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Love on the spectrum: How autism brought one couple together

Dave Hamrick, 35, and his wife, Lindsey Nebeker, 34, at their home in Alexandria, Va. The couple, who are both on the autism spectrum, are part of the “Autism in Love” documentary airing on PBS. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)


With that one syllable, Dave Hamrick can tell how his wife is feeling. It might be a confident “pssst” if she’s happy; a quiet, deflated one if she’s feeling sad.

“An enthusiastic one would be like pssssssssssssssssssssssssssssst,” he demonstrates, in a psst that lasts several seconds. “That means she’s interested in a little more than just cuddling,” Hamrick says with a smile.

Like many couples who have been together for a while, Hamrick and Lindsey Nebeker have, over the years, figured out how to best communicate with each other and coexist in the same space. They’ve had to work at it, as they both have autism spectrum disorder, a neurological condition that can make communication, and social and emotional interaction more complicated and difficult.

Nebeker gets startled easily, so they came up with a system: Whenever one of them enters a room in their Alexandria townhome, they announce their presence with that simple psst and then wait for a response.

Hamrick, 35, and Nebeker, 34, are featured in the documentary “Autism in Love,” which peers into the lives of four autistic adults as they seek or maintain romantic relationships. The film premieres on Monday as part of the PBS series “Independent Lens,” and in its first few moments Hamrick is featured saying he never knew for sure if he would get married someday.

Nebeker was also unsure about marriage, she tells me in the couple’s living room, adding that being part of the documentary made her think more seriously about their relationship. “Some of these sit-down interviews,” filmed over the span of a year, “were just like couple’s therapy,” Nebeker says. “Because the interviews were quite intensive, I think our relationship really evolved from that.”

“It did — it grew,” Hamrick adds.

“Autism in Love,” which explores autistic adults’ search for and maintenance of romantic relationships, airs on PBS on Jan. 11. (Video: PBS)

The pair met at an autism conference in Nashville in 2005 and dated long distance for the first two years. “I felt safer that way,” Nebeker says of the distance, “that we could take things a little more slow.” They’re very different people: Nebeker is more of an artistic and verbal person; Hamrick is more of a scientist. The main thing bringing them together, they say, is their shared disability. Even though it manifests differently for each of them, they can draw on shared experiences and challenges. “If you’re having frustrations over something, or having a concern or problem — and I may not have those feelings at the same time, or maybe it’s not an issue I have,” Nebeker says. “But at least I understand why you’re experiencing those emotions or feelings, because that’s part of autism.”

Hamrick and Nebeker developed a system over their eight years of dating for how to handle the emotional meltdowns they have and the particular types of sensory overload they’re prone to. The psst’ing is part of that system, as is their home’s division into shared spaces and private ones. The first floor, including the living room where we chatted, plus an upstairs hallway, are shared space.

They each have separate bedrooms, plus a home office for Nebeker; the basement is mostly Hamrick’s space because it’s cooler down there. As a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, Hamrick is always in tune with the humidity or pressure in the air. In their private spaces, they decorate as they wish; control the temperature (Nebeker likes it warmer); and use different kinds of lightbulbs (incandescents for Nebeker, and energy-efficient LEDs or CFLs for Hamrick). The shared spaces have a mixture of both kinds of bulbs. “The non-incandescents are a sensory issue for me,” Nebeker notes.

Most of the time, this blend of shared and private spaces works well. But it can get lonely, Nebeker admits, saying she needs to be reminded to seek out companionship and affection from her husband.

“Sometimes I feel like she’s sad and there’s only so much I can do,” Hamrick says. “And other times I feel like I should be picking up on her non-verbal signals, and I can’t always accurately decode them. So sometimes I have to probe for the information.”

When Hamrick first asked Nebeker to be in a relationship with him, about three months after they met in Nashville, he verbally communicated that he was serious about her, but what drove the point home was the way he placed both of his hands over hers.

“She had her hand on the table,” Hamrick says, “and I just put my hand there, taking a chance. And the good thing is: She never retracted her hand; she kept it steady. At that point, I was feeling more confident in my move to pursue this.”

That power of touch has been a constant in their relationship. Recalling how Hamrick comforted her tenderly during a recent emotional meltdown, Nebeker said to him, “Even though you were very confused and concerned about me, and unsure of why I was feeling that way, you ended up just going down on the floor with me and allowing me to just hold you, because you knew I needed that.”

For Nebeker, those meltdowns can be triggered by things online commenters say about her. Nebeker is in the public eye as an autism advocate; she works as a development specialist at the Autism Society of America.

As “Autism in Love” explores, those on the spectrum can have trouble expressing their own emotions or understanding and interpreting others’ body language. Hamrick has become sort of a dating guru in this area, teaching workshops on love and body language at autism conferences.

For some individuals on the spectrum, it can be hard to pick up on when a potential paramour is interested. Hamrick likes to draw from the clues highlighted in Tracey Cox’s book “Superdate” — such as a person’s posture, whether she is making sustained eye contact or playing with her hair, or whether her feet are angled toward you. Such visual clues can be memorized, Hamrick says, to help those who have trouble reading such cues naturally.

Beyond those cues, Hamrick has his own formula for finding love: Pay attention to a person’s looks, personality and how they treat you, which he calls LPT for short. When he was single, he would evaluate a date 25 percent on how she looked; 25 percent on her overall personality and 50 percent on how she treated him.

“If that person made me feel important, made me feel special and valued,” Hamrick said, “that made me more interested in keeping them than just mere looks or personality alone, although you can’t ignore their looks and personality.”

That’s a formula everyone, on the spectrum or not, can use.

On a good day, he Nebeker gets A’s or B’s in all three categories. If she’s in a bad mood, one of those might drop to a C or C-, Hamrick jokes.

“I’m glad I don’t fail,” Nebeker banters back.

“No, you don’t fail,” he assures her. “You definitely pass.”


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