How Love on the Spectrum Illuminates Dating Joys and Challenges for Those with Autism

TV Features Love on the Spectrum
How Love on the Spectrum Illuminates Dating Joys and Challenges for Those with Autism

Let me be very clear: I am one autistic person. I am not a conglomerate of autistic people. And I, Joseph Stanichar, adore the Netflix series Love on the Spectrum.

The reality television show interviews people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as they go on dates and other outings. Unlike many reality dating shows, this series is fairly laid back. While it does naturally rely on some of the tried-and-true, occasionally obnoxious pacing techniques to keep audiences watching, it’s mostly a peaceful, occasionally electrifying, careful, and empathetic portrayal of the lives of ordinary people, autistic or not.

It is entirely possible that the entirety of Love on the Spectrum is fake, that all of the people in the show are sticking to a script or that the content is so tightly edited that there is no truth to the stories in the show whatsoever. If you have that level of cynicism surrounding every piece of media you consume, I’m so sorry. I can’t do that to myself. I’m a skeptic by nature, but only a cynic on my worst days—and I want to believe this show, and it’s necessary representation, is real.

Still, Love on the Spectrum isn’t perfect, especially in its first season. As Sara Luterman writes in Spectrum News, some of the questions posed seem inappropriate or infantilizing, even down to the tone of voice, and the music is occasionally too cutesy for adults going on dates. There’s nothing I saw that jumped out as actively hateful, but hey, microaggressions are a thing and there’s an unfair share of them in both seasons.

Season 2 rectifies some of those issues; the slideshows of likes and dislikes appear less frequently, and there is more representation of queer relationships (from maybe one to now two or three). Given that gender and sexuality diversity may be higher in those with ASD, this is a paltry sum, but yes, still higher than one. Progress?

The second season also appears to predominantly take place in 2020 Australia, where COVID-19 was and is a rapidly shifting threat, but perhaps not to the same level as other places in the world (this has recently changed dramatically). People seldom note the virus beyond euphemisms, and masks are uncommon even inside, although at the time of recording those safety measures might have been adequate. But as someone who has acclimated to Zoom and FaceTime dates, there’s a twinge of jealousy watching people across the world not have those same, specific problems presented in the same, specific way as my own experience.

But dammit, I still cried a lot during this second season, and unlike Music, these were the good kind of tears. I cried when two participants really hit it off, and squealed in joy when another pair kissed. And when (I think) Kassandra revealed that she has the same LEGO treehouse model as me, I screamed in delight. Don’t take it the wrong way when I say that I would love to meet and even date these people; it’s just that as someone who sometimes feels isolated by a “neurotypical” world, seeing others who think like me makes me so, so happy.

After watching the first season of Love on the Spectrum in 2020, I decided to download the, ahem, interestingly named dating app Hiki, which is meant to be a platform for autistic people to date and connect. Its interface wasn’t great at the time, but it did introduce me to one (now ex) relationship. For all of Love on the Spectrum’s faults, I feel that the relationships within the show do speak to true dating experiences with people on and off the spectrum.

In that same vein, it’s easy to relate to some of the personalities featured on the show, especially the newcomers to Season 2. I share a lot of Teo’s (Episode 3) exuberance and spontaneous joy and sadness, some of which is caused by underlying trauma. But I also related a bit too hard to Jayden (Episode 5) in terms of him wanting to have concrete rules that sadly don’t exist in the world of dating. Also, his self-described desire to use big words to sound smart hit a bit too close to home.

It’s why I hope that the people and the situations presented on Love on the Spectrum are real, even though they’re likely different from how they’re portrayed in the show. At multiple points throughout the series, people mention The Bachelor as a show they love or love to hate. I have made it my personal mission to never view a second of it, but I am told that it isn’t the most charitable to its participants. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I like to think that Love on the Spectrum shows a little more care toward its cast.

And that care is essential. Being autistic is one of the only marginalizations I’ve faced, and even then I have been fortunate to have lots of support. If I complain and criticize issues in my life, it’s not to paint myself as a tragic person but rather, to do so in the hopes of providing greater awareness about how people can be better allies and better accommodate autistic people without constraining us—especially those in communities of color, LGBTQ+ communities, and those with physical disabilities. I can see Love on the Spectrum’s second season trying to do better, but hopefully it’s just the start.

There have been lots of articles and think pieces about autistic masking, and I certainly experience it in my own day-to-day life. Although I hope a third season of Love on the Spectrum can do even better to speak to an even wider swath of experiences, I cannot understate the joy and acceptance I feel at seeing fellow autistics find love in a way that’s truthful to them. Perhaps it’s a fantasy. Perhaps it’s an illusion. But for just one moment, for just one day, Love on the Spectrum was a small part of helping me feel a little more love.

Love on the Spectrum is currently streaming on Netflix.

Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Looper and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.

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