Parents of autistic children often wonder how best to be supportive if their teen or young adult decides to enter the arena of dating and relationships. While every individual on the spectrum has a unique profile and each family situation is different, we wanted to share the reflections of two parents on their personal experience.
From academics, to friendships, to learning life skills, parents of children with Asperger/autism profiles often feel a great deal of anxiety thinking about what the future will hold for their child. When it comes to love and relationships, many parents wonder (and worry) whether or not it will be part of their child’s future as they grow into adulthood.
But this was not the case for Alan and Ann, parents to a son who was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 8. During several difficult years for their son in middle school and early high school, they explained that getting him through those turbulent times kept them focused on the present. They also avoided viewing his current circumstances as any kind projection of his future. “Just because he’s having a rough middle school, doesn’t mean he’s going to have a rough high school. Just because he’s having a rough high school, doesn’t mean he’s going to have a rough college. It doesn’t mean that,” Alan said.
Ann and Alan feel this freed them from having any expectations one way or the other when it came to their son’s relationship life. Alan recalled, “We never had expectations that he wouldn’t date or wouldn’t get married. I don’t know that we had specific expectations that he would, but there was never anything that made us feel it was off the table, or that it was unlikely to happen.”
Developing Communication & Having Role Models
For many aspects of their son’s life, Alan and Ann were very involved with previewing new experiences with him, but for dating and relationships, they took a step back. “We did dry-runs of most everything,” Ann recalled. “Before he went to college, he did a summer school program. And even though we lived close by, we took the ‘live on campus’ plan so he would get the feel of what it’s like to live on campus before he was even a senior in high school. But for dating and relationships, we couldn’t do a dry-run of that.”
Instead, Ann and Alan developed what they felt was the most important aspect of their relationship with their son: open communication. “He understood that he could tell us anything,” Alan said. “We could talk about sex. We could talk about love. We could talk about dating. We could talk about birth control. We could talk about any of those things without any judgments.”
When their son chose to start dating, this open communication allowed him to know support was there from his parents when he needed it, including getting help better understanding situations in his relationships. Alan recalled, “We could talk about things, and sometimes he’d have discussions: is he reading this right? What does she really want when she says that? You know, that sort of discussion.”
Ann notes that having role models also played a big part in their son’s life. “Our son has two neurotypical older siblings,” Ann said. “I think that matters. If he was the oldest, he wouldn’t have the role models that have guided him because whatever his sisters accomplished, he wanted to accomplish on his own in his own way. He had sisters he could call, and he did.”
Ann and Alan’s son met a young woman in a graduate class, and after dating for 6 years, they were married in 2013. In planning the wedding, Ann recalls their usual preparation strategies were useful. “Think about the wedding: there’s so much going on all around, and things are going wrong! I was petrified he was going to have a meltdown. We laid out a place he could go to if he needed. We asked–who did he want to be with him in that room? We laid that out. And we literally scripted what the day was going to be until the ceremony was over.”
Now that their son and his wife have been married for several years, and they have two young children, the open lines of communication are still there: both for their son and daughter-in-law. Whether it is fielding questions about how best to handle parenting challenges or issues in their relationship, Alan and Ann are pleased they can still be a trusted support. “He has come to me about things, like: what do you do when your partner wants to do this and you want to do that?” Ann said. “He also asks a lot about how to deal with the kids. He and his wife have absolutely no problem saying, ‘What do you do when they don’t sleep?’ or asking other questions.”
Alan and Ann are incredibly pleased their son has found a life that suits him. They are grateful for the open communication and the trust between them that have allowed them to be there for their son through every phase of his life and into the future.
Check out AANE’s page for information, support, and resources for parents & families.