Everyone is looking for love

Everyone is looking for love

Workshop helps people with autism learn to date

Two speed-daters talk to each other.
Two speed-daters talk to each other.

Love and companionship. We all want it. But for special needs adults and adults on the spectrum, there can be additional challenges to finding their special someone.

The JCC MetroWest in West Orange just completed the first-of-its-kind initiative to address this need in the community.

The four-week “Looking for Love” workshop was geared toward 21- to 40-year-olds on the autism spectrum who are attempting to navigate the complex world of dating and relationships. “There’s always been a need and interest amongst the special needs community to discuss dating, but that topic became even more popular with the Netflix show ‘Love on the Spectrum,’” Chrystal Immediato, assistant director of special needs services at the JCC, said.

“Guys and girls in their mid to late 20s are seeing their siblings and family members get married — so they are interested in this other aspect of being independent.”

Originally, 43 people applied to the workshop and were interviewed. The organizers wanted to keep it small, so only 15 were accepted. “We didn’t want the workshop too loud or overwhelming for the more sensitive people,” Ms. Immediato said. “We wanted a smaller group, where they’d feel comfortable and confident asking questions.”

The first of four 90-minute sessions on consecutive Tuesday nights at the JCC was opened by Amy Gravino, who talked about her own experiences as a person on the spectrum. Ms. Gravino is a well-known autism sexuality advocate and relationship coach in the Center for Adult Autism Services at Rutgers University. She’s an international speaker who has given TED talks and has spoken twice at the United Nations for World Autism Day.

The “Looking for Love” workshop was supported by a grant from Autism Speaks.

Eleni Katalifos of Livingston was the group facilitator for the workshop, along with Ms. Immediato and Marisa Cohen, the JCC’s director of special needs services. Ms. Katalifos has been working in the special needs world for more than 20 years and began at the JCC in October. She also runs the weekly Ladies’ Night, a social group for women with special needs, and is impressed by all the special needs services at the JCC. “Marisa and Chrystal run everything with such love and especially dignity,” she said. “When Marisa asks me to do something, I just automatically say yes. The programs and the participants are just so special.”

A participant prepares for the workshop.

Participants used role playing and lively discussions on topics of dating and relationships at the workshops. “We talked about really learning to love and accept yourself as the first step,” Ms. Immediato said. “We also spent a lot of time talking about consent and boundaries. We wanted to make sure the participants learned to communicate what’s comfortable and what’s not for them.

“A lot of parents have safety concerns for their kids when it comes to dating,” she added.

The workshop covered such topics as what to wear on a date, what to talk about, how to pick up on social clues, what might be red flags, and dating safety. Discussions of conflict resolution were often humorous but important. What if your date ordered a food you couldn’t stand? What if your date hated your favorite sports team?

“We are all looking for the same thing — love and acceptance,” Ms. Immediato said. “We’re just making sure they have a safe pathway to get it. There’s absolutely a commonality. We just might need to present the information in different ways, multiple times, to make sure we’re covering every base.”

“I found everyone to be very curious,” Ms. Katalifos said. “The group was extremely different — their social needs and their communication skills. But watching snippets from ‘Love on the Spectrum’ and role-playing scenarios was really eye-opening for everyone. Only two of the participants had ever seen the show.”

Typically, more men than women are diagnosed with autism, and the program reflected that statistic. There were 11 men and four women in the workshop. “We would love to have more women for the next workshop,” Ms. Immediato said. “We definitely have enough gentlemen and interest to run it again. I’m getting phone calls every day about it. Or people want to know if there’s a similar program in other areas. Many parents may be more hesitant about their daughters dating.”

The fourth session of the workshop culminated in a speed dating exercise so the participants could put their newly learned skills into practice. The meeting room was transformed into a café-like space, with a hang-out area on one side, and food and drinks, and four beautifully decorated tables on the other side for the speed dating. The women stayed at each table while the men moved from one to the other, giving everyone a chance to talk one-on-one.

Each speed date was three minutes long, with a minute in between for the participants to jot down thoughts about it. Using a snippet from the Netflix show in a previous workshop session, they already had learned not to jot down any notes in front of their date. With Ms. Katalifos, Ms. Immediato, and Ms. Cohen all nearby, the daters were supported throughout the evening.

This sign suggests a possible question.

Large signs were hung on the walls with conversation starters in case the daters got stuck. Do you prefer the beach or the pool? What’s your favorite activity on a weekend? What about your favorite season of the year?

In between, the conversation on the men’s side was animated. While the participants all got to know each other a little bit during the four weeks, this night was really a chance to socialize as friends as well as possibly make a love match. “We really want to conquer the stigma surrounding relationships for special needs people,” Ms. Cohen said above the din of conversation and laughter. “Everyone deserves and wants friends, to be accepted, and included.”

Harrison, 26, and Lucas, 30, knew each other from the College of New Jersey in Stockton, where they’d both been enrolled in the school’s program for students with special needs. Lucas didn’t finish college; Harrison graduated with a degree in special education. The support and camaraderie between the two was evident.

Harrison lived on campus for three years and moved off campus for his senior year. He had a girlfriend for four years, but when the pandemic began, the physical separation made it too difficult to sustain that relationship. Transportation can often be a problem for many people with special needs. “They have to depend on the helpers in their lives,” Ms. Katalifos said. “Their parents may be getting older and not able to drive them around as much, and Ubers can get expensive. Public transportation in this area is not that easy.”

Steven, 29, also went to TCNJ, where he studied graphic design and interactive multimedia. He hadn’t known Harrison or Lucas there and when they met through the workshop, they talked about the dorms and life back in school just like any new friends would.

Shareef, 31, is originally from Newark but has lived in a group home in Morristown for the past two and a half years. Shareef is wheelchair-bound; his dream is to get married and have kids. “I don’t really think it’s best for me to date someone like me, because my partner would need to take care of me,” he said. “But I wanted to take a chance and put myself out there for love.”

Shareef was made a deacon in his church a few years ago, and his faith is a big part of his life. “I believe in God and I have the faith of a mustard seed,” he said, with a smile that lit up his whole face.

The JCC MetroWest special needs services include the Day Habilitation program for adults, which runs year-round, Monday through Friday. Weekly Ladies and Men’s Nights offer casual, fun get-togethers featuring cooking, games, yoga, and sports. The latest addition to special needs services includes an adaptive aquatic program. The JCC plans to run another “Looking for Love” workshop in the fall, although it has not set a date for it.

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