This is National Autism Awareness Month. The Light it Up Blue campaign is on display all over the world with buildings and features lit up to remind us of the presence of Autism everywhere.
Autism has had a lot of press the last few years. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) just maintained their statistic that 1 in 68 children have ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). But little info is available about how autism affects one of our most basic life experiences, Love.
I had the chance to see a wonderful and unique documentary, Autism in Love, recently at the Portland Museum of Art. Its showing was sponsored by the 2016 Portland Jewish Community Film Festival, and it first ran at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in April, 2015,
There is very little research on autism and love. No one is really talking about it. This film offers a cinematic story that highlights the complexities of love. Their humanness. So much is focused on children in the media, and in research, about cause and interventions. This is a refreshing piece about adults.
The director shares with us an intimate glimpse of several adults with autism in loving relationships – or not – and how having autism affects their personal lives. It is both heartbreaking and optimistic – about something we talk about all the time, through eyes of people whose perspective we really don’t understand.
Although people with autism struggle to express their feelings, they do desire relationships and marriage. People wonder, How does that happen? The film shows that autism is not at odds with love. The deficit isn’t with desire, it’s with the skills needed to understand other people’s feelings and intentions. Individuals with autism are challenged to express themselves through socially-accepted language and behaviors.
In the film, the husband, Stephen, seems oblivious to his wife’s illness. Is he truly oblivious? Does he not care? Or does he struggle to outwardly show his concern?
Another couple, Lindsey & Dave, had remarkably, very specific and deep conversations about their relationship – something I’m sure many of us without autism wish we could have more easily with our partners. It wonderfully dismisses the myth of autism equating to coldness and disinterest in others. It’s as if their disability caused them to use skills that are actually quite helpful to relationships.
But the romantic non-verbal cues (e.g., a wink, a glance, a brief inviting smile with eye contact) are clearly depicted as a challenge – to offer and to recognize. The nuanced spoken language of love, such as “I’m falling for you” is a hurdle for a person with autism. And I did love one character, Lenny’s, honesty. As his mother said, “he lives it out loud, he talks it.” The parents in the film offered some of the most poignant insights into love and relationships, particularly informed from raising a child with autism.
The film offers much hope for people with autism and falling in love; it shows us that people with autism not only want to be loved, but want to offer love as well.
by Linda S. Butler, Ph.D., LCSW
Director of Research & Outcomes