What is love? What does love feel like? How do you know that you’ve fallen in love?
Romance and relationships mesh together in a jumble of complexities that inhabit an elaborate region in our hearts and minds. And for those with autism, the journey and discovery can be even more complicated.
Autism in Love is a feature length documentary that examines and explores romantic love through the lens of autism. Based in Los Angeles, the team behind the film includes producer Carolina Groppa and director Matt Fuller, both of whom are award winning filmmakers and advocates of social change. Along with Dr. Ira Heilveil, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA Medical School, they are working to create a remarkable documentary that is not only about love, but also about overcoming obstacles and re-defining the status quo.
I was lucky enough to talk to the film’s producer, Carolina Groppa, to hear what she has to say about Autism in Love and the journey she’s been on while filming for the past year.
JVV: What inspired the making of Autism in Love?
CG: Autism in Love was inspired by an idea from our executive producer, Ira Heilveil. At the time he came to me and said he wanted to do research on the topic of adults with autism and romantic relationships for a book. And when I started digging into that research, I realized very quickly that there wasn’t much out there on the topic – especially as pertained to adults and the point of view of people on the spectrum. So I told him we should explore the idea of making a documentary, and he agreed. Matt and I did about six months of research that was exclusive from the documentary. In that time we sat down with volunteers on the spectrum on camera and asked them questions about love; what it means to love and what relationships look like, sort of a general review of their thoughts. We interviewed a variety of men and women on the spectrum – I think the youngest was 19 or 20 and the oldest was in his late 60s. Matt and I knew little to nothing about autism prior to this project so that time really served as an entrance into the community. What we thought we knew was just the tip of the iceberg – the topic is so deep and compelling. The more we researched and investigated, the more we realized this is something worth exploring because it matters to a lot of people, and that we were tapping into something much bigger than ourselves.
JVV: How has the autism community reacted to your project? And if at first they were hesitant, how does the community feel now?
CG: From the people that we’ve met in person, we’ve always felt very embraced. I think in the very beginning there was some hesitation because they weren’t sure who we were, and finding out that we both don’t have direct connections to autism makes people a little bit weary, understandably so. But I think as soon as people started talking to us they realized that we have our hearts in the right place and that we’re doing this because this is something we’re passionate about – exploring the topic of love through the lens of autism. We actually had so many people that wanted to be a part of the project, from potential participants to specialists in the field, that we had to turn some people away.
JVV: What are a few challenges you have faced during the production process?
CG: There are always hurdles in independent filmmaking, the biggest one being money. You have to get creative in terms of how you’re going to make this happen with the resources around you. But I think the biggest challenge in terms of the creative aspect of the project is really being sensitive and respectful of how much people are willing to share and how far they’re willing to go. It’s a very delicate balance when you’re opening up your life to someone to come in, document it, and share it with the world. I certainly would be hesitant if someone wanted to document my life, especially as it pertains to relationships, for nine months. It’s amazing the bravery of some of our participants, who are so willing to trust us. It took awhile to get that trust, but we are very transparent with our intentions and I think people can quickly see that we’re not here to exploit anybody. We’re here to tell a very truthful, honest story about this very real thing we all seek, which is to love and connect deeply with someone.
What’s been really interesting is that this isn’t just a project where we’re spending time with people and then we’re never going to talk to them again. There’s been a very real relationship and bond that has developed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the people that we’ve met through the course of making this film are going to be a part of our lives forever. You don’t just show up with a camera and get the kind of footage we got. It takes time to build a relationship and to trust. Matt did an incredible job finding balance of being sensitive to the needs of our participants while also encouraging them to opening just a little more.
JVV: Once production is complete, do you plan on continuing to produce documentaries, or is this kind of like a fun experience you had and you’re going to move onto other career goals?
CG: I’m not opposed to it. It’s been almost 2 years since we started working on Autism in Love and I know that when you sign on to do a documentary, you are marrying yourself to this project for a very long time. It would have to be something I am very passionate about, because it takes everything that you have.
Documentaries are not something you go into seeking glory and riches, because it’s a lot of hard work. But at the end of the day you go to sleep and you know that you have worked your butt off to do something that matters to a lot of people. People tell us everyday how much this matters to them, which is refreshing and rewarding because sometimes, especially in the entertainment industry, you can get so involved in working very taxing projects that don’t necessarily fulfill you creatively and spiritually. And for me Autism in Love definitely does, so I’m very lucky. I’d love move into the fictional landscape since narrative feature films are where my heart is.
JVV: How has working on this film changed your ideas of love and autism?
CG: That’s a really hard question to answer because I feel like it changes every day. The more I watch the footage we’ve shot and the more I spend time with the people that are in our documentary, the more I learn from them. The more I see how little I know about everything I thought I knew, and I love that. I love that it keeps you on your toes. And with love, it’s an ever-changing thing that’s always morphing into something else. It’s not one thing. Overall, acceptance and gratitude are the two words that come to mind. That life is what you make it and it’s all about the perspective that you have. Regardless of what hand you are dealt in life, you’re only as limited as you want to be. We have many examples of that where people with autism refuse to be defined by that label are out there, finding relationships and dating.
This journey isn’t over yet, but it has exceeded all of my wildest dreams and expectations. I hope people walk away from this film understanding more about themselves, how they connect with others, and how they are navigating their own lives. If people can reflect and discuss love and autism, it would be the greatest gift— what more could you ask for? At the end of the day all we can do is just pour our hearts and all of our talents into this project, raise awareness of this film, and hope that it resonates with people both within and outside of the autism community.