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Dating on the Spectrum

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For an autistic teen, the unspoken language of romance can be challenging, but fortunately, there are some skills you can teach them.

Claire LaZebnik: It's hard to be certain you're reading romantic cues correctly. The quick glance someone gives you -- is he checking you out or do you have something on your chin? When a date leans forward to say goodnight, is he going for your lips or your cheek? How can you show romantic interest without opening yourself up to potential humiliation?

 austistic teens at a fair on a date

The unspoken language of romance is complicated, confusing, and elusive for everyone, but imagine how much harder it must be for someone on the autism spectrum who already has trouble reading facial expressions, communicating emotions, making small talk . . . We parents don't know how to begin to teach the skills that will allow our children with autism to have a successful romantic life. It's not like teaching someone how to say words or take turns: this is the kind of thing we figure out through experience and instinct.

Fortunately, there are some skills you can teach, and in our recently published book, Growing Up On the Spectrum, Dr. Lynn Koegel and I devote an entire chapter to advice on how to increase your child's success at dating.

Some tips:

• Make sure your child always goes out into the world well-groomed and well-dressed.

• Help him score a date by getting tickets to something really special.

• Always steer him toward activities where his interests will coincide with others, and where his strengths can really shine and increase his attractiveness to the opposite sex.

Connect with other moms about Autism in our community.

next: Go Away, Jon and Kate
9 comments so far | Post a comment now
AM  May 4, 2009, 6:47 PM

What? That’s it?? I don’t have a child “on the spectrum” but I clicked on this story because I thought it would be informative and maybe give an example or to of kids who grew up with autism and were successful dating or maybe even wound up getting married. Your suggestions weren’t anything enlightening… Your first tip gives me images of my grandmother’s licked thumb trying to rub ice cream of my little brother’s face, your second suggests that we teach our kids to be manipulative (hey I’ve got tickets to (fill in the blank with your teen’s crush’s favorite band or concert or play) you wanna go… what teen would say no even if they didn’t genuinely like your autistic child, and your third tip is something that I hope we all with all our children no matter what the level of their abilities is. Sorry to say but this story seems to be nothing more than an advertisement for your books. Which I hope are more informative than your post is.

Claire May 4, 2009, 8:20 PM

I’m sorry you didn’t like the post, AM. I agree with you that it’s too short—I was asked to keep it under 250 words which was difficult for me. I hope to write more on the subject in the future. The reason I mention the book is so anyone who wants more information knows where to find it. It’s available at libraries—no one has to spend money to read it.

AM  May 4, 2009, 9:02 PM

You were asked to keep it under 250 words??? Your other post was much longer than that… Either way I have to stand by what I said the tips you gave didn’t seem like anything that is specific to a child with autism. Perhaps next time you are so limited you could choose to list tips that would be more specific to the disorder which you are writing about.

John May 5, 2009, 12:31 PM

I haven’t read your book, but I look forward to reading it. This issue is extremely important to me as a parent: I still have a few years to go till my Ausie is of dating age. I have alot of hope b/c the internet and modern communication will let Nicky meet more people and have new ways to learn and communicate (with supervision, of course)… so instead of being limited to a few people he can meet more… and also he will be able to develop a wider dating pool and possibly be able to communicate with people with similiar struggles. Right now though just trying to get the basics down..

Ang May 5, 2009, 4:04 PM

My son is 13, with Asperger’s. He and his 14 year old friend, a girl (not a girlfriend, but they both have mild crushes on each other) who also has Asperger’s, wanted to have a sleep-over at our house this past weekend. ‘Bout had a heart attack! ‘Course, we didn’t let him know that. We just explained that it wasn’t appropriate at this age for boys and girls to have sleep-overs like this - when the friend isn’t the sister’s friend, that kind of thing. So we had her come over and spend the day with us, and that was cool with them both. Whew! I let their behavior techs at school know about their sleep-over idea, because they were truly surprised it wasn’t ok, (my son even thought the girl would be sleeping in his room, just like any boy who slept over!) and told them to keep it a very deep, dark secret that I squealed, and suggested that this might be a good time to very discreetly and coincidentally broach this subject. They jumped on it! Whew again! We sure don’t need any little baby Aspies running around anytime soon - gimme at least 10 more years!! - Ang

Claire May 5, 2009, 6:39 PM

John, just be aware that communicating with others on the computer is so much easier for kids with Asperger’s/autism that sometimes they use it as an escape from real life’s much more difficult interactions. You’re right that it can serve a helpful function—but it can also take over their lives. So just make sure he’s also getting out of the house to have real interactions. And, Ang, I LOVE your sleepover story. These kids can be such a mixture of innocence and (physical) maturity!

Dorothy Smiley May 5, 2009, 11:02 PM

my Son is 18 and met a girl on the computer when he was 17 he has had a verbal relationship with her and wanted to meet her because they developed feeling for one another, through this, with pictures and phone calls, texting my son has PDD-nos will not go out side to meet others but this one is different he did get to have a lunch with her and then partisipate in the autism walk together and he kissed her he is deeply in love the only prob is she is 15 and live 80 miles away, he wants us to move now and cant understand why i wont, he still has to have guidence through most activities of his life.what can i do?

Claire May 6, 2009, 10:40 AM

Oh, boy, be careful with this one, Dorothy—that’s a risky age difference. People on the spectrum often like to hang out with those who are younger but budding sexuality brings some serious issues along with it. Any way you can encourage your son to get more involved with people his age who live nearby? Any clubs that might speak to his interests? There are some great social skills groups out there, at least in our area, that not only teach the skills but allow kids with similar personalities to spend time together. Can you look for something like that?

Scott May 13, 2009, 3:42 PM

Hi Claire,
I have two sons that are autistic and a website called where parents can post topics. We’ve talked about the issue of meeting others and it comes back to most dating places can be loud and or crowded. What ideas would you have for good meeting places?



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