Anita Lesko and Abraham Nieslon call their love story an “epic romance.”
On Saturday, Sept. 26, Lesko and Nelson are getting married, and the wedding itself will be “epic” too – they’ll be celebrating the first all-autism wedding.
The bride and groom, who are both on the autistic spectrum, will be joined by an entire wedding party (ring bearer, harpist, wedding cake baker, groomsman, usher and more) that identify as autistic.
The nuptials will take place at San Diego’s Love & Autism: A Conference with a Heart, a conference organized by Dr. Jenny Palmiotto to bring awareness to the fact that every individual, even those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, deserves to be loved.
“People on the spectrum tend to not get invited to parties or weddings or anything,” Lesko tells PEOPLE. “I figured our wedding could give folks on the spectrum an opportunity to get to attend a wedding and be part of something like that.”
Lesko, 54, says she’s spent her whole life wondering why she never got invited to events like weddings or birthday parties. Having received a late diagnosis of autism at the age of 50, she finally understood why she was slightly different – but the exclusion still hurt.
“When I found out that this was kind of the norm among people on the spectrum, I was relieved that I wasn’t the only person. But I’m still troubled by the fact that this is the way it is,” she says. “I want people to know that people with autism have real emotions, and that I’m going to cry on my wedding day. We may not tend to show emotions like other people do, but inside, we’re feeling the same thing – sometimes even more.” (Lesko already plans to have extra make-up on hand for the ceremony; she says she plans on sobbing through the whole thing.)
Nielson, 28, and Lesko’s romance began at a Unitarian Church in Pensacola, Florida. Nielson was attending autism support groups led by Lesko, who would go over to his mother’s house for dinner every week. Nielson’s mom told Lesko that her son was handicapped and disabled and he remained quiet at the dinners. When Nielson finished his first year of school studying cyber security and computer science, Lesko took him out for dinner to celebrate – and their romantic connection was instant.
“We got into these big conversations about our feelings, our emotions and our loneliness issues. That was the night that we fell in love with each other,” she says of that evening in May 2014. “After we left the restaurant, we drove down a pier near the baseball stadium, where they happened to be shooting off fireworks.”
The fireworks lasted – the couple was engaged by Christmas.
While Lesko and Nielson are nervous and overwhelmed by the wedding – the planning, the crying, the heat – they’re so excited to share their love story with the world.
“We’re trying to show that autistic children can grow up and have a happy, fulfilled life, just like everybody else,” Lesko says. “It’s not uncommon for people on the spectrum get too comfortable – get in their comfort zone, and it becomes scary for them to step out of their shells. Abraham and I have stepped far beyond our comfort zones to get where we’re at – and in the process, we learned how to be spontaneous.”
Palmiotto, who is handling most of the event’s logistics, was shocked (and delighted) by how many people contacted her about participating in the wedding, asking her, “How do I stand by this couple and their message?”
The large wedding party, every member of which is on the spectrum, includes Alex Plank, a groomsman (and the after-party DJ) who can’t wait to celebrate Lesko and Nielson’s big day.
“For two individuals who have gone through their lives feeling alone, it is beautiful that they have finally found companionship and understanding,” Plank, 29, tells PEOPLE. “It gives hope to those of us on the spectrum who wonder if we will ever find our other half.”
For Sonia Rivera, the mother of 4-year-old Emma Amaya (the flower girl) and 13-year-old David Rivera (an usher), the wedding will show her family that “being autistic doesn’t mean her children can’t have a full life.”
“My son has been discriminated against because of his diagnosis. He’s experienced a lot of hurt,” Rivera tells PEOPLE. “At some point, he didn’t believe that anyone would fall in love with him. This wedding gives him hope. I’d love my daughter to walk a path where the world treats her equally, not less. Where the world sees her as whole and lovable, not disabled.”
Another guest who is looking forward to the wedding? Lesko and Nielson’s adorable (and legless) service cat, Calli Mae, who will be pulled in a wagon by the flower girls.
“She keeps Abraham and me calm,” Lesko says. “She’s going to think that the whole thing is orchestrated just for her – she loves attention.”