Autism and Love: What We Can Learn

 

With autism affecting one in every 68 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s not surprising that the topic is popping up in documentaries. Two recent films, Aspie Seeks Love and Autism in Love, take on the delicate topic of how being on the spectrum affects relationships.

Aspie Seeks Love

Aspie Seeks Love is a documentary that follows a man named David Matthews, who was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome late in life. Matthews, who is now 50, learned he had Aspergers when he was 41. The film centers around his 20-year pursuit of a lasting romantic relationship. Matthews is from Pittsburgh, as is filmmaker Julie Sokolow, who found him after noticing the personal ads he’d papered onto utility poles all around town.

The nice thing about this movie is that it doesn’t slap you in the face with the fact that Matthews, a talented artist and writer, has Aspergers syndrome. Rather, it feels very natural in terms of observing someone in a struggle that so many people face, whether they’re on the spectrum or not. However, there are some heart-tugging moments, too, that will hit home especially hard for people with Aspergers or or autism or those who love them. For example, we learn that Matthews asked his friends in college to take a photo with him so he could prove to his family that he really did have friends.

Another such moment occurs when one of Matthews’ girlfriends says she was asked whether he’s actually capable of love. While it’s a well-known stereotype that people on the spectrum have trouble with emotions, most of those who don’t live with Aspergers don’t think about how the effects play into a person’s life and the perceptions of those around him.

Matthews has many of the traits often associated with Aspergers or high-functioning autism. His high intelligence is counterpointed by his social awkwardness, and his personality has little oddities that fit right in with the disorder’s typical symptoms. While some with Aspergers have trouble understanding jokes, Matthews has a dry wit that he shows throughout the film, and he never comes off as being stuck in a pool of pity, even though his sadness and loneliness slips through the humor.

Ultimately, Matthews is a sympathetic, relatable person, even for those who aren’t on the spectrum. Who hasn’t ever felt lonely? Who hasn’t despaired at some point of ever finding a partner? Matthews’ struggles might be complicated by his Aspergers, but it’s still a universal struggle.

Autism in Love

Rather than focus on just one person, the documentary Autism in Love, which was screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, follows the story of four individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder as they navigate the ups and downs of life and relationships.

One of the strengths of this film, which was directed and co-produced by Matt Fuller, is that it presents several different intriguing scenarios. We follow Lenny, a single man with autism who lives at home with his mother but yearns to find his special someone. Then we meet Dave and Lindsey, a couple who both have the disorder. Many people struggle to connect emotionally with their partners even with any outside challenges. Dave and Lindsey have the usual ups and downs, as well as complications caused by their disorder. Last is Greta, a neurotypical woman who’s been married to Steve, an autistic man, for 20 years. Now she’s fighting terminal cancer and struggles with both her disease and his, even as Steve struggles to express his feelings about the impending loss of his longtime partner.

As in Aspie Seeks Love, you’ll see that many of the struggled shown in Autism in Love are things faced by virtually every couple. The twist here is that the communication challenges inherent to many people on the spectrum add a layer of complication. You can’t help but be drawn in to each of the poignant tales, and the fact that most of the parties involved have ASD becomes secondary to the human interest stories.

As the autistic population grows, more and more people on the spectrum will be seeking partners and trying to make their intimate relationships work. Aspie Seeks Love and Autism in Love both offer fascinating looks at how that affects real people.