Romantic Relationships for Young Adults with Asperger's Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism
Tony Attwood, MSc PhD AFBPsS MAPS MCCP
Clinical Psychologist and Senior Consultant
Minds & Hearts
Date First Published: February 20, 2009
While a young adult with classic autism may appear content with a solitary “monastic” lifestyle, this is often not the case with young adults who have Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism. Clinical experience has identified that the majority of such adolescents and young adults would like a romantic relationship. However, there is remarkably little research examining this aspect of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) or strategies to facilitate successful relationships.
We know that young adults with Asperger’s syndrome have significant difficulty developing peer relationships and are developmentally delayed in knowing what someone may be thinking or feeling. Typical children do this naturally and have practised relationship skills with family members and friends for many years before applying these abilities to achieve a successful romantic relationship. Young adults with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism also have conspicuously limited social conversational skills or ability to communicate emotions, especially affection. They also can have an extreme sensitivity to particular sensory experiences. All of these diagnostic characteristics will affect relationship skills throughout childhood, and will eventually limit an adult’s ability to achieve a long-term successful relationship.
To achieve a successful relationship, a person also needs to understand and respect him- or herself.1 Self-understanding and self-reflection can be particularly difficult for people with Asperger’s syndrome.2 Self-respect will have been adversely affected by being rejected, ridiculed and tormented by peers.3 Adolescents with Asperger’s syndrome also are gullible and vulnerable to being given misinformation on relationships by fellow teenagers. This can include instances of being deceived and “set up.” For example, a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome was lonely and longing for a girlfriend. His requests for a date had been consistently rejected. Then a very popular and attractive girl in his class suggested the two of them go for a date at the cinema. He was so happy and the date was progressing well, when the girl became embarrassed and confessed that she asked to go out with him only to complete a dare from her friends. He was devastated.
Love and affection
People with an autism spectrum disorder have difficulties understanding and expressing emotions, and an emotion that is particularly confusing to people with ASD is love. Typical children and adults enjoy frequent expressions of affection, know how to express affection to communicate reciprocal feelings of adoration and love, and know when to repair someone’s feelings by expressions of affection. A child or an adult with ASD may not seek the same depth and frequency of expressions of love through acts of affection, or realize that an expression of affection is expected in a particular situation and would be enjoyed by the other person. He or she can be bewildered as to why other people appear to be “obsessed” with expressing love for each other. Someone with an ASD also may be conspicuously immature in his or her expressions of affection, and sometimes may perceive these expressions of affection as aversive experiences. For example, a hug may be perceived as an uncomfortable squeeze that restricts movement. The person can become confused or overwhelmed when expected to demonstrate and enjoy relatively modest expressions of affection. I have recently developed a cognitive behaviour therapy program for children and adolescents with Asperger’s syndrome to explain the emotion of love and the ways to express that you like or love someone. The program soon will be evaluated in a research study conducted by the University of Queensland in Australia.
One of the diagnostic characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome is the development of a special interest that is unusual in terms of its focus or intensity. In adolescence and early adult years, the focus can be a person, which could be interpreted as a typical teenage “crush,” but the intensity and some of the associated behaviours could lead to accusations of stalking or harassment. The predisposition to develop a special interest can have other effects on the development of relationship knowledge. Special interests have many functions for people with Asperger’s syndrome, and one of these is to acquire knowledge to understand bewildering aspects of their experiences. 4 Teenagers with Asperger’s syndrome often are eager to understand and experience the social and relationship world of their peers, including romantic relationships and sexual experiences, but there can be problems regarding the source of information on relationships and sexuality. An adolescent with Asperger’s syndrome usually has few, if any, friends with whom he or she can discuss and be informed about relationship topics such as romantic or sexual feelings and the codes of sexual behaviour. Unfortunately, the source of information on relationships for adolescents with Asperger’s syndrome can be pornography for males and television “soap operas” for females. The person with Asperger’s syndrome can assume that the actions in pornographic material provide a script of what to say or do on a date, but this misunderstanding could lead to being charged with a sexual offence. The charges tend to be for sexually inappropriate behaviour rather than sexually abusive or sexually violent behaviour.5 Adolescent women with Asperger’s syndrome may use television programs and films as source material to learn about relationships, and fail to recognize that the actions and themes are not an accurate portrayal of how to achieve and maintain a relationship in real life.
Clinical experience indicates that previously socially excluded and unpopular teenage girls with Asperger’s syndrome have, after the physical changes that occur at puberty, become flattered by the attention of teenage boys. Due to her naivety, the adolescent girl may not recognize that the interest is sexual and not a way for the boy to simply enjoy her personality, company, or conversation. She may have no female friends to accompany her on a first date, or provide advice on dating and the social and sexual codes; consequently her parents may become concerned about her vulnerability to promiscuity, adverse sexual experiences, and date rape.
The relationship continuum
There is a relationship continuum from being an acquaintance to being a partner. People with Asperger’s syndrome can have difficulties at each stage on the continuum. To progress along the relationship continuum from a friend to a boyfriend or girlfriend, an adolescent or a young adult with Asperger’s syndrome needs to understand the art of flirting and romance in order to accurately read the signals of mutual attraction and understand the dating game. These abilities are not intuitive for people with Asperger’s syndrome. I am often asked by teenagers and young adults with Asperger’s syndrome, ‘How do I get a girlfriend/boyfriend?’ This is not an easy question to answer. One of the difficulties for people with Asperger’s syndrome can be to correctly interpret someone’s intentions. An act of kindness or compassion can be perceived as a signal of a deeper level of interest or more personal than was intended. I have had to explain to men with Asperger’s syndrome that the smile and personal attention of a female member of the cabin crew on an aircraft are signs of courtesy, not indications of a desire for a relationship.
Despite the problems in relationship skills experienced by many people with Asperger’s syndrome, some adults can progress along the relationship continuum and are able to experience romantic and subsequently intimate personal relationships, even becoming a lifelong partner. To achieve such a relationship, both partners initially would have noticed attractive qualities in the other person. What are the characteristics that someone would find attractive in a young adult with Asperger’s syndrome?
Attractive qualities of a person with Asperger’s syndrome
Men with Asperger’s syndrome have many qualities that can be attractive to a prospective partner. 6 When conducting relationship counselling with one or both partners having the characteristics or diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, I often ask the typical partner, ‘What were the qualities that made your partner attractive when you first met him/her?’ Many women describe their first impressions of their partner with Asperger’s syndrome as being someone who is kind, attentive, and socially or emotionally immature. The term “silent, handsome stranger” can be used to describe someone who seems relatively quiet and good looking. Physical characteristics and attentiveness can be important, especially if the woman has doubts regarding her own self-esteem and physical attractiveness. The man’s lack of social and conversational skills can lead to his being perceived as the “silent stranger” whose social naivety and immaturity can be transformed by a partner who is a natural expert on empathy, socializing, and conversation.
I have noted that many of the partners of men, and sometimes of women, with Asperger’s syndrome have been at the other end of the social and empathy continuum. They are intuitive experts in Theory of Mind, namely understanding and empathizing with someone else’s perspective. They are naturally gifted in the ability to understand the world as experienced by the person with Asperger’s syndrome, much more so than a person of average Theory of Mind abilities. They are understanding and sympathetic, and they provide guidance for their partner in social situations. Indeed, these are the characteristics that an adult with Asperger’s syndrome recognizes that he or she needs and would find desirable in a partner. He or she will actively seek a partner with intuitive social knowledge who can be a social interpreter, is naturally nurturing, is socially able, and is maternal. However, while a socially insightful and empathic partner may understand the perspective of the person with Asperger’s syndrome, the person with Asperger’s syndrome has considerable difficulty understanding the perspective of his or her typical partner.
The attractiveness of a person with Asperger’s syndrome in a prospective relationship can be enhanced by intellectual ability, career prospects, and degree of attentiveness during courtship. Sometimes, however, this attentiveness could be perceived by others as almost obsessive, and the words and actions appear to have been learned from watching Hollywood romantic movies. The person can be admired for speaking his mind, even if the comments may be perceived as offensive by others, due to his strong sense of social justice and clear moral beliefs. The fact that he may not be “macho” or wish to spend time with other men at sporting events or drinking alcohol also can be appealing for some women. The person with Asperger’s syndrome can be a late developer in terms of relationship experiences, which also can be an attractive feature. There may be no previous relationship “baggage.” I also have had many women describe to me how their partner with Asperger’s syndrome resembled their father. Having a parent with the signs of Asperger’s syndrome may have contributed to their choice of partner as an adult.
What are the characteristics that men find attractive in a woman with Asperger’s syndrome? The attributes can be similar to the characteristics women find appealing in a man with Asperger’s syndrome, especially the degree of attentiveness. The woman’s social immaturity may be appealing to those men who have natural paternal and compassionate qualities. There can be an appreciation of her physical attractiveness and admiration for her talents and abilities. Unfortunately, women (and sometimes men) with Asperger’s syndrome are not very good at making character judgments or identifying relationship predators. Women with Asperger’s syndrome often have low self-esteem, which can affect their choice of partner in a relationship. They can be the victim of various forms of abuse. As one woman with Asperger’s explained to me, ‘I set my expectations very low and as a result gravitated toward abusive people.’
Strategies to improve relationship skills
People with Asperger’s syndrome will require guidance in relationship skills at each point on the relationship continuum and probably throughout their lives. Children will need guidance from a speech pathologist in the art of conversation, and strategies to improve friendship skills throughout the school years from a teacher or psychologist. The development of friendship skills must be a priority for educational services that support a child with Asperger’s syndrome, as greater maturity and ability in friendship skills will improve self-esteem, reduce incidents of being teased or bullied, lay the foundations for adult relationship skills, and encourage teamwork abilities for successful employment. 7 Adolescents will need accurate information on attraction, the dating game, and sexuality. While this information is easily available for typical teenagers, often from friends, parents, classroom programs, and gradual experience, it may not be as easily available for a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome. The lack of peer guidance, group discussion, and practice will inhibit the development of relationship skills. Fortunately, we now have programs on relationships and sexuality specifically designed for adolescents and young adults with Asperger’s syndrome, 8, 9, 10, 11 and advice from fellow teenagers with Asperger’s syndrome. 12 Some clinicians and therapists, particularly in Australia, are developing resource material and expertise in teaching relationship skills to adolescents and young adults with Asperger’s syndrome. The education ranges from improving knowledge on dating etiquette and dress sense to learning ways to identify and avoid sexual predators. A valuable strategy is to have a socially perceptive friend or relative meet a prospective date to determine whether the person appears to be of good character, before developing a relationship.
Young adults will need encouragement and opportunities to make acquaintances and friends. This can include joining a hobby or interest group that is associated with a special interest, such as attending a Star Trek or Dr Who convention, or it may involve an application of a talent, such as having a natural ability with animals and joining an animal protection group. There can be opportunities to make friends at community activities such as a local choir or adult education classes. Local Asperger’s syndrome support groups for parents have established support groups for young adults with Asperger’s syndrome. This can provide an opportunity for a professional to address the group and provide discussion and guidance in relationships. Such groups also can be an opportunity for relationships to develop between group members. The relationship that developed between Jerry and Mary, two adults with Asperger’s syndrome who met at a support group in Los Angeles, has been the subject of a film and book. 13 Some adults with Asperger’s syndrome have used the Internet and dating agencies to meet people, but this method of introduction also can be used by relationship predators, and an adult with Asperger’s syndrome needs to be aware of the many risks associated with using this strategy.
I have noted that adults who had clear signs of autism in early childhood (that is, significant language delay, learning difficulties, and avoidance of social situations), and who in later childhood progressed to a description of high-functioning autism, are often less motivated to seek a long-term relationship. They are more likely to be content with solitude and celibacy and having acquaintances rather than friends. A sense of self-identity and personal value is achieved by having a successful career and being independent. Temple Grandin is a well-known example.14 Some adults with Asperger’s syndrome also have decided not to seek an intimate relationship with someone for legitimate reasons when one considers the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome. Jennifer explained her rationale: ‘Can I deal with sharing a house with someone who might possibly touch my model airplane collection?’ and ‘Model airplanes do not decide that they want to be built by someone else who is more attractive or less needy.’ 15 Her life does include moments of intense personal satisfaction. She states, ‘I can assure you that being in love and having special interests are much the same feeling.’ Not having a relationship can be a positive choice for some adults with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism who enjoy pursuing and are fulfilled by their special interests, such as wildlife photography or a career in information technology. They are content not to be swept away by the cultural belief that marriage or a long-term relationship is the only way to achieve happiness.
Areas for future research
We know that adults with Asperger’s syndrome have considerable difficulty progressing along the relationship continuum, but we lack research that provides quantitative and qualitative data on their relationship abilities, circumstances, and experiences. There is research on the friendship abilities of children with Asperger’s syndrome that has recently been reviewed, 16 but very little research on boyfriend/girlfriend relationships and sexuality. Dr. Isabelle Hénault, from Montreal, and I have been conducting research on the sexual profile of adults with Asperger’s syndrome, and preliminary results indicate a different profile than typical adults in terms of poorer body image and fewer sexual experiences, although sexual interest usually develops at the same time as in adolescent peers. There also can be a more liberal attitude to sexual diversity such as homosexuality and bisexuality, and a rich fantasy life and sexual imagery. There may be less concern regarding age and cultural differences in a relationship. However, there needs to be more research, and the Interactive Autism Network database may be extremely useful in providing information on romantic relationships for adolescents and young adults with Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism.
- Lawson, W. (2005). Sex, sexuality and the autism spectrum. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Frith, U., & Happé, F. (1999). Theory of mind and self-consciousness: What is it like to be autistic? Mind & Language, 14(1), 1-22. View Abstract
- Attwood, T. (2006). The complete guide to Asperger’s syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Attwood, T. (2003). Understanding and managing circumscribed interests. In M. Prior (Ed.), Learning and behavior problems in Asperger syndrome. New York: The Guilford Press.
- Ray, F., Marks, C., & Bray-Garretson, H. (2004). Challenges to treating adolescents with Asperger’s syndrome who are sexually abusive. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 11(4), 265–285. View Abstract
- Aston, M. (2003). Aspergers in love: Couple relationships and family affairs. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Attwood, T. (2006). The complete guide to Asperger's syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Aston, M. (2008). The Asperger couple’s workbook: Practical advice and activities for couples and counsellors: London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Attwood, S. (2008). Making sense of sex: A forthright guide to puberty, sex and relationships for people with Asperger's syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Edmonds, G., & Worton, D. (2005). The Asperger love guide: A practical guide for adults with Asperger’s syndrome to seeking, establishing and maintaining successful relationships. London: Sage Publications.
- Hénault, I. (2005). Asperger’s syndrome and sexuality: From adolescence through adulthood. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Jackson, L. (2002). Freaks, geeks and Asperger syndrome: A user guide to adolescence. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Newport, J., & Newport, M. (2007). Mozart and the whale: An Asperger's love story. New York: Allen & Unwin.
- Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in pictures and other reports from my life with autism. New York: Doubleday.
- McIlwee Myers, J. (2006). Dating, relationships and marriage. In T. Attwood, T. Grandin, T. Bolick, C. Faherty, L. Iland, J. McIlwee Myers, et al., Asperger's and girls (pp. 106-145). Arlington, Texas: Future Horizons Inc.
- Attwood, T. (2006). The complete guide to Asperger’s syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.