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Romantic Relationships: Are They Hard to Maintain for Individuals with ASD?



Typically developing teenagers and adults enjoy expressions of affection, whether verbal or physical, and know how to reciprocate that affection. A teenager or an adult with ASD may not be able to seek or appreciate the same depth of affection as others and might be confused when others express feelings of affection. While little research has been conducted on the sexual well-being of adults with ASD, such research indicates that individuals with ASD, particularly those with higher verbal intellectual abilities, are interested in being in a romantic relationship and marrying (Byers et al., 2013). However, they may lack self-awareness which will take time to grasp and acknowledge. Moreover, they might actually perceive some expressions of affection, like hugging, as an uncomfortable experience due to sensory overload and such an expression being a restricted action. Thus, communication is key and an alternative must be mutually agreed upon to render some expressions of affection more tolerable and enjoyable. As shown above, it will affect, to an extent, some relationship skills throughout childhood and might hinder one’s ability to achieve a longer-term successful romantic relationship.


While the level of romantic and sexual functioning typically increases with age, a developmental lag was reported for individuals with ASD (Stokes et al., 2007). This suggests that individuals with ASD had less access to peers and friends, thus engaging in more unacceptable behaviours when attempting to initiate romantic relationships, and persisted in their pursuit of the relationship even when non-mutual interests were evident. Therefore, these characteristics will interfere with the capacity to develop meaningful relationships with others, which in turn is crucial for developing intimate romantic relationships.


Bearing this in mind, individuals with ASD will require some form of guidance from family members, friends, peers, or a behavioural therapist in regards to relationship skills at each point on the journey of a romantic relationship. Furthermore, interventions will be most effective when individualized with a long-term goal that matches the cognitive, social, and emotional developmental level of the individual with ASD. They will need some form of assistance in understanding how conversations work, observing body language, and adapting depending on each social situation, as the development of these skills will result in more opportunities to engage with their peers. It is essential not only for individuals with ASD to learn and grow, but also for us, being part of the greater community, to come together to be more understanding and patient towards others who may be in the process of gaining social life skills, building confidence, developing self-knowledge, and learning how to avoid potentially dangerous situations (Byers et al., 2013).


Written by Hannah Ng


References:


Byers, E. S., Nichols, S., Voyer, S. D., & Reilly, G. (2013). Sexual well-being of a community sample of high-functioning adults on the autism spectrum who have been in a romantic relationship. Autism : the international journal of research and practice, 17(4), 418–433. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361311431950


Stokes, Mark et al. “Stalking, and social and romantic functioning among adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder.” Journal of autism and developmental disorders vol. 37,10 (2007): 1969-86. doi:10.1007/s10803-006-0344-2



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