The majority of high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have had or are interested in romantic relationships, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Adults with ASD without intellectual impairments often struggle to understand and take part in romantic relationships. This is because ASD individuals have difficulties interpreting body language, eye contact and facial expressions which can make social situations challenging. Little experience of friendship, difficulty making decisions, emotional disturbances and lack of flexibility also hamper an individual with ASD from forming romantic relationships.
Previous research has found that ASD individuals fall behind their peers in areas such as employment and relationships. Few people with ASD were found to be married or in a long-term relationship. However, these studies included ASD individuals both with and without intellectual impairment. It is therefore impossible to establish from these studies whether differences in ASD relationships are related to the disorder itself or intellectual impairments. Until now there has been little to no research focusing exclusively on romantic relationships in ASD individuals without intellectual impairment.
A team of scientists led by Sandra Strunz (Charité-Universitatsmedizin, Berlin) conducted a study including 229 ASD individuals without intellectual impairment. All participants completed a number of questionnaires concerning romantic relationship experience, desire to be in a romantic relationship and romantic relationship satisfaction.
The results showed that almost half the sample were in a romantic relationship at the time of the study and a further 29% of participants had been in romantic relationships previously. In terms of interest in romantic relationships, the majority of participants were interested in engaging in one and only 13% of participants who were not in a romantic relationship expressed no desire to be in one. This opposes previous studies that suggest ASD individuals are not interested in romantic relationships. In fact, 72% of single participants reported distress associated with not having a partner. Individuals who had a partner with ASD reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction, this is thought to be because both individuals share common needs such as social withdrawal so neither person will feel neglected if a lot of time is spent away from each other.
Overall, the study indicates that a large percentage of high-functioning adults with ASD report interest in romantic relationships. Participants reported that it is the barriers to initiating and maintaining relationships, rather than lack of interest that prevent romantic relationships from developing.