Finding Love for Autistics, Through Speed-dating With Tip Sheets

Even if married bliss doesn't necessarily ensue, the evening is a valuable lesson in social interaction.

One recent evening at a cafe on Tel Aviv's trendy Nahlat Binyamin Street, each man walked from one woman's table to the next as a buzzer sounded, and at the end of the night, all the participants wrote down which conversation partners they were interested in meeting again. In short, it was a typical speed-dating event - except that most of those present had Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism.

For someone in the know, there were some indications that this wasn't quite your everyday speed dating. For instance, the Tel Aviv event had only seven rounds of seven minutes each instead of the usual 10 rounds, and there were counselors on hand to help the participants, most of them aged 25-30, navigate the rough waters of social relationships.

There were also tip sheets that advised the approximately 15 juice-sipping and cookie-nibbling daters in attendance that "this is not the time to talk about your problems" and that they should show an interest in the people they meet, but not subject them to the third degree. And the MCs prepared participants for disappointment, saying the evening was a valuable exercise in social interaction even if it doesn't lead to long-lasting love.

But what is perhaps more important than the differences between this event and other forms of speed dating is the fact that they are all driven by the same underlying realization: Many single people want to find partners, whether or not they are on the autistic spectrum.

"Over the years, different groups have helped us in many areas of life, such as employment, education and housing," said Ro'i, who took part in the speed-dating event. "But love is like the proverbial elephant in the room, and most of the time it's ignored."

"I want a girlfriend," said Yura, 31, who works as a waiter and lives in sheltered housing. "I want a girl from a good family," said Doron, another participant. "Someone who will stick with me when times get tough, someone I can be happy with."

The May 31 outing was the first of many planned monthly speed-dating events geared specifically for people who have autism and other disabilities that can make social interaction difficult. The program, which has since had a second speed-dating event, was the brainchild of organizers Rinat Steiff and Adar Pilo, rehabilitation specialists. It is sponsored by Beit Ekstein, a local organization that provides housing, employment and educational services for people with autism and Asperger's syndrome as well as those with mental and learning disabilities and minimal brain damage.

"For years, people diagnosed with conditions on the autistic spectrum were thought to have no interest in finding love," said Ofer Golan, an Asperger's syndrome specialist and a senior lecturer in the psychology department at Bar-Ilan University. "Today we know that they actually very much desire romantic relationships, but their abilities in this aspect of life are limited. They have a hard time reading the other person, they're very direct, and are often perceived as annoying. On a first date, for example, they're capable of talking about marriage."

Nomi Wenkert, a sex education counselor who works with people with disabilities and oversaw the planning of the event, said it is important to provide a social setting geared toward the needs of people with certain disabilities because in a standard setting, seemingly simple things like the rules of conversation can be difficult for them to grasp.

"People with social constraints have a hard time understanding dating codes and behavior we take from granted, such as what constitutes too much information," she said. "In general, they're not adept at natural rules of conversation such as who talks, when and how much, when you start talking and when it's time to listen, making eye contact, or being polite even to people who don't attract us. In addition, they find themselves in fewer social settings where they could possibly meet new people, and a history of failures and rejections often leading to low self-esteem."

Although speed dating doesn't seem ideal for people with social difficulties, given that it requires people to make a good first impression quickly and involves interacting with many new people, all it needs is a few adjustments, Wenkert said. Then, the "organized behavior, clear rules and brief interactions can actually be very good for them," she said.

At the May 31 event, one counselor helped a man realize that he did not have to rule out a women he was interested in just because he lives in Tel Aviv and she lives about 12 kilometers away, in Petah Tikva.

When participants with extensive difficulties take part in speed dating, the plan is to give them a sheet with suggested questions to help them conduct conversation. In the first event at least, organizers made an effort to group together people of a similar age and with a similar levels of disability.

Before planning the evening, Steiff and Pilo participated in an evening of regular speed dating to give themselves ideas for how to adapt the event to suit the unique needs of the participants. One change they instituted was limiting the number of rounds.

"The evening we attended had more than 10, and that was very tiring," said Pilo. "So we decided to create a scaled-down version." Another adjustment the organizers made was offering participants the opportunity to consult with counselors during the event.

At the end of the first speed-dating event, most of the participants - a dozen, to be exact - were matched up with someone, meaning that both members of the couple expressed interest in meeting again. The couples received follow-up counseling to prepare for the next date, which they were to arrange independently.

"When we gave them the results there were disappointments, but we felt that even those who left unsatisfied aren't giving up and want to try again," said Steiff. "Like all of us, they too want to find love and not lead lonely lives."