Jill likes Ryan because he’s honest, funny, smart and hopelessly devoted to her. But there are a few things Jill doesn’t like: the frequent misunderstandings, the lack of empathy and the way Ryan dwells on his own interests much of the time.
After a few months of dating, Jill’s patience begins to wear thin and she tires of sacrificing her own needs for the sake of Ryan’s. Ryan wants to make Jill happy, but he just can’t read her.
On top of the typical relationship struggles, Jill and Ryan are dealing with another challenge: Ryan has Asperger’s Syndrome.
Teens with Asperger’s Syndrome think differently than other teens, which means they may take a different approach to romance. This can make it challenging to make friends and date. In order to successfully navigate the dating scene, there may be a few social barriers teens with Asperger’s need to overcome.
Relationship Roadblocks for Teens with Asperger’s
It is not unusual for teens with Asperger’s to get a slower start to dating and romantic relationships than other teens, explained Linda Tatsapaugh, MS, the executive director of Talisman Programs, a network of specialized camps and schools for children and teens with Asperger’s Syndrome.
“Kids with Asperger’s may be busy navigating friendships, dealing with bullies and learning social conventions before they can devote time and energy to the complexities of dating,” she said. And some just aren’t interested until college or young adulthood.
For those who are eager to start dating, here are a few obstacles they may come across as they venture into the complex world of romantic relationships:
Awkwardness. Teens with Asperger’s tend to be physically and socially awkward, which makes them a frequent target of school bullies and for some, can be an obstacle to forming romantic relationships in high school. Low self-esteem caused by being rejected and outcast by peers may make Aspies even more reluctant to try their hand at dating.
Interpreting and Responding to Emotion. People with Asperger’s often suffer from “mindblindness,” which means they have difficulty understanding the emotions others are trying to convey through facial expressions and body language. The problem isn’t that teens with Asperger’s can’t feel emotion, but that they have trouble expressing their own emotions and understanding the feelings of others.
In relationships, struggling to express emotions such as love and affection can wear on a romantic partner. A boyfriend or girlfriend may get their feelings hurt when a partner with Asperger’s doesn’t express affection at a time when social convention would naturally call for it.
Social Skills. Social conventions are a confusing maze for teens with Asperger’s Syndrome. Aspies can be disarmingly concise and to the point, and may take jokes and exaggerations literally. Because they struggle to interpret figures of speech and tones of voice that “neurotypicals” naturally pick up on, they may have difficulty engaging in a two-way conversation. As a result, the may end up fixating on their own interests and ignoring the interests and opinions of others.
“For teens with Asperger’s, relationships and reading social cues have never been a strong suit,” said Tatsapaugh. “When their hormones kick in and they want to start dating, things can become much more complex.”
In relationships, a teen with Asperger’s may rely heavily on their boyfriend or girlfriend to interpret social situations and spell out their needs – a responsibility that can wear on a neurotypical partner. Sometimes the most successful pairings occur when both partners have Asperger’s and can relate to each other’s struggles, noted Tatsapaugh.
Routines and Fixations. Teens with Asperger’s rely on routine to provide a sense of control and predictability in their lives. Another characteristic of Asperger’s Syndrome is the development of special interests that are unusual in focus or intensity. Aspies may become so obsessed with their particular areas of interest that they get upset when something or someone interrupts their schedule or activity.
When both parties share an interest, fixations can be a building block for a relationship, but in other cases they can drive a wedge between the two parties. In adolescents, these interests may be in an area that younger teens and children gravitate toward, such as Pokemon cards, making it difficult for them to find common ground with their peers.
For some teens with Asperger’s, their love interest may become the focus of their fixation, which can be interpreted as benignly as a crush, or in more serious forms might be construed as obsession, stalking or harassment.
“Kids with Asperger’s have difficulty regulating their emotions, so if they’re interested in someone, they may become single-minded in focusing on their love interest – staring intently or following them around,” said Tatsapaugh. “And though their intentions are pure, this kind of behavior may quickly turn someone off who otherwise might have been interested.”
Sensory Difficulties. People with Asperger’s can be extremely sensitive to loud noise, strong smells and bright lights. This can be a challenge in relationships as Aspies may be limited in where they can go on dates, how well they can tolerate parties and family gatherings, and how receptive they are to a partner’s touch, perfume, and choice of music and activities.
How Parents Can Help
When your child with Asperger’s approaches you and says, “How do I get a girlfriend/boyfriend?” you have a unique opportunity to influence the course of your child’s social life. Here are a few ways you can help your child with Asperger’s succeed in relationships:
Go Over the Rules of Dating. Teens with Asperger’s need specific information about courtship, dating and sexuality. You may need to offer guidance and perhaps even a visual checklist addressing basic issues such as physical hygiene, and help your child cope with normal relationship issues such as rejection and heartbreak.
Once your child is in a relationship, there are a few steps they can take to keep their partner from getting frustrated and giving up. For example, it can be helpful for your teen to inform a love interest about Asperger’s Syndrome – what it is and how it affects them in particular.
“Teens don’t necessarily need to reveal their Asperger’s diagnosis to a date right away,” noted Tatsapaugh, “but they should let them know about the things that are difficult for them.”
For example, they may want to explain what their special interests are and the types of struggles they have, such as understanding hints and innuendos, interpreting facial expressions or tone of voice, and being exceedingly honest and literal. They should also freely share the positive characteristics of Aspies, such as honesty, acceptance, intelligence and loyalty.
Your child can then ask their boyfriend or girlfriend to spell out their needs and expectations and explain what would be appropriate in a given situation, understanding that Aspies struggle with reading social cues.
Discuss Safety. Teens with Asperger’s may need specific guidance on keeping themselves safe and avoiding dating abuse or violence. Because they struggle with reading social signals, teens with Asperger’s may trust people they shouldn’t and perceive situations as safe that aren’t. A strong desire to fit in, combined with low self-esteem brought on by bullying and social rejection, may lead to low standards and poor choices of partners.
Until your child knows whether a prospective partner is trustworthy, dates should always be in well-lit public places and they should always have money, a cell phone and a way home. Make sure your child doesn’t offer too much personal information to a stranger and knows how to set limits.
Practice Social Skills. Adolescents with Asperger’s need guidance and practice to overcome any social skill deficits. Because they may not be receiving the guidance and feedback they need from their peers, parents and other trusted adults play a critical role. Although many teens are negatively influenced by TV shows and movies, they can learn more accurate, useful and realistic social skills from a parent or mentor.
It is not an intuitive process to read the signals of mutual attraction. This makes it especially important to help your child differentiate when someone is being kind from when someone has a romantic interest in them.
“All teenagers need to know what a normal, healthy teenage dating relationship looks like,” said Tatsapaugh. “Teens with Asperger’s may need that spelled out in more detail than others, whether by a parent, social skills instructor, a favorite teacher, peer mentor or an older brother or sister.”
Talk to your child about dating basics, including how to ask someone out, find common interests to discuss, and start the usual “get to know someone” conversations such as asking where they’re from and what they like to do. Give some examples of what flirting looks like and what the appropriate responses might be, and how the typical romantic relationship progresses.
Encourage Social Involvement. Young people with Asperger’s tend to have a hard time making friends and meeting potential romantic partners. If relationships aren’t blossoming through school involvement, encourage your child to get involved in a club or hobby they enjoy. This is a great way to make use of that special interest so common to teens with Asperger’s. Other social opportunities may include community activities, church youth groups, conventions and special classes.
When your child meets someone while doing something they love, they are more likely to naturally share common ground and develop a strong friendship first. These activities also take the pressure off asking someone out for dinner and a movie and carrying on a lengthy conversation.
Get Help. All of this training can be difficult for parents to manage on their own. There may be social skills groups at your child’s school or in the community, or you can find a specialized camp or school for teens with Asperger’s such as Talisman Academy. These programs will provide guidance on social conventions and allow your child to practice new skills in a safe, supervised real-world setting with other teens struggling with similar issues.
Starting to date is a big step for an adolescent with Asperger’s. With your support and guidance, your teen can find someone to share their life with who appreciates them for the same qualities that you find so endearing: their charm, intelligence, quirkiness, loyalty and ability to simply be them.
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