AuSM's highly trained, certified therapists have committed their careers to helping individuals with autism understand their diagnosis and address both the challenges and gifts the diagnosis can bring. The AuSM Counseling and Consulting Services team works in partnership with you to develop a plan based on your needs.
Dear Sara,

My son is 17 and wants so badly to be in a relationship. He has a few friends, but he wants to meet a girl. Unfortunately he has met a number of people online, misinterpreted their intentions, and had negative experiences.

Recently he met a girl who said she lived a few hours away. She quickly confessed (within a few weeks) that she was in love with him, and she then told him she had been in a bad accident and was in the hospital. She asked for money to get her car fixed and some medical bills, and he said he would give it to her. He tried to contact her in the hospital and found out no one had been admitted from an accident as she stated. 

It was obvious she was trying to swindle him, and it took the hospital telling him this for him to believe it. He is depressed and worried he will never know how to trust someone online. I told him to quit trying to find relationships online and to get out in the real world, but he does not seem to want to hear that. I realize it is easier for him to meet someone online than it is in person, but I'm concerned for his safety.

-Mom Against Internet Romance

Dear Mom,

This sounds like a very challenging situation. First, you may want your son to see a therapist if he is sad and grieving the loss of the idea of a relationship, which is common, or if he is demonstrating more signs of depression. Sometimes our clients have such a history of failure in trying to connect with others that their self-esteem is very low and they may be very depressed. Assure your son that he is not the only one that this has happened to, and that his struggle to find romance does not diminish his value.

It sounds like your son is open with you, and if that is true, try to keep an open line of communication by listening to his feelings and how interacting online fulfills some of his social need. Remember the emotions he is feeling are real, even though the person he is interacting with may not have been honest. Our desire for connection can be so intense that we can be fooled, and sometimes our gut may say no, but our heart says yes. 

It sounds like you have recognized that your son struggles with reading emotion, context, and danger online, whether that means he gets taken advantage of or he misinterprets friendly relationships as romantic.

It may be helpful if your son learns or develops some guidelines for interacting with potential people he wants to date online to keep himself safe. Most of my clients will say that they know not to give out their personal information or their address but do not know if they are beginning to be scammed. What happened to your son sounds like a common “catfish” scam. Catfishing is when someone assumes a fake identity online and then tries to enter into a relationship, sometimes just to be mean, but mostly to ultimately scam someone out of money. 

You can find many tips online on what to look for in someone trying to catfish or scam someone. Big indicators include: a too good to be true or picture perfect looking photo, someone who says they are in love with you really quickly, or someone who asks for a nude picture. Another indicator may be if the person only speaks in vague generalizations or has a lot of tragedy that just happened such as the hospital experience. Be very wary immediately if anyone asks for money. 

Tell your son he can ask someone to read some of his interactions or look at the person’s profile to see what they think. Another safety tip is making sure that everyone is very aware of age and the age of any person with whom they are sharing information. If the person is under 18 and engages in any sharing or viewing of someone under the age of 18, they can be considered to be viewing child pornography.    
      
Whether you like it or not, online relationships are here to stay. Online relationships are different to navigate, but some relationship building is similar to meeting in real life (IRL). Most intimate long-term meaningful relationships do not happen overnight. One way to think about relationships is in phases. There's phase one, which is typically lots of meeting up in the place you have in common, such as school or work, and talking about the thing you have in common. Then as the relationship grows you may go into more topics or things that are personal. In a second phase there is an agreement to meeting outside of the place you first met. It is important that the person your son is talking to is willing to talk over the phone, skype or video meeting. After meeting over phone and video and waiting some time, it may be time to meet IRL. Meeting IRL should also come with safety precautions, like meeting in a public place with people around.

Now, of course, this is not how every relationship is developed, but it can be used as a guideline to help people. Sometimes people are feeling so desperate to have a connection that they try to jump from the first phase to the final phase, which usually throws the other person off and then actually ends the relationship instead of strengthening it. We sometimes tell our clients it may be more beneficial to work on becoming a good friend and learning how to reciprocate and be there for another person before trying to get into a dating relationship. Friendship skills are the foundation of a more intimate relationship. However, people still have strong desires to connect and be more than friends. Sometimes the circle curriculum or a modified visual of the circles can be helpful for someone with ASD to see that there are phases and if you try to pull someone from the acquaintance circle to the intimate circle that may push them away.     

Unfortunately, there is no magic wand for meeting people online and avoiding a broken heart. However, if you and your son keep an open line of communication, review safety strategies, build a support network that can give him feedback, and work on building robust friendships, he may be able to avoid scams and (some) heartache in the future.

Remember that all 17 year olds experience struggles when learning to date. While your son's particular difficulties might be different from many of his peers, this is the time of life where we all make mistakes, learn, and grow. These challenges now will help him to navigate better as he grows older.

-Sara
AuSM Counseling and Consulting Services
Dr. Amy Carrison, PsyD, LADC
Sara Pahl, MS, BCBA, LPCC, NCC
Dr. Jennifer S. Reinke, PhD, LAMFT, CFLE
Barbara L. Photo
Dr. Barb Luskin, PhD, LP
Beth Pitchford, LPCC
Pronouns she/her
Meg Benefield, MSW, LICSW
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