Helping autistic teenagers recognise attraction and romantic feelings
Autistic teenagers develop romantic feelings in the same way as other teenagers do, but they might need extra help to understand these feelings and navigate romantic relationships.
To start with, you might need to explain attraction to your child. For example, when your child is attracted to another person, your child might feel a tingly sensation in their body, or your child might think about the other person a lot and want to be with them a lot. A social story might help you to explain.
You can also explain that some people are sexually attracted to people of the opposite gender, some are attracted to people of the same sex, and some are attracted to both. Your child’s sexuality might be different from your expectations. But if you accept your child’s sexuality, it’s good for your child’s healthy development – and for your relationship with your child.
Autistic teenagers might also find it hard to understand that people can feel embarrassed about expressing deep romantic feelings for somebody. Teenagers don’t always show these feelings on the outside. This can make it hard for autistic teenagers to work out how someone feels.
And if your child has romantic feelings for someone, you might also need to help your child work out whether that person has romantic feelings for your child.
Visual supports can help. For example, you could use pictures of how people might behave if they’re attracted to your child. The pictures might show a person leaning forward to hear what your child says, touching your child’s hair, laughing at their jokes, touching their arm or inviting your child to do something together.
You might also need to explain that if someone smiles at your child and talks to them, it doesn’t always mean that the other person is romantically interested. The person might just be being friendly.
Photos or drawings showing how people behave when they’re not interested might be a good idea too. The images might be of people looking, moving or turning away, folding arms or not answering when your child talks to them.
You can also talk to your child about how other people might interpret your child’s behaviour. For example, if your child smiles and is very friendly towards someone, that person might think your child has romantic feelings.
Your child might ask tricky questions, like, ‘How do I get a girlfriend/boyfriend?’ or ‘How do you kiss someone?’ By answering these questions and speaking to your child about sex and sexuality, you can help your child to understand their feelings and behave appropriately.
Helping autistic teenagers express attraction and romantic feelings
Because autistic teenagers might have trouble understanding social rules or people’s words or body language, they can sometimes end up expressing feelings inappropriately. This includes attraction and romantic feelings. So they often need clear explanations of what is appropriate and what isn’t.
For example, your child might call someone a lot when that person doesn’t want to be called, or keep asking someone on a date when the person has already said no a few times. This might be because the other person has made an excuse like ‘I’m busy this weekend’, rather than saying, ‘No I don’t want to’.
You could explain that if someone says no, you don’t ask them again. And if someone makes an excuse twice, you don’t ask them again. You could turn this into a visual reminder sheet.
Managing sensory issues in romantic relationships
Sensory issues can affect romantic relationships for autistic young people. For example, if your child isn’t comfortable hugging other people, this affects the ways your child can express affection and attraction.
Some children don’t like being touched, and that’s OK. But some children can become comfortable with touch.
You could try ‘desensitising’ your child. This might involve you sitting near your child, wherever they’ll happily tolerate. Then increase your physical contact with your child – for example, you could touch your child’s arm for a small amount of time. You could keep this going over months or even years until your child can handle a hug from you.
You know your child well, so you’ll know how much to realistically expect. For example, your child might never feel comfortable having a hug from you or anyone, or your child might be able to hug you, but not anyone else.
It can also help to let your child know that some people like to touch and be touched, but other people don’t. It can also help if your child tells a romantic partner how they feel about touch – for example, that they don’t feel comfortable holding hands.
The complicated interactions between two people and the mixed messages about what other people are thinking or feeling, or what their intentions are … I can see that being a real challenge for my child.
– Peter, parent of an autistic teenager
Respectful relationships for autistic teenagers
Just like all teenagers, autistic teenagers need to learn about respectful relationships. These relationships are a vital part of healthy sexual and emotional development. They help young people feel valued and accepted for who they are.
You can help your child learn by explaining good and bad signs in relationships.
Here are some good signs to talk about with your child:
- The other person only asks you to do things that you feel safe and comfortable with.
- The person is honest and doesn’t tell made-up stories to you about family members or peers.
- The person listens to you as much as you listen to them.
- The person doesn’t expect you to do everything that they want. For example, the person is happy if you want to do something different or go out by yourself or with other people.
- The person supports you. For example, the person says nice words to you and helps you when you’re upset.
- The person doesn’t tease or bully you or say things that make you feel bad.
Here are some bad signs:
- The person doesn’t give you much attention or affection.
- The person says mean things that make you feel stupid or bad.
- The person hurts your body, your private parts or your feelings about your body and private parts. For example, the person makes you do something that you feel uncomfortable about.
- The person doesn’t want you to meet friends and family.
- The person bullies you.
When relationships end: helping autistic teenagers handle it
Teenage romantic relationships don’t usually last forever. Your child might need to know that sometimes they go for a long time, and sometimes they end quickly. Sometimes both people in a relationship agree to end it. Other times only one person decides to end the relationship.
If your child didn’t want a relationship to end, they might feel confused, sad, lonely or angry. Your child might also feel like this if they wanted a romantic relationship with someone but the other person didn’t want one. These feelings are normal.
You can support your child by encouraging them to:
- spend time with other friends and family
- do things they enjoy
- talk about what happened and how they’re feeling
- express how they’re feeling using writing, social stories, art or sport.
You could also talk about things your child shouldn’t do when a relationship ends, like shout at the other person, send angry emails or text messages, or post rude things on social media.