Dating on the Spectrum: The Pursuit of Connection


In this post, you will learn about the search for connection on the spectrum, and the diversity of relationships the ASD individual may attempt to navigate.


What's one of the biggest myths about autism? — “Autistics don't care about people and relationships.”

While individuals on the spectrum often need more alone time than neurotypicals, they frequently report wanting to connect with a best friend or a romantic partner.

As outlined in the diagnostic criteria for autism, however, the individual on the spectrum struggles to begin, maintain, and understand social relationships.

WHAT IS DATING ANYWAY?

Great question!

Typically, dating is spending time with a person in order to form an intimate relationship. Of course, most dating relationships don't stand the test of time, but some move on toward exclusivity and long-term commitment.

Dating relationships often include romance -- the emotional ideal of love -- and may or may not involve sexual intimacy.

Strunz et al. (2017) surveyed over 200 individuals on the spectrum. Just under half of the respondents were male, and the average age was thirty-five. A striking 93% described a desire for a romantic relationship, while 73% reported having had one at some point in their life.

DATING ON THE SPECTRUM

Dating takes many forms for those on the spectrum, sometimes quite conservative with a view toward marriage and other times more unique.

Let’s consider some examples:

An adolescent female had been dating her girlfriend for a year. When asked about their connection, she described what sounded like a friendship with some infrequent hand-holding. Neither of them had any intent toward a sexual relationship nor a "forever" commitment. Their relationship involved more exclusivity than a "best friend" generally would. The structure of their relationship seemed comforting to them -- they belonged together, they were dating, they liked each other.

A gentleman explained that he had a history of dating a woman for five years before they split. When asked for a description, he explained that their relationship had been entirely online until the last few months. It was when the two moved in together that they quickly parted ways. He was still perplexed about why she left the relationship, although he understood that “it wasn’t working out.”

Another couple described a captivating, although brief, courtship together after initially meeting at church. The soon-to-be husband was attentive and polite. When they were together, he listened rather than spoke. During outings with other church members, he was perfectly willing to follow her lead. In this context, she viewed him as a good listener and flexible partner.

In summary, most individuals on the spectrum report wanting to have a romantic partner, although there may be significant diversity to the types of "dating" relationships on the spectrum.

WHY DID THESE DATING RELATIONSHIPS WORK?

The couples above described significant satisfaction with the dating relationships they experienced. What made them work?

In the first instance, both partners wanted a close and affectionate, albeit asexual relationship. Some on the spectrum do not identify as sexual, and they have no (or little) desire for sexual intimacy. The young women felt a warm fondness for each other and connected on a more intimate level than a typical friendship.

In the second instance, the long-distance relationship worked for many years because neither partner felt the need for frequent connection or physical contact. Although they often talked over the internet about daily activities or favorite topics, there was no demand to manage a household, divide chores, or pay bills. Across a distance, they never needed to use conflict resolution, compromise, or relationship repair. The time they spent "together- but apart" felt satisfying.

The third couple enjoyed dating because they were both interested in faith topics. They shared a conservative worldview that encouraged marriage before sexual intimacy. His fiancé became his "special interest," receiving nearly undivided attention and courteous interactions.

In summary, some dating relationships on the spectrum work because the courtship phase allows for undivided attention. A rule-following social style may appear chivalrous and endearing. Other relationships may feel satisfying because both partners find comfort in a somewhat atypical relationship. Perhaps this is why Strunz (2017) reported that ASD individuals who were partnered together described significantly more relational satisfaction than couples with an autistic and a neurotypical parner.


©2020 by Theresa Regan