For a condition now diagnosed in
one in every 68 Canadian children, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is still incredibly misunderstood. One of the more destructive ideas is that with autism comes an inability to feel or express love. It’s a myth with obvious roots: People living with ASD often have difficulty with language, the subtleties of nonverbal communication and forming relationships. So what does that mean when you’re looking for love? Autism in Love, a combined effort by director Matt Fuller and psychologist (and executive producer) Ira Heilveil, is a heartening and, at times, heartbreaking look at what romance looks like when social skills do not come naturally. Here, the directors discuss how, despite lingering myths, love and autism are certainly not mutually exclusive.
How did the idea for this project come about?
Ira Heilveil: Having spent 25 years working with people on the spectrum, I realized there were a lot of myths about autism held by the public and even the mental health field. One that was really prevalent was [the idea] that, if you had autism, you could not engage in a loving romantic relationship. I understood the reasoning behind that, but as with a lot of things that make sense, that doesn’t mean they’re true. I searched the [academic] literature for stories of people on the spectrum who were in love and there was no research whatsoever, only a few anecdotal stories. I thought that if we focused on the experiences of people with autism and tried to portray their lives from their point of view, rather than ours, we’d be doing something valuable. My research assistant went to school with Matt, and I asked him to do a sizzle reel. The rest is all him.
One of the opening frames displays the definitions of autism (which emphasizes difficulty in communication and forming relationships) and love (which emphasizes affection and concern for others) beside each other. Shown side by side, you’d think they were incompatible.
Matt Fuller: That’s the concept of the movie, that this conflict exists. We looked into the struggles that the characters were going through.
A lot of people wrongly think that people with autism can’t feel or express love. But there’s a difference between having difficulty with perceiving others’ emotions and just not having them.
Ira: That’s exactly right. What most psychologists believe is that the primary deficit in autism is a lack of “theory of mind,” or the inability to perceive what another person is thinking about you. If you lack that, one could wonder how you’d engage in an intimate, reciprocal relationship? But psychologists build glass houses, theories about things. And that’s all they are. What matters is behaviour.
The film is broken up into vignettes: Lenny, a twenty-something guy, is struggling to come to terms with having autism and not having a girlfriend; Lindsay and Dave, who both have autism, are navigating a long-term relationship; and Stephen, who is married, is living with his parents as his wife is terminally ill. Why did you choose these stories in particular?
Matt: There were two spectrums we wanted to represent — the autism spectrum and the spectrum of romantic relationships. One movie can’t represent all the variations of autism that exists, but these characters showed its breadth. It felt appropriate to look at all the phases of life: being single and in pursuit of a relationship; in a relationship and deciding where that’s going; and being in the twilight of a relationship.
In the movie, Lindsay’s dad says, “We all come with a social antenna, and Lindsay didn’t,” which is a very succinct way of explaining one of the key challenges of autism. How does that impact one’s ability to have a loving relationship?
Ira: People on the spectrum have the same problems all the rest of us have, but they are often exacerbated, which you can see in the film. In one scene, Lindsay comes up to Dave while he’s watching TV and tries to have a vulnerable conversation with him. He says, “Oh, the news is on!” and turns around. What male-female couple hasn’t had that experience? Still, I think the most poignant moment is when Matt asks Stephen whether he still loves his wife after she dies. He replies, “No she’s dead; I don’t love her.” Of course he loves her, and of course he’s suffering, but he has no vocabulary for that. For him, love is what you do. But when you see his face and the pain he’s in, you know he’s feeling very deeply.
It also occurred to me that if you tune in halfway through the movie, you might not know you were watching a movie about autism.
Matt: One of the things we said early on is that, 10 minutes in, we hope our audience forgets they’re watching a story about people with autism and feels like they’re just watching a story about love.
There is a pervasive discomfort with discussions about sex, but especially in the context of disabilities. You made sure to include that in the film.
Matt: I felt like it was important to discuss. Lindsay and Dave were totally comfortable talking about their sexual dynamic — they’ve given presentations about it at conferences. Lenny’s scenes also illuminate the struggle he’s had negotiating the politics of sexual relationships. He has growing desires and is trying to satiate them while dealing with [the scrutiny] of the rest of the world.
Ira: Actually, one of the main differences [in my research] between people on the spectrum and people who aren’t is the degree to which they use computers to connect and form relationships.
In the movie, Lindsay asks, “Can someone love you without truly understanding you?” How would you answer that?
Ira: I would say: absolutely. Some people are more in love with their pets than they are humans, and do we really understand what our pets think of us? No. [Similarly with people], it doesn’t stop us from loving them, or seeing something in them that we find incredibly beautiful or inspiring.
What do you hope that this movie leaves people with?
Matt: I want people to more fully understand autism, and feel they’ve connected deeply with these characters and empathize with their journeys. Hopefully they carry some of that empathy with them into the real world.
Ira: There’s a tendency for people who see themselves as “typical” — or not carrying a diagnosis of some kind — to be afraid of people who act somewhat differently. Hopefully, the takeaway is to be less afraid and realize that, ultimately, we all have the same struggles. We create all of these artificial boundaries, and we need to break those down. We’re different, but we’re not different.
Autism in Love will screen on May 13 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto as part of the ReelAbilities Film Festival. It is also available to stream on Netflix.