The Promise—and Pitfalls—of Netflix’s New Reality Dating Show for Autistic People

7 minute read

As an autistic who longs for better autistic representation in media, I approached Love on the Spectrum a lot like its subjects appeared to approach their dates: excited but extremely nervous. Hopeful that this time would be different, despite a long history of frustration and disappointment.

The five-part reality series, which premiered on Netflix earlier this week, seemed fairly promising in theory. Dating, sex, romance and relationships might present some challenges that are unique to autistic people, but they’re hard for almost everyone, which makes love a great topic through which to explore autistic existence without making us seem like an entirely alien species, or adorable animals who think they’re people. Any show that could tackle our common humanity as well as our often significant differences could be entertaining for both autistic and non-autistic audiences—and potentially illuminating for the latter.

Stories about autism and love have rarely lived up to that promise in the past. But Love on the Spectrum has the potential to open minds, foster genuine empathy for its stars and maybe even spark interest in more autistic stories. The bar for autism depictions is still low (read on for more on that), but the series ambles over it by rightfully allowing its autistic subjects to speak for and at least somewhat guide their stories themselves, so that viewers can get to know them as people with individual thoughts, desires, and needs. This might sound basic to the uninitiated, but it’s still painfully uncommon for autistic people to see any hints of our actual realities on screen.

Even in recent years, fictional takes have mostly been patronizing affairs made by and for non-autistic people. For every Keep The Change, a 2017 romantic comedy that cast autistic actors in autistic roles and valued their input, there are more movies like Adam—which is more about how hard it is to love an autistic person than how challenging it is to be an autistic person who wants to be loved—and Jane Wants A Boyfriend, which centers the titular Jane’s sister’s struggles to accept Jane over anything Jane does herself. Nonfiction storytelling can provide more opportunities for actual autistic participation, but it comes with a higher risk of exploitation, too. I thought the critically acclaimed 2015 documentary Autism in Love was a decent portrayal of autistic people working to find and maintain romantic relationships, but was later horrified to read about the ongoing mistreatment star Lindsey Nebeker says she faced during production and promotion.

Even in less obviously manipulative scenarios, I worry about what boundaries non-autistic people might unintentionally breach. It’s something I’ve experienced in my writing career, especially when I was working on my memoir. I often felt pressure to expose more than I was comfortable revealing throughout the process, especially about romantic relationships. It’s definitely left me wondering if the professionals that autistic people are trusting to facilitate the telling of our stories are truly aware of how much bullying and isolation we can face, and how the desperate need to avoid more of those experiences could possibly make us eager to please and a bit too malleable. And how easily a lack of understanding surrounding this potential issue could lead producers and editors of a reality show to unwittingly nudge participants toward stories and behaviors that might not be the healthiest for their ongoing post-show existence as real people who have to live with the consequences of what has been filmed, streamed, discussed, and possibly memed—or even particularly true to who they were and what they really wanted to do at the time of filming.

As uneasy as I am, though, I’m still open to almost all new autism-related entertainment that comes out. Pop culture helped me better understand non-autistic people and the world around me. I remain convinced that it has the potential to be just as powerful in reverse.

Love on the Spectrum is, by and large, seemingly well-meaning and intermittently charming. It presents a relatively benign and non-judgmental look at the romantic struggles and triumphs of a variety of different individuals on the spectrum. Some have already found love and are navigating the challenges of long-term relationships and major life changes. Most are still on the hunt. Occasionally Jodi Rogers, a relationship expert who works with autistic people, shows up to offer advice. A narrator erratically offers some general facts about autism in an effort to provide some greater context to the proceedings, though most of the heavy lifting comes from a subject named Olivia, a self-aware and witty actor who clearly has a lot of experience trying to explain herself and all of autism to other people.

Love on the Spectrum
Jodi Rodgers and Michael in 'Love on the Spectrum.'Courtesy of Netflix/2020

With the caveat that I have missed the signs in previous autism docs, nothing that happens onscreen suggests that anything severely untoward, manipulative, or exploitive happened during the making of the show. The circumstances leading up to the dates that the singles go on feel a touch manufactured, but the dates themselves don’t. The segments with couples Ruth and Thomas, and Sharnae and Jimmy appear to be organic enough. Creator Cian O’Clery explained in a recent interview that he consulted with psychologists who said a camera crew accompanying the subjects on dates might even help to defuse the tension and make them feel less alone. I can’t imagine feeling anything other than even more stressed and scrutinized in a situation like that, but it’s entirely possible that other autistic people could feel differently.

There are hints of fourth-wall-breaking—most notably when Amanda asks the crew if she can take a break during her date with Michael, and when Kelvin’s date, Jessica, interrupts his interview about their date to clarify a misconception. Scattered throughout the show, these moments suggest at least some of the participants were struggling with the conventions of reality television. And it made me wish they’d been able to explore that more. Dating is a confounding social construct, but making reality TV is an even more bizarre and fabricated form of human interaction. Watching the results of the cast grappling with both at the same time might have been more honest and more interesting—even if participating in reality TV is less relatable for the average viewer than going on a date.

Love on the Spectrum
Lotus and Chloe in 'Love on the Spectrum.'Courtesy of Netflix/2020

Despite its apparent benevolence, there are also ways in which Love on the Spectrum doesn’t quite meet my lofty expectations. My major grievance with the series is the demographic of its cast, which doesn’t accurately reflect the autistic community in terms of race, gender, or sexuality. My other misgivings may not occur to non-autistic viewers, but might linger in the minds of autistic ones: Is the score a bit too cutesy for a show about adults and dating? What are the cuts between awkward date moments and other, more “natural” seeming interactions among people in other parts of the venues trying to say? Would the close-ups on potentially eccentric clothing choices have happened if their subjects were neurotypical? Were the introductions that listed their subjects’ “quirky” likes and dislikes genuinely informative or infantilizing? Will audiences sympathize with the subjects, or pity them? Or maybe even laugh at them?

But it’s admittedly hard to untangle these concerns from my fears as an older autistic person feeling protective (or overprotective) of her younger counterparts. It’s not like reality unscripted programming about non-autistic love is a bastion of accuracy and perfectly fair depictions. Even the more earnest and straightforward ones aren’t perfect. There is always the risk of misrepresentation and misinterpretation. Perhaps accepting that autistic reality show stars will be subject to the same hazards as non-autistic ones—and respecting the autonomy of those who choose to participate—is its own awkward step toward equality.

Sarah Kurchak is the author of the memoir I Overcame My Autism And All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder (Douglas & McIntyre).

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