Autism and Relationships from Friends to Lovers

I will be hosting a presentation and discussion on autism and relationships during the Arc Midstate Annual Conference. The description is:
Autism and Developing Interpersonal Relationships - This can be a challenge for students and adults with autism spectrum disorders. This frank discussion explores the positive and negative experiences shared by most people, but with an emphasis on how autism is an additional obstacle to relationships. How can family, friends, caregivers, and educators help nurture the skills necessary for rewarded social connections? What are the challenges faced by individuals with ASDs and how can specific challenges be addressed?
Remember, I am talking to parents and educators with the potential for some teens in the audience. My comments are addressed to the parents, but they are meant for everyone.

Portrayals of people with ASDs range from the anti-social hermit to the oblivious stalker. The reality is more complex. Some people are social, some are not. We cannot assume that someone with autism does or does not want a network of friends. We also cannot assume to know how much someone does or does not desire a "serious" relationship. However, we do need to address some issues individuals and their parents report are common.

The first thing we each need to remind ourselves is that our social skills, tolerances, desires, and needs are not universals. What you want isn't what I want and what I want isn't what everyone else wants. I'll be talking about each of these four things during my presentation.
  • Social skills: do not confuse these for "passing" as normal.
  • Tolerances: both emotional and sensory tolerances affect relationships.
  • Desires: "best case" wishes for relationships, from acquaintances to friendships to lovers. 
  • Needs: what works for us, ideally something close to what we desire.
If you are imagining your son or daughter feels like you do about people and relationships -- you're wrong. It doesn't matter if your teen / adult has autism or not, what he or she feels is unique. You can make some educated guesses, but beyond that you need to ask questions to understand a person.

Here are some questions and answers from past roundtables.

Q: How do I ask my teen / adult what he or she wants?

A: Do what works best when you want to ask anything serious. If you talk over dinner, ask then. If you talk while taking walks, ask then. The big thing is that eventually you should ask if your teen doesn't mention it first. The reality is that you will probably be surprised by the question or situation before you introduce the topic.

As early as elementary school a child might say, "I wish I had more friends." That's a common desire, of course, and you can consider social activities that might help form connections. However, your child might also say, "I don't like kids. They're boring." Yes, that's pretty close to what I said more than once.

If an answer puzzles you, ask for an explanation. When I said I didn't like "kids" I meant they were boring. They weren't interested in my passions and I couldn't understand why not. Doesn't everyone love math? Doesn't every young boy create a card catalog for his library? Isn't tracking the weather daily a normal thing? And who doesn't like to memorize stock and commodity prices by age nine?

Seriously, it wasn't that I didn't like people, but I was easily bored by them and they were really, really bored by me. My parents asked and I told them. My classmates weren't fascinating to me.

When a young classmate liked me, I couldn't always tell. One young lady did all sorts of things for me and I never understood why until I five or six years later. I thought she was being friendly.

I didn't date or go out much in high school. I wasn't that interested in most people. When my parents asked, I told them only a few friends were interesting. It wasn't that I wasn't attracted to one or two girls — it was that I couldn't relate to most of my peers. When I did go out to do something, it was with a small group of friends and even then it was usually a school event. Since I don't care for movie theaters, most restaurants, or other gathering places, there wasn't much to consider.

Ask your teen if he or she likes someone. Look for the "tell-tale" signs most preteens and teens leave: names on notebooks, long phone calls, lots of e-mails / texts, et cetera.

Q: I've heard "alternative" lifestyles are associated with ASDs. Is that true?

A: I have no idea. I've met more people who consider themselves asexual, LGBT, or polyamorous at autism conferences and at groups I've addressed, but I have no idea if there are any studies of this. Maybe there is also more openness within autism groups because they don't care about such things.

Q: I don't want my teen to be lonely. Isn't an asexual person alone?

A: No. Plenty of people with ASDs describe themselves as "gender neutral" or "asexual" and they have friends and coworkers. Just because you might desire a physical relationship doesn't mean relationships without sex are less rewarding.

Q: Should I explain the risks of dating?

A: YES! And make sure your teen knows calling in an emergency is okay. Not only okay, you should tell a teen to definitely call if there's a concern or problem during a date.

Q: How do you develop social skills?

A: Families are small social groups and siblings are often the first to demand some social skills. School, church, Little League, and other activities are all good ways to learn how to deal with (and tolerate) people. I don't believe everyone has to be a charming, witty, social butterfly. However, you do need the basic skills of knowing when and when not to engage other people.

My parents tried Cub Scouts. I did't remain in the troop. It was miserable for me. I did play Little League. I don't believe I ever hit the ball, and I certainly didn't make any big plays. I'm just not a team activity person. I did enjoy a local chess club. I think that says it all.

Q: How do I help my teen deal with rejection?

A: You can only do what you'd do for any teen -- listen and let him or her know life goes on. People don't always click together, and sometimes they do but only for a short time. That's part of life. Really, there's listening and more listening. Maybe you can help by taking his or her mind off rejection, but everyone experiences failed friendships and relationships.

Q: My teen misreads people and thinks they are friends (or more) when they aren't. What can I do to help him or her recognize politeness versus real interest in friendship or more?

I still don't get the signals right. Since I don't reach out to many people, they have to be pretty clear and straightforward and being friends. Most of my friends have been the type of people to invite themselves over to my apartment or house. I've had people take advantage of that, so I've learned to be even more cautious.

If you think your teen might be mistaken for a "stalker" or obsessed fan, then tell him or her that asking how someone else feels is important. Few people will lie when you ask "Do you want to be friends?" or "Do you really like me?" Explain to your teen that "Sure, I like you" is not a ringing endorsement of the friendship. You'll probably have to give your teen some example phrases to distinguish between real friends and minor acquaintances.

Q: You're married. How did that happen?

A: I have an amazing wife, a far better friend and companion than I deserve. Just ask my mother. I liked my wife when I first saw her in junior high. She is really, really smart. She is also very quiet. She loves books, history, math, and science. She doesn't care for stupid movies, drinking, or parties. Her ideal day might be a visit to a museum or an arboretum. We both want a library, while other people might want a game room.

Q: Kids?

A: No. We both just finished graduate degrees and are the sort of people to always worry about security and what could go wrong tomorrow. We'd want to have the complete college fund in the bank before considering children. I love children, for short periods of time, but they can also overwhelm my senses. We have cats. They're a little less expensive.

There's much more, of course, especially the "serious" stuff about love and marriage. If you have questions, ask them here (there's an "ask the author" link on the blog) or consider attending the Arc Midstate Conference.

Arc Midstate Minnesota
Regional Annual Conference 
Saturday, February 26, 2011 
Sauk Rapids-Rice High School

You can contact Arc Midstate at:
Registration Fee $49 Register Early! Conference enrollment is limited


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