Dating and Relationships Concepts for Young Adults with Autism and Learning Differences
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Dating and Relationships Concepts for Young Adults with Autism and Learning Differences

Three Concepts that Constitute a Healthy Relationship:

An Outline for Young Adults with Autism & Learning Differences

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Enjoying time with friends and/or intimate partners is an integral part of life and a way for many of us to feel connected to each other. Identifying, maintaining and learning how to develop close relationships is greatly emphasized during young adulthood where friendships may align or misalign with the changing social environments starting from high school to college and eventually into independent life. This is a challenging landscape and can be particularly difficult for young adults that have difficulties understanding the always changing social environment.

We spoke to several CIP Long Beach students about their relationships, what makes them work, and what they’re finding important to focus and work on. The following quotes all come from current CIP students.

“I just want to have fun…and have a really healthy relationship.”

There are so many very bright and inspiring young adults on the spectrum or with a diagnosed learning difference who struggle with social competencies that therefore affect their personal relationships. All the better to create a guide outlining and identifying what makes up a healthy relationship so that your students or child can uphold the values that are key to making relationships last for the benefit of all involved. Identification is always the first step to understanding.

A CIP Long Beach student tells us she is very appreciative of her intimate relationship:

“I just want to have fun…and have a really healthy relationship. The three main things for me is communication, respect, and trust.”

She could not be more correct. These concepts are key to identifying what personal values students or your child might have. Once established they are essential to creating boundaries that uphold individual values, which therefore set the foundation towards stabilizing gained friendships, thus allowing them to flourish.


Our students communicate with people every day, verbally and nonverbally. Their interactions can range from a tired sounding “Hello” during an 8am module to a heartfelt stroke on a horse’s nose during Equine Therapy. Methods of communication are so immeasurable! However, there is one major piece that identifies the growth of understanding between two friends: awareness.

Each individual, especially those on the spectrum, process and decode information differently. Therefore, it is important to be aware of how a message is presented and then received in order for effective communication. According to Will Meek, writer of the article Basics of Communication, “all communication problems are two person problems.”

Sender-Receiver - Dating Blog

For example, Sally is a very verbal individual and often raises her voice when excited. Kelly is a soft spoken, nonverbal individual who struggles with loud environments and initiation. Sally is interested in becoming friends with Kelly. If Sally runs up to Kelly and says in an excitedly loud voice, “Hi! We should go out to shop sometime!”, Kelly might experience sensory overload. Thus, it is important for Sally to identify what type of person Kelly is first, and pinpoint the best way to communicate. For example, a simple smile and soft “Hello, Kelly” might be more effective.

Young adults on the spectrum struggle with perspective-taking and theory of mind, consequently gaining this communication skill may be particularly difficult. For this reason, expect this to be a growing process; improving by even a small margin proves existence of success in the future.

Once young adults have increased awareness of communication processes, they are likely to understand each other more effectively. Establishing active lines of communication is needed to then build on the next essential concept: trust.


“The main focus is generally trust…it’s really easy to find someone but to actually trust someone and make sure it can last — I think trust is the biggest thing.”

Trust is somewhat comparable to a boat. It requires maintenance and application from time to time in order to eliminate potential complications. When taken care of, you can then trust your boat to withstand the open ocean. Relatively, consistent relationship maintenance can lead to trust for those involved. If individuals maintain levels of trust outlined through communication, levels of reliance can be built upon that friendship. Going back to the boat metaphor, there will be residual issues if you find that a fishing line has been caught in your boat propeller due to failed routine checks. Over time, boat owners have been trained to have an eye for possible predicaments and to therefore be conscious of how important considerations are when it comes to maintenance. Similarly, in relationships, trust can be built and withheld when an individual has become accustomed to taking their friend’s precautions into consideration.

Unfortunately, relationships do not come with a manual like boats often do. Thus, effective communication correlates with maintaining trust. To foster trust-building, it is advisable to facilitate curriculum promoting concepts of self-advocacy, theory of mind, and group contribution as a beneficial pair along with natural life instances.


Respect is a concept that is valued at any level of relationship; dynamics in public on a day-to-day basis have a level of respect as do interactions in personal relationships. A student recently outlined a very significant aspect of respect. When asked what he finds most important in his intimate relationship, he explained:

“You need to respect whoever you are with, and whoever you are with needs to respect you back.”

Respect is a two-way street. It is important to outline ways to model respect to our students so they can uphold trust and encourage communication independently. Here are some points taken from the article The Language of Respect, that can be taught to students outlining ways to communicate respect through words.


Words of Encouragement

“I know things can be difficult, but I really admire how you reach deeply into yourself to find the right answers. I want you to know that I am always here for you.”

Words of Understanding

“I want to understand your perspective. Please tell me what you think and what led you to that conclusion.”

Words of Unity

“I’m your parent (or teacher), but that doesn’t mean I have all the answers. I respect your role as part of this family (or classroom).”

Words of Respect

“While I care about your grades and other external measures of success, it’s also important to have a climate of mutual respect here. I plan to work hard to see that each of our opinions, thoughts, and feelings are respected.”

Sometimes communicating respect includes the word “respect” in it. This concept not only is a path for affirmation but is a window to acknowledge each other’s intentions. Each of the quotes outlined above includes perspective taking and display the connection between the intention of the speaker to receiver. To model respect to our students, it is important to include exercises that integrate perspective taking and communication together on a verbal and nonverbal level.

Maintaining these values in the moment

Now that these concepts have been identified, a way they can be maintained is through the term: S.O.D.A. This acronym is implemented during CIP’s Reframing class and is generally applicable to any situation. S.O.D.A. stands for:


Individualizing this method can be very helpful for any individual and situation. Students can be instructed to write out or verbalize what they have processed for each step. Below is an example of how a student should fill out this method.


Kyle and Sally have just expressed interest in each other and have been seeing each other for a few weeks. During a group module, students participated in a board game. Kyle was making sarcastic jokes and told others to stop cheating as he started to lose. Sally explained aloud to Kyle that he should stop or else she would “teach him a lesson”. After waiting a few moments, Kyle decided to leave session early because he was mad at Sally. Sally is unaware of Kyle’s feelings and needs some guidance outlining what she should do next.

SODA - Dating Blog


In a truly healthy relationship, students should strive to consistently communicate openly in order to build trust and therefore emulate respect. These concepts should be applied to a relationship on both a micro and macro level. Addressing the individual and the relationship as a whole is an important component.

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It is refreshing to witness how relationships blossom and develop. As facilitators and caregivers, we can only provide the resources that students and young adults choose to implement towards daily living. Relationships and making friends are what young adults will primarily hold onto. When the young adults we interact with eventually graduate into independent life, they will reflect back on these moments made when interacting with friends. Personally, the ultimate reward is being able to witness the integration of these concepts and learned skills towards the overall well-being of our students.


Meek, W. (2013). Basics of Communication. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Price-Mitchell, M. (2014). The Language of Respect. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

About the Author:

Jolene Liang is the Social Skills Coordinator at CIP Long Beach. She graduated from California State University Long Beach in 2015 with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. She has experience assisting in children’s after school programs and has also aided the elderly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

This has been a special needs program update from Asperger’s & LD College Programs. You may also click here to read the original article on the main program website.