Healthy dating relationships are an important part of development. However, a significant number of high school students say that they have experienced dating violence. While there are not national statistics on how many young people with autism have had similar experiences, the fact that many people with autism have trouble with social skills is a good reason to teach healthy dating skills.
In 2019, OAR provided funding for a one-year study, “Safer Dating for Youth with ASD,” to 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. They developed and pilot tested a six-session online healthy dating curriculum for youth with autism ages 14 to 18 and their parents/caregivers.
To develop the curriculum, the research team collected information from a small group of teens with autism and their parents about what they believed would be important to include in a healthy dating relationships class. Researchers asked about the needs of youth with autism, the information that would be most useful to learn, and preferred length and session format.
The team used that information to adapt Safe Dates, an evidence-based, 10-session, classroom-based curriculum for neurotypical youth, for the preferences and needs of young people autism. The same group of teens and parents reviewed the adapted curriculum, as did an advisory board that included autistic adults, professional autism advocates and service providers, pediatricians, and a dating violence prevention expert.
The final curriculum was used for a six-week weekly class, Safer Dating for Autistic Youth, which took place in May and June 2019. Two co-facilitators led the online class via Zoom, which permitted student participants to engage with one another through live-streamed video and audio and to chat with one another and the entire group using the simultaneous chat function. The software also made it possible for facilitators to share their screen and display a whiteboard for written notes, show worksheets, or present video clips for group discussion.
Eleven teens with autism, of all genders, participated. They were recruited because they had an interest in dating at some time in the next year and because they had a degree of independence from caretakers that would make engaging in a dating relationship at some time during their young adulthood highly possible.
Participants were enthusiastic about the intervention. They reported feeling like it was informative and ran smoothly. A particular strength of the intervention was the use of Zoom software for delivering the class, given that participants could use the chat to type thoughts and feelings while simultaneously listening to the conversation and audio content. These comments from the participants reflect the positive feedback:
- “The supplementary material and the discussion between students were very informative.”
- “The class worked perfectly.”
- “I liked the easy access to the video chat.”
- “I liked the hands-on activities it really put things into perspective and being over a video call made it easier to talk to everyone.”
The majority of the criticism participants offered related to the material, which they felt was too basic.
Thanks to funding from OAR, the research team was able to create and test a science-based safe-dating curriculum that is effective and appealing based on this study. And it is accessible — Safer Dating for Youth on the Autism Spectrum is available for free at the Boston Medical Center Autism Program website.