Social Spaces & Meeting People: Dating on the Autism Spectrum
By Sean M Inderbitzen APSW, Member of MINT
Starting New Relationships
Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t find relationships difficult. Maybe it’s being a therapist, or just having kids, but the ease in relationships is being in them. Rather it is the negotiating of getting into them is what I find so trying. Perhaps my autism spectrum challenges are unique but if you are still reading this I suspect not.
Unlike being 17 or 21, there are not a plethora of social spaces available not involving religion or alcohol. When you are 17, high school is full of social space. The social opportunities at 17 are near endless: clubs, dances, shared physical spaces of learning, and more. There is never a greater range socially. As we age and either enter the workforce or college, new opportunities become available. Whether it be parties, social causes, trips, or co-workers. Fertile ground for friendships and relationships is abundant.
This is not to minimize those of you reading this at these younger ages. Romantic entanglement entrance is never easy at any age. The anxiety remains as you age. The difference being, that in your late twenties and early thirties, if you are anything like me, you’ve settled into your identity and your career. And while your career may be all you hoped for and more, something new has emerged within your social spaces.
Navigating Social Spaces
If your social spaces are anything like mine they are layered with suspicion and distance. Somehow within the space between collegiate years and career, opportunities to date and develop friendship disappear. It’s as if the world somehow conspires against the prefrontal cortex — it isn’t fully developed until the rich ground for social opportunities no longer exist. Which some may argue isn’t entirely true with the advent of dating apps like Hinge, Tinder, and Bumble. However when you are 32, and have dissolved, not one but two major relationships, letting one’s guard down is a bit more intricate. Not to mention that for centuries our species has not engaged in courtship rituals through this social process of instantaneous spark making. In a recent study of 1900 college students from the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Sciences, researchers discovered that 66% of respondents began as friends before becoming romantic partners (Stinson et al., 2021).
Thus if this article is accurate in terms of predicting what is perhaps one of the likeliest pathways for romantic relationship formation, maybe Gen X’s have had it right, and our dating platforms have it wrong. In the ‘olden days’ (aka the 1970’s and 1980’s), people used to meet in person, as there was no other way. Whether it be through blind dates, friends of friends, or a good old fashioned parties. But things don’t happen this way anymore, not for me at least. As a 32 year old, I find the only ways to meet people are clubs (which given my auditory and visual processing differences are difficult), bars which involve a fair amount of alcohol, and church which involves a fair amount of hypercharged beliefs about the unknown. None of these social environments lend themselves nicely to my own repetitive interests of mountain biking, rock climbing, running, developing proposals for social causes, or reading. In my region of the world (a blend of two homes in Duluth, MN and Rice Lake, WI) spaces to engage these repetitive interests in a way that yields my ability to engage my passions, and develop meaningful romantic connections lack. Which I feel points to a deeper need, a need that perhaps the business community or therapists may want to consider attending to.
Creating a Space
The need I believe is for the formation of social spaces, in physical places, that allow for social friendship and romantic attachment to form in organic and meaningful ways for young and middle aged neurodiverse adults. A social space where feelings can be navigated without pretense and yet somehow maintain the integrity of emotional and sexual safety (as when you are female this is not easily achieved). That might allow for honest expression and the formation of secure attachments over a shared passion (e.g. love of mountain biking or Love of Lake Superior) can develop. I’m not sure how a physical space like this would work entirely as I believe it would likely need to be free of alcohol, drugs, and religious beliefs in order to create the emotional safety needed for honest expression of feelings and passion.
The challenge in the formation for a social space like this I believe is what would the form of commerce be? With church there is religion, with bars there is alcohol, and with most public physical spaces there is some form of monetary exchange. However, if we use the restaurant as an example, it’s the job of a waiter or waitress to be nice, which places them in a tough spot when someone leaves their number or tries to befriend them. Layer that with the social challenges of being on the spectrum, and it truncates the difficulty even further. So how would a space of social, emotional, sexual safety exist where it would allow for the free expression and shared joy of repetitive interests? It would need to involve some type of financial exchange to pay for and justify the existence.
So while I am uncertain of where this space might be, my heart most definitely longs for a space like this. One that is safe, free of nefarious influences and pretense, and rich in opportunity for social relationship development. If you know of this place, please let me know. As adulthood is presently not this place for me.
Stinson, D. A., Cameron, J. J., & Hoplock, L. B. (2021). The Friends-to-Lovers Pathway to Romance: Prevalent, Preferred, and Overlooked by Science. Social Psychological and Personality Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/19485506211026992
Sean is a Behavioral Health Therapist, and lives with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. He has a caseload with 33% of his patients that live with ASD and varying comorbid psychiatric conditions. Prior to being a mental health clinician, he was a Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist for Wisconsin Division of Vocational Rehabilitation for 3 years. He was also appointed by Governor Walker to the Statewide Independent Living Council of Wisconsin. He is an incoming member to the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers, and provides training on motivational interviewing, ASD and employment, and ASD and comorbid psychiatric conditions. For more info, find him at Seaninderbitzen.com or on LinkedIn.