Love and Autism

Navigating Love and Autism: The New York Times recently featured an article with this title by Nancy Harmon, about the blooming romance between 19-year-old Jack Robison and Kirsten Lindsmith, both students at the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst. Robison has Asperger’s Syndrome; his father, John Elder Robison, has written about his own experience living with Asperger’s Syndrome in a memoir, Look Me In the Eye. In the course of her relationship with Jack Robison, Lindsmith, who had been diagnosed with ADHD as an 11-year-old, realized that she was also on the autism spectrum and, after testing, was also diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Harmon’s article describes the ups and downs of Robison’s and Lindsmith’s relationship, noting how both having Asperger’s Syndrome — characterized by difficulties with social interactions, reading social cues, communication and sensory sensitivities, while having normal intelligence — potentially adds an extra layer of challenges. As Harmon writes,

Only since the mid-1990s have a group of socially impaired young people with otherwise normal intelligence and language development been recognized as the neurological cousins of nonverbal autistic children. Because they have a hard time grasping what another is feeling — a trait sometimes described as “mindblindness” — many assumed that those with such autism spectrum disorders were incapable of, or indifferent to, intimate relationships. Parents and teachers have focused instead on helping them with school, friendship and, more recently, the workplace.

Yet as they reach adulthood, the overarching quest of many in this first generation to be identified with Asperger syndrome is the same as many of their nonautistic peers:  to find someone to love who will love them back.

Love and autism are two subjects I return to often in my own writing about autism. Our teenage son Charlie has a diagnosis of autism and I write frequently, here and on my blog, We Go With Him, about our daily life. Charlie is my husband Jim’s and my only child and our days completely rotate around him. Charlie has many struggles, in large part due to his very limited verbal communication ability; sometimes his not being able to explain that he has a pounding headache or a pain in his stomach, that he feels out of sorts because his usual routine of 5 days of school and 2 days off has been disrupted due to the holidays, is expressed via “behavior storms.” It may be in the midst of some of these moments of extreme difficulty that we feel our love for Charlie the strongest.

Harmon’s article is about “love of the Valentine’s Day” sort. Given Charlie’s neurological issues, an intimate relationship such as Robison’s and Lindsmith’s would be even more challenging. I think it’s important to underscore that saying such is not to say that Charlie would not wish for such a relationship or have such feelings. Until quite recently, being autistic was equated with lacking feelings due to being too withdrawn into the self and with not being able to have feelings; with being “mindblind” to the emotions of others. Our life with Charlie has shown us precisely the opposite. While emotions are extremely difficult for Charlie to express in words, he is extremely attuned and aware of nonverbal communication, be it body language, a change in one’s tone of voice, a gesture. Indeed, because words are very challenging for him, he is more sensitive to the wordless “speech” we all unconsciously use.

Indeed, life with Charlie has taught my husband and me — both of us humanities professors, who love talking and conversing and writing — that sometimes you can say and do the most by not saying anything at all.

The love of parents and relatives, of teachers and therapists and those who support someone with the immense neurological and cognitive challenges of Charlie and many others, is of a different sort than that discussed in Navigating Love and Autism. But there is no question of the depth of love many of us who live and care for someone on the autism spectrum feel, and the depth of love given back and expressed by Charlie to a small but solid community of family members and former and present teachers and therapists. As we seek to help Charlie navigate through the complexities of life in this world, teaching and guiding him to regulate his emotions and manage personal interactions and feelings with people, in relationships of whatever sort, will always be something we lovingly embrace.

Related Care2 Coverage

The Drugging of the Developmentally Disabled in State Institutions

Kentucky School Stuffs Autistic Boy Into a Bag

7 Holiday Challenges For Autistic Individuals (slideshow)


Photo by Alex Grant (alextakesphotos)


Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra5 years ago

Thank you Kristina, for Sharing this!

Terry Vanderbush
Terry V5 years ago

Very individual decisions to make

SeattleAnn S.
Ann S6 years ago

Appreciate the articles you write on this topic, you've helped me understand an autistic adult in my life.

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

Andrea A.
Andrea A6 years ago

Thanks for working for the autistic people.

Kathleen Eviza
Kathleen Eviza6 years ago

really is inspiring.. Love Autism..

John Mansky
John Mansky6 years ago

Thank you for the article...

Catherine Turley
Catherine T6 years ago

don't know if this has been written about, but i bought a bottle of 'one hope' wine at stater bros. as a gift. 50% of the profits from the cabernet sauvignon go toward an autism charity.

Myriam G.
Myriam G6 years ago

My oldest child, now 21, has Asperger's and has recently graduated from school, in Computer-Assisted Drawing. He is starting to look for a job, maybe an appartment (not too far from our place, at first!), and eventually, he wants to get married and have children. He already has the kids' names picked out! But, he's taking it very slowly to choose between the few girls that sometimes call. They go out to museums, comic book conventions, movies... but that's it for now. I think it's simply because he takes dating more seriously than "regular" young men, like he realizes that there is more of a challenge in it than in friendship...

To take some of the pressure off, we discuss "scenarios", like "the step-by-step way of asking a friend to the movie"; 1) you call or text at least 2 days in advance; 2) you have to have the movie listings handy when you call; 3) offer a choice of movies you would like to see, in case she doesn't want to see the particular movie you chose; 4) decide together at which theatre and at what time you're going to meet; 5) etc. He seems to appreciate that. Who knows? Maybe, one day, we'll go through "the step-by-step way of driving your wife to the birthing center when she's about to give birth"...?

J C Bro
J C Brou6 years ago

Thank you, Dr. Chew, for your work for the autistic people.