While a young adult with classic autism may appear content with a solitary “monastic” lifestyle, this is often not the case with young adults who have Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism. Clinical experience has identified that the majority of such adolescents and young adults would like a romantic relationship.
Young adults with ASD have significant difficulty developing peer relationships and are developmentally delayed in knowing what someone may be thinking or feeling.. Young adults with a diagnosis of ASD also have conspicuously limited social conversational skills or ability to communicate emotions, especially affection. They also can have an extreme sensitivity to particular sensory experiences.
LOVE AND AFFECTION
People with an autism spectrum disorder have difficulties understanding and expressing emotions, and an emotion that is particularly confusing to people with ASD is love. A child or an adult with ASD may not seek the depth and frequency of expressions of love through acts of affection, or realize that an expression of affection is expected in a particular situation and would be enjoyed by the other person. Someone with an ASD also may be conspicuously immature in his or her expressions of affection, and sometimes may perceive these expressions of affection as aversive experiences. For example, a hug may be perceived as an uncomfortable squeeze that restricts movement. The person can become confused or overwhelmed when expected to demonstrate and enjoy relatively modest expressions of affection.
One of the diagnostic characteristics of ASD is the development of a special interest that is unusual in terms of its focus or intensity. The predisposition to develop a special interest can have other effects on the development of relationship knowledge. Teenagers with ASD often are eager to understand and experience the social and relationship world of their peers, including romantic relationships and sexual experiences, but there can be problems regarding the source of information on relationships and sexuality.
Teenage girls with ASD have, after the physical changes that occur at puberty, become flattered by the attention of teenage boys. Due to her naivety, the adolescent girl may not recognize that the interest is sexual and not a way for the boy to simply enjoy her personality, company, or conversation. She may have no female friends to provide advice on dating and the social and sexual codes; consequently her parents may become concerned about her vulnerability to promiscuity, adverse sexual experiences, and date rape.
THE RELATIONSHIP CONTINUUM
There is a relationship continuum from being an acquaintance to being a partner. One of the difficulties for people with Asperger’s syndrome can be to correctly interpret someone’s intentions. An act of kindness or compassion can be perceived as a signal of a deeper level of interest or more personal than was intended.
Despite the problems in relationship skills experienced, some adults can progress along the relationship continuum and are able to experience romantic and subsequently intimate personal relationships, even becoming a lifelong partner. To achieve such a relationship, both partners initially would have noticed attractive qualities in the other person.
ATTRACTIVE QUALITIES OF A PERSON WITH ASPERGER’S SYNDROME
Men have many qualities that can be attractive to a prospective partner. Many women describe their first impressions of their partner with ASD as being someone who is kind, attentive, and socially or emotionally immature. Physical characteristics and attentiveness can be important, especially if the woman has doubts regarding her own self-esteem and physical attractiveness. social naivety and immaturity can be transformed by a partner who is a natural expert on empathy, socializing, and conversation.
However, while a socially insightful and empathic partner may understand the perspective of the person with Asperger’s syndrome, the person with Asperger’s syndrome has considerable difficulty understanding the perspective of his or her typical partner.
The attractiveness of a person with Asperger’s syndrome in a prospective relationship can be enhanced by intellectual ability, career prospects, and degree of attentiveness during courtship. The person with Asperger’s syndrome can be a late developer in terms of relationship experiences, which also can be an attractive feature.
The woman’s social immaturity may be appealing to those men who have natural paternal and compassionate qualities. There can be an appreciation of her physical attractiveness and admiration for her talents and abilities. Unfortunately, women (and sometimes men) with ASD are not very good at making character judgments or identifying relationship predators. Women with Asperger’s syndrome often have low self-esteem, which can affect their choice of partner in a relationship. They can be the victim of various forms of abuse.
STRATEGIES TO IMPROVE RELATIONSHIP SKILLS
People with Asperger’s syndrome will require guidance in relationship skills at each point on the relationship continuum and probably throughout their lives. The development of friendship skills must be a priority for educational services that support a child with Asperger’s syndrome, as greater maturity and ability in friendship skills will improve self-esteem, reduce incidents of being teased or bullied, lay the foundations for adult relationship skills, and encourage teamwork abilities for successful employment. The lack of peer guidance, group discussion, and practice will inhibit the development of relationship skills. Some clinicians and therapists, particularly in, are developing resource material and expertise in teaching relationship skills to adolescents and young adults with ASD. The education ranges from improving knowledge on dating etiquette and dress sense to learning ways to identify and avoid sexual predators.
Young adults will need encouragement and opportunities to make acquaintances and friends. This can include joining a hobby or interest group that is associated with a special interest or it may involve an application of a talent, such as having a natural ability with animals. There can be opportunities to make friends at community activities such as a local choir or adult education classes. Some adults with Asperger’s syndrome have used the Internet and dating agencies to meet people, but this method of introduction also can be used by relationship predators, and an adult needs to be aware of the many risks associated with using this strategy.
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