Not all individuals with ASD are ready for or interested in dating in high school, yet they may want to be part of the group and recognize that many others their age are dating or engaging in more intimate relationships with others in their peer group. Other individuals with ASD really want to have a boyfriend or girlfriend in high school for reasons other than conforming with the expectations of their peer group.
We want our kids to stay safe both physically and emotionally. Rejection can be painful but not allowing an individual to explore this aspect of themselves can limit their ability to grow and mature. So how can we help our sons, daughters and students safely navigate these often murky waters? (Waters that are often admittedly murky for even neuro-typical teens!)
Consider the following tips:
Watch for signs that your son or daughter is interested in this type of relationship. Do they talk about having kids, a wife or a husband when they grow up? Are they staring at or showing other signs of attraction towards the opposite or the same sex? Are they interested in reading about or watching shows or portions of shows that depict intimate relationships? These and other signs can signal the need to tackle this subject head on.
Teach general social skills
Hopefully, by the time the student enters high school he or she has had some exposure to interventions that help teach general social skills. The skills one needs to fit in and have fun with others will hold your student in good stead should they show interest in dating. Individuals with ASD need to know that successful relationships require them to understand the expectations and perspectives of others.
It’s never too late to try to provide this information in positive and supportive ways to our students with ASD. Many programs are available that help teach these skills including Navigating the Social World by Jeanette McAfee; Think Social: A Social Thinking Curriculum for School Aged Children by Michelle Garcia Winner; and Building Social Relationships by Scott Bellini.
Your dreams or theirs?
Try not to impose your dreams and wishes for typical relationships onto your student. Not everyone develops at the same rate and if your son or daughter currently shows no interest in dating, it does not mean that they never will. At the same time, do not assume your student has no interest simply because he or she is socially immature in other ways. Hormones are a powerful thing and many students will at least wonder what they’re missing when all around them they see their peers forming “couples”.
Keep the door open
Whether or not your student shows an interest in dating, continue to ensure he has plenty of group-based social opportunities to keep the door open for the development of closer friendships and relationships. Create safe environments in which your student can meet others, interact with them and develop relationships based on mutual interests. School clubs or projects and extra-curricular activities that are geared towards young people are excellent places in which to meet others.
True friends or false friends?
If your child is high-functioning and relatively independent in the school environment, get information on those with whom he or she hangs out. Teachers will often know those students who may not be good role models or may not have the best interests of the student with ASD at heart. Teach the student with ASD strategies for determining who might be a good friend vs. who might be a “false friend”. Teach the student to watch out for “friends” who only want to hang out with them when they need something (money, food, a homework assignment, etc.). Teach him to be wary of students who ask him to do unusual things. They may be trying to set him up as the butt of a joke. Teach him to be careful if he notices that a friend is only nice to him in certain situations but avoids him or ignores him in other situations.
“Rules” and expectations of dating
Give the individual written information about the “rules” and expectations of dating. Peter Gerhardt, a renowned expert on adults with developmental disabilities recommends the book Dating for Dummies by Joy Browne. Other books specific to ASD and dating include Growing Up on the Spectrum: A Guide to Life, Love and Learning for Teens and Young Adults with Autism and Asperger’s by Lynn Kern Koegel, Ph.D. and Claire LeZebnik; and Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers John Elder Robison. For students who are more cognitively challenged. Mary Wrobel’s book Taking Care of Myself is recommended.
Ensure your student understands internet safety. It is often easier for students with High Functioning Autism or Asperger’s to meet others on the internet (they don’t have to read facial expressions or interpret tone of voice, etc.). Be sure they understand that everyone on the net is not always who they say they are. Make sure they don’t give out private information. If they want to meet the person they are communicating with, ensure they set up a meeting in a public place and take a trustworthy friend or a parent with them. That friend or parent can watch from afar once it is evident that the person is who they say they are, and the friend or parent is readily available if things don’t go well.
Communication and boundaries
Talk to your child about his or her boundaries and role play the “what ifs”. Let them know it is okay to clearly state what they are comfortable doing and what they are not. A good relationship is one in which the individuals like each other for who they are, not for what they do or don’t do; will or won’t do.
Help your child understand the boundaries of others and ensure he is able to respect those boundaries. Help your student understand that when other’s say “no” to a suggestion or to a touch that they must respect the wishes of the other person, even if their feelings are hurt.
Answer questions honestly
Put your fears and discomfort aside and answer any and all questions your son or daughter may ask you. Point the student to another source if the question is one you don’t feel qualified to answer. School counsellors, doctors and family life teachers may have the materials and resources you need or can counsel your son or daughter individually.
We really enjoyed reading Laura Schumaker’s blogs on TeenAutism.com. She writes about her son Matthew and in her story that was rejected by Modern Love she stated:
As littered with roadblocks as it was, Matthew’s search for a meaningful relationship was as important as anyone’s.
Read her informative and heart warming blogs at http://teenautism.com/
Building Social Relationships: A Systematic Approach to Teaching Social Interaction Skills to Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Other Social Difficulties Paperback – July 7, 2006