Helping a Young Adult with Special Needs Develop Dating Skills

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

Young adults with brain injury, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and other developmental disabilities have social needs and experience sexual feelings just like everyone else. When they see their siblings or typically developing peers beginning to date, they may express an interest in dating too, if they have the necessary communication skills. However, they may be uncertain or fearful about how to interact with someone they are attracted to. The following are tips for parents or caregivers who want to help the young men and women they care for learn about dating, healthy relationships, and appropriate sexual behavior.

Have the conversation
Start early – before puberty – to talk to young people with special needs about their bodies and how they are or will be changing. Use words they will understand and teach them the proper terminology for body parts. Encourage them to ask questions, and listen to their concerns. Reassure them that it is normal to have sexual thoughts and feelings.

Get some help
A family physician, local librarian, and other parents can be very helpful resources when it’s time to have “the talk.” What books would your child’s doctor recommend? Does your library have videos you can check out? The Internet can also be a valuable information source, but it’s a good idea to monitor the websites your child can access. What has worked well for other parents who have children with special needs? Would your child feel more comfortable talking to another family member or close family friend?

Build self-esteem, encourage boundary setting
Help your child feel good about herself and deserving of respect. People with high self-esteem are much less likely to engage in risky behavior or to put up with abuse from other people. Teach her about consent and consensual relationships. Empower her to say “no” if she does not want to do something or does not want to be touched.

Private time, private space
Help your child understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior in public places. (Staff at special education schools and other programs your child might attend should also be preparing for and addressing behaviors that often accompany adolescence.) If he engages in inappropriate sexual behavior in public, try to redirect his attention to another activity. Be sure he has opportunities for “private time” and access to a private place (such as his bathroom at home) to engage in behavior that is not acceptable in public.

Dating skills
As you and your child begin a discussion about dating, you might ask, “How do you get someone to like you and want to go out with you?” Then, you might offer some suggestions such as behaving in a kind and caring manner, and being clean and well groomed (attending to personal hygiene). And talk to her about the qualities she should look for in a partner – someone who is kind to her, respects her, makes her feel good about herself, and doesn’t take advantage of her.

Compatibility is important too. Suggest that she look for someone who shares her interests, is functioning on a similar intellectual level, and is close to her own age (not a lot younger or older).

Plan a date
Brainstorm with your child appropriate “date activities” such as doing homework together, going for a walk, playing a game, attending a sporting or musical event, or watching television.

Before that all-important first date, encourage your child to practice initiating conversation, offering another person something to eat or drink, or paying someone a compliment. You may want to create a social story that includes some “dating details” that he can review and practice before the big day.

Check in
Take the time to check in with your child after she has had some one-on-one time with a special friend. How did it go? What went well? What didn’t? Did anything troubling or confusing happen that she would like to discuss? If she is not comfortable talking to you, help her find an appropriate adult to talk to.

By Jennifer Silber Carr, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA
Joanie Willard, MSW, LICSW, CBIST

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit