While meaningful understanding of love has eluded the grasp of towering giants of art, science and philosophy for millennia, some of my brilliant clients on the autistic spectrum are pretty sure they have it figured out; thank you very much.
Years ago, I along with some of my teenage boys, all of whom are on the spectrum, started interpreting and working with the “Love Formula”.... Sorry Einstein, we’ll handle this one. Kids on the spectrum resonate deeply with concrete and pragmatic approaches even to life’s most esoteric and emotional aspects. Love, of course, is at the top of that heap.
There is a documentary called “Autism in Love”. When the documentarian asked a young man on the spectrum (who had a steady girlfriend) if people on the spectrum can be in love and have healthy relationships, the young man answered, “Of course….it’s just….. a formula.” He goes on to explain the formula.
Here it is with my interpretations.
When I was teaching a group of parents the Love Formula, I wrote the formula on the board and then asked, “So, what does the L stand for?” A middle aged man yelled out, “Lust!”
“Well yeah kinda” I said, “but it stands for “Looks.” According to the formula, both parties should have compatible looks and be physically attracted to each other. So, you could infer mutual lust, but better to think of it as a shared and pleasant attraction which could be broken down further into little things not related to lust, though that can be part of it, too. For example: “I like the color of his eyes; I like the way her cheeks go up when she smiles; I like the kind of blue jeans he likes to wear.”
P stands for personality. Here’s how I break it down---Personality means the same sense of humor and common interests. You make each other laugh and can enjoy the same activities together. And, you create opportunities to share those experiences!
Now, the most important piece of the equation: T squared. One of my students with a preferred interest in math assured me that “squared” did not mean twice as important but, infinitely most important.
T means using Thinking of Others (TOO) skills. These are the behaviors that I teach as Friendship Building Skills. Friendships require Thinking of You vs. All About Me. In order to have a friendship you have to be able to understand and think about your friend.
I teach about fifteen TOO skills. Here are four:
Functional Interpretation: Get your head out of the computer and the phone and look around to see what the people around you may need. Open a door, clear the table, chop the vegetables…….be present. Look, be still and observe for a count of ten. You will be amazed what you can notice.
Functional Interpretation: Resist the urge to isolate. Use mental cues to remind yourself to stay in the group, even if the group is just one other person.
Ask questions based on what you know about the person. (There is a Listening Formula---but I’ll save that for another time.) Asking your partner questions will help you understand him better, and it will make him feel included in the relationship.
Functional Interpretation: “How did that meeting go?”, “Tell me about your trip.”
Functional Interpretation: Apologize when you make a mistake. Or, at least acknowledge the other person’s perspective. The ability to see a situation from another’s perspective is the single most important Thinking of You skill.
When both people in the relationship are reciprocal over time with these skills…….presto! You have created love which can be mathematically proven.
I teach the Friendship Pyramid and explain that it is normal to go up and down the pyramid based on how the friends treat each other. There is no botoxing friendships, or love for that matter, into place.
In my experience, there are other elements to this Love Formula. Are the two people compatible in the way that they solve problems, react to stress, and organize life’s tasks? In other words, do they have similar self-regulation and executive functioning skills in navigating life?
My friend told me he admires long-term couples who just like each other enough. Maybe another way of seeing it is as a Love Formula Quotient with a good enough rating overtime. So, what does that mean? It means that if Lust (eh, I mean Looks) goes down, then shared experiences of common interests or Thinking of Others Behaviors need to rise. But, all on board must not only have the skills but also, put in the effort. And, as life unfolds, it takes a certain level of Emotional Intelligence to make it work.
Karen Schwartz Clover, MA, CCC-SLP is an Autism specialist. As a Speech-Language Pathologist and Social Cognitive Therapist, she helps clients achieve important social competencies, enhanced emotional stability, confidence and improved relationships with themselves and the world around them. She is an Educational Consultant, Advocate for service for Autistic children, and the Founder of the service organization Story Teaching which coordinates care between non-public school professionals, school districts, students and their families.