Skip to main content

News and Knowledge

In October, OAR’s Board of Directors authorized funding for eight new applied autism research studies in 2019. These new grants, totaling $228,036, bring OAR’s total research funding to over $3.7 million since 2002. This is the second of eight previews to be featured in The OARacle this year.

Approximately 10 percent of all U.S. high school male students and 20 percent of female students report experiencing physical and/or sexual dating violence each year. While there are no national statistics on the prevalence of dating violence among youth with autism, available data suggests this population may be at elevated risk. In addition, the fact that many youth with autism need coaching to help them with social skills and social information processing supports the need for teaching healthy dating skills.

In a one-year OAR-funded study, “Safe Dating for Youth with ASD,” a team of researchers will develop and pilot test a six-session online healthy dating curriculum for youth with autism and their parents/caregivers. Principal investigators Megan Bair-Merritt, MD, MSCE, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine and associate division chief of general pediatrics, and Emily Rothman, ScD, professor of community health science at the Boston University School of Public Health and co-director of the Violence Prevention Research Unit, will lead the research team.

Evidence-based, Online Curriculum for Youth and Parents

That curriculum will be adapted from Safe Dates, an evidence-based, 10-session, classroom-based curriculum for neurotypical youth to address both the social information processing differences and the strengths that youth with autism may bring to relationships. In addition, the adapted curriculum will be taught via highly interactive activities instead of lectures.

The topics addressed in the curriculum will include:

  • What counts as healthy, unhealthy, or abusive in a dating relationship
  • Understanding why some people become abusive
  • Understanding how social norms influence the health of dating relationships
  • Maintaining peer and family relationships when dating for safety
  • Speaking up when peers’ relationships seem unsafe
  • Being sensitive to the ways in which dating as a person with autism may be unique
  • Understanding where, when and how to get help

It will also take into account the fact that video games and other media often contain explicit content that potentially alters expectations about communication, and that youth may use texting to communicate with prospective dating partners.

Study Format

The researchers will recruit two groups of youth with autism and parents. The first group of eight young people (between the ages of 14 and 17) and eight parents will provide input for the adaptation of the Safe Dates curriculum. Through telephone interviews, researchers will elicit feedback about what the youth and parents believe would be important to include in a healthy dating relationships class, including the needs of youth with autism, the information that would be most useful to learn, and preferred length and session format. The calls will be recorded and transcribed so that the transcripts can be analyzed.

An expert advisory board, made up of professionals with expertise in providing services to youth with autism and an expert on the Safe Dates curriculum, will review the adapted curriculum and provide feedback. The research team will modify the curriculum based on that feedback.

Once that version is ready, the first group of youth and parents will provide feedback, and the research team will update the curriculum a final time.

The second group of eight young people and eight parents will pilot test the curriculum. The virtual class will consist of six sessions, delivered once a week on a weeknight.

The research team will also convene the class members for an additional session within two weeks after the last class session. This final, recorded group meeting will be a focus group-style session during which the researchers will ask participants about their satisfaction and recommendations for improving the curriculum. In addition, the pilot test will include pre- and post-test measures, but they will not be statistically significant. Rather, they will help the research team estimate the curriculum’s effectiveness.

The final step in the research will be to reconvene the advisory board. Before that reconvening, board members will receive a copy of the revised curriculum, output of the pre- and post-test evaluation, a report on fidelity, and final recommendations related to ideal class implementation. Board members will then provide guidance for a final update of the curriculum.


The ultimate goal of this pilot project is to improve the quality of life for individuals with autism by creating an evidence-based, user-friendly healthy dating curriculum designed for rapid adoption and spread. The immediate goal of the project is to provide data and information that will inform a subsequent, large-scale trial of a healthy dating education intervention.

The research team’s goal is to move the field forward so that youth with autism and their parents have access to a science-based safe-dating curriculum that is effective, inexpensive, and appealing to families.