Media Review: Love on the Spectrum



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Love on the Spectrum was a 2019 — 2021 Netflix reality show/documentary following a number of Autistic people as they went on dates in hope of beginning a romantic relationship.

It followed the format of many dating shows without a competition element, such as Channel 4’s (UK) “First Dates”. It also looked into the lives of the Autistic participants.

Some Autistic viewers thought it was good representation, others felt it was exploitative, we’ll look at why.

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It shows a range of autistic people, each with different abilities, interests, social skills and sexualities. Each of the participants are charming, articulate and intelligent.

It also shows a number of female Autistic people, who are historically underrepresented in media concerning autism.

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It shows loving families support their Autistic members.

This is important because it models acceptance for Autistic people by non-Autistic and presents an alternative to the narrative put forward in media and by organisations like Autism Speaks that Autistic children are a burden and will cause marriages to break up.

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It shows that relationships are complicated and take constant work and may require support from others. Married and long-term couples in the show discuss disagreements, having different needs and demonstrate the importance of communication.

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Only followed the stories white, cis-gendered, speaking Autistic people, some Autisic commentors have objected that only stereo-typically Autistic people were followed in the show, with undue emphasis on special interests and sensory sensitivities. Autism is shown to be the defining characteristic of the participants, not one component in a complete personality.

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The struggles of being Autistic, such as long journeys to diagnosis or having to meet neurotypical expectations, are not shown from an Autistic person’s perspective.

Setting the dates up as blind dates is expected in the format, but doesn’t necessarily benefit Autistic people as it adds to uncertainty and unexpected change.

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The music and narrative may be consistent with the lighter tone of UK dating shows, but it may also come across as suggesting that Autistic people dating is something to be laughed at.

The relationship coach in the show only coaches the participants in neurotypical expectations of dating behaviour, not how Autistic people may want to communicate.

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It does not seriously consider that Autistic people could date non-Autistic people, except brief attempts to introduce some participants.

The show does not stress that a relationship does not in itself make you happy and doesn’t question if the expectation that everyone should be in a relationship is an unhealthy neurotypical assumption.

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The fundamental problem that comes with shows that focus only on Autistic people is that either it shows Autistic people as something to be pitied (“at least we don’t have it as bad as them”) or we are used a source of inspiration for non-Autistics (“if they can do it, we can too”). While Autistic people were consulted during the making of “Love on the Spectrum” it wasn’t directed or written by Autistic people, so it never escapes this problem.

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 “Love on the Spectrum” is a positive step forward in Autistic representation, but it is only a small step. True Autistic representation involves a diversity of Autistic voices from the beginning – in positions of authorship, such as writing or direction.

In order to enjoy the show as Autistic people we have to make allowances and accommodations for the ignorance and assumptions of the non-Autisic producers.

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