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Special Needs Dating: What You Should Know

June 3, 2024

Navigating romantic relationships can be a complex and emotional journey for anyone, and this is especially true for special needs and dating. Curiosity about dating often arises during the teenage years, and it can bring about a mix of excitement and anxiety.

Throughout life, individuals with special needs have successfully tackled various challenges, from establishing bedtime routines and expanding their diets to making friends in school. 

As we explore the topic of dating, it’s important to draw on these past successes. By applying the same skills and strategies that have worked in other areas, the challenges of dating can be managed effectively.

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Friendship as a foundation for dating

If asked whether you want someone with special needs to have more friends, the answer would likely be an enthusiastic “YES!” But when it comes to dating, many feel unprepared. 

Concerns about the emotional intensity, the risk of choosing a bad partner, or experiencing heartbreak are common. All these worries are valid, so let’s equip ourselves with some coping skills to support everyone involved in the dating journey.

Let’s begin with the foundation: friendship skills. Someone who can make friends, engage in conversation, share interests, and inquire about others’ interests is already on the right track.

These friendship skills are the baseline of dating because dating can be seen as an equation: Dating = Friendship + Romance.

Dating is an intensified form of friendship. If friendship skills are present, then with some guidance, dating skills can be developed. However, the emotions involved can be intense, so it’s beneficial to practice discussing a variety of feelings before diving into dating. Building coping skills and a robust network of social support is crucial.

Where do you meet potential partners?

Using the foundation of friendship skills, individuals with special needs will likely seek dating partners with similar interests and values. When asked where they might meet dating partners, responses can be hesitant.

However, when asked where they meet friends, common answers include school, community groups, hobbies, and mutual friends. This highlights that dating partners are likely found in the same places friends are met. Encouraging regular community involvement can facilitate meeting potential partners.

What should you look for in your partner?

For special needs and dating, it can be hard to know what qualities you should look for in a partner. This is especially true for those who struggle with understanding social cues, relationships, and societal expectations. Here are some things to look out for.

Certain traits are commonly appreciated in dating partners:

  • Reasonable hygiene
  • Clean clothes
  • Employment or engaging activities
  • Interesting conversation topics
Teenagers talking on a date https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/ready-for-dating-special-needs/

Reasonable dating partners:

  • Show interest in others
  • Understand social cues
  • Seek clarification when confused
  • Respect boundaries in communication

Exceptional dating partners:

  • Demonstrate creativity
  • Use humor
  • Offer emotional reciprocity
  • Plan ahead
  • Remember important dates and events
  • Compliment and inquire about others’ lives

These are skills everyone learns, and those with special needs can develop them, too. By leveraging existing friendship skills, they can navigate the dating world effectively.

Safety and boundaries

There are often unspoken expectations about dating, and these expectations can worry people with special needs. I have run into some painful assumptions over the years about who pays for dates, the length of dates, and the frequency of dates.

To maintain safety, it’s important to discuss reasonable boundaries, protocols for communication, and coping mechanisms for rejection and hurt feelings. Subtle signals of disinterest can be hard to read, so regular discussions and examples from media and real-life scenarios can be helpful.

One thing we worry about for individuals on the spectrum is vulnerability. We know that some of them can be too trusting, too giving, and may be at risk for exploitation.

To avoid this, pay attention to the warning signs:

  • Financial exploitation: paying for dates or sending money
  • Excessive online relationships with limited in-person contact
  • Significant age differences in dating partners

To set reasonable expectations, the “you +2” rule can be employed: dating someone within two years of one’s own age. This helps keep relationships within socially acceptable and safer boundaries.

Special needs and dating

Grapple with the reality that dating is a likely part of life. Reflect on past successes, learn from challenges, and connect with others who share similar concerns. Through open discussions, finding mentors, and mutual support, the journey into dating can be navigated successfully.


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With the right preparation and support, individuals with special needs can experience the joys and lessons of dating. While heartbreaks may happen, the support system in place can help them bounce back and continue to grow. With confidence and care, everyone can thrive in this developmental phase.

This article was featured in Issue 79 – Managing Everyday Life

FAQs

Q: How do you date with special needs?

A: Dating with special needs involves clear communication about individual needs and preferences, as well as finding accessible venues and activities that accommodate those needs. It’s important to build understanding, empathy, and mutual respect to foster a supportive and inclusive relationship.

Q: Can people with special needs fall in love?

A: Yes, people with special needs can fall in love just like anyone else. They are capable of forming deep, meaningful relationships and experiencing the full range of human emotions, including love.

Q: Does love feel different for autistic people?

A: Love for autistic people is often characterized by unique ways of expressing affection and understanding emotional connections. Their experiences of love may involve more focus on consistency, clear communication, and deeper bonds formed through shared interests.

References:

Sedgewick F, Crane L, Hill V, Pellicano E. Friends and Lovers: The Relationships of Autistic and Neurotypical Women. Autism Adulthood. 2019 Jun 1;1(2):112-123. doi: 10.1089/aut.2018.0028. Epub 2019 Apr 13. PMID: 36601533; PMCID: PMC8992810. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36601533/ 

Lily Cresswell, Rebecca Hinch, Eilidh Cage, The experiences of peer relationships amongst autistic adolescents: A systematic review of the qualitative evidence, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, Volume 61, 2019, Pages 45-60, ISSN 1750-9467, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2019.01.003 

Hancock, G., Stokes, M.A. & Mesibov, G. Differences in Romantic Relationship Experiences for Individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Sex Disabil 38, 231–245 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11195-019-09573-8 

Cheak-Zamora, N.C., Teti, M., Maurer-Batjer, A. et al. Sexual and Relationship Interest, Knowledge, and Experiences Among Adolescents and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Arch Sex Behav 48, 2605–2615 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-1445-2 

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