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Autism and Culture: Relationships, Murals, and the “Autism Express”

Following a similar lead as our weekly news round-up, in celebration of Autism Awareness Month, we are taking a look throughout the month at some of the smaller, less newsworthy stories that are just as important and affecting as the news on Page One. This week, we take a look into the world of dating for adults with autism, a mural that is helping a community to better understand autism, and the latest project of someone whose work we do cover frequently here: Holly Robinson Peete and her latest book.

Though Valentine’s Day is already behind us, this year continues to speed ahead as we enter that most romantic season of the year: Spring, when love blooms. Accordingly, we sought a story ideal for the season and found it in the form of a new research study that is opening the door to the world of love amongst those with a cognitive disability, such as autism, schizophrenia, or attention deficit disorder. According to the study, individuals who have been diagnosed with such a condition are most likely to be attracted to another person who shares their diagnosis.

First seen in the publication JAMA Psychiatry, lead investigator David Mataix-Cols says that the nonrandom mating patterns uncovered by his team’s research points to a reason as to why certain conditions share the same risk factors as parents who have two different psychiatric diagnoses run the risk of giving birth to a baby at a heightened risk for both conditions. In addition, the work might explain why certain conditions run in families.

The new study, which is based on people with diagnoses rather than just symptoms, argues that nonrandom mating is widespread amongst people with the same diagnosis but also among those with different diagnoses.

“I think this is a major scientific contribution,” says John Constantino, Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who led the 2005 study but was not involved in the new work. “It has enormous implications for understanding the genetic structure of psychiatric conditions and how they’re transmitted across generations.”

Moving down south, the Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy has commissioned a mural with the Ringling College of Art and Design for a mural that lit up blue on April 2, World Autism Awareness Day. The mural was created by Natalie Palumbo, a motion design major from the Ringling College of Art and Design who worked over the course of several days to create two different murals at SMART.

Palumbo’s inspiration struck close to home as she has a brother with low-verbal autism. She says; “I began drawing to cope with the loneliness that we couldn’t talk to each other. Anthony loved to watch me draw, so I used my art to communicate with my brother. His unique way of looking at the world has had a big influence on my work.” Palumbo’s mural will be celebrated as part of an autism awareness celebration in the city on April 23.

Finally, ending with a person who should be familiar to readers of this space, Holly Robinson Peete has been making waves in 2016. The actress-turned-autism-advocate has her own reality show, For Peete’s Sake, currently airing on OWN and she has a new book entitled Same But Different, which is a follow-up to her book

My Brother Charlie that she wrote with her daughter Ryan about growing up with a sibling with autism. Holly’s son RJ was diagnosed with autism at the age of three.

Where My Brother Charlie targeted young children around RJ’s and Ryan’s ages at the time, Same But Different serves as something of a spiritual successor to Charlie in that it picks up the story when Ryan and RJ are teenagers and was written for audiences of that age. This time RJ joined his mom and sister as a co-author to pen a book that reads more like a shared diary between the two siblings.

Holly hopes that the book will help other teens dealing with similar issues made all the more complicated by autism. As she says, “I haven’t seen many books on what happens to these kids when they grow up. You don’t really see what happens with dating and social media and what adolescence brings. That’s what this book explores.”