Film & TV Muse

Love on the Spectrum: a fresh take on reality dating TV

Marti Stelling looks at the hits and misses of Netflix’s trending show on neurodivergent dating

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Image Credit: Netflix

“I’ve had to learn masking: pretending and hiding the parts of me that don’t fit neurotypical society.”

Australian dating show Love on the Spectrum dropped on Netflix in July 2020 and has held a place in the hearts of UK viewers ever since. The first season left us with questions such as: did Michael ever find love, and what happened after Jimmy proposed to Sharnae?

In essence, the show is a more affectionately named, Aussie version of The Undateables. Series one followed the lives of 11 adults on the autistic spectrum who were looking for love. Guided by relationship coach and expert Jodi Rogers, the cast navigate their way through romance, love, and relationships. In Series two, we catch up with Michael, Chloe, Mark, Jimmy and Sharnae, as well as introducing four new cast members.

The premise of the show is on the verge of being perfect, but it does not quite make it. Instead of cutting out the awkward silences and times when things don’t go quite to plan, we are left with a raw and honest depiction of dating on the spectrum - the good, the bad, and the just plain heartwarming. As well as shining a light on love and autism, the series also depicts underrepresented LGBTQIA relationships.

However, the show has received mixed critical responses with one viewer calling it “autism through a neurotypical lense”. We watch painful encounters between the cast and the people they encounter, and at times it seems that their lines are being played for laughs. The parents and families of the cast often feature in the episodes, sharing their experiences of having a child on the spectrum looking for love. Some of the negative reviews of the show refer to the parents speaking on behalf of the cast, reinforcing the damaging misconception that people with disabilities need to be mediated through neurotypical voices.

Despite this, the show allows time for the cast to speak about their special interests and doesn't cut out the characters’ neurodivergent behaviours, such as stimming (repetitive movements that can help autistic people manage strong emotions). These behaviours are often seen as ‘taboo’ and uncomfortable for neurotypical viewers, making their depiction in the media even more important.

One of the most poignant moments of the series for me is when Kassandra opens up about her experience with masking. Masking refers to when a neurodiverse individual hides their typically autistic traits in order to fit in with neurotypical society. She admitted to being told that she “doesn't look autistic” and therefore finding it challenging to seek out the help she needed. Talking about her love for cosplay, collections of stuffed toys, and human teeth, Kassandra reveals her true self and doesn’t hold back on account of causing discomfort. Honest conversations about masking are so important in the media as they open up wider discussions surrounding why autistic people are expected to change and hide parts of their personalities in order to make others comfortable. Kassandra comments on her late diagnosis, and how women and girls often miss out on a diagnosis due to the prevalence of masking.

Sharnae and Jimmy travel abroad for a pool tournament, providing lots of challenges for the young couple. We watch Sharnae in particular deal with emotions in ways that may seem unusual or difficult to understand. Sharnae speaks loudly and makes repetitive movements to regulate these feelings. Similarly, taking breaks and time away from loud or over-stimulating environments is normalised, creating an autism-friendly environment. Unedited, raw, and honest depictions of autism are so important in removing the stigma and shame from the lives of those on the spectrum.

Early in the series, we watch Michael enter the world of speed dating - a situation daunting and uncertain for anybody. We encounter some hard-to-watch conversations, one notably in which a date likens Michael’s special interest in trains to her brother’s love of Thomas the Tank Engine. However, we watch some moments of real connection between Michael and the dates, proving that autistic people can do anything neurotypical people can.

Each cast member meets with the relationship coach to discuss their dating progress. The tips they are provided with, such as using open questions, are specifically curated for the individual and their experience with dating. There is an environment of respect, mutual understanding, and safety in these sessions, which is really lovely to watch.

Love on the Spectrum gives audiences a wonderful glimpse into the highs and lows of finding love as an autistic person. If you are looking for a down-to-earth dating show that does not gloss over the parts that are uncomfortable, this is the one for you. While I am excited to see where the show goes next, I would love to see the show take a less neurotypical perspective and give more screentime to the dates.

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