Relationships are hard.
A theme brought up by almost every talk show host, therapist, advice blog, and B-rated rom-com, romantic relationships arguably stand to be among the most difficult things any person is expected to undergo in their lives. For people living with Autism, these challenges are compounded by deficits in their ability to interact and communicate in a dynamic social environment. This often manifests in forms ranging from troubles with conversation and relating with people, to actions that are considered socially deviant such as stalking and making inappropriate comments (Stokes, Newton, & Kaur, 2007).
Despite these challenges, there are many on the spectrum that are able to overcome their shortcomings and enjoy great, lasting relationships. Among the population that I have worked with as a residential counselor, there were many relationships of all types—even some marriages and engagements. Like neurotypical relationships, couples with Autism also deal with the good and the bad; whether it is going on a romantic date, remembering an anniversary or special occasion, or—on the flip side—arguing when somebody forgets an anniversary or ducks on a date to do something else.
Perhaps one of the most intimate portrayals of how romantic relationships are seen from the point of view of people with Autism is shown in the documentary Autism in Love. Directed by Matt Fuller, Autism in Love follows the lives of four adults with Autism and their individual struggles to find love and companionship in a wide open world. Fuller’s choice of characters in particular provided a diverse assortment of perspectives on romantic life, with each person representing the struggle of a specific life period. While we do see the effects of the symptoms of Autism has on each person, we also see many striking similarities to the struggles of neurotypical people. Lenny’s story proved resonant with the struggles of those coming out of adolescence, as he journeyed to overcome the hardships of finding and accepting his identity in his struggle to reconcile his condition with how he thinks others perceive him. Lindsay and Dave’s story mirrored many others in long term relationships, spending most of the documentary weighing the pros and cons of marriage while trying to reconcile the differences between Lindsay’s artsy, emotion-driven personality and Dave’s scientific, matter-of-fact personality. Stephen’s story represented those on the later end of life, as he found himself having to cope with the realities of a dying wife.
Stories such as the ones found in Autism in Love (among countless others) not only highlight the way the disorder affects how they handle romantic life, but more importantly emphasizes the importance of the universally human need to feel loved and accepted. They dispel the notion that being on the spectrum somehow automatically makes one unable to enjoy a loving relationship—that despite the seemingly insurmountable inability or apprehension to socialize with others, people with Autism still ultimately want to be loved and accepted like everyone else.
Stokes, M., Newton, N., & Kaur, A. Stalking, and Social and Romantic Functioning Among Adolescents and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord (2007). 37: 1969–1986 DOI 10.1007/s10803-006-0344-2
Link to the documentary Autism in Love