Despite its increasingly documented prevalence, so much is unknown about autism.
According to the latest CDC statistics, 1 in 68 children in the U.S. are identified as falling along the autism spectrum, which can encompass a wide variety of symptoms that pose obstacles to forming relationships: inability to hold eye contact, repetitive gestures, difficulty regulating emotions, and struggles to pick up on social cues.
Romantic relationships are arguably the most tricky and illusory of human bonds to form. Thus, it is no wonder that having autism and falling in love—and being loved—is increasingly sparking interest as more children are diagnosed with the disorder.
Just this year alone, two documentaries exploring how people with autism fall in love have debuted.
Aspie Seeks Love follows David Matthews, a man in his 40s with Asperger’s syndrome (which is considered a form of ASD), on his quest for love.
This week, Autism in Love premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival, braiding together three narratives illuminating the varying cases of autism and the just as diverse ways we form romantic relationships.
Director Matt Fuller and his team crafted the bracingly intimate film from over 300 hours of footage, including many hours with people who never made it into the final cut.
“The people we chose represented both the autism spectrum as thoroughly as we wanted, but also the spectrum of love. You’re either looking for a relationship, you’re in one, or you’re at the end,” he says.
There is Lenny, a 22-year-old man in Los Angeles who is eager to find a girlfriend. In Washington, D.C., there are Lindsey and Dave, both of whom are on the autism spectrum and have been together nearly a decade. Then there is Stephen, a man in St. Paul, Minnesota, who speaks in Rain Man-esque repetition.
Fuller’s interviews with the parents of the subjects provide some of the most poignant insights into love and relationships.
A standout moment is with Stephen’s mother, Edith Goodman, an Eastern European emigré who must be in her 70s or 80s and is still caring for her son to a certain degree.
She is asked whether she thought he would ever form a romantic relationship. “I didn’t dare hope,” she says through her accented voice.
Lenny’s mother, Kathy Lettieri, appears more than any of the other parents—and with good reason. She goes above and beyond whatever could reasonably be expected of even the most attuned and patient mothers, serving as Lenny’s best friend and confidante.
Within minutes of her time on screen, she speaks with shocking candor about how Lenny’s former, and so far only, girlfriend pressured him into having sex.
“I know that sex was a really big issue because she really wanted to have sex and Lenny didn’t want to. They ended up having sex. It wasn’t a good thing. I didn’t realize how little Leonard knew until recently. Like he didn’t know anything.”
“Kathy is sort of my hero. She’s everything you see on screen,” Fuller says. He grew close to Lenny off-camera and says he still speaks to him and his mom once or twice a week. “I think Lenny was special in that he lives in L.A. I live in L.A. He was at a time in his life—and still is—where he is hungry for male mentorship and friendship.”
Lenny is painfully self-aware, to the point he goes on incredibly dark, self-denigrating rants that were actually excruciating to watch.
While Fuller says he didn’t interfere with Lenny during filming, their conversations led him to take on a stronger role off-camera. “It felt like it was my job to be a silver lining and remind him there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” Fuller says. “That took me out of my comfort zone to some dark places and sometimes it necessitated my being a more aggressive presence.”
In fact, there is a moment when the professional barrier on camera between Fuller and Lenny all but evaporates—and it is one of the most excruciating in the documentary.
“Let me tell you, Matt. I wish I was not autistic. I don’t like it. It makes me different,” says Lenny at the start of a several-minutes-long, uninterrupted spotlight on Lenny’s downward emotional spiral. “Can I be honest with you? I would rather be a normal man than an autistic person with a million dollars.”
“Don’t cry. Let me cry,” he tells Fuller, revealing that the wall is all but demolished. “I don’t want to see a tear come out of your eye. What do you think about me crying? What do you think the viewers can think about this?”
There was a reason this was the most powerful scene in the film to me—it was to Fuller, as well. “That particular moment will always stand out as a seminal moment not only in production, but in my life,” Fuller says. “I’m in that moment with him [Lenny]. I broke down, too. He knows that nakedness will be seen by everybody.”
Lindsey says she and Dave agreed to participate in Autism in Love because they wanted that raw, sometimes painful, footage to be out there.
The media has the tendency to “twist something into what the disability community calls an ‘inspiration story,’ putting us on a pedestal as inspiration objects rather than treating us as real people,” she explains. She didn’t want to be dehumanized. “Our experiences, our desire to feel love are just as genuine, if not more intense, than anyone else’s.”
In fact, Lindsey took the initiative and invited Fuller and his crew to film inside hers and Dave’s bedroom to watch a nighttime ritual of theirs (which I won’t spoil for those seeing the film).
Forgoing privacy was not even a concern when compared to the lesson they wanted to teach.
“We really want the world to know how important love is to people on the spectrum,” says Lindsey. “It’s not so much the act as about how much I want to bring out to the world that we feel love, and we desire so much to share it with other people in whatever form or manner.”
That effort to show love, even in an unconventional or seemingly insufficient way, is apparent in Stephen’s interactions with his wife, Geeta.
In a masterstroke of storytelling, Autism in Love does not reveal that Stephen, who appears to struggle the most with social interactions, is actually married until we’re nearly 30 minutes into the film.
While Geeta has intellectual disabilities, she appears perfectly socially perceptive. Out of fear of spoiling the film, I will just say that Geeta is ill during the filming.
Stephen seems oblivious to the pain she is experiencing, though then again it may be more that he struggles to outwardly show his concern.
Even when she is frail, Geeta tries to draw communication out of Stephen, asking the most basic questions, like what his favorite color is.
“I don’t know if this is the right thing to say, but I feel bad he is not able to express himself, and I try to encourage him to make him feel as if he can,” Geeta tells Fuller. “And you know what, he has improved a lot.”
Geeta seems so in love with Stephen, even though he doesn’t display a passionate response to her. When Fuller asks what it means to fall in love, Stephen responds: “I don’t know. It means to fall in love. To give a kiss and a hug.” His remarks are sweet, but they lack the emotional nuance that Geeta offers.
Lindsey poses a query during the film that could apply to Stephen and Geeta as much as to her and Dave or, for that matter, to any couple: “It’s a very good question whether someone can love you without truly understanding you?”
Autism in Love raises questions about love and life that strike a universal chord and have nothing to do with being on the spectrum.
Autism in Love screens Thursday, 5 p.m.; Friday, 5:30 p.m.; Saturday, 6:30 p.m.; and Tuesday, 3:30 p.m. Screening details here.