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Can Teenagers With Autism Find Love?


Falling in love is a beautiful experience, autistic teenagers are no different to this adventure. With a little guidance, they too can experience a fulfilling romantic relationship with another.

As with any teenager, autistic teenagers too are capable of developing romantic feelings for another, however, they may need extra support to understand and navigate romantic relationships.


Explaining what ‘Attraction’ is to autistic children

You may need to explain the concept of attraction to your child. For instance, your child might feel a tingly sensation in their body when they are attracted to someone, or they would think about the person a lot and want to be with them all the time. A social story would be ideal to explain this easily as they describe a situation, skill or concept in terms of relevant social cues, perspectives and common responses in a patient and reassuring manner that is easily understood by its audience (Carol Grey,1990)


Sexual Preferences

It would also be encouraging to explain to your child the sexual preferences of society. Some people are sexually attracted to the opposite gender, and some favour the same gender as themselves. Your child’s sexuality could be different from your expectations. But accepting them for whatever their sexuality may be, will prove beneficial to your child’s development and your overall relationship with your child.


Do they like me back ?

Aside from understanding if your child has romantic feelings for someone, it may also be necessary for you to identify whether that person they are interested in, also has romantic feelings for your child.


Visual aids can also be useful. For instance, using examples of how someone might behave if they are attracted to your child would be a good idea. The pictures can feature a person leaning forward to hear what your child is saying, playing with their hair, laughing at their jokes, holding their arm, or encouraging your child to do something together.


You can also include teaching your child to be able to recognise how others might interpret their behavior. For instance, if your child is overly friendly and gestures to someone to be closer to them, it may signal the other person to think that your child has romantic feelings for them.


Helping teenagers with autism to express romantic feelings and attraction

Since teenagers with autism may have difficulties understanding social rules or the words and body language of others, this may lead to them expressing their feelings or emotions towards another person inappropriately. Therefore, they would often need clear explanations of what is appropriate and what is not. For instance, your child might call someone daily to talk to them even when that person has already made it obvious that they do not want to be called, or continuously ask someone on a date when the person has already said no on multiple occasions. This could be because the person made an excuse such as “I’m busy this week”, instead of saying, “No, I do not want to go on a date with you”.


As a parent, you could explain the scenario that when someone says no, you should not ask them again. As well as when someone makes an excuse more than twice, you do not need to ask them again. You could also set up visual reminder sheets for them to refer back to.

Overcoming sensory issues in romantic relationships

One of the main problems that affect romantic relationships in the teenage autistic community is sensory issues. For example, if your child feels distressed when hugging other people. This impacts the way your child can express their attraction and affection towards another. Some teenagers may not be inclined to physical touch as compared to others, and that is completely fine. But some can become comfortable with touch.


You could try ‘desensitising’ your child, or in other words, gradually exposing them to the thing that is feared to free them from the phobia. This can be in the form of sitting in close proximity to your child, whenever they permit it. Once they are comfortable, you can introduce and increase your physical contact with your child. For example, touching your child’s arm for a few seconds at a time until they get used to it. This process could take anywhere from a week to months or even years depending on the child before it could progress to your child being able to handle a hug from you.

Respectful relationships for autistic teenagers

As with all teenagers, autistic teenagers should learn about how to recognise and retain respectful relationships with their partners. These would contribute largely to healthy sexual and emotional development. They also encourage young people to feel valued and accepted for who they are. You can help your child recognise how to have respectful relationships by exposing them to good and bad signs in relationships.


Here are some good signs:

The person:

  • only asks you to do things that make you feel safe and comfortable.

  • is honest with you and helps you grow.

  • actively listens to you as much as you listen to them.

  • does not expect you to do everything for them. For example, they are happy if you want to do something different or go out by yourself or with other people and even encourages you to do so.

  • supports you wholeheartedly. For example, they show their support by saying words of encouragement to you when you are upset and praises you for all your hard work.

  • does not tease, put you down or say things that make you feel bad or insecure.


Here are some bad signs:

The person:

  • does not give you as much affection or spend enough quality time.

  • says hurtful comments that make you feel dumb or bad.

  • hurts your body, your intimate parts or how you feel about your body. For example, they make you do something that you feel uncomfortable with.

  • does not want you to meet their friends and family.


Written by Angelyn.


References:

Ballan, M.S. (2012). Parental perspectives of communication about sexuality in families of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(5), 676-684. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-011-1293-y.


Dewinter, J., Vermeiren, R., Vanwesenbeeck, I., Lobbestael, J., & Van Nieuwenhuizen, C. (2015). Sexuality in adolescent boys with autism spectrum disorder: Self-reported behaviours and attitudes. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(3), 731-741. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-014-2226-3.


Gabriels, R.L., & Van Bourgondien, M.E. (2007). Sexuality and autism. In R.L. Gabriels & D.E. Hill (Eds), Growing up with autism: Working with school-age children and adolescents (pp.58-72). New York: Guilford Press.


Harris, M. (2017). Strategies for delivering sexual health education to adolescents with autism spectrum disorder: An integrative review of the literature. Grace Peterson Nursing Research Colloquium. Retrieved 15 January 2022 from https://via.library.depaul.edu/nursing-colloquium/2017/Fall_2017/6/.


Holmes, L.G., Himle, M.B., Sewell, K.K., Carbone, P.S., Strassberg, D.S., & Murphy, N.A. (2014). Addressing sexuality in youth with autism spectrum disorders: Current pediatric practices and barriers. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 35(3), 172-178. DOI: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000030.


Koegel, L.K., Detar, W.J., Fox, A., & Koegel, R.L. (2014). Romantic relationships, sexuality, and autism spectrum disorders. In F.R. Volkmar, B. Reichow & J. McPartland (Eds), Adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders (pp. 87-104). New York: Springer.


Nichols, S., Moravcik, G.M., & Pulver Tetenbaum, S. (2009). Girls growing up on the autism spectrum: What parents and professionals should know about the pre-teen and teenage years. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Pecora, L.A., Mesibov, G.B., & Stokes, M.A. (2016). Sexuality in high-functioning autism: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46, 3519-3556. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-016-2892-4.


Sala, G., Hooley, M., Attwood, T., Mesibov, G., & Stokes, M. (2019). Autism and intellectual disability: A systematic review of sexuality and relationship education. Sexuality and Disability, 37, 353-382. DOI: 10.1007/s11195-019-09577-4


Tullis, C.A., & Zangrillo, A.N. (2013). Sexuality education for adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders. Psychology in the Schools, 50(9), 866-875. DOI: 10.1002/pits.21713.

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