"Her resulting December, 2011, piece, “Navigating Love and Autism,” focused on the romantic trials and triumphs of Kirsten E Lindsmith and Jack Robison, then 18 and 19, respectively. Both Lindsmith and Robison are diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder; their neurological differences make it harder for them to read each other’s facial expressions and body language, share feelings, and overcome intense obsessions and rigidity. Add to that their sensory challenges: Robison dislikes kissing (he told Lindsmith it felt like “mashing your face against someone else’s”) and holding hands (too sweaty). Meanwhile, while Lindsmith enjoys deep pressure massage, Robison wants to be touched lightly.
The feedback to the story was “intense,” Harmon says, and that led her to expand the article into a new e-book, Asperger Love: Searching for Romance When You’re Not Wired to Connect. “The book is meant to debunk what I think is the deepest misconception about people on the autism spectrum, that they have no capacity or desire for emotional connection,” she says. “I hoped that by writing what is essentially a love story, readers would be drawn in and come to understand the falseness of that notion, more so than they would if I quoted experts and cited studies.”
But it’s her author’s note that truly sets the book apart from the article. There, she reveals that she’d aimed to write about young adults on the spectrum to encourage others to help them. “I hoped that by portraying the difficulties autistic young adults face in making their way in the world, readers might be moved to help them fit in. The prism of romance, especially, I hoped would be poignant.”
But something unexpected happened along the way. As she “sought to portray the oddness of my autistic subjects,” she writes, “I found that they were altering my view of what passes for normal. Time and again they exposed my own pretensions and highlighted the absurdity of the social mores to which so many of us subscribe.”
Harmon’s e-book opens a window into the lives of an autistic couple trying to negotiate to get what they need from the other. Anyone who has been in a relationship past the infatuation stage, who has struggled with issues of control and independence, will relate to their intense argument over the best way to prepare cauliflower. But then there are the negotiations Lindsmith must conduct to get more of what she needs from Robison:
She tolerated his discomfort with public displays of affection, though she pushed for more in private. When he explained that his lack of expression did not mean a lack of warmth for her—he often simply forgot—she devised a straightforward strategy to help him.
“When I put my hand on your leg,’” she said, “you put your arm on my back.”
The real threat to their union, Harmon writes, was when disagreements escalated so badly that the pair couldn’t understand or comfort the other. For instance, Lindsmith had told Robison that when she was upset, she wanted ” ‘to be held and rocked and comforted.’ But Jack had always had trouble knowing how to act when anyone cried.”
“As I witnessed Jack and Kirsten’s struggle to explain themselves to each other,” Harmon writes, “I couldn’t help but wonder: Are the emotional truths underlying social exchanges really better left unspoken?”
She comes to realize that what makes relationships involving autistics work—expressing one’s desires explicitly, learning to be mindful of the other person’s needs—can help everyone, on and off the spectrum. “Are the reasons people are happy or sad really so obvious to the rest of us that we don’t need to spell them out?” she writes. “Could it not actually benefit all of us if prospective dates, or friends, or employers, devised explicit signals for individuals with autism, as Kirsten and Jack did for each other?”
As Harmon reflects on her own life, she realizes how much she’s learned from Kirsten, Jack and others on the spectrum. “The more I observed autistic behavior, the more my own was reflected back at me in a light not available elsewhere,” she wrote.”Once I started noticing the code, it seemed to beg for deconstruction … I vowed to be more direct.”"
— Love on the Spectrum | Child Mind Institute