Jun 11, 2013 0 Share

The Talk

Photo of young girl and boy holding each other around at waists.

Reilly has a girlfriend, apparently a serious girlfriend. At least they were pretty serious until they parted for the summer. She went back to her home in New York City and he came home to suburban Washington, D.C. 

With as little violation of his privacy as I can manage, I am moved to share some of the important issues such a relationship raise, because they are probably not unique to our family. There are lots of questions for which I don't have answers, just worries. 

The subject of Reilly's hypothetical future marriage always seemed to crop up at dinner. “When I get married, my wife and I will eat cake for breakfast,” he would say, when I told him he had to eat some dinner before dessert. Or when I tried to instill basic table manners, like proper use of a knife, he insisted he didn't need them. “Who will cut up your meat when I'm gone?” I asked, more than once. “My wife,” he'd say with a shrug. And I'd have a twinge of sadness. Would he get married? 

Well, I learned two important things at his school's alumni/parents/students dinner dance this spring: Reilly might well get married someday. And his wife just might cut his meat for him. Reilly and his girlfriend, Ashley, were seated at different tables that night, so I didn't see if she cut his meat. But another student, Olivia, cheerfully cut the chicken parmesan for two or three other students at our table. She had tied Reilly's tie for him earlier in the evening. Nothing wrong with her fine motor skills, unlike many of her peers. If Reilly finds a girl like Olivia to marry, he might be all set! 

But of course, meat cutting is a relatively minor issue. Shortly after I realized the seriousness of Reilly's relationship, I saw an ad in the New York Times Sunday Book Review for an e-book called “Asperger Love: Searching for Romance When You're Not Wired to Connect,” by Amy Harmon. I downloaded it immediately. It chronicles a budding relationship between two Aspie college students, Jack Robison (son of John Elder Robison, author of a bestselling memoir about his own Asperger diagnosis at age 39) and his girlfriend, Kristen Lindsmith. (Lindsmith has written several essays for AA16.) It's a frank, fly-on-the-wall view of the perils and pitfalls of a love match between two young people who have trouble with emotional and social cues, as well as sensory issues that complicate physical intimacy. It gave me real insight and a sense of wonder about Reilly's first foray into love/sex.

Like Jack Robison, Reilly isn't usually comfortable with hugs and touch, yet I see pictures of him on Facebook with his arms around Ashley. And the closeness required by those dormitory-style single beds? Yes, I remember college, but I have a hard time imagining Reilly is OK with that kind of closeness. And, remember the previously reported hygiene issues? I'm thrilled, yet shocked, that there's a girl that can overlook them, in such a confined space! 

Reilly has had plenty of sex education in school, and as much as he would tolerate at home (which isn't a lot). So, protection? Well, let's just say the fine-motor difficulties cause me some worry. NYIT staff are pretty much on top of the relationship issues. Freshmen take a yearlong, gender-separated health course covering everything from nutrition to pornography. The school nurse has an office in the dorm, and she stocks condoms. The staff is prepared to check in with individual students on their knowledge and use of forms of contraception. Required social psychology class covers communication skills. It's a pretty safe place to experiment. 

As I write this, I realize yet again, that much of this situation, and my worries, are normal. Neurotypical college students face many of the same relationship pitfalls and are also at risk for contraception failures and unintended pregnancies. And abusive relationships and the usual misunderstandings and broken hearts and other experiences that prepare us (hopefully) for adult life. But for young people on the spectrum, and their families, all of these perils are heightened. 

Will Reilly be independent enough to maintain a marriage and family? I hope so, but we aren't close to knowing that yet. And, if I'm honest, I have to say I wonder about permanent solutions. Could Reilly realistically decide now that he doesn’t want children ever? Is that something we should talk to Reilly and his doctor about now? This honestly never crossed my mind until recently. I can't even get Reilly to tell me what he likes about Ashley, though he did admit to having some “communication problems” in the relationship from time to time, refusing to elaborate further. But, how are we going to have THIS way bigger conversation? 

Parents of young women with ASD, I imagine, have perhaps even more to fear than I do. How do we protect our children, when they're no longer children, and they're out in the world without us? 

When you're raising a child on the spectrum, you tend not to look too far into the future. You're pretty focused on getting through the day, or this week, or this school year. Thinking too far ahead can be overwhelming. Yet, Reilly continues to surprise me with his growth and progress. Who knows what his future will bring? 

Let's just hope it isn't a grandchild for me, until we're both developmentally ready.