Autism and dating: lessons learned from Reality TV

Tom Iland and his girlfriend

What I learned from watching The Dating Game, The Bachelor, and Beauty and the Geek

By Tom Iland

Do you watch reality TV shows?  How about reality TV dating shows? 

Growing up with autism, ever since elementary school, I wanted to have a girlfriend.  I usually relied on movies or TV shows to guide me through what to talk about with a girl.  Unfortunately, there weren’t many children’s shows that explored the concepts of dating and romance and how to appropriately and effectively talk to a girl.  As a result, I said and did things to girls that scared them and sent them running the other way.  Whether it was calling a girl too often without her calling back, introducing myself and then immediately asking her if she wanted to be my girlfriend, or talking about Star Wars and other topics only I liked and she didn’t, I wasn’t exactly popular with the ladies.  Thanks to insights from my mother, younger sister and some carefully considered reality TV shows, I learned more about what women want in a relationship, how to tell whether or not a woman is interested in me and how to be more considerate of a woman’s needs while feeling great about myself in the process.

Reality TV has come a long way over the years, particularly when it comes to romance and dating.  Although marketed as “reality” and to represent how people regularly live and conduct themselves without scripts, in order to be more entertaining, there actually tend to be a few hints of fantasy in these shows that might make reality TV not so realistic.  Here are a few examples:

The Dating Game

This was one of the earliest examples of matchmaking on TV which featured a contestant on the show asking questions of three eligible members of the opposite sex.  The catch?   The contestant doesn’t know what the three eligible bachelors/bachelorettes look like (nor do they know what the contestant looks like) and could only judge by their voices and the answers they gave.  In the end, the contestant picks one of the three to go on a date with and then the two meet face-to-face. 

One of the not-so-realistic aspects of this show is the content of the questions the contestant asks.  Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared as a contestant on this show in 1973 during his Mr. Universe days and, with his sexy Austrian accent, proceeded to ask the three bachelorettes some very…awkward questions.  One such question he asked was, “There are some expressions I still don’t understand.  What does it mean…‘hanky panky’?”  Gentlemen, if you ask a woman that question on a first date, you might risk being slapped or scaring the woman into thinking you only care about the physical aspects of the relationship.  Do your best to avoid bringing up sex or anything sexual on the first date or even anything about a woman’s body which brings us to another question that Arnold asked the ladies.  “These are my measurements: biceps…22 inches, chest…57, waist…33, thighs…29…what do we have in common?”  Gentlemen, in case you didn’t already know, women tend to be very sensitive about their bodies and their body images. 

Lessons learned: On a first date, avoid talking about anything sexual, physical or on the outside with a woman…UNLESS it’s to give her a compliment.  For instance, “I like your hair!” or “You look beautiful!” are nice things to say to a woman.

The Bachelor (The Bachelorette)

Nearly 30 years after Arnold’s Dating Game appearance, a new reality TV dating game was introduced into our lives.  The Bachelor (The Bachelorette) took us through the decision-making process for a person when he/she has to decide between not just three, but over TWENTY potential people over the course of many weeks, in the hopes of finding “the one” to become a spouse with at the end of the season. 

Right off the bat, this entire series seemed farfetched, to say the least.  It would seem very surprising for any man or woman to realistically be dating over twenty people at the same time and still live a life of purpose!  What kept this show going for so many seasons was the drama that ensued amongst the people competing for the affections of the bachelor/bachelorette.  There’s inherent difficulty and awkwardness as different personality types clash and, in some cases, people were inauthentic, pretending to be something or someone that they were not in a desperate effort to find and become a spouse. 

Although the show is considered ‘reality TV,’ it went and continues to go against the norm that relationships should be exclusive and based on fidelity.  In other words, a person only dates one person at a time and is faithful to him/her until the relationship is declared over.  This show gave us a taste of just some of the possible consequences of being in too many open relationships.  Gentlemen, if you’re on a date with a woman you really like, but you accidentally call her by another woman’s name, particularly during “hanky panky” (see previous section), it’s over.

Lessons learned: It’s probably best to date and focus your energy and efforts on one person at a time instead of seeing multiple people at once.  Women like to be valued and want you to pay attention to her, and her alone, instead of other women. 

Beauty and the Geek

Shortly after The Bachelor premiered, so did a social experiment started by Ashton Kutcher called Beauty and the Geek.  This show featured eight beautiful women that had gotten ahead in life through their looks and had shallow tendencies getting paired up with eight geeky men that were extremely brilliant and socially awkward.  (It’s reasonable to assume that some of these men may have been on the autism spectrum!)  Living in one house together over a number of weeks, the pairs went through a series of physical and mental challenges outside of their comfort zones intended to teach what the opposite sex found important and interesting.

This reality TV series was realistic and taught me the most about what women wanted in relationships and reflected a lot of what my family had taught me up to this point.  For instance, to stress the importance of listening, in one challenge, men had to sketch a nude model while she was talking about herself, but the men were later judged not by their art, but by their ability to recall what the nude model had talked about.  The show also encouraged continued progress since, every week, a pair would have to leave the competition if they didn’t correctly answer enough questions about what they’d studied that week.  Although there were some personality clashes like in The Bachelor, at the end of the day, the women found more empathy and learned that they’re worth so much more than how they look on the outside and the men found more confidence and learned that they have something to offer a relationship. 

My biggest takeaway from this series was the importance of keeping my clothing, hairstyle and overall hygiene clean and up-to-date.  Halfway through each season, the ‘geeks’ received makeovers which included a new wardrobe, new hairstyle and getting parts of their faces and torsos waxed.  To this day, I continue to get my eyebrows waxed every six to eight weeks after seeing it season after season on the show.  Gentlemen, as my sister said to me and as reinforced by this show, “Girls like a guy that keeps himself clean.”

Lessons learned: The most beautiful woman on the outside might not be the most beautiful on the inside.  Taking genuine interest in the opposite sex and genuinely caring about what they want and have to say will help you go far and to many places in life.  Take care of yourself, inside and out, first and foremost.

Indeed, reality TV dating shows have come a long way over the years and continue to be a source of great entertainment and education for viewers around the globe.  People with autism and their allies can learn a lot on what to do, and more importantly what NOT to do, from reality TV shows and have fruitful and successful relationships.  As a reminder, people with autism often do desire friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, spouses, intimacy, etc. and are still learning how to make friends, how to be a good date, how to take care of themselves, etc.  Be mindful of those hints of fantasy in shows marketed as “reality TV,” be considerate of those you enter into a relationship with and help others by sharing your own lessons learned from reality TV dating!


Tom IlandTom Iland won first place for humor at a Toastmaster’s competition for the above piece.

Tom Iland’s achievements include graduating from Cal State University Northridge, becoming a Certified Public Accountant, and working in corporate America. Tom is now pursuing a professional career as a speaker and trainer sharing insights and practical advice with the Autism community. His new book Come to Life: A Guide to Transition to Adulthood (co-authored with Emily Iland) will be released this November. Tom is a Board member for the Art of Autism nonprofit. to find out more about Tom visit his website – Tom’s new book ‘Come to Life! Your Guide to Self-Discovery’ (co-authored with Emily Iland) is now available to the public!

Header photo: This is me and my girlfriend, Dianne, at a meeting of Wine & Dine Toastmasters. I met her at a Singles Night in Santa Clarita four years ago. We saw each other at a street party and a networking event in the weeks that followed and became a couple shortly after that. Paying her compliments including but not limited to, “You look like Cameron Diaz,” listening to what she has to say without judgment (which I learned from “Beauty and the Geek”) and making her feel welcome and safe in my home are some of the things that have helped me in our relationship.

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