Hailie Pentleton questions the underlying messages of Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum, which appears to try to change the cast, rather than embrace their neurodiversity.
I was 15 and already in my first “proper” relationship when I received my autism diagnosis. He was supposed to be teaching me maths at the time, an activity that lasted all of two tutoring sessions before we awkwardly admitted our feelings to each other over an episode of Doctor Who. My energies shifted from trying to understand Pythagoras’ theorem to the more important study of what it means to love. He was patient with me, happy to take things slow, and encouraging when therapy prompted me to explore the possibility that I was autistic. When the diagnosis came, he read the few articles on autistic women I could find, continued to support me when life got overwhelming and loved me for exactly who I am. I haven’t dated anyone else since, because I haven’t needed to. Lucky him.
Relationships can be difficult to navigate for anyone. The added sensory and communication difficulties that autistic people experience can make the quest for romance even more tedious. This can lead others to believe that autistic people are uninterested in romance, asexual, or incapable of maintaining a monogamous relationship. This can be the case for both autistic and neurotypical people, however, it is a complete misconception that autistic people cannot or do not fall in love. It is this myth that the producers of Love on the Spectrum seek to dispel.
When Love on the Spectrum began trending, I was hesitant. I am guilty of having seen the odd episode of The Undateables. Shows like these typically infantilise disabled singles, emphasising their differences for a few coos or giggles from viewers. Comments on the Love on the Spectrum hashtag, about how “cute” the distress or discomfort of the cast was, confirmed to me that this would be another example of the usual condescension. Inspiration porn, the portrayal of disabled people as brave on the sole basis of our disabilities, makes me uncomfortable at the best of times. A show that focused exclusively on autistic people, people like me, made me uneasy. Public understanding and acceptance of autism have a long way to go, but the past few years have seen significant progress. Would a show like this set us back and further ostracise us?
The docuseries follows several autistic people as they go on dates with strangers, explore romance, and aim to find love. They are relatively young, inexperienced in the world of dating, and many like Chloe are fearful of “being alone for the rest of [their] life”.
It was refreshing to hear other autistic women like Chloe and Maddi talk freely about their experiences rather than having others speak for them, as is often the case. Chloe stresses the important point that no one “looks autistic”. All too often I have been told I don’t look autistic; that I am too smart, too talkative, or too empathetic to be neurodiverse. No two autistic people are the same, because no two people are the same.
Misconceptions around autistic people having a lack of empathy are common. Michael’s mum reveals that she was told he “probably [wouldn’t] have empathy for others”. Michael describes his heart as being “10 times too large”, in contrast to the stereotype that we are blunt, self-centred, and ignorant to emotion.
Michael’s mother is not the only parent involved in the series. Parents are heavily involved, which made me quite uncomfortable. They are mostly encouraging, but often they speak for or about the cast as though they aren’t there. Many express the fear that their children will end up alone, but this show is not about children. The parental commentary further perpetuates the notion that autistic adults are childlike, naive, or lack autonomy.
Watching the individual dates pained me. Much like The Undateables, this show emphasised their differences at any given moment, made even more uncomfortable by an awkward score. We only ever see the cast go on dates with other disabled people, as though autistic people can only ever be loved by other disabled people. The show makes a spectacle of the discomfort and distress of the cast and it serves as a painful reminder of the infantilising attitude that so many direct our way. Watching Maddi be chastised for being too blunt about her lack of interest in children, or seeing a neurotypical communication specialist insist that Kelvin pull a chair out for her upset me. If this show was supposed to empower autistic people and educate others, why were they so insistent on changing who we are?
As a result, it was hard not to feel let down by Love on the Spectrum. It was enjoyable to listen to autistic people share their stories, but this was undermined by the neurotypical gaze that dominated throughout. Autistic people are capable of love. We can love and be loved by all kinds of people, disabled or not. My own story is just one example of that. We are not children, and the infantilising voyeurism that Love on the Spectrum encourages towards autistic adults is a definite step in the wrong direction.