Navigating the uncertain terrain of the dating world can be tough for just about anyone, but it is often especially challenging for people with autism spectrum disorders, who typically suffer from impaired social skills that can make establishing strong interpersonal connections difficult.
In this moving article (an excerpt of which is included below), The New York Times' Amy Harmon explores the challenges faced by teenagers Kirsten Lindsmith and Jack Robison — both of whom have been diagnosed with a mild form of autism called Asperger syndrome — as they work to forge a relationship, despite the obstacles posed by their diagnoses.
The first night they slept entwined on his futon, Jack Robison, 19, who had since childhood thought of himself as "not like the other humans," regarded Kirsten Lindsmith with undisguised tenderness.
She was the only girl to have ever asked questions about his obsessive interests - chemistry, libertarian politics, the small drone aircraft he was building in his kitchen - as though she actually cared to hear his answer. To Jack, who has a form of autism called Asperger syndrome, her mind was uncannily like his. She was also, he thought, beautiful.
So far they had only cuddled; Jack, who had dropped out of high school but was acing organic chemistry in continuing education classes, had hopes for something more. Yet when she smiled at him the next morning, her lips seeking his, he turned away.
"I don't really like kissing," he said.
Kirsten, 18, a college freshman, drew back. If he knew she was disappointed, he showed no sign.
On that fall day in 2009, Kirsten did not know that someone as intelligent and articulate as Jack might be unable to read the feelings of others, or gauge the impact of his words. And only later would she recognize that her own lifelong troubles - bullying by students, anger from teachers and emotional meltdowns that she felt unable to control - were clues that she, too, occupied a spot on what is known as the autism spectrum.
But she found comfort in Jack's forthrightness. If he did not always say what she wanted to hear, she knew that whatever he did say, he meant. As he dropped her off on campus that morning, she replayed in her head the e-mail he had sent the other day, describing their brief courtship with characteristic precision.
"Is this what love is, Kirsten?" he had asked.
Only since the mid-1990s have a group of socially impaired young people with otherwise normal intelligence and language development been recognized as the neurological cousins of nonverbal autistic children. Because they have a hard time grasping what another is feeling - a trait sometimes described as "mindblindness" - many assumed that those with such autism spectrum disorders were incapable of, or indifferent to, intimate relationships. Parents and teachers have focused instead on helping them with school, friendship and, more recently, the workplace.
Yet as they reach adulthood, the overarching quest of many in this first generation to be identified with Asperger syndrome is the same as many of their nonautistic peers: to find someone to love who will love them back.