Adam, a socially-awkward but intelligent man with Asperger's, struggles to get his life back on track after the death of his father and the loss of his job. Adam copes by rigidly following a regular schedule that includes engaging in the same activities day after day. He is thrown for a loop, however, when he meets Beth. The two start up a friendship that blossoms into a romantic relationship. As their relationship develops, the couple face increasing challenges as they try to understand one another and they begin to question whether a relationship between a man with Asperger's and a neurotypical woman can survive.
Romantic Relationships for Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome
Kristina E. Patrick
Movies often depict individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) as loners who reject opportunities for social relationships. In actuality, those with high-functioning...
Adam opens with the title character, a man in his twenties with Asperger’s Syndrome, coping with the death of his father and his newfound independence. In addition to grieving his recent loss, Adam is experiencing difficulties at work and financial hardship. He has formed very few friendships and has difficulty navigating social situations. Shortly after his father’s death, Adam meets a woman, Beth, who has just moved into his building. Beth and Adam become friends and quickly develop feelings of attraction for one another.
As Adam and Beth progress through a dating relationship, they face numerous difficulties resulting from Adam’s Asperger’s Syndrome. Adam has difficulty interacting appropriately with Beth’s friends and family, and he rarely knows how Beth is feeling or what she is thinking. While Beth is going through family difficulties, Adam does not know how to support or comfort her. The relationship is further complicated by Adam’s difficulty in finding a new job after he is fired. Despite these difficulties, Beth and Adam are able to connect with and learn from each other and their initial attraction develops into an intimate and meaningful relationship.
Although most individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome are interested in pursuing romantic and sexual relationships, their interpersonal skill deficits can often make initiating and maintaining a relationship difficult (Attwood, 2009). As one individual with Asperger’s expressed, “I want a close and long-term relationship but I just don’t seem to know how to manage or maintain them; I wish I knew how and when to do this” (Jones & Meldal, 2001). In the film Adam, a relationship falls into the title character’s lap. In reality, this rarely happens. Most individuals with Asperger’s spend a long time pursuing relationships, with the guidance of family, friends, and even therapists, before they are able to adequately initiate a romantic relationship.
As portrayed in the film, people with Asperger’s tend to experience difficulties expressing emotions and interpreting the thoughts and emotions of others. This can lead to faux pas and behaviors that may come off as insensitive or offensive (Baron-Cohen, O’Riordan, Stone, Jones, & Plaisted, 1999). In the film, Adam’s difficulties in these areas often complicate his relationship with Beth. For instance, Adam is unable to interpret Beth’s emotional distress over her family problems or to make inferences about Beth’s desire for a sexual relationship with him. In addition, Adam cannot appropriately interact with Beth’s friends and family. When asked whether he would like to see pictures of Beth’s friends’ new baby, Adam frankly answers, “No, thanks.” Adam also tends to perseverate on his favorite topics without noticing when Beth’s parents become disinterested. As a result, Beth finds it difficult to integrate Adam into her social and family circle.
Individuals with Asperger’s often find it difficult to express affection for the purposes of showing love or repairing someone’s feelings (Attwood, 2009). When Beth becomes upset, Adam tells her he sees that she is upset but does not know what to do about it. Beth specifically instructs him to give her a hug and he is then able to do so. In this case, Adam’s inability to infer an appropriate social response as well as his likely lack of desire for physical affection inhibit Adam’s ability to effectively comfort his partner without guidance. In another instance, Beth apologizes for an argument that she had with Adam and tells him that he can also apologize. Adam replies, “But you said it was your fault.” Like many individuals with Asperger’s, Adam does not understand when or how to express affection or remorse for the purpose of repairing hurt feelings.
For Adam, words are taken very literally. He has difficulty understanding sarcasm, symbolic language, or lies. When Adam discovers that Beth lied to him about a meeting with her parents, he is unable to understand Beth’s motives and becomes extremely upset. Using “All or None” thinking that is common for individuals with ASDs (Yapko, 2010), Adam accuses Beth of being a liar and tells her that he hates her. While this reaction highlights some of the difficulties that individuals with Asperger’s face in understanding others’ intentions and tolerating flexible constructs, Adam’s reaction in the film is somewhat extreme. It is unlikely at that stage of Adam’s life that he would have never been lied to before by a loved one or that he would be unable to understand a lie.
In general, the portrayal of Adam and Beth’s relationship represents a somewhat stereotypical model of a romance between a man with Asperger’s and a woman who is not on the autism spectrum. In some ways, Adam is a very extreme example of an individual with ASD. He melts down in response to sensory overload and during his confrontation with Beth about lying to him. These meltdowns are exaggerated, particularly given the high level of independent functioning that Adam exhibits in other areas. Also, Adam has great difficulty with understanding the needs of others unless they are extremely direct with him. While this is very often the case with individuals with ASD, it is unlikely that this deficit would go as far as it does with Adam who does not understand, “Could you give me a hug?” until it is rephrased as, “I want you to give me a hug.” Adam’s extreme reactions to overstimulation and his level of cluelessness about others’ thoughts and intentions represent a stereotypical view of Asperger’s that is not a true representation of the ASD population.
In contrast to some specific extreme difficulties, Adam is able to handle other challenges quite easily. He lives independently, maintaining an organized and clean home. When Adam has social difficulties, he is able to rise above them with a little coaxing from Beth. For instance, Adam is initially unable to gather the courage to attend a social event with Beth. However, a short time later, Adam attends a party with Beth and is able to navigate the social scene with only minor difficulties and faux pas. Likewise, Adam’s interview skills improve dramatically with coaching from Beth over a few weeks. In fact, at the end of the film, it appears that Adam has become almost proficient at navigating a variety of social contexts. This depiction gives the viewer the impression that if ASD individuals simply gain insight into their social problems, then they will easily be able to solve them. In reality, many individuals with ASDs have great insight into their problems and understand that other people function differently than they do (Jones & Meldal, 2001). However, understanding how neurotypical individuals behave versus actually behaving with social proficiency are two dramatically different things. Many individuals with ASDs become overwhelmed by attempts to execute a variety of “normal” social functions while also concentrating on the content of conversation. As a result, the type of social functioning exhibited by non-spectrum individuals is generally quite difficult for ASD individuals in practice even when they can understand the appropriate behaviors conceptually.
Adam is one of the few films that deals with how romantic relationships can develop between individuals with ASDs and non-spectrum partners. The film is refreshing in its accurate assertion that individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome are not only interested in romantic relationships but are also often quite capable of engaging in them successfully. Where the film falters is in its simplification of the social difficulties that individuals with Asperger’s face. Asperger’s Syndrome and other ASDs are lifelong disorders that pervasively affect the lives of those diagnosed. While there is no quick fix to the difficulties that ASD individuals face, people on the spectrum are often quite insightful and are able to function in a “neurotypical” society. Rather than highlighting the challenges of dating a man with Asperger’s Syndrome, Adam may have better served the viewer by depicting a relationship between two people, one of whom just happens to have Asperger’s.
Attwood, T. (2009). Relationship problems of adults with Asperger’s syndrome. Good Autism Practice, 8(1), pp. 13-20.
Baron-Cohen, S., O’Riordan, M., Stone, V., Jones, R., & Plaisted, K. (1999). Recognition of Faux Pas by normally developing children and children with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism. Autism and Developmental Disorders, 29(5), pp. 407-418.
Jones, R. S. P. & Meldal, T. O. (2001). Social relationships and Asperger’s syndrome: A qualitative analysis of first-hand accounts. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 5(1), pp. 35-41.
Ousley, O. Y. & Mesibov, G. B. (1991). Sexual attitudes and knowledge of high-functioning adolescents and adults with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 21(4), pp. 471-481.
Urdang, L., De Pencier, M., Vanech, D. (Producers) & Mayer, M. (Director). (2009). Adam [Motion picture]. United States: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Yapko, D. (2010). Chapter 10: Do you see the forest or the tree?: Utilizing client interests and strengths in a case of Asperger’s syndrome. In Burns, G. W. (ed). Happiness, healing, enhancement: Your casebook collection for applying positive psychology in therapy. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.