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Dating coaches, who specialize in working with people with autism, are in demand

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Dating isn't always easy. And for decades, dating coaches have offered people help negotiating romantic relationships. More recent trend is dating coaches who specialize in working with people with autism. Sofia Stuart-Rasi reports.

SOFIA STUART-RASI, BYLINE: Leah Rosenthal is in her early 40s, lives in Denver and runs her own consulting business. Growing up, Rosenthal always knew there was something different with her approach to dating. The act of going out and reading people's subtle social cues always caused her anxiety.

LEAH ROSENTHAL: Why can't just - people just be a little more direct on certain things? I mean, I won't say they either like me or don't like me, but it's kind of, like, hard to decipher things.

STUART-RASI: A couple of years ago, Rosenthal was diagnosed with autism and prefers to be known as autistic. When it comes to sharing her diagnosis to a potential romantic partner, she keeps it to herself.

ROSENTHAL: Yes, I'm autistic, but I feel like it doesn't define my whole life. And so I have so much more to, like, offer.

STUART-RASI: Over the years, Rosenthal sought out help from dating coaches, but didn't find them particularly helpful.

ROSENTHAL: Because we - as neurodiverse, we do not see the world as, like, other people see it.

STUART-RASI: Neurodiverse is a term for people whose brains can cause problems with communication, social interactions and relationships, sometimes described as conditions like ADHD and autism. A couple of years ago, Rosenthal started going to very popular relationship meet-ups in Denver. Mandy Staehler, a dating coach who specializes in neurodiverse clients, set them up.

MANDY STAEHLER: It's just really important for people with autism to also have access to this resource if they want someone to really listen.

STUART-RASI: Staehler has a master's degree in special education and has worked with the neurodiverse community for years. When she started coaching, she was quickly booked solid from word-of-mouth recommendations alone. People with autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder, often go through many courses on communication etiquette and manners to mold into our current societal standards. But Staehler says she doesn't tell her clients how to act. She advises them to follow their own path.

STAEHLER: I just think it's important for people to feel valued and listened to.

STUART-RASI: She takes two different approaches to coaching. First is to guide her clients through real-life situations and help them unravel social nuances. Second, she focuses on her clients' unique strengths and then works on relationship goals for them to accomplish on their own terms.

Staehler's approach makes sense, says Zoe Gross with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. She says having relationship coaches who specialize in the neurodiverse community could really help build confidence in people who have faced societal discrimination, like the common stereotype that people with autism don't really have emotions and just wouldn't understand dating.

ZOE GROSS: I think also a lot of people have the idea that people with developmental disabilities don't want to date or don't want to have sex. But the reality is people with developmental disabilities want to date and have sex, you know, about as often as nondisabled people do.

STUART-RASI: Gross does have hesitations that specialized coaching could end up feeding social barriers to truly accept neurodiverse people. So in the end, they would keep carrying the burden of fitting in.

GROSS: I think it's true that the way autistic people act can be a barrier to dating. I think that's because people are discriminatory and not because we're doing something that's inherently wrong.

STUART-RASI: Leah Rosenthal, who works with a relationship coach, says when it comes to dating in the neurodiverse community, it's crucial that the coach understands autism so they can help people like her get through the confusing, uncontrollable world of dating and end up with something everyone deserves.

ROSENTHAL: People want to feel loved. They want to have friends. And so that's, like, really important.

STUART-RASI: For NPR News, I'm Sofia Stuart-Rasi.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMON MARKET'S "NOTHIN' AT ALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.