Effect of ASD Traits on Young Adults’ Romantic Relationship Experience
While Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by social communication deficits and challenges in forming close relationships (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), little is known empirically about how these features manifest in adult romantic relationships. Prior literature that explored sexual well-being among adults with ASD has suggested that adults with ASD tend to have less sexual experience and lower sexual satisfaction (Byer & Nichols, 2014; Dewinter et al., 2016). However, no study to date has assessed the effect of ASD traits on other aspects of romantic experience (e.g., breakup) that can lead to negative emotional consequences. This effect may be subject to potential gender differences, given their importance in romantic relationship functioning (for a review, see Miller, 2014).
This study explored whether ASD traits are associated with less and poorer romantic experience among college students, and whether gender moderates these associations.
One hundred and ninety-eight typically-developing adults (138 females, 59 males, 1 other) completed the Autism Quotient (AQ; Baron-Cohen et al., 2001) and Romantic Experience Questionnaire (Greene, 2006). Additional questions regarding romantic experience included the total number of romantic relationships and the length of the longest romantic relationship (LRR, if applicable).
Higher AQ scores predicted fewer total number of romantic relationships (b=-.031, p<.01), and no gender difference was found (p > .29). AQ did not predict LRR, but gender moderated the association between AQ and LRR (bgender*AQ=-.029, p =.05), such that the association between AQ and LRR was positive in men but absent in women. Among the participants with prior romantic relationship experience, AQ did not predict any negative romantic experiences (e.g., breakup, being cheated on, etc.) across both genders after controlling for lifetime number of relationships (p > .29). However, gender moderated the relationship between AQ and number of times being left by a partner for someone else (bgender*AQ=-.036, p<.05), such that the association between AQ and the number of times being left by a partner for someone else was positive in men but absent in women.
Adults with greater ASD traits tended to report less romantic experience in general, suggesting that ASD traits may prevent individuals from engaging in romantic relationships. Stronger associations between AQ and LRR as well as the number of times being left by a partner in men than in women suggest a gendered effect of ASD traits on romantic competence. Specifically, the association between ASD traits and LRR may reflect low romantic competence (e.g. an unwillingness to end a relationship due to the difficulty of forming one to begin with, and/or inability to end a relationship). Similarly, an association between ASD traits and the number of times being left by a partner may be a result of subjective distortions of breakup experiences or deficits in romantic relationship functioning. Given the invariance of romantic competence across gender among typically-developing emerging adults (Davila et al., in press), the gendered effect of ASD traits in our findings may result from different manifestations of ASD traits in romantic relationship functioning across genders.