Welcome to a new feature on atypical perspectives where I review a piece of media thats either about autism or resonates with me as an autistic person, through an ‘atypical’ lens. Like the pieces of prose I occasionally do, this provides a break from the in depth pieces, which are still the focus of this blog.
One subject I have not talked about on this blog before is relationships of the romantic nature. Struggles with communication do of course impact on autistic peoples ability to form those sorts of connections, including myself. For instance, I do feel comfortable telling you that being in my mid 20s without ever having been in a relationship serves as one source of anxiety for me, and many individuals on the spectrum are in the same place. While my experiences with emotion or going on dates has informed my review, I have leant closer to criticizing the programmes understanding of autism.
That said, I am uneasy about the treatment of autism and romance in popular media like its a novel phenomenon. ‘Love on the spectrum’ is no exception, but one positive is that on the whole, the show is honest. To clarify, all the relationships on the show are real and none of the processes of dates or ‘getting to know each other’ appear all that manipulated for ratings. Some of the events leading up to the dates do; I would rather more detail on how these people came to meet. That said, the show makes an effort to show different autisitc people at different stages: some like Michael have never been in a relationship, some like Chloe are in the stage of meeting people, and others like Ruth and Thomas are in relationships. Contrary to the sensationalism of a show like Channel 4’s ‘the undateables’ you can treat this like more of documentary about the lives of autistic people looking for love…Or at least, you could if the show didn’t decide to play so fast and loose with the facts and advice handed out.
I went to a pride event once. Participating in the parade was an autistic charity who had placards decorated with factoids including ‘only five percent of autisitc adults ever find love’. My friend – who is also autisitc – turned to me and said “they’ll believe what they want to believe”. I bring this up because its a widely accepted distortion of a 2018 study about marriage, made all the more popular by the fact that Olivia, a participant who provides facts and commentary throughout the show, repeats this idea. I don’t blame her, nor did I expect the production crew to correct her there and then. However, cutting the mistake might have been useful and the show might have benefitted from a wider focus on myth busting.
I do admire a popular programme with the word ‘love’ in the title actually showing the audience what love can realistically look like. Chloe is nervous about dating after a breakup but after one awkward date, has a beautiful one picking sunflowers with a girl named Lotus. Seeing her get back on her feet and grow her confidence across five episodes actually does live up to that occasionally condescending description of heartwarming. On another note, its a lot of fun seeing Ruth joke about her “nerdiness” in front of her fiancé Thomas and to see him explaining that he’s “just autisitc enough to understand Ruth”. However there are equally as many moments which baffled me. Chief among them is when the production crew, seemingly out of nowhere, ask Sharnae and Jimmy – a couple who are moving in together – if they have “consummated thier relationship”. All that this achieves is to make the participants and viewers feel awkward, furthering the idea that autisitc relationships are somehow inherently different to ‘normal ones’.
This brings me to the way the show behaves towards participants. Being on Netflix, its aimed primarily at neurotypicals. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, however no preconceptions are challenged. All the dates are strictly between autistic people, which dosent do much to further the idea that we can and do date non-autistics. The background music feels inappropriate, swaying between overly cutesy like watching a doc on clumsy baby penguins, and ridiculously dramatic as if the dates on the show are life or death. Some of the attempts at humour are equally as tone deaf. In one moment, Maddi attends a fancy dress party for disabled people. With encouragement from the producers and her parents, she is literally pushed and pulled into using the event to try and find a partner. What follows is a filmed recounting of the awkward conversations she had as a result of being under pressure. While I have seen terms like ‘heartwarming’ used to describe this show, some moments are extremely uncomfortable viewing, giving the impression of a disrespectful spectator sport intended for an entirely non-autistic audience.
Even though the show has decided to help autistic people find love with each other, the producers seem oddly hung up on getting them to perform ‘normality’. A counselor named Jodi Rodgers provides support to some participants, and helps to shore up thier confidence, but some of advice she gives seems unnecessary: make eye contact, don’t talk about your ‘special interests’ too much. Its the same with the PEERS programme which features on the show – advice has its place but encouraging people on the spectrum to point out each others faults in the hope that they might date ‘like a neurotype’ undermines their individuality and gives the impression that in order to be happy they must master ‘le technique’.
Despite that, at its most endearing the show actually portrays scenes of people embracing each others autism in all aspects. One moment I paticulary liked followed Michael’s first date with Amanda, where she became overwhelmed by the formality of the restaurant. Michael accepts her decision to end the date early and they agree to go to a comic convention together, where they both have a great time, despite accepting that they’re friends and nothing more. This shows a process of mutual respect and learning. Similarly, prior to his date with Sharnae, Jimmy becomes agitated by the fact that his socks are black and not navy blue – with understanding tone and demeanor, Sharnae goes with him to the shop, they find navy blue socks, and have a lovely evening. These scenes help normalize autisitc quirks. Peronally, I get uneasy when I forget my watch when leaving the house, as having that one item with me gives me great comfort. These were rare scenes of unbiased and non-judgmental acceptance.
An aspect I would have liked to have seen more of, was the breaking of the fourth wall. Personally, I would feel under a great amount of anxiousness in a situation where I’m not only under pressure to impress a date, but also to seem ‘media savvy’. Still, the fact that they often turn to the camera to tell them to temporarily leave them alone or to clear up misconceptions, does show a laudable level of trust has been established between the production workers and the participants. Theres a worry with these sorts of programmes that the crew may cross boundaries. When creating or helping to make media about autism, theres always the danger of potentially revealing information about oneself that could be misunderstood or taken out of context. I reworded the intro of this blog 10 times before I was comfortable in what I was releasing. Certainly the people designated to work on this series should be aware of the discrimination autisitcs face, so that they do not nudge participants towards situations which may affect thier lives offscreen. As we’ve seen, the behaviour of the producers is mixed, so conclusions on that question are unclear. Thomas even makes a joke about this when Ruth compares thier anniversary picnic to ‘the Bachelor’. “Well it should be cause its all scripted” he quips, joking to the camera “excuse me, who forgot to email my girlfriend her script”.
Of course, if we are to have any serious disscussion of this show, we need to talk about its representation. It balances male and female well but dosen’t explore gender on any deeper level. Outside of Chloe and Lotus which is really well presented, there is not much Lesbian, Gay or Bi representation. This is in spite of the fact that research continues to show that autistics are more likely to be on the LGBTQ+ spectrum or just reject conventional sexual labels altogether. The show is even more disappointing on race. Almost the entire cast is white. While these might seem like minor complaints, when a popular Netflix show with the word spectrum in the title does little to depict the full length and breath of people who are autisitc, that furthers the impression that I’m getting from the programme as whole, that it dosent want to do anything to challenge the viewer, or represent autism in unique and diverse ways.
Overall, Love On the Spectrum has the potential to combat misrepresentations about autisitc peoples ability to feel love or empathy, open minds to a whole new audience of viewers, and start conversations about autism and autisitc stories. When those moments shine through or we get a moment of pure acceptance, the show can make me beam with delight and happiness for the cast. Too often though, the creators feel conscious of thier audience and what they expect to see, rather than what they need to see. At best, this serves to dull the impact and at worst forces the subjects into uncomfortable situations. Put simply, this show feels like autistic people being used as inspiration for neurotypical people to reflect on thier own relationships. I respect the creators evidently good intentions and I did mostly enjoy watching. Still, in perhaps the most honest monologue throughout the entire series Michael says there is no such thing as the ‘perfect relationship’ because everyone’s different, and that couples can only try thier best to accept each other. Its a lesson which the show overall would do well to learn from, ahead of any potential second season.
Love on the Spectrum is available to view on Netflix.