With nearly 3.5 million Americans falling somewhere on the autism spectrum scale, it’s likely you’ve been on a date—or even a relationship—with someone who may show signs but not may not be formally diagnosed. Asperger’s syndrome is a mild form of autism that makes it extremely difficult to read others; social cues, hints, romantic gestures, and suggestive language won’t make sense to someone with Asperger’s. Paul, a 37-year-old with Asperger’s described dating with his condition as “learning a new language, but instead of words and phrases, I had to learn how to read and speak nonsensical behavior.”
When it comes to dating and relationships, people with Asperger’s, or Aspies, have additional challenges that may frustrate romantic partners. Without understanding the condition, neurotypical (NT) people can feel hurt, annoyed, and embarrassed by well-intentioned singles with Asperger’s. To help bridge the gap, we’ve addressed the top stressors of dating someone with Asperger’s and what you can do to make it easier for all parties involved.
An inability to express sentimental feelings
What you can do: Don’t assume the other person is uninterested, just because he isn’t telling you he likes you or finds you attractive. Let him know what you think and tell him why it is important that he learns how to make you feel special. Employing some structure to this conversation will help everyone feel more open and honest. “Create a ‘safe space’ for discussion and using semi-formal techniques like active listening, time outs with agreed upon return times, and speaker-listener paraphrasing,” says Amy Marsh, a sexologist “set regular times if you have to.”
Lack of understanding about physical affection
What you can do: Affection like holding hands and kissing won’t make sense to your partner. Attaching a gesture to an emotion is not intuitive, so take the time to explain what the gestures mean and why you are doing them. Otherwise, your physical affection can have an adverse effect. According to The Partner’s Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, hugs can be very uncomfortable as they essentially restrict movement and invade personal space without warning. Best to say, “I want to give you a hug, because it will make me feel close to you. Sound good?” to help your partner acclimate to your style of affection.
Harping on the same subject or telling the same story repeatedly
What you can do: Shift the conversation to something that interests you. If your partner interrupts or continues to talk, gently tell them that this behavior makes it difficult for you to feel interesting. “If you are the more “neurotypical” partner, then you may find yourself playing detective and trying much harder to understand the other person than they ever will try to understand you, and it can feel lopsided” says Marsh. “Remember that for many people on the autism spectrum, social and emotional skills and communication have to be learned more intellectually rather than intuitively.”
Inability to read social cues or knowing which social rules to apply in certain situations
What you can do: Ease him into large social situations like parties or group outings. If he or she is overwhelmed or decides skip the event, try not to take it personally. Social situations are especially trying with so many different social cues coming from so many different people. To help your partner feel more comfortable, try to make the introductions on their behalf and help them transition topics.
Not understanding sexual situations, specifically how to escalate into physical intimacy
What you can do: For many people with AS, physical intimacy is the expression of feelings; however, escalating to the physical realm and establishing the mood with foreplay won’t seem important or necessary unless the NT explains what he or she is looking for in the bedroom. Asperger’s specialist, Dr. Kenneth Roberson suggests the following exercise: “Together with your partner make a list of the things that your partner does sexually that you like. Make a second list of things you would like your partner to do or try sexually. Make a third list of things that you do not particularly enjoy sexually. Ask your partner to generate similar lists. Then sit down together and share the items on your lists.”
If things do not go as planned in the bedroom, wait for a better time to discuss. “DO NOT argue in the bedroom,” says Marsh. “Let that be your area for safe connection with emotions and intimacy. Period.”
The first step in sustaining a serious, long-term relationship with someone with Asperger’s is acceptance. “Don’t confuse acceptance with granting permission to act whatever way your partner chooses. Callous, unsympathetic, and cold behavior, for example, are not things to be supported,” says Dr. Kenneth Roberson, Ph.D. “There is nothing wrong with expecting to be treated decently, wanting to be accepted and loved, and disapproving of anything less, but when your goal is to change the fundamental characteristics of who your partner is, you not only set yourself up for failure but you risk setting the bar impossibly high for your partner.”