Dating Experience and Subjective Wellbeing in Autism Spectrum Disorder
Research and clinical accounts both suggest that many individuals with ASD express a clear desire for relationships with others. However, they experience difficulties establishing such relationships. Previous systematic reviews and meta-analyses suggested that difficulties in this area are more commonly experienced by individuals with ASD compared to typically developing (TD) individuals (Hancock, Stokes, Mesibov, 2017). However, there is very little empirical evidence concerning the impact of ASD on the establishment of romantic relationship. Understanding of this would assist in providing well-informed and effective supports for adolescents with ASD in transition to adulthood and for adults with ASD who are seeking support around relationship difficulties.
The aim of this study was to contrast those with ASD to TD individuals for 1/. the level of interest in relationships, 2/. the rate of dating experience, and then 3/. the subsequent difficulties establishing a relationship. If differences between groups were found, the clinical impact of these difficulties was to be explored by assessing whether the association between ASD symptomology and overall wellbeing was moderated by the relationship difficulties.
An online questionnaire comprising of the Sexual Behaviour Scale – third edition (SBS-III; Hancock, 2017), a measure of socio-sexual functioning validated by item response analysis, the Autism Quotient (AQ), and the Personal Wellbeing Index (PWI) was completed by 232 individuals with ASD (Age M=25.13, SD=7.96) and 227 TD individuals (Age M=22.16, SD=5.25).
Compared to TD individuals, individuals with ASD did not differ to the degree that they were interested in having a relationship (p=ns). However, those with ASD more commonly reported having never been on a date, t(411)=2.15, p<.05, Cohen’s d=0.30, and having had difficulties establishing a relationship, t(437)=4.58, p<.001 Cohen’s d=0.62. A regression model of the relationship between level of ASD symptomology and level of wellbeing, moderated by difficulty establishing relationships was significant, F(3,451)=43.44, p<.001, R2=.22, with the moderator providing significant explanation of this relationship, b=-.64, t=-2.35, p<.05.
Individuals with ASD have the same level of interest in relationships as TD individuals, however are less likely to have been on a date and if they have, they are more likely to have difficulty establishing a relationship. Results also demonstrated that the impact of ASD symptomology on one’s wellbeing is moderated by these difficulties establishing romantic relationships. For clinicians, these findings suggest that primary interventions and supports in this domain should focus on understanding and skills related to the initial stages of meeting a potential partner and building a relationship. This is of particular importance given that difficulty in this area can reduce subjective wellbeing for those on the autism spectrum.