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Dating Advice for Teens on the Spectrum

October 9, 2021

For those with spectrum issues, dating is one that has to be met with sensitivity and tact. But, because of a level of discomfort, this life lesson is sometimes glossed over despite good intentions.

Dating Advice for Teens on the Spectrum

As a counselor who has worked with those with those with developmental disabilities of all ages, the concept of dating comes up repeatedly. We discuss social skills because it is a foundational (and more comfortable) topic. However, the adolescent, or young adult, seek dating skills when asked what they want.

These same individuals can get themselves into uncomfortable circumstances when they are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges and discomfort that the gray area of Dating so frequently evokes.

The following are some guidelines to help in thinking on this topic:

Social skills are the foundational skills for dating

Dating is an extension of relational skills. Therefore, if your teen is going to date, they should have the skills at hand to do so. Face-to-face relationships with friends and acquaintances help to build these necessary attributes. Unfortunately, communication via technology hinders adolescents with ASD because it lacks the nonverbal and body language cues that are so vitally a part of dating. So, technological contacts cannot replace real-time conversation.

Look for friendship first and commonalities

Before a young person with ASD could consider dating, a relationship must be formed. Additionally, some form of common interests should be considered. This seems commonsensical; however, “putting one’s cart before the horse” can be a common error.

Assertiveness skills are critical

Dating is about expressing one’s needs as well as one’s expectations. Conversely, it is about setting boundaries around what is acceptable, or not, from the respective dating partner. A simple method to do this is using an “I Message Framework” such as:

    • “I feel”: Gives a clear voicing of one’s feelings.
    • ” Because”: Gives a clear and unambiguous message of what one’s needs/requests are. Further, it avoids “mind-reading” in which the communicator falsely believes that they should know what the other party needs to comprehend one’s feelings/wants.
    • “So, I need you to…”: Again, it tells the other person what they alternatively need (or want) to move the communication forward.

Better to accept “no”

Do you ever notice the strategy most people use when they encounter someone who does not speak their language? Many of us speak louder and slower; as though this strategy will somehow magically create communication. When one has a limited means of solving an issue, they tend to utilize their limited tools harder and stronger.

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How does this apply to dating? When a person with limited social skills does not get an expected response, they may try to lean harder on the limited social skill toolbox that they have. This can lead to feelings of increased frustration and decreased self-confidence. Hence, it is better that they move on to other prospective persons to date versus continuing to diminish one’s self-esteem by constantly being rejected by a single candidate.

There are a number of reasons for someone to say “no” to a date

A number of potential causes could be reason for a peer to decline an offer of a date. Yet, those with ASD are often very sensitive and tend to see themselves as the reason for the rejection (versus any number of other potential possibilities). Giving feedback, however, regarding potential rejection can be tricky.

If a parent, well-meaningly, tries to give the teen/young adult feedback for possible reasons why someone declined their offer of a date, the adolescent learns that they must seek confidence building from outside themselves. That being said, if the parent encourages the young adult to provide “three alternative reasons,” or so, for rejection (aside from there not liking them) it teaches the burgeoning young adult to seek an internal focus of control for fostering their self-esteem.

Ask open-ended questions

Dating is about learning more about each other. Of course, this is done via inquiring about one’s dating partner. Yet, questions can be tricky for those with ASD. Questions can be delivered in a “rapid-fire” manner or, alternatively, self-statements are made in a format that is decidedly one-sided. Hence, open-ended questions should be used when dating to illicit comprehensive responses from the other party. Questions should be based on who, what, when, where, why or how inquiries as the first word in questions accordingly.

Group dates versus couple dates

Group dating offers several advantages when starting the process of dating versus couples dating. It allows for both members of the date to not have the pressure of carrying the majority of the conversation on the first dates. Those dating don’t have to worry as much about the deciding of the details of the date as well.

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Don’t do for them what they are capable of doing independently

It is so very easy for us as (well-intentioned) parents to try to help the dating process along. Dating is an activity that employs a high degree of independence and must be encouraged as such.

Rejection (unfortunately) must be experienced

We all want to shield our children from pain and rejection. Yet, as we all remember, the world of dating is fraught with tender feelings. We cannot block these emotions and, in fact, they help to teach valuable lessons for future relational opportunities. So, we need to be right beside our children during these times to be by there side and encourage them through the pain.

As toddlers, our children would stumble and fall in an attempt to ultimately stand on their own two feet and walk. We could not protect them from the feeling of falling on legs that were not ready to hold their weight, but when they walked, we shared in the joy of the success of a monumental life event. Similarly, dating is full of walking and falling, successes and rejections, frustration and triumph. It is, yet another stage, in which our children learn to stand on their own two feet and succeed and triumph.

This article was featured in Issue 99 – Navigating Relationships With Autism

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