Dating And Asperger’s - What You Need To Know

Dating and relationships can pose a unique set of challenges for people diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Here, we explore how social cues and other differences in perception can affect these daters.

By Kent Miller

sperger’s syndrome is a mild form of autism that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to understand others. People with Asperger’s syndrome are generally socially awkward; they often avoid eye contact and have a tendency to monologue about their particular interests instead of sharing conversations with others.

I have a son with Asperger’s, and have known many other people that have been diagnosed with it. They’re just as varied as the rest of us are — they can be happy or sad, mean or gentle, petty or
We NTs have a zillion ways of showing whether we’re interested in someone.
generous. When it comes to love, some couldn’t care less, while others fall as hard as Romeo or Juliet did. Other common traits include: physical awkwardness and a dislike of loud sounds — in other words, most people diagnosed with Asperger’s aren’t big rock music fans. Sensory issues, such as disliking specific fabrics or types of clothes, helps explain the peculiar fashion sense particular to many Aspergians. They are often, but not always, also highly intelligent — and the vast majority of them are men. Oh, and their sense of humor tends to be a bit droll; much like the young wizards-in-training at Hogwarts might refer to ordinary humans as “Muggles,” many Aspergians refer to non-Aspergians as “NTs” (for “neurotypicals”). Below, we’ll explain some of the traits Aspergians must deal with while dating and building romantic relationships.

Honesty comes naturally Aspergians
Truly, the propensity for directness can be one of the most endearing aspects of Aspergians. In romance, they’re straightforward, faithful and flat-out incapable of cheating on someone. “We are honest, and we can be very affectionate,” says Rudy Simone of upstate New York, and she should know. She’s an Aspergian author whose books include Aspergergirls: Empowering Females with Asperger Syndrome and 22 Things a Woman Must Know if She Loves a Man with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Unfortunately this means they’re lousy at the little white lies that play such a big part in NT romances. “If you want to know if your bum looks big, ask your [Asperger’s syndrome] partner!” says Sarah Hendrickx, a UK therapist who not only counsels Aspergians, she’s also married to one herself.

Aspergians often struggle with social cues
We NTs have a zillion ways of showing whether we’re interested in someone, only a few of which involve speech. But it’s these nonverbal cues that pose the biggest challenge for the dating Aspergian. Rachel Canis, who runs Chicago’s Best Foot Forward dating service (and who gains extra insight from raising a 10-year-old daughter with Asperger’s), recalls trying to freshen up the image of one middle-aged Aspergian woman who “thought wearing makeup was false advertising.” Hendrickx cites a typically solemn query from an Aspergian: “Why are dead plants [i.e., cut flowers] a sign of love?”

Many Aspergians can improve their social skills by taking an acting or improv training class. When Aspergian Jason Shrand was in high school, he thrived while participating in drama club. “The communal environment really helped me advance in my own social abilities,” says Shrand, now a 20-year-old student in Northeastern College in Boston who’s had a steady girlfriend for a year.

The tendency towards hyperfocus can be off-putting
One of the wonderful — and, at the same time, crazily annoying — things about Aspergians is their ability to focus intently on something, almost to the point of exhaustion. For example, my son is currently teaching himself Quechua — the language of the Incas. When I see him bent over his bilingual dictionary, I think, “He might become one of those brilliant people who can decipher ancient languages someday. Cool!” But then he moseys out of his room, and goes on... and on... and on about
My parents and older sister often gave me tips about neat date ideas.
polysynthesis and morphemes (I vaguely gather that these have something to do with linguistics) — well, after 15 minutes of this, I can feel like my head’s about to explode.

Aspergian men who are dating often need to be told point-blank to dial back on their obsessions in order to better interact with a love interest. “I often persuade [Asperger’s clients] to do research on a subject their partner is interested in,” says Canis. As for Aspergian women, “I’d say that we obsess about our special interests, and if that happens to be a man, we’ll obsess about him indefinitely and to the exclusion of all other things,” says Simone.

Aspergians have a unique perspective on things
To me, the most striking thing about people on the autism spectrum is their way of experiencing the world. While NTs often start with the big picture, people on the spectrum are fascinated by structure instead. Here’s a classic example of this contrast: an NT boy will say, “vroom, vroom!” as he slides a toy car across the floor, while a boy on the spectrum will flip that toy over and raptly spin its wheels for hours. And my son reads thick books that go into great detail about the science of music, but scarcely ever puts a CD on to listen to. (Whereas I myself always start off by, just, you know, liking the beat.)

And an Aspergian sees that “romantic” Canna lily bouquet you’ve just delivered as a handful of dead plants, while an NT sees an expression of affection instead. One way of interpreting things isn’t necessarily better than other, but they are very different. Says the decidedly non-Aspergian Canis: “[An Aspergian] can provide a really nice balance to someone who is not too logical.”

Aspergian women face different dating challenges
Says Simone: “If you have a female friend or family member on the spectrum, help her understand some basic rules. Do not call a man 14 times a night to see what he’s doing, for example. Or if he doesn’t call it doesn’t mean he is dead or that he doesn’t love you.”An Aspergian woman’s desire for affection, combined with the natural difficulty in reading nonverbal cues, can make her especially vulnerable, says Simone: “[H]elp her to see if she is not being treated right. We can have poor judgment on that.” But each Aspergian woman also has her own unique charm, and wit: “We don’t have the usual gender-specific interests. An Aspergirl is not going to have margarita nights with friends to watch Sex and the City. Trust me on that one. She’s too busy being creative.”

Should Aspergians try online dating?
Often, this is actually a great idea for Aspergians who are looking to make a love connection. “Email allows for time to think, prepare and edit responses, especially where the person may be anxious and not great at spontaneous chatting,” says Hendrickx. But online dating can also be just as loaded with those subtle cues and implied rules as cruising for dates in the usual spots. An Aspergian should have a trusted NT preview his or her profile before posting it to make sure any uploaded photos are attractive and don’t share too much information about the person they represent.

In fact, having a dating mentor is critical for any Aspergian, whether it’s during high school when most teens are just starting to date and fall in love or later on: “My parents and older sister often gave me tips about neat date ideas, and how to proceed with a new relationship,” says Shrand. Hendrickx agrees, adding that as many people grow older and begin their careers, having a trusted NT mentor is critical: “Reminding [an Aspergian] that most people have more than one relationship in their lives — and therefore, statistically, the majority of a person’s relationships will end at some point — can help to put some perspective on endings for someone who may have an ‘all or nothing’ approach and expect that first relationship to last forever.”

Actually, that sounds like good advice for anyone who’s dating — including NTs!

Kent Miller is currently writing a comic young adult novel. His articles have appeared in Nintendo Power magazine, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The San Francisco Chronicle and The St. Petersburg Times (Florida).
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