As an autistic 19-year-old with minimal dating experience, my guard immediately went up when I heard about Love on the Spectrum – a new Netflix dating show featuring autistic teens and 20-somethings.
There aren’t many decent examples of autism on TV – you won’t find many autistic people who think The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper represents us well – and I was nervous it would be yet another documentary positioned to gain ill-advised sympathy from viewers.
I was right to be hesitant. This show treats autistic people like me as separate from the rest of society, and as inspiration porn for people to feel better about their own dating lives.
Like the young people in the show, I don’t have a long history of dating and relationships. I’ve always had little interest in it and I experience severe anxiety, which tends to override anything else – like any drive to form a romantic connection.
Communication can also be difficult and awkward because I don’t understand all social cues, and I struggle with eye contact and tone.
In this sense, I was easily able to relate to the autistic people in the series. And to the show’s credit, it is liberating to see a group of young people so openly autistic on mainstream television.
We see them stimming – short-hand for self-stimulating, which is repetitive movements, actions or use of fidget toys to regulate ourselves – and expressing their feelings about different aspects of being autistic.
We hear that you can’t ‘look’ autistic, that girls and women often receive late diagnosis and that it isn’t true that autistic people can’t be empathetic or sarcastic. We have personalities that shine through just like the rest of the population.
But this wasn’t enough to feel like the show was accurately representing autistic people or how we experience relationships.
My first bugbear was the show’s use of the terms ‘person on the spectrum’ or ‘person with autism’. People often think we prefer ‘person-first language’ so we aren’t defined by our conditions, but many of us want the opposite – for our conditions to be recognised, as they can be a big part of our identities.
You’re allowed to say ‘autistic people’.
However, it wasn’t until the first date between Chloe and Marcus – who are both autistic – that my main issue came to light.
When that date didn’t work out, Chloe went on to date Lotus… who is autistic as well. I held out hope during every episode that just one of the young people would go out with a neurotypical or non-disabled person. But it never happened.
Intentional or not, this portrays that disabled people can only date disabled people. But this isn’t true. Many disabled people like me meet people in regular places, and there are great examples of disabled and non-disabled couples on social media like YouTubers Jessica Kellgren-Fozard and her partner Claud.
A couple of the show’s participants said they wanted to be with another autistic person because they were more likely to be understood. But to only show this dynamic across all five episodes just isn’t reflective of society.
The overarching theme, to me, is of othering – treating us as intrinsically different from neurotypical people.
In one scene, we see Maddi attend a dance specifically for disabled people. It’s clear the participants are happier in these spaces, which is good to see, until they’re pushed – quite literally in Maddi’s case by her parents – to use the opportunity to find dates. The painful conversation between her and the boy she’s paired up with felt forced and made me cringe for them.
There’s also a ‘relationship specialist’ named Jodi Rodgers who teaches the young people how to act on dates. This is code, to me, for encouraging masking.
Masking is when autistic people try to seem neurotypical for self-preservation, which takes significant amounts of energy. You can see the effort the people on the show put into this, and the awkwardness they feel.
I worry for their mental health because we need to be allowed to be ourselves. It also doesn’t seem necessary – if they’re dating other autistic people, why would they need to mask?
At times, we see the young people struggling significantly, like when Amanda can’t cope on an overly formal date and has to leave, upsetting both her and Michael in the process. Throughout, I felt uncomfortable watching their embarrassment and anxiety, because it is so similar to my experiences.
Almost daily, I end up anxious that I’ve done or said something wrong, even if no-one else will notice or remember.
Simply put, this show feels like autistic people being used as inspiration for neurotypical people to reflect on themselves. It’s for them to think, ‘at least my dating life isn’t like this’, or ‘if they can do it, I can’. Unfortunately, this is extremely common.
I think we see very similar issues in the Netflix show, Atypical. The way the autistic character (Sam Gardner, played by Keir Gilchrist) is portrayed, makes it look like he’s brave and deserving of praise, just for going on dates.
I’m frustrated, because Love on the Spectrum could have been valuable representation for autistic people. These young people have great personalities, and I wish they could have told their own stories more and not been pushed into dates in uncomfortable surroundings.
The fact we never see even one date with an abled person, and that the adults are treated with little autonomy and encouraged to act in ways that don’t look natural, doesn’t sit right with me.
The message seems to be that we aren’t welcome in spaces not specifically for us, and that we need to change to be loved.
Above all else, I was left unsettled – a feeling I’m unfortunately used to.
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