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Relationship Questions: Autism from Friendships to Romance

English: Romance icon
English: Romance icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Autism Society conference, recently concluded in Pittsburgh, PA. During the conference, I appeared on a panel that dealt with general life issues. After the panel, parents and young adults approached me with questions. Every question, without exception, dealt with relationships. Nothing about education, careers, or life skills. No, every question was about relationships, from friendships to dating and beyond.

Though a great number of books have now appeared, including several on dating, love, and sexuality, there seems to be an endless demand for answers. If not answers, families and individuals at least want to discuss these issues.

As I've written before, I'm not sure what I can contribute to these discussions. I still believe some basic guides to dating and relationships are better than the "autistic" guides. Relationships are complex for everyone, or those bookshelves wouldn't be packed in every bookstore and there wouldn't be thousands of websites dedicated to love and romance.

One of my colleagues pinpointed a communication and understanding challenge we need to address among many young adults with ASDs: confusing sex with love. While plenty of young adults conflate love, infatuation, and sex, with some of the autistic students we meet have much deeper confusion.

I've had young men with Asperger's Syndrome tell me, bluntly, "I want a girlfriend so I can have sex."

That "dating = sex" equivalency indicates far more than a little communication problem. I've met too many young autistic people with this confused notion of dating. There's no understanding of the relationship aspects of dating and intimacy. Consider the following composite discussion, based on my own experiences and those of two other colleagues working with autistic college students:
Mentor: What do you want in a date?

Student: It should lead to sex. Everyone wants sex.

M: But what about the other aspects of dating?

S: Kissing? Touching?

M: No, the friendship, companionship, and romance.

S: But I want sex. I have friends.

M: Someone you date is going to want to be friends. Dating means doing things you like together.

S: Maybe she'll like sex.
You might imagine that's a parody, but it isn't. The direct nature of many autistics means they say exactly what they mean. If the goal of dating is sex, that's what the autistic student will say. I've met young men "on a mission" — focused entirely on having sex, because that's what they want.

One student compared it to his video game obsession. He has to complete every game he buys, even if he decides he doesn't like the game. You never quit playing until you're done, he has explained to me. I've asked why he doesn't just return the game and find something he likes. "My father said quitters are losers." Somewhere along the way, this young man internalized this parental advice into a personal law.

He said movies, television, and friends (though I'm not clear on how close these friends were to him), taught him that dating is sex. "Don't you know that's why people date?" he asked me, incredulously.

I'm not sure a book on autism and relationships can explore all the variation of such single-mindedness. I've met young women sure that "sex = love" meant they had to have sex to keep a boyfriend. The boyfriends might have been using these young women, but the women lacked the ability to determine if this was the case. As one young woman told me, "He is my boyfriend, and I want a boyfriend."

As you can tell from these examples, the issues of autism and relationships are difficult to address. They are individual, not easily generalized. Some autistics don't care about sexuality, while others are obsessed. The range of needs and desires are likely the same as in the general population, but there are extra challenges related to sensory sensitivity, concrete thinking, and social skills.

If you have questions, you can post them to the blog and I'll try to answer in future posts. I'm also considering working with a colleague to develop a better relationship guide than those we've found already in print. I believe it will help if a woman (my colleague) and a man (me), research and write on these matters so we can adequately address the range of issues.
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