People on the autism spectrum often suffer from harmful stereotypes — but Anita Lesko and Abraham Talmage Nielsen are out to fight the stigma against people with autism, and in the most romantic way possible: They're about to tie the knot in the first all-austism wedding at the Love & Autism Conference on Sept. 26 in San Diego, Calif. In addition to celebrating their relationship and their union, the wedding aims to raise awareness and smash down stigmas about how people on the autism spectrum experience relationships.
The Love & Autism Conference itself will be held for the second time this year, with the goal being to humanize those on the autism spectrum. “My goal is to start the social movement to break down the misconceptions that people on the spectrum do not want and need relationships. Autism is always there and love is always there, it’s nothing that an individual needs to overcome," Love & Autism founder Dr. Jenny Palmiotto said in the conference's press release.
Lesko and Nielsen originally met an an autism support group, quickly became friends, and eventually developed the romantic relationship that will lead to their wedding next month — a wedding in which every single participant will be on the autism spectrum, from the flower girls to the wedding cake baker. I wondered if it was difficult to coordinate a wedding on this scale in conjunction with such a major event; luckily, Lesko was happy to speak with Bustle about how she and Nielsen put it together.
The idea first came about through the couple's invitation to speak at the event. "I was first invited by Jenny Palmiotto to speak at her conference, Love & Autism," Lesko tells Bustle. "After discussing the idea with my fiancé... I contacted Jenny to say we'd like to get married at the conference, as part of it." But the wedding isn't just for them; it's for all the other attendees, as well. "Neither Abraham nor I had ever been invited to a wedding," says Lesko. "This is typical for people on the autism spectrum to never get invited to anything. So, I started thinking that by us getting married at the Love & Autism conference, it would give others on the spectrum an opportunity to attend a wedding."
Love & Autism's founder played a key role in getting the wedding off the ground. "Once I had the initial conversation with Jenny Palmiotto... about getting married as part of Love & Autism: A Conference with Heart, [she] became our wedding planner," Lesko continues. "Along with my help, she began organizing the 'I Do Crew!' My best friend and globe-trotting autism ambassador, Dr. Stephen Shore, is going to be the Officiant for the Day and perform the wedding ceremony." Other special guests who will take part in the wedding include author Dr. Temple Grandin and painter Michael Tolleson.
Lesko also stresses the importance of the visibility of the couple's wedding, noting that too many people think that people on the autism spectrum simply do not have relationships or care about human connection. "We all have the same needs, desires, dreams, and emotions. We might not necessarily show our feelings the same way others do, but we certainly have them," she says.
If you want to attend the event but aren't on the spectrum, Dr. Palmiotto says that this conference is open to all; it encourages everyone who has a loved one on the spectrum or who wants to be an ally to attend. “I want it to also serve as a chance for everyone to mingle with adults on the spectrum, especially parents of children with autism so they can see that their kids can have love and accomplish things just like our speakers and guests have done," she noted in the official press release. If you're interested in attending, the conference is taking place September 26 and 27 at the Liberty Station Conference Center in San Diego, Calif. You can choose to attend the entire conference, or just the wedding on the 26th, to which tickets are discounted.
If you want to support the couple but won't be able to attend the conference, Lesko recommends donating to their Kickstarter. "We have started a crowdfunding campaign to get all these wonderful people from all over the world to San Diego for our special day," she tells Bustle. Additionally, funds not used for the wedding will go towards scholarships for those on the spectrum to attend who might not otherwise be able to. "With 85 percent of those on the spectrum being unemployed, it would be very difficult if not impossible for those to attend. This incredible event would bring them together to learn from each other and have an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she adds. If they meet their fundraising goal of $22,800, they will also livestream the wedding online.
If you're looking for a good cause to donate to, let this be it, guys. Find out more at the Love & Autism website.
Images: Courtesy of Courtney Rose