“Autism in Love follows the story of four adults with autism spectrum disorders as they search for and manage romantic relationships.”
Director: Matt Fuller
Writer: Ira Heilveil (concept by)
Originally shown on PBS, this low-key yet heart-touching, even heartbreaking documentary included expressions my son has made, especially those of the young man Lenny. Most people know the word autism or have heard the term Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorder. Some have, at least, a vague definition of what that means, but usually a stereotypical view of how people with autism or Asperger’s spectrum disorders act, how they look, speak, learn and live. This has also been evident in film, such as in “Rain Man”, which stereotype is pervasive. Those with the diagnosis, of course, share some similarities, some baseline behaviors, but individuals can greatly vary as the word spectrum suggests. Not all act like “Rain Man”, and some of the most hurtful words you can say or they can hear is, “You don’t look like–“, “You don’t act like–” as if that is some kind of compliment or something they should be proud of because you said it.
In any case, what the majority of people don’t have is personal interaction or knowledge of these ones, their homes or even more so, how home life, growing up, teaching them, every day interactions go. My son was “normal”, meaning higher spectrum, but a head injury at eleven years old, a result of being bashed in the head with a locker by a bully, resulting in a hole in his skull. It changed his behavior and personality in definite ways. There was cognitive issues, loss of memory but also, and in some ways more devastating, the terrible blow to his self-confidence, self-esteem, trust of people, especially other young people, and of any school setting as staff had repeatedly dismissed or ignored his and our requests for help with and protection from harassment.
Young adults are often very cognizant of being “different”, real or perceived. They want to be “normal”, just as the subjects of the film repeatedly expressed, but as autists or Aspies, being treated like they’re dumb, weird, unworthy, or strange is too often what is normal. Because of some of the inabilities they have such as with self-expression or self-defense, they can come to live in fear of not just others, but also of life never changing: of always feeling/being useless, a perpetual flawed child, of being “stupid” or incapable.
Many are also very perceptive of emotion. They can sense when others feel uncomfortable around them, dislike them or don’t understand them. This can multiply their frustrations, sadness, and depression. It can increase their anxiety and stress, while lowering their self-esteem and self-will. Not surprisingly, as young people and adults, some choose to isolate themselves to be free of judgement, and the kindly meant but ignorant, hurtful words.
As a parent it beyond agony to see your child, your young person struggling, and know how they have struggled for so long. You know you can’t always be there for them, and sometimes you have to let them go. They have to make their way. When? When not to? You don’t really know that either. All parents should or do feel this to some degree but parents of autistic and Asperger’s have special, extra worries because they know there are some things their children cannot handle or it takes longer for them to learn. Not because they are inadequate, but simply they don’t know how, plus that others often have less or no patience for those lacking or coping skills. It would be like expecting a dog or cat to fly. That’s just not for them, and they’re fine the way they are even if they don’t have that ability. They are not less for not having it either, but you do have to protect them from the cliff’s edge.
My son is 18. He feels he has no real future, no hope of a partner. He wants to work and contribute to our household but cannot do many jobs, not for lacking skills, but the fear of others. From being bullied so terribly about his looks and behaviors, he feels he is hideously ugly, unattractive. Like Lenny, he is disappointed and angry with himself because he isn’t “normal”, because he can’t do the things society and others say he SHOULD be doing at this age, as if going to college, getting a car, getting married, making lots of money is what it means to be “good” “normal” and “successful”, as if those things are your worth. The “American Dream”, as it were, but where those who don’t have or can’t do those things have no worth, no reason for living, nothing to contribute.
Lenny’s expressions show what is lacking in many societies as a whole: uniqueness, difference is Bad, with a big B, and from the time they are in mainstream majority society, every look, every lesson shows them they are worthless because they can’t be that “Dream.” They are shown and reinforced they are “less.” They’ve heard the negative, condescending and patronizing comments about autism and Asperger’s. They’re not dumb, and some, especially Asperger’s, often having high and/or higher IQs than others. Imagine feeling that way. Try to imagine seeing how hurt, how miserable, how hopeless these sometimes vulnerable ones feel because of how others and society views them because they have this difference, especially on the difficult for anyone topic of love and relationships.
“Autism in love” is a special documentary whose sincerity is directly connected to the participants and their families who shared not only daily and lifelong struggles, but also their unique purity of expression and honesty that is often at the heart of an autist’s life.