Netflix's heartwarming "Love on the Spectrum" helps "bust the myths" about dating with autism

Director Cian O'Clery spoke to Salon about subverting the standard dating show and possibilities of a follow-up

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published July 22, 2020 4:00PM (EDT)

Thomas and Ruth in "Love on the Spectrum" (Netflix)
Thomas and Ruth in "Love on the Spectrum" (Netflix)

In "Love on the Spectrum" — one of several new reality programs that came to Netflix this month — filmmakers highlight the ways in which finding love for young adults with autism can be a complicated, intimidating, and in some cases, incredibly fulfilling experience. 

Over the course of five heartwarming episodes, viewers follow seven singles as they take their first steps into the world of dating, with the help of their families and experts who provide participants with practical advice for navigating the confusing world of seeking romance. We also meet two long-term couples — Ruth and Thomas, and Jimmy and Sharnae — who are both ready to take their relationships to the next level (complete with some next-level romantic gestures that, confession time, brought me to tears). 

According to director Cian O'Clery, "Love on the Spectrum" isn't just different from traditional dating shows because of the inclusive casting of its participants. 

"There are a lot of dating shows out there that you see, after the show has been aired, people speaking out against the production," O'Clery told Salon. "They had a horrible experience and felt they were turned into villains. We're very different from that. This is all about telling positive stories and being there for our guys." 

O'Clery spoke with Salon about the inspiration for the series, how he balanced being a "fly on the wall" with providing support for his participants, and the possibility of a follow-up series. 

What drew you to this documentary project? 

Well, we had, at Northern Pictures, made other series featuring people with disabilities, and just during that process we spoke to hundreds of young adults on the spectrum, as well as their families and job coaches and psychologists and organizations. 

And we just kept finding — the thing that was really standing out for us — was that lots of people were wanting to find love and many of them hadn't even been on a date. So I guess that was the initial idea. We were hearing about this large population of people who had been supported through their childhood in learning a lot of social skills, and a lot of training and support is there for people on the spectrum throughout school. 

But once they leave school and reach adulthood, oftentimes that support kind of drops off and we just found there were lots of people out there who really wanted to find love and to have a relationship and were struggling. 

Also, we wanted to help bust the myths and misconceptions about autism, the main one from this series obviously being that people on the spectrum aren't interested in love or in relationships. We thought it was a great opportunity to address those issues, as well as kind of help educate audiences a bit more about autism.

You just mentioned something that I was curious about. So as you say, I think we, as a society, are getting better about having support systems and early-intervention for children with autism. Through those programs, neuroatypical kids are taught some of the skills needed to succeed in home and school environments. But in this series we see programs or support groups for helping them work through more "adult" activities like dating. How common are those programs? 

I would say definitely not as common as it should be. In Australia, for example, most of the support out there for young adults is having to do with employment. So there are a lot of organizations that provide a bit of training in terms of how to get a job, but  in the terms of dating relationships, there is practically nothing. 

There is a program called PEERS, founded by Liz Laugeson at UCLA, and they use that program worldwide. And there are people in Australia that run that program, but it is very limited. You know, one psychologist might practice here and another there, but there is nowhere near the amount of support that we saw people asking for. 

One thing to note, I think it's really important to know that the spectrum is so diverse and so wide that there are obviously people on the spectrum who don't need support, who don't want support when it comes to social skills and dating relationships; on the other hand, there are lots of people that do. 

And a lot of the elements that you saw in the series, for example, Michael going to that singles dinner — that was something that we had to help organize as a production. So we worked with a disability organization to help organize that. They do other things that don't really have anything to do with dating, so we had to help facilitate that. When Andrew went speed dating, we helped facilitate that as well. 

So there are people out there saying they want to organize these things, but it's, you know, mostly people's parents doing it on their own time, which makes it hard. 

Early into the season, we watch Michael go on a date and it doesn't end super well, and he asks you whether he went too far with his questions — like he was seeking advice or checking his behavior. I was curious how you balance between being flies on the wall, but also recognizing that these are kind of vulnerable situations and being there to offer support? 

It's kind of hard to put into words, but I think it's just something that you develop over years of working with different people. I think it's something that you feel and, like you say, it's about just trying to maintain the right balance, I guess. 

Having said that, we made it really clear to everyone who was part of the series that we were there for support and that if they were feeling overwhelmed in any way to reach out to us. We didn't want them to feel that they couldn't speak up or they couldn't ask us for advice. 

I guess that comes to one of the points of our methodology in terms of production: we were making the show on their terms. So it's all about them and we fit it into their schedules and work around them feeling comfortable, which is so important. 

You know, there are a lot of dating shows out there that you see, after the show has been aired, people speaking out against the production. They had a horrible experience and felt they were turned into villains. We're very different from that. This is all about telling positive stories and being there for our guys. 

Backing up for just a moment — over the last several years, we've seen a fair amount of scripted television programs, like "Atypical," "The Good Doctor" or "Everything's Gonna Be Okay," that depict characters who are on the spectrum seeking out and eventually falling in love. Why do you think these narratives are becoming more common in the world of pop culture? 

I don't know, to be honest. But thinking about that topic and changing the angle a little bit, what's interesting for me is that I thought it was a great opportunity to introduce real people. These dramas have been quite big and quite popular and what I think that does is it paints a picture of autism that audiences will latch onto. I think it's great that there's representation, but when you're not actually meeting real people and seeing the diversity of people out there, it's hard. 

So a lot of the people we spoke to don't like Sheldon [played by Jim Parsons on "Big Bang Theory"]. They're kind offended by that, and I think it's because of the fact that audiences and the general population will latch onto those things and say to people, "You're like Sheldon" or "You're like the Good Doctor." So, I think that's why it is such a great opportunity to introduce real people to tell their stories in their voices

And as for why . . . I think it maybe comes from how we're only just starting to really understand a lot more about autism in the last, you know, five years or 10 years. I mean, when we were meeting people who were, say, 30 years old and on the spectrum, when they were really young there was just no understanding. It's quite a recent thing that we are really getting to know more about what autism means, the diversity of the spectrum. 

In the series it was brought up several times — like by Olivia, who was one of my favorite participants — that autism presents differently in women than in men. Was that something that surprised you? 

Not totally just because I had worked on other documentaries where we told stories of girls on the spectrum as well. That said, the understanding of autism and girls is really, really recent. I should say, I'm obviously not an expert in this field; I'm just someone who has worked with a lot of people and heard a lot of stories. 

But it's interesting. Lots of girls get diagnosed later in life. What's also happening now quite a lot is that parents are getting diagnosed. A lot of moms are being diagnosed now, because their children get diagnosed and when they hear about the diagnosis and what the traits are and what the presentation is, they think to themselves, "Hang on, that sounds a bit like me." 

Again, I shouldn't speak too much about these things because I'm not an expert, but there are theories that women are better at "masking" than men. The theory being that girls are generally better at copying other people's behaviors as they grow up in school, so they are able to mask their traits; that's one the theories as to why it's been harder to diagnose in girls. 

Speaking of parents, a perspective that I was really compelled by was that of the parents of the show's participants. In the second episode, we are introduced to Maddi and her mother, who is really her biggest supporter. And her mother is asked if she ever worries about Maddi being alone. She tears up and says it's something she worries about frequently. Was that a fear that you came across often in speaking with family members of participants?

Yeah, definitely, for some people on the spectrum — again, speaking to the diversity of the spectrum and everyone if different. But yes, a lot of parents said that was a really big fear. You know, it's a horrible thought to think that your child might not end up with someone or might be alone, and a lot of parents not only worried about their child not finding a partner, but not being there to look after them in the cases of people who need a bit more support. 

That's one of the reasons we wanted to include the stories of couples in the series. Just to show that, "Look, there are people making it work." Yes, maybe these people were lucky in that they met the right person at the right time, but it can happen and people can have great relationships. 

Another participant I connected with was Kelvin. At one point, Kelvin is asked "Do you think you are a romantic person"? And he responds: "I will be," like it is a skill to learn. After producing this series, do you wish that kind of thinking about romantic relationships was more normalized? 

Well, I think there is skill to be learned for all of us, right? You know, it can be hard for people on the spectrum to pick up social cues and for social interactions to come naturally. Oftentimes learning those skills is an important part of their journey. But I mean, there are skills to be learned for all of us. I could have definitely done with a lot of those skills in my young adult years. 

Have you kept up with the participants? Would you consider a "where are they now" edition of the show? 

We are in touch with them regularly! You know, I let them all know recently about the Netflix release, which they were all very excited about. I speak to Michael probably three times a week — every second day — about something. He's always got a question for me. We speak regularly and are on great terms. 

They are all great people and I'm really fond of them all. They all enjoyed the experience and we're always really keen to hear how they're going and how things are for them. In terms of a "Where Are They Now?" I would just say to stay tuned — no plans at the moment, but stay tuned. You never know. 

"Love on the Spectrum" is currently streaming on Netflix.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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