‘Autism in Love’: Dating and Courtship on the Spectrum

What should you know about dating someone on the autism spectrum? This is one of the many questions Matt Fuller’s new documentary, Autism in Love, seeks to uncover about how people with the disorder pursue and manage romantic relationships. Finding love can be hard enough for anyone—but it can be even more challenging when things like communication and social interaction, core characteristics of a successful relationship, are compromised. In these interviews, we meet Dave and Lindsey, who share their experiences flirting and falling in love.

The Mysterious Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Abilities

Once thought to be rare in people with autism, found in no more than 1 out of 10 individuals, research over the past few years suggests savantism may be more common: As many as one in three people with autism may possess exceptional abilities.

.. Exactly how and why savantism happens is unclear. But some evidence suggests that savants may have experienced an undetected injury to the left hemisphere of their brain in utero or in infancy, triggering compensatory recruitment in the right brain that unleashes unusual abilities.

.. Rimland noticed that their savant skills, such as artistic expression or the ability to mentally manipulate three-dimensional (3-D) objects, were most frequently right-hemisphere faculties. Their difficulties, such as trouble communicating, often appeared in functions controlled by the left hemisphere.

.. In many types of brain injury or in dysfunction caused by stroke or neurodegenerative diseases, doctors have noticed that a defect in the left hemisphere may lead to a compensatory improvement in typically right-hemisphere functions. It’s as if the injury is “releasing the brain from the tyranny of the left hemisphere,” in Treffert’s words. No longer held in check, right-hemisphere abilities appear to suddenly blossom.

.. Bruce Miller, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, witnessed this phenomenon firsthand when some of his elderly patients who suffered from frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a degenerative brain disorder that primarily affects the front left-side portion of the brain, spontaneously developed an interest in art. As the dementia progressed, these individuals became gripped by the urge to create, and their paintings improved.

.. Miller and his team theorized that the selective brain degeneration essentially ‘released’ dormant abilities in the right brain, which is dominant for some key features of artistic expression, including visual construction — the ability to copy drawings or put puzzles together — and some forms of creative thinking.

.. By the end of 2011, she had discovered that three of the first nine prodigies she investigated had been diagnosed with autism early in life but no longer met the criteria. “They no longer qualified for a spectrum diagnosis,” says Ruthsatz. What’s more, five of the nine had at least one close family member with autism.

Autism’s Hidden Gifts

Increasingly, researchers are finding that even autistic people who seem, at first glance, to be profoundly disabled might actually be gifted in surprising ways. And these talents are not limited to quirky party tricks, like knowing whether January 5, 1956 was a Tuesday. Scientists believe they are signs of true intelligence that might be superior to that of non-autistic people.

.. Laurent Mottron, a psychiatrist at the University of Montreal who has studied autism for decades, led an analysis last year which suggested that the autistic brain seeks out the kinds of information it “prefers” to process while ignoring materials—like verbal and social cues, for example—that it doesn’t like. Just as many blind people have heightened hearing, Mottron says, the brains of autistic people might be better able to understand numbers or patterns

.. The participants were asked to think of as many non-obvious uses for a brick and a paper clip as possible. Highly autistic people in the experiment didn’t produce very many responses, but the answers they did give were highly unusual—a strong sign of creative thinking.

.. The idea that autistic brains are intrinsically deficient is one of the many myths Steve Silberman debunks in his recent book, Neurotribes. Think of the brain as an operating system, he writes: “Just because a computer is not running Windows doesn’t mean that it’s broken. Not all the features of atypical human operating systems are bugs.”