When I was in high school, it was always marked by the same ritual: Students would buy red, pink, and/or white carnations at lunchtime all through the previous week, and the flowers were presented to their starry-eyed recipients in homeroom on Valentine’s Day morning. Year after year, I watched other girls receive two, three, or more flowers while not a single one came my way. When I finally did get a carnation, the burning humiliation and sadness that I’d felt previously did not dissipate, as I had hoped; it got worse. My fingers trembled as I tore the pink piece of paper stapled around the flower’s stem, eagerly anticipating a declaration of love from a long-silent secret admirer. Instead, it read:
Happy Valentine’s Day.
The English Department
As an adult on the autism spectrum, and as a child who was the target of ridicule and bullying for so many years, one of the most difficult obstacles that I have had to overcome is my belief that because I have autism, I am inherently unlovable.
Having my peers jeer at me and repeatedly say that I wasn’t “allowed” to have a crush on someone only served to solidify this belief. I gradually abandoned the thought of ever being in a relationship, thinking that my particular challenges and quirks just made me too difficult to love.
But every person, regardless of disability, deserves to be loved.
As I’ve gotten older, I have learned that there are many different kinds of love. Romantic love is what we’re taught to strive for from an early age, but there is also platonic love. Familial love. And there is agape, which is a greater all-encompassing love that one has for humankind.
If we expand our ideas about love and how it “should” be felt and expressed, it becomes possible to see how much love individuals on the autism spectrum are capable of feeling and giving. This first requires society to move past the egregious misconception that people with autism are incapable of love. In fact:
- Individuals on the autism spectrum do feel and recognize love as surely as we recognize the absence of it.
- Individuals on the autism spectrum can and do show love toward others; it just may look “different” than the ways in which love is expressed by neurotypical individuals.
- It is much easier and more natural for individuals on the autism spectrum to demonstrate love toward others when the expectation of specific actions is eliminated.
Love does not always go according to plan. There is no step-by-step behavior plan that can address every possible scenario…including heartache. Yet, like all people, individuals on the spectrum can learn and grow from our experiences, but only if we are first given the opportunity to have them.
Sometimes I think about that carnation-less, sad-eyed girl sitting in homeroom. I cannot step back in time and give her a flower, but I can tell her that she is full of love to give, not just to a romantic partner, but to her friends, her family, and all those around her. I can tell her that her love is not “less” because she has autism, and before she knows it, she’ll find people who value her just the way she is.
Now that’s a valentine worth reading.
Amy Gravino, M.A., is the president of A.S.C.O.T. Coaching, LLC, and offers coaching, consulting, and public speaking services. She is also a college coach for students with Asperger Syndrome and has an Asperger Syndrome diagnosis herself. She serves on the Global Regional Autism Spectrum Partnership (GRASP) Board of Directors, Autism Speaks’ Communications Committee, and the Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation’s self-advocate advisory board. As a woman on the spectrum, she is currently writing The Naughty Auntie, a memoir of her experiences with dating, relationships, and sexuality. For more information about Amy and her work, visit www.amygravino.com.