Netflix's 'Love on the Spectrum' updates both reality dating shows and portrayals of autism

The new dating show undermines harmful stereotypes about people with autism — and undoes a few tired reality show tropes along the way.
A still from "Love on the Spectrum" on Netflix
A still from "Love on the Spectrum" on NetflixNetflix
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Lexi Lane, cultural critic

“Love on the Spectrum” is the latest of Netflix’s summer reality dating show releases — a programming ploy harkening back to the beginning of the reality television era — and, as part of its continuing effort to put a new spin on an old genre, this one is built around a cast of Australian singles on the autism spectrum.

Unlike a lot of other reality dating shows — let alone reality shows featuring people with disabilities — a real effort by producers seems to have been made to showcase the range of experiences for people on the spectrum, as well as to destigmatize a commonly misunderstood, misdiagnosed and deeply maligned condition.

The range of people diagnosed with autism portrayed on the show is a true reflection of real life, where 1 in 54 children in the U.S. are diagnosed as being on the spectrum. The show‘s participants include men and women of different cultures and sexual orientations — the former being an important inclusion given that even medical research into autism often doesn’t include people of color and Black and brown people are less likely to be diagnosed than white people. The show also does a good job representing the way in which other disabilities may also be present in people with autism, including by showing one participant who has both cerebral palsy and autism.

But, perhaps most important, the show absolutely undermines the hurtful, untrue stereotype that those of us with autism are fully incapable of love or long-term interpersonal relationships.

As clinical psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson — whose dating boot camp methods were part of what was used to help participants try during different methods of dating — said, “One of the biggest misconceptions that I’ve found about people on the autism spectrum is that they’re perfectly happy not being social, not dating, and that just really is very rarely true.”

In addition to working with relationship specialist Jodi Rogers, participants were encouraged to use varying techniques to improve their interpersonal interactions in dating scenarios, including conversation tips and first date re-enactments, to allow them to improve for a next time, even if one date didn’t pan out. That consistent optimism — which maybe all of us could use more of when dating — within the cast and encouragement from the show’s producers made the show feel less like the typical, hot mess of a “reality dating” show and more like something heartfelt and worth caring about.

After all, the ups-and-downs of dating that participants experienced — from first date jitters to initial awkwardness, and even being rejected — are commonplace for any modern single person, whether in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s or beyond. What “Love on the Spectrum” did well beyond that was to portray trying to navigate that roller coaster while also feeling the pressure of people’s perceptions of autism and of people with autism.

For instance, producers showed participants on one date talk about the common way that normies think they are being complimentary by referring to people on the spectrum as “not looking autistic,” which is a common experience — and one of my own. And, of course, a few people in the cast referred to being treated differently and even ghosted once they mentioned being on the spectrum to their partners.

My one criticism of the show is that, whether in trying to cast it to showcase the full range of people on the spectrum or in trying to limit the potential for cast members to encounter hurtful or ableist interactions, all the dates portrayed were between people on the spectrum, the two couples in the cast were on the spectrum and the only group situations in which cast members participated were events put on for those with autism and disabilities. But that isn’t real life and, while it is beneficial for people with autism to have friends and colleagues who also have autism, if the aim of the show is destigmatization, portraying our community as insular — or as only date-able to each other — doesn’t accomplish that.

When Netflix released “Atypical” in 2017, it joined the ranks of other shows portraying characters on the autism spectrum — a shift away from those like “The Big Bang Theory” that used people with disabilities as a comic relief trope, to be sure, but still one that used certain other tropes about people with autism for dramatic effect, portrayed by an actor who was neurotypical. “Love on the Spectrum” feels like a stride for Netflix toward accurately representing the wide range of those on the spectrum.

And while none of the singles on the cast found a happy ending or got swept off to some romantic getaway for an engagement, that’s OK. (The two couples on the show who were already together when it started did get engaged by the season’s end.) That is often the reality of dating — whether you’re on the spectrum or not.