Love Complicates Life Even for the Autistic

And yet a man like Paul, who loves in his own way, can seem so thoroughly at sea when trying to understand feeling like the feeling in a piece of music.

Jeff and Jessica, residents of a group home in New York, are dating. They are not the only mentally challenged members of the household to be in boyfriend-girlfriend relationships.

Christine lives here while Greg lives in an apartment nearby. He saw her at a group meeting, and they have been dating ever since.

There was a time when romantic and sexual involvements among the developmentally disabled were aggressively discouraged. Sexuality was taboo. The sexes were kept apart, and some individuals were sterilized.

"I worked for two other social service agencies, and rather than dealing with it, it was very ignored," said Lisa Stenrantino, who counsels residents on sexuality at the New York group home.

Practice Dates

In addition to a general squeamishness, there were specific concerns about accidental pregnancy, disease and sexual abuse. The program at the New York group home, however, helps couples navigate the dangers with sex education and one-on-one counseling on when no means no.

Jeff and Jessica get coached on such topics as where to go, how to dress and how to respect one another in a restaurant and in the bedroom.

All this intimacy is within reach of the mentally retarded but is a world away from Paul's world. Autism doesn't impair intelligence, but it does affect the ability to communicate and make social connections.

The big problem for a man who seems to want to connect is how often he simply disconnects.

"He goes off into his own little world and that's the difficult part in having a relationship," Marlene said. "It's because he leaves them. He could leave them cold and he can't open himself up. He doesn't know how to do that yet."

'He's Growing'

Paul's mother has arranged practice dates but hasn't forced them. She has no particular dreams of marriage for Paul. And she's nowhere near contemplating a sex life for her son because he may never be ready for that.

But that's not the point.

"He's growing and that's the important thing," Marlene, Paul's mother, said. "And growth is very hard, and he'll tell me sometimes, 'This is too hard.' But God love him, he tries. He tries very hard."

Finally, at the recital, when it was Paul's turn to play for real in front of the full audience, he nailed his part -- thanks to his mother's support and encouragement.

That's what moms are for, isn't it? But it can also be what friends are for, too. Female friends. And maybe someday he'll find one of those.

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