Being single with autism: It's complicated

Josh Rubin

Before going out on a date, Todd Simkover runs through a mental checklist that he has worked hard to compile: Make sure the setting isn’t too noisy. Don’t do all the talking. Be considerate of her personal space. Act more laid-back and less formal. If her shoulders are directly opposite yours, that’s a good thing; if she keeps playing with her phone, well, that’s not so good.

Dating can be tricky for anyone. But Simkover, a 34-year-old graduate student at York University in Toronto, needs those reminders because he is one of more than 250,000 adults living in Canada with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). And yes, ladies, he is available.

At first glance, the characteristics of people with ASDs – lack of eye contact, narrowly focused interests, idiosyncratic speech – might give the impression that they’re not interested in relationships and marriage.

In fact, there are widespread misconceptions that people with ASDs lack empathy and engagement, and don’t want any sort of meaningful connection. In reality, people on the spectrum covet intimacy as much as anyone; they just lack the tools to find it. And with scarce funding for autism primarily geared toward children, the tools themselves are also hard to find.

The latest statistics reflect that problem. According to a groundbreaking report published this year by Toronto’s Redpath Centre, people with ASDs are disproportionately single compared with the rest of the population. Only 32.1 per cent of those surveyed indicated they ever had a partner, while 9 per cent stated they were currently married. In the general population, meanwhile, about half of all adults are married.

Not everyone with autism is interested – or capable – of pursuing traditional friendships, let alone romantic relationships. But individuals such as Simkover, who has Asperger syndrome and thus falls on the high-functioning end of the spectrum, possess a clear desire for romance.

Yet the daily challenges that people with ASDs face – interpreting non-verbal communication, engaging in unfamiliar topics of conversation and managing social anxiety – can be formidable obstacles.

“Sometimes I feel that girls see me as awkward and not suitable for dating,” Simkover said. “I must have been on over 50 first dates, and out of these only a few led to a second or third date.”

The playful banter, subtle language and overall abstract nature of flirting can seem absurd from the perspective of people on the spectrum, because they see the world in a very literal way.

That makes it difficult for them to understand the difference between looking and staring, or the appropriate way to smile at someone – little things that can make a difference in social situations.

So Simkover needs to prepare extensively for his dates, breaking down everything into a step-by-step process. Any deviation from the plan, such as a last-minute change of venue, can be very stressful for people with ASDs, and he has had to learn to be spontaneous.

On one notable occasion, he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to break the ice by going to a diamond store before dinner. After all, diamonds are a girl’s best friend, right?

Finding the balance between planning and improvisation is easier said than done. According to Maria-Niki Bardzakos, a life-skills specialist at Giant Steps Montreal, it can take years of training before becoming proficient. Founded in 1981, Giant Steps provides special education programs for students aged 4 to 21 with ASDs, and also works with adults.

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