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It’s date night at Englewood’s Brewability Lab, and the room is filled with the smell of pizza and hops, as well as a palpable sense of nervous energy. The host, Neurodiverse Connections, a Denver social coaching program for people on the autism spectrum, is putting on its first mixer. And for many attendees, this night in late October is their first time dipping their toe into the dating pool.
One 30-something enters Brewability with rigidly proper posture and nervously belts out hello to the women at the registration table. He grabs his name tag and scribbles his main interest below it: trains. The next person to enter mentions her own affinity for Harry Potter. As more people arrive, one of the event’s hosts, Mandy Staehler, facilitates them around the restaurant. “Hey, I am so glad you came,” she tells a man in his early 20s. “The girl wearing red over there,” she says, pointing, “really likes board games and books, and is also very talkative. I think you two will get along.”
Staehler is spot on. The two attendees exchange basic greetings and opening questions: “Hello”; “What’s your name?”; “What are your interests?”; “Oh, that’s cool. Do you like video games?” After a few minutes, they’re playing Uno, conversing, making sassy remarks about the game, and, just maybe, sparking a little bit of chemistry.
It’s the type of interaction Staehler and her co-founder Molly Mason—both of whom have a background in special education—imagined they could facilitate when they launched the Neurodiverse Connections in July. Their aim is to provide self-advocacy and community awareness for neurodiverse individuals through events. They also provide $30 private coaching sessions to people on the autism spectrum looking to find a romantic connection.
“At the end of the day, we’re just two educators who want to help others,” Staehler says. “Finding friendships and relationships as an adult can be challenging for anyone. After all, who doesn’t need a little support in getting out there?”
But Neurodiverse Connections and Brewability, a restaurant that only employs people with disabilities, aren’t the only Denver-area entities working in this space. College Living Experience (CLE), a program that supports college students living on the autism spectrum, recently developed a series of weekly workshops to help facilitate discussions on the topic of dating for neurodiverse individuals.
At a recent meeting with six male students, Jess Ruderman, the program director of CLE, which has served the neurodiverse community since 1989, started by asking: “What are some questions you all want answered about dating?” Queries ranged from “Where should I meet people I want to date?” to “Why even bother?” to “How do you ever get from small talk to meaningful conversation without oversharing?”
Social mores that neurotypical people might unconsciously follow are the ones CLE teaches, like greeting and asking someone’s name, discussing their interests, thanking others when complimented and reciprocating, etc. There’s also training on physical cues, such as noticing how someone does or does not make eye contact, along with how that can signal their comfort level.
“All my students are extremely genuine, which is a great trait for relationships,” says Justin Malone, social coach for CLE’s weekly dating discussions. “There is no deceit or lying with these students. If we can give them the skills to feel confident dating, I know they could make someone really happy.”
Social situations can overload the sensory processing for many people living on the autism spectrum, as they can become hyperfocused on one thing at a time. Oftentimes, being neurodiverse is associated with forms of savantness. Providing structure, rules, and explanations for social encounters helps those who are on the spectrum navigate tricky subjects like dating.
Indeed, at the end of the event at Brewability this past month, attendees were given a card to exchange contact information with others they were interested in talking with again. The back of the card gave guidelines for respecting the space of others, like limiting contact attempts to two. Those who did match had an option to go on a first date at the Englewood restaurant with volunteer couples that Brewability founder Tiffany Fixer finds outside of the neurodiverse community. The idea is that a double date can both relieve pressure and model what a healthy relationship might look like.
In the future, Neurodiverse Connections hopes to develop two different types of mixers: independent events for those living on their own, and supported events for those needing more social coaching, visual support, and a more structured layout. These updated events will begin in January 2022 and will include an entrance fee of $10.
“Some people’s friends might not even know they are on the spectrum and just think their friend is quirky,” Staehler says. “That group of people might be ready for a speed dating event like you see on [Netflix’s] Love on the Spectrum. That is an untapped, unsupported community of people who are very independent but do not feel like they fit in. That’s who we want to help and cater events for.”