Sitting in a circle, the group of nine men and women giggled nervously as they discussed things not to say or do on a first date.
To an outsider, their suggestions might seem obvious.
“Don’t talk about your last boyfriend or girlfriend,” one plump woman ventured with a giggle.
“Don’t tell them what you don’t like about them,” a broad-shouldered man with curly black hair suggested. “Like, ‘Hey, I don’t like that tic of yours.’”
The others burst into laughter, nodding in agreement.
The discussion was not a training session for recovering fans of George Costanza from “Seinfeld.” The recent session, led by moderator Jeremy Hamburgh in a classroom at the JCC in Manhattan, was part of a dating workshop for young people with Asperger’s syndrome and other special needs. Sponsored by Adaptations, a program that aims to strengthen the independent living skills of special needs individuals, the sessions provide participants with a safe environment to learn about relationships, intimacy and sexuality — areas that individuals with Asperger’s are often ill-equipped to negotiate, because of their inability to perceive many social cues.
Now, these discussion sessions are poised to reach a far greater audience via the Internet. With a grant from the Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation, which focuses on adults on the autism spectrum, Adaptations is developing an online dating site for people with Asperger’s and other developmental disabilities.
Unlike other sites that claim to serve people with Asperger’s, the Adaptations site will use a rigorous screening process to ensure that only people with special needs can join the online group or view its participants. The site will also provide free step-by-step dating advice and offer users help on the meetings the program generates. The site will include a blog and a discussion board, both of which will be open to parents, guardians and educators.
Since its inception seven years ago, Adaptations has attracted some 300 members. In addition to the dating workshop, the program today includes a support group for members who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. There’s also a ”girlfriends group,” which aims to help women develop meaningful friendships with other women, and a sports club for male friendships.
Asperger’s syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, and by restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. People with Asperger’s differ from those with other autism spectrum disorders in that they generally have normal intelligence and near-normal language development.
“As far as I know, Adaptations is the only program in the country that combines dating, socialization support and career help, all in an integrated community center,” said Allison Kleinman, director of Adaptations.