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The Dating Game and Autistic Adolescents

By Professor Tony Attwood and Dr Michelle Garnett

Typical teenagers are usually enthusiastic about going beyond friendship and experiencing the ‘dating game.’ They are exploring their new sexual awareness, who they find attractive, and who is attracted to them. Their romantic and sensual experiences become a major topic of conversation with peer advice on the ‘rules’ of the dating game. Our clinical experience suggests this may not be the case for autistic teenagers. They may be delayed by several years in being interested in a romantic relationship and have difficulty resonating with their peers’ interest in dating. They are also often socially isolated and may not have a circle of friends who discuss and disclose information on dating and sexuality.

In order to participate in the dating game, it is important to read subtle non-verbal communication that indicates mutual attraction and explore one another’s expectations in a romantic relationship. Typical teenagers understand dating conventions from intuition, observation and discussion with their peers. When dating, both partners progress along the relationship continuum at a reciprocally agreed and mutually enjoyed pace. Typical adolescents have considerable experience with many friendships, developing conflict management strategies and the art of compromise. They also know how much time to spend together and communicate through social media.

Autistic adolescents often need guidance and support in each of these dimensions.

Reading body language

There are many subtle ways that body language can indicate an interest in someone, such as the head tilted to one side, which means I am listening, nodding to indicate agreement or approval, smiling to indicate feeling happy with the conversation and looking at the other person’s face, especially the eyes to read the person’s feelings. There are other ways to tell that someone is interested in or likes someone, such as going out of their way to engage in a conversation, wanting to sit together and often giving compliments to the person they like. It is also important to know when body language expresses not interested such as frequently looking away, avoiding eye contact and a ‘closed’ body posture and flat facial expression.

A characteristic of autistic adolescents is difficulty accurately reading the intentions and personalities of their peers. Someone’s act of kindness may be interpreted as meaning more than was intended. Some people frequently engage in touch during a conversation due to their culture which may not be a sign of seeking a romantic attachment. Typical teenagers often have friends they can consult regarding the intentions of a potential dating partner.


It is important to explore what aspects of personality, abilities, and appearance are attractive when seeking someone to date. There are differences in what adolescent girls and boys may seek. There is a general stereotype that girls may have a greater emphasis on personality and ability attributes and boys on physical attributes. When we have discussed attraction with autistic teenagers we have found that attributes such as intellect, being accepted and understood, sense of humour, and similar interests have been rated as more important than physical attributes, regardless of gender.

Asking someone for a date

An autistic adolescent may rehearse and need guidance on asking someone on a date or responding to an invitation for a date. They need to consider where the date will be and who may also be there. Autistic adolescents may be naïve, trusting, and unaware of being in a potentially risky situation.

There are also aspects of what to wear on a date, topics of conversation and knowing if the date is mutually enjoyable. Planning each of these in advance with the adolescent can be enormously helpful for them, both to decrease anxiety and increase the likelihood of the date being a success.

The development of a romantic relationship

A romantic relationship may evolve into disclosing deeper and more personal inner thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Some autistic adolescents may have alexithymia which is difficulty disclosing and explaining inner thoughts and emotions through speech. Their romantic partner may be concerned that self-disclosure may not have the same degree of depth and reciprocity.

The agreed ‘balance’ of touch, affection, and sensual experiences can be an issue. An autistic adolescent may need guidance on these aspects of a romantic relationship as a characteristic of autism can be a sensitivity to tactile experiences, especially those that may occur with gestures of affection and may extend to sensual and sexual experiences (Gray, Kirby and Holmes 2021) There is also the potential issue of reading the signals and context when the typical partner anticipates gestures and words of affection and compassion. There will need to be open communication and mutual understanding.

There may also be an issue of recognising the human sexual response for both partners and education with regard to sexuality is likely to be needed, and is best handled one-on-one (Attwood, 2008; Dekker et al 2017; Hartman 2014; Henault 2006 Visser 2017).

As the relationship progresses there could be concerns regarding the amount of time spent together and communication on social media. There is potential for the enthusiasm of one partner to be perceived as too intrusive and intense, with a risk of them ‘wearing out their welcome’. Guidance from peers and parents can be very helpful.

The experience of love

A characteristic of autism is having difficulty perceiving and regulating emotions. Clinically we tend to focus on feelings of anxiety, sadness and anger, but love is a feeling. We have developed a programme From Like to Love to help young autistic children understand, express and enjoy love and affection with family and friends (Attwood and Garnett 2013). Many strategies apply to autistic adolescents embarking on the dating game, with age-appropriate adaptation, which includes expressions of love that are perceived as inappropriate or too intense, such as accusations of stalking (Post et al 2017)

An autistic teenager may also experience high levels of anxiety when meeting and being with a person towards whom they have strong feelings of affection and ruminate on their social/romantic performance. They may need guidance in coping with the emotion of love and anxiety.

Knowing the relationship is going well or not well

There are signs that the relationship is going well, such as both partners being happy to see each other, having a genuine interest in each other’s experiences, thoughts and feelings, smiling, laughing and having fun together with each feeling free to be their natural self and feeling safe and relaxed.

There is also the question of knowing the signs that the relationship is not going well. These negative signs may be the opposite of the positive signs described above, such as being critical and finding fault. We have found that another sign is one of the partners being possessive or controlling.

Adolescent romantic relationships often have a ‘use by date’ and may last from days to months and occasionally years. Adolescents may experience the ending of a relationship several times; sometimes, it is their choice, and sometimes not. There are many ways of ending a relationship; if an autistic person makes that decision, they will need guidance on how to do that appropriately. If the decision is from their romantic partner, they will experience rejection which may be reminiscent of rejection from previous friendships or romantic relationships. There will need to be time and support for recovery, to move on and not ruminate on the relationship, and to acknowledge what has been learned about the dating game from the relationship.

Long-term relationships

In this article we have focussed on the dating game in adolescence, when romantic relationships may have a limited duration. However, many characteristics of autism contribute to a successful long-term relationship. These include kindness and a sense of social justice, loyalty and integrity, ability in a chosen career in science, technology, the arts and caring professions, passion for knowledge, and maternal and paternal abilities.

Where to Now?

If you are interested in learning more about how to support your autistic teenager through the dating game and other aspects of adolescence, we offer an online course on diagnosis, support, and therapy for autistic children and adolescents.

References and resources

Attwood S. (2008) Making Sense of Sex: A Forthright Guide to Puberty, Sex and Relationships for People with Asperger’s Syndrome. Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Attwood and Garnett (2013) From Like to Love Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Dekker et al (2015) Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 45 (6)

Gray, Kirby and Holmes (2021) Autism in Adulthood

Hartman D. (2014) Sexuality and Relationship Education for Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Henault I. (2006) Asperger’s Syndrome and Sexuality. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Post et al (2014) Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 44:11

Uhlenkamp (2009) The Guide to Dating for Teenagers with Asperger Syndrome Autism Asperger Publishing Company

Visser, K et al., (2017) A randomized controlled trial to examine the effects of the Tackling Teenage psychosexual training program for adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 58:7, (2017) pp 840-850