According to Tennyson, "in the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love." Well, maybe for some. Spring to me is about Autism. That's because April is National Autism Awareness Month. Not that I need to be more aware of autism — my autistic son is 25. And autism is a huge part of my life. It’s my friends’ whole lives, too.
For years, our conversations would be about autism school programs, services or supports — what’s going well, and what needs to be done. Where’s your guy going to live when he graduates? Does he have a job? It’s not all that different from most parents of young adults. Until recently, when the subject of girls came up.
None of our sons have girlfriends. None of them has ever had a girlfriend, let alone a date. Our sons are fairly deeply impacted by the social and communication deficits that accompany autism. Friendships are a challenge — I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times my own son, Nat, has hung out with people his age outside of structured social settings.
couldn’t she see that Nat could not converse with people, much less chat up a young woman?
It might be that something was in the air that day in that cavernous Boston College gym. One of my friends was telling me about her son. He was 19 and seemed to be looking at girls quite a bit. “I don’t know, maybe there’s some girl that could...” She didn’t finish her thought but I knew what she was going to say.
“Yeah, I think about that all the time,” I said. “But I don’t think it’s in the cards for Nat.”
To my surprise, my friend looked at me with a frown. “Why not?”
Why not? Well, couldn’t she see that Nat could not converse with people, much less chat up a young woman? How would that kind of thing even begin to happen? Someone would have to show him? And unlike teaching him play skills as a boy, I don't know the first thing about teaching him how to approach a woman and begin a connection with her.
Unfortunately, the social problems encountered by people on the autism spectrum are all too common. Autism mom and author Claire LaZebnik wrote movingly in the New York Times about her own son’s struggles with finding love:
"He'll be in the middle of a group of kids and they'll laugh. Then he'll laugh, a second too late and too loud. He knows he needs to laugh to fit in; that much he's learned from observation. What he can't seem to learn is what made the joke funny and why everyone gets it but he."
And, there are some pockets of excellent research in social training around the country, like University of California, Santa Barbara’s Dr. Lynn Koegel’s 2013 study “Increasing Socialization in Adults with Asperger’s Syndrome.” Here's an excerpt:
"[T]he use of structured social planning resulted in an increased level of socialization for college students with [Autism Spectrum Disorder]. A greater number of social activities per week was noted for all participants, as was a higher satisfaction with college experience and peer interaction."
But the most pragmatic information I’ve ever found on autism and intimate relationships is Dr. Peter Gerhardt’s “Sexuality Instruction and Autism Spectrum Disorders." Some highlights:
- Think ahead and be proactive. Waiting until something inappropriate happens is not an option...
- Teaching children about personal safety issues such as good touch/bad touch, consent and personal boundaries should start at an early age.
- Be concrete and factual in presenting information... Use visuals whenever possible.
- Always remember that sexual behavior is social behavior and, therefore, the social dimension of sexuality needs to be addressed when and wherever appropriate. “Hidden rules” regarding sexual behavior are pervasive.
Back in the gym, my friend insisted that such relationships must be possible for guys as impaired as ours. There had to be. As she spoke, I felt a longing open up like a hole in a sweater, the thread ends thinning and unraveling.
Over the weeks, my friend’s words stayed with me. I felt their truth, their importance. How could I close the door on this momentous part of my beloved son's life without even trying?
But Nat is so far behind his peers. Even after reading the research, this goal felt beyond me. So, as I’ve had to do so often with my son, I let go of this wish, telling myself I had to focus on other things for him.
Then on a recent spring Sunday, as I was riding the MBTA with Nat and my husband, my hope was restored. Nat took an open seat next to a young woman with long curly brown hair. She looked to be in her early 20s.
I stood at the pole and watched them out of the corner of my eye. He was uncharacteristically calm and composed. I could tell that she was aware of him — and of his autism. He’s passing for normal, I thought and was immediately ashamed.
my friend insisted that such relationships must be possible for guys as impaired as ours ... As she spoke, I felt a longing open up like a hole in a sweater, the thread ends thinning and unraveling.
I looked away, not wanting to rattle him with my stare. I turned to my husband, “So is he sucking his thumb yet?” I whispered through my teeth. This was something he does when he’s nervous.
“No,” said Ned.
“Really? Any silly talk? Flapping?”
Wow. He was aware of her.
They sat like that for the next few stops, in a thick silence. Eventually the girl started gathering her stuff to get off. I was about to prompt Nat to let her out, but for once I held back.
She stood up. “Excuse me.”
He half-stood, let her out and then she was gone. Nothing had happened.
And yet for me, a whole universe of possibilities had opened up.
And for Nat? I can only hope.