as more attractive without any obvious physical advantages. They seem to have picked up something in the "NT communications circle" that lets them know what to do and how. The answer is that some of this is through word-of-mouth, but a lot of this is in some women's magazines. The obvious one is Cosmopolitan Magazine which, like Mad Magazine, seems to recycle its stories on a regular basis.

There doesn't seem to be an equivalent men's magazine. Playboy has a few articles on occasion but their emphasis seems to be on the proper way to be a passenger on a private jetliner.


Other Stuff



On Being Single

Society gives us the message that being single and dating are transitional stages, and marriage should be the person's goal. Face it, not everyone is suited for marriage! NTs have a 50% divorce rate, and they're supposed to be the ones who do well with relationships. Being single can be a good thing.

Okay, if you get married or want to get married, fine. Just do it for the right reasons. Let the NTs get married because "they're supposed to" or for the sake of the ceremony.

In addition to dating, there are other alternatives, some discussed by the Alternatives To Marriage Project (ATMP www.unmarried.org).

As to the religious morality of living without marriage, is it right to get married when marriage is not suitable to you? Marriage is a union (or sacrament or commandment) which is designed around NTs and has evolved in an NT world. People do not "choose" to be on the Spectrum; it's the way they are (or the way they're created). Under Western dogma, the first command in the bible is, "Be fruitful and multiply"; not "Go get married."




Living Together

One of the major issues with marriage and The Spectrum is that people don't know what to expect. Naturally, this occurs with NTs who marry autistics, but it also applies to autistics who marry autistics. There isn't enough social history to know what it's like in a marriage to someone in The Spectrum.

The following was a note from a woman whose religious background discouraged cohabitating prior to marriage. I leave it to others to determine whether that's beneficial for NT relationships, but entering a life partnership with someone on The Spectrum is too full of unknowns to do so without first living together:

Our courtship was brief... Our religion meant we were not as intimate as most dating couples would be, too. I now think it may be a good idea for future-marrieds to cohabitate prior; I also think it's a good idea to know someone at least a year prior to marrying. For both sakes.



Cautions

When meeting someone, know that you are meeting a stranger and that you have little knowledge of who they really are. Presumably the person is a friendly stranger, but a stranger nevertheless. Make sure that you are comfortable and safe before you take chances with personal safety.

Health issues and avoidance of STDs get some attention. As a practical matter it is possible for you and your partner to get blood tested, or if you feel it necessary take more precautions. In the meantime, I'll leave the dire predictions of doom to the media.



Pregnancy

Make up your mind first.


Be Careful Out There

Some of this is pretty obvious to some people so, please bear with me.

A lot of people get scammed by people in relationships. Most people out there are not criminal, and the only real problem in most relationships is how they treat you as a person. There are, however, a few con artists out there.

Some autistics are gullible, but we also have the advantage of being able to look at things logically. Take advantage of that logical perspective and track patterns of con artists and abusers. For the most part, once you recognize a potential problem, you can analyze the situation and determine if the problem is real.

In exercising caution, don't become overtrusting with your finances. The key is to always have control of this. If someone you're with comes in (let's presume you gave them access) and borrows a kitchen appliance, leaving a note, that's probably okay. If you're being taken advantage of, you're only out a blender. On the other hand, if your friend uses your money, unknown to you at the time, to make a purchase, that shows they have no scruples about doing the same again. There are always exceptions, such as someone electing to buy a few more items at the supermarket when already asked to buy something there. This is different from randomly deciding to spend someone else's money without authorisation.



Single?

A frequent complaint is of married men holding themselves out as single. I see this as gender-specific because the women I've met have been transparent about their marital status. Part of this may be in the way men and women "flirt" or become interested in partners. Regardless of the reason, that's the way it is.

That one should be easy to figure by using logic. If someone claims to be single but can't have you meet at random times near his home, then look into the reason. If it's just a messy house, the person will allow you to drop him off and allow you to linger in front. The hard thing here is to avoid confusing this with someone just wanting to be "private", and so it is necessary to look at the whole picture. If someone is hard to reach but you can call him at home, then at least there isn't likely to be a spouse at home. Whatever the particulars, work it out to see if it makes sense as far as marital status is concerned.

There are people who have multiple lives. Fortunately, this is relatively rare, and it's more likely that the men who misrepresent their marital status are simply looking for a mistress. At least that's my guess.

The marital status issue becomes more complicated when the married person claims to be in a bad marriage, but that he's willing to get divorced. The "rule of thumb" is that the person's status will not change. If he is in a bad marriage (a reasonable presumption if you think about it) he will stay in that bad marriage. If that were not the case, he'd have moved out, separated, and a divorce would be actively pending. A pending divorce can proceed to a final decree, but in that case, you will see activity.

There are variations on all of this, but the idea is to apply logic to the situation.



Abusers

There are variations on this, but some people are likely to be abusive to anyone they meet after they've gotten to know the person for a while. As to most instance of abuse, be aware of the issues. If someone strikes you (in anger), just leave as soon as possible.

There are also abusers who stalk people with disabilities. Fortunately these people are rare. It is possible to protect oneself from abusers who stalk by being alert for warning signs of these people. I don't know what the ratios are, but this sort of abuse can and does come from both genders.

In general, it is possible to really avoid this sort of thing by following the cliché, "Trust, but verify." Look out for classic abuse characteristics, such as attempts to isolate you, oppressive behaviour in the name of love, excuses, etc. Don't be taken in by the other person talking about abuse or making accusations. If they have a history of abuse, they know how to disguise it and deflect attention.

The ability to "target" people with disabilities and conditions is not necessarily a bad thing. The entire point of this article is that it is possible to focus a search. It is also entirely reasonable that some NTs enjoy the companionship of autistics. The only thing is to be aware of abusers.

Fortunately, in terms of autism, it is possible to use what NTs refer to as "codewords". Autistic characteristic or terms more familiar to autistics can be used to hint at Autism, examples being "direct communication" "___ more important than eye contact" "pretending to be normal together" "Anthropologist from Mars", etc. This sort of thing is less likely to attract random stalkers. (Next week's subject, "How to form a clique and talk about fashion." The following week, "Botox parties". (just kidding here!))

More on the subject of abuse here



separate webpage on sexuality (or Just Another Webpage About Sex)

back to index


First written 19 Jun 02; first posted 9 Aug 02. Last revised 19 Aug 11.

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