A Dating Show That Celebrates Autism
By Rebecca Nicholson
At first glance, Love on the Spectrum (Netflix) appears to be an Australian version of The Undateables, without the crude name, and specific to following the dating lives of people on the autism spectrum. But if the wealth of dating shows out there have taught us anything, it is that first impressions can be misleading, and often, you don’t see the twists coming. While I continue to love The Undateables, this five-part newcomer feels more of its moment, taking the time to explore the lives of its participants in greater depth, which results in a programme filled with joy, warmth and insight.
It is frequently very funny, but crucially, that is never at the expense of anyone on camera. Looking for love can be complicated and absurd for anyone, and the programme highlights some of the pitfalls. Michael, 25, who dresses smartly, is desperate to find love, and insists that, “an A+ partner looks like me.” He frequently amuses his family because of his bluntness. Over a meal with his parents and siblings, he reveals that he believes some people are, “only interested in intercourse.” His father drops his food as he eats. “I think every family needs a Michael,” says his mother, happily. “It just adds something different.”
Throughout Love on the Spectrum, the parents are wonderful, supportive and compassionate, particularly when it comes to giving dating advice. Chloe is on the spectrum and is partially deaf, and she talks of being terribly bullied in school. When she goes on a date, her eager father tries to calm her nerves, telling her that if she needs some time out while on the date, she should say she is going to powder her nose. “I don’t have any nose powder,” she replies, confused. In the end, it turns out that perhaps Chloe was looking in the wrong place for a partner.
What is lovely about this series, compared to other dating shows, is that it gives everyone it follows the time to develop their stories in detail. I always look forward to the ‘what happened next’ at the end of every episode of, say, First Dates. This has enough time and space for it to feel like less of a surface intrusion. We find out what happens next in the very next episode.
Dating shows can be curiously lacking in love, sometimes; the pursuit of love does not always equal the winning of it. But Love on the Spectrum is packed with love, not just of the romantic kind, but from family, friends and community. There are community nights, dating events, a superhero ball where people with similar interests can meet. There are two experts on hand to help some of the daters, and both do wonderful work. Jodi Rodgers works with people on the spectrum and helps them with the issues or difficulties they may have with the complexities of romance, talking them through potential date scenarios, attempting to impress the need for a person to ask questions as well as give long answers, for example.
Later in the series, another expert, Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson, hosts a ‘dating boot camp’. Attendees include Kelvin, who has a shock when one of his dates pulls out her Nintendo Switch before the meal arrives, and Mark, who is relentlessly sunny and upbeat, but can dominate a conversation, particularly when dinosaurs are involved. (“What if she hates dinosaurs?” asks a producer, off-camera, about a prospective partner. “No deal,” Mark insists, waving his arms emphatically.)
Laugeson says it is a common misconception that people on the spectrum are happy not to date, not to be social. This programme busts that myth, and plenty of others, too. The pride with which many of these people talk about autism, and how it shapes their personalities, is important, as is the fact that there is no one ‘autistic type’ here. For some, there is sadness that dating has been so difficult. For others, they know they are simply waiting for a person who gets them. Take Maddi, 24, who wants a man who is rich, muscular and tall. “You need to lower your standards,” jokes her sister, but she doesn’t. She just needs a rich, muscular, tall man who is as into video games as she is.
Not everyone is on the search for love. Some have already found it. We see Sharnae and Jimmy as they take the big step of moving in with each other, and they talk frankly about how intimacy works for them, particularly when it comes to kissing and hand-holding. Ruth and Thomas got engaged when Thomas, a bus driver (originally, he preferred trains and thought buses ‘common’, but now he loves them so much that he has a T-shirt that reads, “Living Life in the Bus Lane”), took a diversion from his usual route to propose. They now live in harmony with Ruth’s pet snake, Cleopatra, who calms any sensory overload. Again, it underscores the fact that everyone is different, and at its best, this show is a compassionate, human celebration of difference, and of love.