Editor’s Note: This is the second episode in an ongoing series called “Heart of the Matter,” using love stories to talk about big issues.
Nico Morales and Latoya Jolly met online in December 2015
They found each other using a dating website for people on the autism spectrum
Most high-functioning people with autism want to be in a romantic relationship, one study found
Like many couples, Nico Morales and Latoya Jolly met online. Nico sent the first message while on vacation in Guatemala with his family in December 2015. Latoya’s handle was pokejolly1993, a throwback to Pokemon and her birth year. Nico liked that they were both “children at heart.” Soon after, the couple went on their first date.
Now, family and friends say, it’s hard to keep them apart.
Morales and Jolly found each other using a lesser-known dating website called AutisticDating.net. Both Morales, 19, and Jolly, 23, have Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism characterized by average, or above average, intelligence and a difficulty socializing and communicating with others. Depending upon the severity of these social deficits, people with Asperger’s and other forms of autism may struggle to develop, maintain and understand relationships, including romantic ones.
“Social awkwardness is very common amongst autistic people,” Morales said. “And if you thought that was difficult for friendships, imagine applying that to romantic relationships.”
An estimated one in 68 children in the US has some form of autism spectrum disorder, according to a 2012 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children can fall anywhere along the spectrum, which represents varying degrees of difficulty with social interaction, communication and repetitive behaviors. Researchers do not fully understand what causes these neurodevelopmental disorders, and there is no pharmaceutical treatment or cure.
Most high-functioning people with autism want to be in a romantic relationship, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. Of the 229 participants with high-functioning autism, 73% said they had been in a romantic relationship before, and only 7% said they had no interest in a romantic relationship whatsoever. Additionally, the participants with partners who were also on the autism spectrum reported a significantly higher level of satisfaction with their relationship than those whose partners were not on the spectrum.
One of the primary characteristics of autism is a fixation on particular hobbies or pastimes – what the American Academy of Pediatrics calls “restrictive and repetitive interests and activities.” When two individuals with autism are in a relationship, they can relate to one another based on those interests, said Paige M. Siper, chief psychologist at the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment.
“They can kind of connect on that common ground,” she said. “And sometimes, it’s around these areas of preoccupation.”
Jolly attends Atlantic Technical College in Coconut Creek, FL. Jolly says she is often uncomfortable when she talks to people who are not autistic. They may not understand the nature of her condition – why she may avoid eye contact during a conversation, for example. But with Morales, she doesn’t have that issue.
“It’s easy to talk to him,” she said. “I can understand, like, what he goes through and stuff. Because I went through the same thing, too.”
Morales, who attends Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, FL, says Jolly helps him deal with the emotional ups and downs common to individuals with autism.
“I honestly don’t know what I did to deserve such an amazing woman like Latoya in my life,” he said. “But who am I to question a good thing?”