When Can we be Romantic?
Updated: Apr 7
Supporting individuals on the Autism Spectrum in their right for deeper relationships
Written by: Robert Schmus, LCSW - Guest Blogger
Edited by: Denver Leigh and Jessica Lenhart
Author’s note: I like to use the term “Aspie,” another word for “Asperger’s Syndrome,” although, the technical diagnosis and label “Asperger’s Syndrome” no longer appears in the DSM-V (it has been replaced with the use of a more broad diagnosis of “Autism Spectrum Disorder”). I still use “Aspie” as a positive way to identify myself and others who have a high level of functioning, but share common experiences and traits of Autism.
I am a social worker, counselor, case manager and advocate. I am also on the autism spectrum (specifically diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome) and was recently asked to share my thoughts on self-advocacy. One topic immediately came to mind: helping individuals on the autism spectrum with romantic relationships.
When it comes to Autism advocacy, many factors are at play. Education, independent living and vocation skills are just a few topics educators and parents seem to focus on; however, one factor that doesn’t receive as much attention, especially for teenagers with Autism, is romantic and intimate relationships.
Despite the social challenges I had growing up on the spectrum, one thing I was sure about was wanting to be in a romantic relationship. I wanted to be the best boyfriend I could be to someone I felt a connection with; however, I felt there was not much support when I was a teenager to help Aspie teens. Luckily, I have enjoyed romantic relationships since college, including my current, long-term relationship, where I find a deep and passionate connection. It is because of this I feel strongly that individuals on the Autism spectrum are able to achieve this goal. All we need is a chance to be heard. Let us be romantic, because we can.
Helping Aspie adolescents with forming such relationships is an integral social skill for life. Adolescence is a time of growth and change between childhood and adulthood. Both the body and the mind goes through changes at such a fast pace. One of these changes may be wanting a romantic relationship, but this is not an easy task, especially for Aspie teens. Social skills are difficult for those with Asperger’s as it often causes impaired social communication and interaction (Urbano et al. 2013). With adolescence being a time to make and explore solid friendships, this can be a hardship, especially stressful for those with Asperger’s. This difficulty with social interactions also makes it hard to form romantic relationships.
Imagine there is a dance in the school and everyone seems to be excited for it and has a date to take with them. There might be a teen, whether they may be a boy or girl who might want to go but doesn’t exactly know how to go about this. This may lead them to feel depressed and/or anxious. Studies have shown that autistic individuals, including Aspies, long for close relationships with others, including romantic ones, as it gives them a higher sense of self-worth and they feel less lonely (Wedmore 2011). No need to fret though, because educators and parents of Aspie teens can help with this.
First of all, parents and educators need to talk with these teens about romantic relationships. For many years, discussing romantic relationships seemed to have been a topic many, especially parents, seemed to have tried to discourage as they feel that the teen would not understand due to them being on the autism spectrum. Let’s be real here, these are teenagers. They are going to have great urges towards those they are attracted to, which includes sexual ones. This is the moment of their lives, as stated before, they want to form relationships with others, which includes romantic ones. Studies have shown that asking individuals with Autism what they want in a relationship and giving them an opportunity can be helpful (Wedmore 2011). With that said, parents need to be honest and open when teaching their Aspie teens about what is needed in a romantic relationship.
Most important of all, parents and caregivers need to is listen. Listen to what the teen wants. Who are they attracted to? What would they like to do with the person they want to form a relationship with? The teens need to be encouraged to express these things. Remember, this is about them and what they want out of their life.
Next, another great thing for parents or caregivers to do is work with their teen on the social skills involved with forming a romantic relationship. This would include the basics of social skills, such as how to say hello to a person, ways to help them look at someone if they have trouble making eye contact, etc. Also, it is good to teach Aspie teens about boundaries. Understanding a person’s boundaries is a very important factor to learn in social situations and for those on the autism spectrum, including Aspies; this might be particularly difficult for them to understand at first (Stokes et al. 2007). It’s good for parents to help their teen see that when it comes to forming a relationship, they would need to respect the boundaries of the person they are interested in.
It is not just parents who can support individuals with Autism to form new relationships, educators have a key role as well. As with parents, in my experience, some educators seem to feel that discussing romantic relationships wasn’t necessary and avoided it for quite some time. In my experience as a social worker, one of the best ways educators can support those on the spectrum with romantic relationships, is to form a social skills group focused on that topic. Such groups have been known to be helpful for Aspie teens with obtaining social skills, such as establishing friendships and interacting with others. Studies have even shown them to be highly effective in the long run (Laugeson et al. 2015). In fact, I can personally say that I was part of a few social groups in the past and I found them very helpful. It is with such successful groups we need to bring the ability to learn how to form romantic relationships to the forefront.
The group can either be co-ed or all female or all male. Each meeting of this group can focus on a topic the teens in the group feel is important to them when it comes to forming romantic relationships. This could be anything, such as if they can express their interests, what to do on a first date, when they should have their first kiss and even have sex. In my opinion, rather than avoiding sex as a topic for teens on the spectrum, we should be sure to discuss it directly. Having such a group can also be beneficial for Aspie teens as it gives them the chance to know each other in the group and give each other support on this matter. Basically not only helping with romantic relationships, but also with forming friendships.
In conclusion, I feel Aspie teens, and teens on the autism spectrum, are able to form romantic relationships; they just need the right supports in place. In the community, both the parents and educators are able to advocate for this. Parents can help by talking honestly to their Aspie teen about romantic relationships, teaching them what social skills are needed, and most importantly, giving their teen to voice their concerns about this subject without judgement. Educators can help by starting a social skills group focused on romantic relationships, giving them tips, an open forum to speak, and educating them about what is in a romantic relationship, including sex.
Laugeson, E.A., Gantman, A., Kapp, S.K., Orenski, K., & Ellington, R. (2015, June 25). A Random Controlled Trial to Improve Social Skills in Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: The UCLA PEERS Program. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Retrieved from http://www.peerschicago.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Laugeson-et-al-2015.pdf
Stokes, M., Newton, N., & Kaur, A. (2007). Stalking, and Social and Romantic Functioning Among Adolescents and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 37. 1969-86. 10.1007/s10803-006-0344-2.
Urbano, M. R., Hartmann, K., Deutsch, S. I., Polychronopoulos, G., & Dorbi, V. (2013). Relationships, Sexuality, and Intimacy in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Recent Advances in Autism Spectrum Disorders (1). 10.5772/53954.
Wedmore, H. (2020). Autism spectrum disorders and romantic intimacy. Retrieved from https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1112&context=etd