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Romancing the Spectrum

Aging from adolescence into young adulthood brings many changes. Everyone experiences physical and emotional changes brought on by puberty, such as an increased interest in pursuing romantic relationships a picture of a couple in silhouttewith peers. However, it often is unclear how neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism effect how these changes manifest themselves socially.

In a newly published study, researchers from the University of Missouri and Thompson Center found a high level of interest in romantic relationships by young adults with autism. However, they also found that these same young adults lacked the knowledge of how to pursue such relationships, often leaving them feeling isolated socially.

“The myth that people with autism are uninterested in romantic relationships has been debunked for a while, but we were still surprised by the level of interest in relationships the young adults within our study had,” said Dr. Nancy Cheak-Zamora, an associate professor within the department of health sciences in the MU School of Health Professions and a researcher at the Thompson Center. “The vast majority of people who we interviewed said they were definitely interested in romantic relationships, but that they had no idea how to initiate or be in a relationship.”

For her study, Cheak-Zamora held one-on-one interviews with 27 young adults with autism, 20 men and seven women. While neurotypical adolescents are acutely aware of their own romantic interest as they progress through high school, Cheak-Zamora’s research shows that young adults with autism may not reach this same level of romantic awareness until they are older, often after they have finished high school.

“Neurotypical adolescents likely use high school as a time to learn and experiment with being in romantic relationships,” Cheak-Zamora said. “This is valuable developmental time when people are in close proximity to their peers, giving them opportunities to learn how to pursue romantic relationships. These social skills can then be further honed as they continue to mature.

“If it is true that young adults with autism experience romantic relationship interests later than their typically developing peers, then they may miss out on important opportunities to experiment with and learn about relationship development. Once young adults are ready to pursue relationships, they may be out of school and have less contact with peers who have reciprocal interest.”

Cheak-Zamora says these findings illustrate the need for resources about romantic relationships for young adults with autism.

Cheak-Zamora says educational resources could be as simple as “relationship cheat sheets” or one-pagers with simple information such as: “How to ask a person on a date.” Within the healthcare setting, she says doctors should be talking to young adults with ASD about relationship interests and knowledge as well as having health discussions. She also says there is potential to create workshops or training classes designed especially for people with autism to help teach these skills. This study was published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.