Posted on January 12th, 2016 by Erin Hawley
Last night’s airing of Autism in Love on PBS comes at a time when reality-based documentaries about people with disabilities are hot. Like Born This Way, The Undateables, and Little Couple, this show aimed to portray the joys, struggles, and commonalities people with disabilities encounter throughout their lives. Autism in Love, more specifically, was about the lives of four adults with autism and their quests toward romantic love and acceptance.
The program follows three stories: Lenny, a single guy from Los Angeles; Lindsey and Dave, a couple from Washington, DC; and Stephen, a recent widow from Saint Paul, Minnesota. What struck me, initially, was the simple nature of the documentary. There is light music played throughout, but the focus is really the words and body language of the cast, with occasional contributions from their parents. The camera and audio linger long after they answer questions posed to them off camera. This allows the viewer a chance to see how these individuals process and respond to conversation. At times, more is said when silence fills the screen, and I found that very powerful – it allows the viewer to connect to the person, to see how they communicate through expression rather than words. A strong theme in Autism in Love is the different ways we connect to each other, and how those ways are equally important in forming relationships.
Parts of this show are difficult to watch – namely Lenny’s story. He struggles to find acceptance of himself, and wants to be with a woman who is not independent; he feels they are “above” him. You can see he is angry both with his situation (single, living at home) and his diagnosis. Lenny wants to be a “normal, regular person,” and feels alone and trapped in his life. This part was the most raw, and shows exactly why acceptance and breaking down stigmatization of autism is so important. We also had Stephen’s heartbreaking story, being married 17 years and his wife dying from ovarian cancer.
Lindsey and Dave both have autism, and have been dating for eight years. They fall on different areas on the spectrum, and their relationship is built on that mutual understanding of each other’s autism and routines. While Lindsey often finds it hard to communicate with Dave, they have their own ways of making it work. I admittedly shed a tear at the end, but I won’t say why!
The only problems I had with the program were its lack of diversity and the inclusion of the parents’ voices. I wish we could have heard from couples from different cultural backgrounds. And while I think it is important to include parents in the conversation on disability (or here, autism), their interviews in Autism in Love felt unnecessary. By including them in this documentary, it momentarily shifted the focus away from what I wanted to hear – the stories of these engaging individuals told in their own voices and mannerisms.
Autism in Love is a wonderful documentary that looks at the different ways individuals with autism build relationships. It was truthful, and didn’t sugar-coat anything; there was no unnecessary use of the word “inspirational” here, and I think that was intentional. Heartbreak and happiness are universal emotions when it comes to love; but for many individuals with disabilities, that road is bumpy, filled with potholes imposed by a society that continually shuns difference. We face challenges within ourselves as well, and self-acceptance is one of those hurdles. Autism in Love allows its viewers to see the real lives of adults living with autism, centering their voices and shattering stereotypes. I highly recommend watching it!