By Kase Wickman
April 23, 2015
"We all need to feel loved and I think a lot of people believe in this misconception that people with autism don’t love or are capable of love or need to feel love from other people, that unconditional aspect of love. We need to feel love, we need to be loved to survive."
At first glance, “Autism in Love” may not seem like your typical love story. After all, the documentary, which premiered at this week’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, follows three stories, the main players in which all fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.
To say that “Autism in Love” isn’t totally relatable, however, would be wrong. There’s Lenny, who’s looking for love, frustrated and unsure of what he wants, and feeling limited by his own personality.
Stephen’s wife Geeta is slipping away into sickness. He’s desperate to spend as much time with her as he can.
And then there’s Dave and Lindsey, who are in love and have been together for years, but are struggling to make that last leap into commitment. They just can’t quite seem to get on the same page.
Will they ever?
“Autism in Love” isn’t so different from your life after all, which is exactly what filmmakers Matt Fuller, who produced and directed the film, and producer Carolina Groppa, intended.
“I think [the movie] removes a little bit of that distance that we like to put between ourselves and the world,” Groppa told MTV News. “We like to live like ’this is my world, and my feelings, and you don’t feel what I feel,’ and I think it just demystifies that a little bit. We all feel the same things, we all have the same struggle regardless of what labels you’ve been given, the diagnosis you may have, that’s real.”
Fuller agreed: “I think it’s just about humanizing people with autism,” he said. “They’re not the label. They’re complex people who, yes, have disabilities, but also are unique and they have lots of perspectives and desires.”
Fuller said that parents of autistic kids, when asked what they want for their children, most often answer that they want them to love and be loved.
That’s exactly what Dave Hamrick and Lindsey Nebeker have found. Throughout the course of filming, weeks-long visits from Fuller and his camera, the production of the documentary sparked conversation between the couple, bringing them closer together. During Fuller’s last production visit, in Hamrick’s hometown of Colonial Williamsburg, Hamrick proposed to Nebeker. Fuller — and his camera — watched from a distance.
“I was so inspired and encouraged by how vulnerable all of our subjects were,” Fuller said, revealing that he’d learned about his own life by so closely watching others. “I started to see that as a quality that I really admired and liked and I feel like I’ve become more open as I’ve spent more time with them and been inspired by their movement in that direction.”
Chatting with Hamrick and Nebeker in New York and seeing them in “Autism in Love,” the strength of their relationship is clear. Having a diagnosis of autism has benefited the two in some ways: Nebeker and Hamrick said that their methodical and learned interactions make them communicate better with one another. And they stressed that not only is autism more common than you might think — the statistics vary, but even out to a little more than 1 percent of the population by most estimates — but that those on the spectrum and off have so much in common when it comes to relationships and everyday life.
“A lot of times, they’re just like us deep inside,” Hamrick said. “We process things similarly, but sometimes the way that we communicate is different, there are different social deficits that others may not possess and most importantly as it pertains to our story, people with autism can love. They may not show it in the way that we’re used to seeing it, but love is a concept that is blind to things such as disability, religious belief, race, ethnicity, everything. People with autism are fully capable of loving somebody and feeling like they’re loved.”
Now, planning their wedding later this year, Hamrick and Nebeker shared the tips that have made their relationship last.
Communication is key.
“Autistic people especially, in order for us to really like be able to really be compatible and respect each other and honor each other, we have to — especially in our younger years when we’re trying to make friends — we have to learn a lot of interpersonal skills,” Nebeker said. “That requires a lot of learning in communication skills and learning how to relate to people. I don’t mean social skills or learning how to speak verbally: we’ve had to do our homework in learning how to communicate effectively with people.
“I think that’s given us an advantage in when there is conflict or issues or something we disagree with, we know how to take the time to acknowledge if, say, you are experiencing a concern and it has to do with me or something you wish would change or something like that, I would listen to you. I would acknowledge what your issue is and I would, if I had any responsibility, I would submit my responsibility in the role.”
In short: take the time to listen.
Learn the art of compromise.
Just listening isn’t quite enough, you also have to come to a solution. “Respect their viewpoint too,” Hamrick said, “even if you may not agree with it.”
Nebeker chimed in as well: “I think a lot of people make the mistake and think that compromise is 50/50,” she said. “It never is 50/50. Compromise is when one partner is willing to go with the other partner’s situation or preference. But the part of compromise or the idea is to take turns with one partner compromising to the other.”
Don’t rush it.
Just because you hear it all the time doesn’t make it untrue: “Don’t try too hard,” Hamrick said. “Oftentimes, people who are desperately trying to find somebody have poor luck, but if you’re spontaneous and you’re not actively seeking, sometimes they come to you and it’s a pleasant surprise.”
Have a life without your partner, and respect that they have a life as well.
“You want to respect and honor each other’s individuality as well,” Nebeker said. “I think that’s very important. We have extreme differences and preferences. Some people think we’re roommates when they see us because we look so different and we have such different interests.”
Give each other room to breathe.
Even if you live together, like Nebeker and Hamrick do, it’s important to take (and give) a little alone time. It’s often mentally important for those with autism to have time to themselves, but it’s an important habit to develop overall.
“That’s very important for people with autism in general is having some downtime where it’s just them, with space,” Hamrick said.
“I think it’s just a matter of respecting each other’s need for solitude when we need it,” Nebeker agreed.
Let’s talk about sex.
Like, really, actually talk about sex with your partner. “When it comes to sex, communication is very key, especially when it comes to autistic people as well,” Nebeker said. “Especially since, I don’t know if it applies to other people, but a lot of us have various sensory sensitivities and so forth, so you have to communicate with each other to really respect each other’s consent and know how to respect boundaries and know what is sensorily comfortable for you and not comfortable for you.”
Don’t like something? Do like something? Speak up.
Accept that you deserve — and need — love.
“I think love is the essential non-physical ingredient for survival,” Nebeker said. “I’m not talking romantic love, just love in general. We all need to feel loved and I think a lot of people believe in this misconception that people with autism don’t love or are capable of love or need to feel love from other people, that unconditional aspect of love. We need to feel love, we need to be loved to survive. And also we need to remind ourselves to give love to those who need it too. We all need it from each other.