Autism In Love–What We Can Learn from this Film
With yet another Valentine’s Day having come and gone, forming loving connection continues to be a worthwhile discussion for some persons with autism. Love is certainly nuanced and elusive. Many believe that Love is also essential. Documentary films have covered relationships, love, and autism, but none like Autism in Love.
Autism In Love is a documentary that takes viewers on a journeys into the human experience of love through the lens of four different individuals with autism. This documentary explores powerful emotions between parent-child, intimate partners, and relationships with self and others across various stages of life. It is raw, honest, and real.
Emotional connection and vulnerability are not just ‘touchy-feely’ pseudo-science. Love and human connection are necessary, something we are hardwired to achieve. We value a sense of belonging and it hurts to feel alone. This does not change with the neurological differences associated with autism spectrum disorders. Autism In Love explores the powerful need to connect through their stories: Lenny, the single twenty something; David & Lindsey; the couple about to get engaged, and Stephen & Gita, a married couple of 20 years contending with the fragility of love.
Generally when autism is the subject of a documentary the dominate themes are of disability, usually portrayed from the able-ist director’s point of view. Often filmmakers portray autism in a narrow context, assuming to educate the viewer on a disability, with the autistic person as inspiration, or parent as hero.
Autism in Love does something different. Filmmakers Matt Fuller, Caroline Groppa, and Ira Heilveil avoided interviews with professionals, relying almost exclusively on narratives by people with autism and their families. The documentary escapes common clichés and sometimes harmful representations of autistic people by letting the stories of real people be at the center.
Autism in Love is more than a documentary about autism. It’s a courageous story of vulnerability.
Vulnerability, as defined by Brene Brown, is the courage to show up and be seen when you have zero control over the outcome. It seems that these filmakers had no outcome in mind, no storybook ending. During interviews and observations the story evolved. All that was asked of Lenny, Lindsey, David and Stephen was to explore their thoughts and share their personal memories about their experience of love.
By the end of the film the message became clear. Love is a human need, a universal quality that connects all of us. To love and be loved takes vulnerability. Lenny, Stephen, Lindsey and David are living that message.
Each individual in Autism In Love is unique. Each highlighting another important aspect of love. Each offering something to be learned.
David & Lindsey
With the endearing charm of a Hollywood rom-com couple, Lindsey and David’s story begins during the tender process of figuring out if your partner is ‘the one.’ At first glance, this couple seems to represent our common love mythology that opposites attract. Lindsey, the doe-eyed creative pairs with David, the nerdy meteorologist. Of course, viewers are immediately rooting for this couple.
David has his quirky and sometime comical ways of boiling down dating, love, and intimacy into an easily understood formulas. (And in case you haven’t seen Autism In Love just yet, the answer is ‘yes’, each aspect is weighted to allow more important qualities to have a larger effect on the solution.) Yet ultimately he concurs “Love is complex, a force, which is not quantifiable.” Something we all agree upon. Lindsey is the self-reflecting artist. She is soft spoken and values her quiet time. She is ……
As a couple, Lindsey and David are captured having several misunderstandings. One such memorable moment is when David attends to the weather report, rather than his partner. Presumably, David’s interest in the weather channel is meant to represent a common characteristic associated with autism—the over-focus on a special interest. Yet all of us in intimate partnerships have had misunderstanding such as these. All of us have ignored our partner, or been blown off. If I had a nickel for every time I see this happening, not only in my own relationship, but the relationships between those who are close to me…lets just say I’d have lots of nickels and leave it at that. This experience, missed communication and moments between people, has less to do with autism and more to do with the pitfalls of being in a relationship.
In the final moments of the film, we come to understand that David and Lindsey have very real differences. Yet, they both look to one another as a source of comfort and safety. What they have in common is their desire to fully understand one another. Lindsey and David choose the risk of being their authentic selves, of being vulnerable, even when it feels overwhelming. In doing so, they both realize that although they were whole without each other, they create something beautiful together, something with a whole lot of love.
What we learn:
Learn to be brave, learn to be vulnerable. Being your authentic self with a trusted partner is essential to developing a secure base for lasting love.
Lovable Lenny is a young man in his early twenties that feels broken. It hurt to watch his negative self appraisal and the way he devalued himself. The opening of the film captures Lenny in his apartment, experiencing deep despair about having his heart broken. The millennial in the film seems to have an attitude that is all too common in his generation, that money makes the man. Lenny also shares his antiquated views on love and marriage –including that woman only marry men that make more than them. Interestingly, Labor Bureau statistics indicate that woman out earn their husbands in 38% of marriages, with this number growing substantially each year.
During the film Lenny’s mother gently tries to guide her son’s thinking, inviting him to question his own assumptions about what woman want. His mother is clear, Lenny has some inadequate views about love and relationships that he has likely gathered from youtube videos, media, and immature acquaintances.
Through Lenny’s story, we understand that he’s a good person with big heart. Being in his early twenties, Lenny oscillates between wanting to be in a committed partnership and wanting more casual experiences. Throughout his story, Lenny allows us into his deepest pain. He feels that he is unlovable because he has autism.
Lenny engages us in his courageous quest to figure out if he is ‘enough.’ Unfortunately, Lenny believes he isn’t. He loathes himself. I cringed with concern when Lenny confidently espouses what it takes to get a girl. Yet this moment is nothing compared to the empathy viewers feel when Lenny’s isolations becomes too much for him to handle. He grapples with guilt after hiring a prostitute. He breaks down in tears filled with self-resentment, contempt, and deep shame. His life unravels quickly and viewers must contend with the hard reality of how isolation and failure affect a young man’s mental health. During the filming, his despair is too much and he is hospitalized to seek treatment for his comorbid depression and autism spectrum disorder.
It is hard not to feel for sensitive and sweet Lenny. If he could only see himself through the viewer’s eyes. He is perfectly imperfect. Hopefully he figures this out before it is too late.
What we learn:
Learn to reject messages of inadequacy related to labels. You are not broken because you have autism. You are worthy of love and have value. If you don’t believe this, find a way to start. Surround yourself with people who allow you to be you. Internalize messages that you are good enough. Seek help when it is needed.
When viewers are introduced to Stephen, we see a middle aged man sitting in a kitchen with his aging parents. With an homage to Rainmain, Stephen is captured watching Jeopardy, chiming in with the correct answer to Alex Trebeck’s questions. Based on this first scenes, viewers contend with their own biases about love and relationships. Like many others, we immediately assume that Stephen is a lonely man with autism that lives with his parents. This is in fact true for the moment, but the loneliness comes from bereavement. His wife of 18 years recently lost her long battle with cancer.
Stephen’s autism appears to be what many consider to be a classic representation of autism with noticeable processing delays, concise verbal responses to direct questions, and some repetition in speech. His life is full of routines and he seems to thrive within this structure. Many might wonder with this classic representation of autism, is Stephen capable of love? Thankfully the filmmakers rejected able-ist assumptions by showing Stephen and Gita, a couple that has certainly lasted the test of time, while also living with disabilities.
Sadly, Gita and Stephen’s love story is cut short by cancer. By words alone, one might conclude that Stephen isn’t emotionally processing the death of his wife. Stephen’s parents even question his understanding of Gita’s passing. However, Stephen’s eyes tell another story. They are wet with grief as he repeats “I miss Gita.”
Prior to Gita’s death, she receives a visit from Stephen. Gita seems to want more from Stephen as she attempts to engage him in comfortable conversation. At this point, viewers might question the depth of their relationship. However, Gita and Stephen’s relationship is a compelling example of compassionate love. When asked, Gita warmly shares about how she feels love from her spouse, “Its in the way he looks at me.” Relationship theorist, Elaine Hatfield, contend that we engage in both passionate and compassionate love, with the latter being what it takes for a marriage to last. Compassionate love between couples exists when two people’s lives are deeply entwined, while treating each other with affection and tenderness. Passionate love is more amorous intense feeling, represented by the phase when a couple is hot for one another. When Gita speaks of Stephen, it there is tenderness and gratitude of the life they shared. Cancer alone separated these two from their commitment to each other.
What we learn:
Learn to challenge your assumptions about who can be in intimate partnerships. Everyone is capable of love. Love conquers all.
If you haven’t already seen the film, I suggest you watch it. Whether you have autism, know someone with autism, or are just looking for a good documentary, Autism In Love will move you. At times it is sad, at other moments joyous. But it is always thought provoking. Every human being is capable of bringing more love into their lives. Love is a verb. Practice Love.
Let’s discuss love, relationships, autism, and this film. What you do think? Tell your story in the discussion forum.
Watch Autism in Love on PBS at
Jenny Palmiotto, Psy D., LMFT (#47573), is the Clinical Director and owner of The Family Guidance & Therapy Center of Southern California. She is also the creator and host of Love & Autism: A Conference at Heart. She is president and founder of the non-profit One Day Tomorrow. Jenny believes that love is the primary goal in life and that this doesn’t change with neurological differences associated with autism. Her clinical practice focuses on improving quality of life through meaningful and authentic interactions. Jenny is an outspoken advocate for change within the autism community. She challenges the dominant discourse about autism. Every person needs to feel valued and live a worthwhile life. Jenny is passionate about walking besides her client’s as they live fulfilling and productive lives. Visit www.familyguidanceandtherapy.com or www.loveandautism.com to connect with Jenny.