The autistic community are frequently infantilised within discourse and pop culture, facing a stereotype of being “loveless” due to the burden of their disability. In addition to decades of poorly conducted research, this has contributed to a major taboo surrounding autistic romance and sexuality. Common phrases you may have heard thrown around include descriptions of neurodivergent people as ‘cold and lacking emotion’, ‘too honest to sustain a relationship’ or ‘too self absorbed to consider others around them’. Popular characters, such as Sheldon from US sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’ associate autistic people with immaturity and a lack of empathy.
However, just as television can perpetuate false narratives about the autistic community, it has recently shown its potential to offer genuine insight into autistic lives. The reality TV series ‘Love On the Spectrum’ offers a unique insight into dating and relationships amongst autistic people. The documentary series follows the experiences of autistic young adults in the dating world: setting them up on blind dates in hopes of connecting them in loving romantic relationships. It is my opinion that Love on the Spectrum lovingly confronts the challenges which many autistic individuals encounter, such as lacking an understanding of the nuance of romantic relationships, developing the confidence to leave their comfort zones, and offering unfamiliar people a deep insight into their world.
The show effectively breaks down “loveless” stereotypes about autistic individuals, embracing the personality and interests of its cast, and not attempting to suppress their character or autistic traits. It allows for autistic people who have struggled to form meaningful relationships to meet others who share their experiences, and find a partner (that may or may not end up as romantic). It amplifies the love and respect that autistic people convey to those around them, even if it may not be in a conventional form. Critically, Love on the Spectrum provides reflections of autistic people as loving adults; a wholesome and educational depiction that we sorely need more of.
However, Love On The Spectrum has been met with criticism in regards to its lack of diversity and an inadvertent reinforcement of stereotypes. While the show makes an effort to portray autistic relationships through the eyes of each individual, unfortunately, the show often falls short. Episode narratives tend to direct attention towards their families and friends,and seem to include at least one highlight reel of a family member talking about their experience ‘having to deal with’ the negative moments in the lives of their autistic loved one. This promotes the outdated thinking associated with “Autism Awareness”, which problematises the behaviours of autistic people that are ‘burdensome’ to others in their lives. By viewing autism through the eyes of those who have to endure it in others, autistic individuals are deprived of agency. ‘Awareness’ implies neither listening or understanding. And while there is no denying that being a caretaker is not easy work, it is in this misguided focus that Love on the Spectrum does not always represent the autistic community in a supportive or accepting way.
Further, the series has been criticised for its undertones of “inspiration porn”. The show can unintentionally objectify autistic people into something more of a creature in the wild, rather than a human individual. It shouldn’t have to be such a massive deal for autistic people to form connections and express feelings of romantic love, sexual desire and even human respect no matter where they exist in the multidimensional spectrum. Many autistic individuals are already able to embody these concepts – it may not appear conventional, but the show must be careful not to sensationalise the experience they are attempting to normalise.
Ultimately, Love on the Spectrum serves as a valuable reminder that love knows no boundaries, and provides a valuable platform for the autistic community to share their perspectives. The show encourages us to approach neurodivergent experiences with care and authenticity. Its sensitive and informative portrayal of autistic individuals invites viewers to see beyond labels and misconceptions to appreciate the beauty of genuine human connections, regardless of neurological differences.
[Top image: A promotional poster of the show ‘Love on the Spectrum’ featuring a number of men and women with the former dressed in suits and the latter wearing formal dresses. The background showcases wallpaper of Regency aesthetics.]