What advice can you give parents on how we should talk about dating and intimacy with our teens who have autism?
Guest post by psychologist Lindsey Sterling, PhD, and doctoral student Siena Whitham - autism researchers and therapists with UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. During a now-completed Autism Speaks predoctoral fellowship, Dr. Sterling deepened understanding of the physiology of anxiety in adolescents with autism. Such research helps advance the development of tailored therapies.
We’re so glad to address this question, given how many teens and parents express interest. For many teens with autism, the issues of dating and sexuality come up later than one might expect. But every teen is different. Some are eager as young teens, while others don’t appear interested until much later. Regardless, the physical changes that accompany adolescence make these issues relevant for most families.
Of course, dating tends to be an exciting but challenging part of any teen’s life. However, some difficulties tend to be particularly relevant for teens with autism. None are insurmountable. Just keep them in mind while helping your teen navigate the dating process.
First, remember that your teen’s social maturity may not be in line with his or her physical maturity. In other words, many teens with autism feel the physical desire for sexuality before they have the social competence for successful dating. It helps to remember that most teens learn the social rules of dating while socializing with their friends. Many teens with autism simply don’t have as many social opportunities for learning these rules.
Also remember that the social signals involved in dating and flirting can be complex, inconsistent and subtle. Interpreting them presents a challenge for most everyone. It can be particularly difficult when autism interferes with the ability to read and respond to social signals. This can produce confusion in your teen and discomfort and frustration for the other person. When social cues are missed, your teen’s “dates” may feel that their messages or feelings aren’t being heard or validated