The way to Paulette Penzvalto's heart is through her Outlook calendar. “Honestly, if you want to be romantic with me, send an email through Outlook and give me all the possible dates, locations, and times, so that I can prepare,” she said.
The former Miss America contestant and Juilliard-trained opera singer knew she had a different conception of romance than her previous boyfriends had and, for that matter, everyone else.
“People tend to think of romance as spur of the moment and exciting,” she told me. “I think of romance as things that make sense and are logical.” However, she didn't know why until this year when, at the age of 31, when she was diagnosed with autism.
The aspects of autism that can make everyday life challenging—reading social cues, understanding another's perspectives, making small talk and exchanging niceties—can be seriously magnified when it comes to dating. Though the American Psychiatric Association defines autism as a spectrum disorder—some people do not speak at all and have disabilities that make traditional relationships (let alone romantic ones) largely unfeasible, but there are also many who are on the "high-functioning" end and do have a clear desire for dating and romance.
Autism diagnosis rates have increased dramatically over the last two decades (the latest CDC reports show one in 50 children are diagnosed
), and while much attention has been paid to early-intervention programs for toddlers and younger children, teens and adults with autism have largely been overlooked—especially when it comes to building romantic relationships.