Dating Apps Finally Target This Ignored Community of 70 Million
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
These apps are aimed squarely at the romantic aspirations of the autistic community.
By Fiona Zublin
- A new wave of dating apps is emerging, focused on people on the autism spectrum.
- Standard apps, while open to people with autism, aren’t tailored to their needs, resulting in uncomfortable experiences.
About a decade ago, Dutch web developer Douwe Boschma found out he was on the autism spectrum. One of the struggles that led to was in his dating life. “It was very hard for me to connect with people when they didn’t know that I was autistic,” he says. “So I got this idea of building my own dating website.”
In 2016, Boschma, now 50 and married to a woman who isn’t on the spectrum, launched Aspie Singles, a dating site focused on the autistic community. It’s become a thriving group of about 4,500 people, a side project to his day job that he hopes will help people experiencing the same problems he faced. The site normally gets about 15 or 20 new sign-ups per day.
Boschma isn’t alone in recognizing the unmet demand among people with autism for dating platforms that cater to their specific needs. The CDC estimates that more than 1 percent of the world’s population is on the autism spectrum, meaning more than 70 million people. Standard dating apps like Tinder are open to people with autism, but are designed for those who are neurotypical — people not on the spectrum. That makes them far from ideal as platforms where people with autism can sell themselves as a potential partner.
Hiki, launched in 2019, is one among a growing set of apps that — like Aspie Singles — is pointedly targeting people on the spectrum. Founded by entrepreneur Jamil Karriem, the app has 9,000 users already. Uneepi, an app launched in 2016, has coaches who help people with autism pick up on social cues and learn to communicate their emotions and desires effectively. It has 3,500 users.
“It’s often difficult for [people with autism] to read social cues,” says Elizabeth Mazur, a professor of psychology at Penn State Greater Allegheny, who has studied the use of dating apps by people with various disabilities, including autism. “They may not have had the social experiences many young adults have that build them up to dating, like good friendships and going out in mixed groups.”
Our mission is that all humans deserve access to social opportunities and all kinds of relationships.
Jamil Karriem, founder, Hiki
Though awareness about autism is growing, the condition is still stigmatized. It’s a challenge on traditional dating platforms to decide when to tell a potential partner you have autism. A 2011 analysis of U.S. data found that just 1 percent of people with autism spectrum disorder were married eight years after college graduation — the average age at which Americans get married.
Hiki, which means “able” in Hawaiian, hopes to take on those challenges. It was designed by an autistic woman and tested by people who are on the spectrum, though Karriem himself is neurotypical. Most apps aren’t designed to address challenges around sensory processing that adults with autism often confront. “Our mission is that all humans deserve access to social opportunities and all kinds of relationships,” he says. “Unfortunately, the reality is that within the neurodivergent community, there historically has never been a medium to enable these sorts of relationships.”
Thomas Sheil founded Uneepi after watching the movie Hitch, which stars Will Smith as a professional dating guru who coaches men on how to romance women. He realized dating sites should have coaching services to help people present themselves to potential matches — and, inspired by a different film, decided to focus it specifically on people with autism. Sheil isn’t on the spectrum, but during college he built a computer game to help kids with autism better recognize emotions in others.
Such apps do risk the possibility that people on the spectrum end up looking for — or finding — love only within their own communities.
But the creators emphasize that people without autism are welcome on their apps too — and furthermore, the apps aren’t simply a tool to find romance. They’re also a way to find friends who will understand their experience. “More people are actually joining Hiki to find friends than they are to find a romantic partner,” says Karriem. That can be just as critical for a community often deprived of the social experiences neurotypical people take for granted. It’s all part of becoming “able” in one’s relationships.