Dating shows aren’t exactly rare when you’re scrolling through Netflix. The streaming service has debuted a slew of such shows this summer, including “Love is Blind,” “Too Hot to Handle” and “Indian Matchmaking.”
But the newest iteration, produced in Australia, is causing some people to take a closer look at the genre.
“Finding love can be hard for anyone,” a narrator says in the opening scene of “Love on the Spectrum.” Then, the twist: “This series follows young adults on the autism spectrum as they navigate the confusing world of relationships and dating.”
Australian audiences watched in 2019 as the show’s 11 autistic participants went on dates, got advice from family members and pondered what love might feel like when they do find it.
“It would be like a fairytale,” one participant said.
“A natural high, I suppose,” offered another.
“Love on the Spectrum” recently dropped on Netflix in the US and the UK, and it’s quickly become one of the most talked-about non-scripted shows featuring autistic cast members. But with a more global audience has come more discussion about the show’s promises and pitfalls. While some viewers say the show accurately portrays the dating lives of autistic people, others warn it degrades them and is inherently voyeuristic.
The show immediately grabbed the attention of Charli Clement, an autistic activist in England.
“As soon as it came out, I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m gonna have to watch that,’” Clement said. “And I ended up watching it all, pretty much, in one evening.”
As Clement wrote in a review for the British site Metro UK, she found it “liberating to see a group of young people so openly autistic on mainstream television.”
But she said she was “pretty quickly not very happy with it.”
“A lot of the dates felt very much like they picked this person not because of any compatibility at all but simply because they were also disabled,” she continued. “And, for me, that just purely said that we shouldn’t be dating non-disabled people.”
That’s a view shared by Australian YouTuber Chloe Hayden — known as Princess Aspie online — who is also autistic.
“I know many, many, many autistic people that are dating or married to neurotypical people,” she said in a video posted to her page earlier this month. “The same way that you wouldn’t pair someone that was blind with someone else that was blind just because they’re both blind.”
But other autistic viewers say they do see themselves accurately represented in the show. Kerry Magro, who is autistic and the author of “Autism and Falling in Love,” says he identified with one of the show’s participants — in particular, Michael, a 25-year-old autistic man who says on the show that his greatest dream in life is “to become a husband.”
Magro said when he was 25, he was exactly like Michael.
“There was a moment in the show where [Michael is] like, ‘I’m not trying to be anyone’s sugar daddy,’” Magro recalled from an episode in the show.
“I don’t know if I would have said it exactly like that,” Magro continued, but he relates to Micahel’s candor.
People praising the show online say it’s funny, wholesome and sweet. Critics say that characterization is infantilizing, as are parts of the show when the narrator introduces a new cast member.
“[Marcus] likes playing drums and watching sunsets,” the narrator says, with sound effects of drums and seagulls playing underneath. “He hates thunderstorms and the feeling of [flip-flops] between his toes.”
Netflix declined The World’s interview request for this story. But in an interview on The Gist podcast, director Cian O’Clery said he considers “Love on the Spectrum” to be more of a documentary than a reality series. He spoke about the line between having fun and making fun of the show’s subjects.
“To me, it is a line that you feel and that is in your gut and just knowing that you are wanting to make something that is completely respectful to all the people who participated in it,” O’Clery said. “And always wanting, at the end of the day, for them to be really happy with the end product.”
According O’Clery, setting up the dates for the participants was the only intervention the production team made.
“Out of the seven singles we featured in the series, six of them had never been on a date in their entire life. So it wasn’t something we could just follow as a pure documentary because, you know, people weren’t able to kind of find themselves in that world,” O’Clery said. “And so we helped them along a bit. So, the only kind of intervention, I guess, from us, was finding a match for people who wanted us to help them.”
The series features a relationship coach and a psychologist, both of whom help guide the participants through situations they may encounter on dates. Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, who leads a dating boot camp on the show, says “Love on the Spectrum” dispels the common narrative that autistic people aren’t interested in relationships.
“Most young adults — most adolescents, and even children — on the autism spectrum really do want to have friends. And as they grow older, they want romantic relationships. But they just typically don’t know how to go about doing that.”
“That’s just rarely how it works,” Dr. Laugeson told The World. “Most young adults — most adolescents, and even children — on the autism spectrum really do want to have friends. And as they grow older, they want romantic relationships. But they just typically don’t know how to go about doing that.”
During her boot camp sessions, which were developed at the UCLA PEERS® Clinic, Dr. Laugeson says she tells people it’s important to learn how to be a friend before learning how to be more than a friend.
“We try to break down, essentially, the very social world that we all live in into very concrete rules and steps of social behavior,” she explained. “What are the steps for entering a conversation? What are the steps for flirting if you’re trying to date someone? We not only describe what socially successful people often do, but we demonstrate those examples through role play.”
Magro says it was refreshing to see relationship coaches conducting this kind of work on “Love on the Spectrum.” Magro, who has worked as an autism consultant on TV shows and movies, and said it was a sign that the show had been produced with input from autistic people.
British reviewer Clement has a different takeaway.
“You know, it’s a show made by neurotypical people for neurotypical people,” she said. “I don’t think this show was made for autistic people to watch. It’s not for us.”
Still, the show has been a commercial success. According to the production company’s website, the second season is currently underway for the Australian network ABC. It’s unclear if Netflix will also pick up it up for viewers across the globe.