If navigating the dating world is proving difficult — you’re not alone. About half of all single adults say dating is harder than it was a decade ago, according to a Pew Research survey.
Now add dating with autism and/or other developmental differences. Now there’s a new service helping singles with developmental differences navigate the dating landscape.
Michael Wilson is like many 19-year-old’s. He spends at least a quarter of his day on the computer.
“I like to date. I want to date," Wilson said. "I feel pretty confident right now."
That’s because at least one of those hours each week is dedicated to learning how to navigate the dating world with autism.
”I learned not to give up — don’t give up. Give it your best and your all,” he said.
He completed a six week course called Dating and Relationships provided through a partnership between Unicorn Children’s Foundation and Remarkable Disabilities Services which teaches the rules of dating.
”It’s for adults with autism or other developmental differences such as Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities,” said Kerri Morse, Unicorn Children’s Foundation programs and business consultant. “This organization is really open to helping those that have struggled because of different learning disabilities.”
Morse says data supports dating is hard enough. Now add developmental differences to the equation.
”They need instruction specifically on those skills,” Morse said.
Like Wilson who was diagnosed with autism at age three.
”I tend to get a little jumpy,” Wilson said.
So the location of a date matters. Wilson also struggles with eye contact, reciprocal conversation and social signal interpretation. For example, if a woman doesn’t text back he’ll likely hyper-focus on the reason why.
”He’ll sit there and text somebody every five minutes and say, ‘Talk to me. Why haven’t you responded,’” said Stephanie Kellum, Michael’s mother.
Experts say people with autism often hyper-focus.
”He didn’t know what was socially acceptable,” Kellum said.
For dating prospects like Katie Santoro who didn’t start dating until age 24, hyper-focusing isn’t gender specific.
”Yeah, I thought that if you go on more than one date all of a sudden we’re in a relationship. We can put it on Facebook and it can be Facebook official,” Santoro said. Which is why Katie too signed up, learning about the different stages of dating and relationship red flags.
“I don’t think anyone is meant to be alone,” Santoro said. “There’s a misconception often that people with autism are not interested in dating or they’re disengaged but really for me it’s hard to read body language.”
This can also show itself in other ways. While this Pew Research survey says only eight percent of people say it’s okay to ghost someone, experts say you’d be surprised who does most of the ghosting. Read more here.
”Many people with developmental differences would be more likely to ghost because they wouldn’t necessarily feel like that was an important social grace,” said Jennifer Tomko, LCSW, Clarity Health Solutions clinical psychotherapist. “Or they may not have been educated because it’s just a different level of understanding how to connect with people and to let people off the hook nicely.”
This affects all daters across the board finding a good match which is why clinical psychotherapists like Tomko say dating services for people with developmental differences is long overdue.
”Part our own growth and acceptance of self is how we believe other people are seeing us,” Tomko said. “So if we have someone that admires us and we admire them that’s the perfect union for the two of you to be able to help each other reach your maximum potential.”
”It’s important to have a blended instruction and opportunity for practice,” Morse added.
And helping all people across the dating spectrum.
”Yes, I’m going to take the right turn,” Santoro said.
To learn more about Unicorn Children’s Foundation, visit here: https://www.unicornchildrensfoundation.org/
And to learn more about Dating and Relationships in partnership with Remarkable Disability Services visit here:
https://youtu.be/s2eqg_t2fte and here: https://youtu.be/qbjpz6u69ii