David Hamrick, 29, and Lindsey Nebeker, 27, look like a typical couple in love, but what's not apparent is how hard they've worked to be together.
Hamrick and Nebeker live together in a Jackson, Miss., apartment, yet they have separate bedrooms, eat meals apart and spend most of their time focused on their own interests.
This unusual setup is how Hamrick and Nebeker, who are both autistic, make their relationship work.
About 1.5 million people in the United States have autism, with varying degrees of severity. Many people with autism struggle with the most basic social interactions, so finding love may seem like an impossibility.
Hamrick and Nebeker are high-functioning but, since childhood, both have found it difficult to make friends and even harder to keep them.
"All of her socialization had to be learned, usually by hard experience," said Nebeker's father, Gordon Nebeker.
Autistic people can also be hypersensitive to touch and sound. Hamrick can't stand when the room is too warm and cringes at certain sounds; Nebeker can't take florescent lights; and both are profoundly uncomfortable with small talk, said Lynn Harris, who profiled the couple for Glamour magazine.
Learning to Interact with Autism
Despite their difficulties, they both kept trying to reach out and connect with others. Nebeker learned to make friends by reading Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People." Hamrick had tried to untangle the rules of dating by reading self-help books.
"No one teaches you to flirt," said Diane Twactman-Cullen, editor in chief of Autism Spectrum Quarterly. "Individuals with autism would really be at a loss. So there might be some missed signals."
When Hamrick and Nebeker met in 2005 at an autism conference, Hamrick was smitten.
"I pretty much liked everything about her," he said. "She was very sweet, easy to talk to, and a good listener."
But Nebeker was unsure.
"In my early 20s, I had decided I was no longer going to seek a relationship," she said. "I was mainly going to focus on my career and my friends that I had been able to make and keep."
They became friends. Then one day when they were at a café, Hamrick knew he was making progress when he put his hand on hers.
"My heart was racing," Hamrick said. "I was fearful it might not work out the way I had anticipated, but the fact that she didn't pull back and she was able to hold my hand there for at least five minutes, I was very touched by that."
Living Together With Separate Needs
After two years of dating, they took the huge step of moving in together, despite their unique and separate needs.
Nebeker admits that it seems highly unusual for a typical couple to agree to separate bedrooms.
"We both understood the importance of an individual with autism needing their own space," she said.
When they are in their apartment, they are rarely together. Hamrick, a meteorologist, is often in his room on the computer or absorbed in the Weather Channel while Nebeker, a musician, can get lost for hours playing the piano and working on her music.
A romantic dinner for two presents major challenges.
"There are a number of sounds that are unpleasant to me," Hamrick explained. "Such as chewing sounds and crunching sounds."
And Nebeker has many complicated eating rituals. Her napkin has to be placed just so and her meals prepared in just the right way.
"Sometimes Dave will spontaneously ask, 'Hey, you want to go out for dinner tonight?' And I break into sobs and I say, 'I am so sorry, I just can't. I just can't,'" Nebeker said.
The couple's parents have seen their children struggle with their disorder and are in awe of the way the two care for each other and express their love and devotion.
"Being high functioning is almost more difficult than being low functioning," said Gordon Nebeker. "You are so close to there, and yet not quite -- and that is heartbreaking."
But for all the compromises, the couple's love story is actually a pretty traditional one, one of deep understanding and acceptance.
"When I have had a bad day at work or just a bad day for some other reason -- and I come home, I don't even have to say anything, he senses it. Dave will come up to me and start cuddling up to me and that's really all I need," Nebeker said. "I know that I am with a partner who is not going to judge me for certain eccentricities I have."