Autistic representation and Love on the Spectrum

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Since ABC’s Love on the Spectrum first aired last year, it’s been personally recommended to me six times. Eventually, I watched it. Or at least, I watched as much as it took to realise that this program isn’t for me. It’s for gawking at people like me.

 Couple kissing behind bouqet (Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

It’s now hosted on Netflix, I’ve completed a full binge-watch for good measure, and the point still stands.

With all its good intentions and charming participants, Love on the Spectrum is for the neurotypical eye. Just like The Undateables, a similar show from the UK, it takes the inner machinations of disabled lives and creates entertainment for non-disabled viewers. Autistic representation on television is rare, which makes it all the more alienating when these few depictions exist purely for everyone else’s warm-n-fuzzies.

This is an inherent problem with disability dating shows. Most other dating shows are advertised as sexy and salacious. By contrast, our attempts at love are ‘adorable‘.

When autistic people are only seen as something cutesy, something to foster laughs through our wins and losses, it relegates us to this role. Viewers absorb the idea that they are entitled to satisfy their curiosity about our personal lives, even if the reality is far from cute. It’s the same human zoo quality that leads to unsolicited comments such as, ‘what’s your special interest?’, ‘I bet you’re great with computers’, ‘what textures do you like?’, and ‘school must’ve been rough, huh?’ when I’m visiting the doctor… for an ear infection.

Despite the autistic community’s push for self-advocacy, Love on the Spectrum plays into the typical power dynamic wherein non-autistic people frame our narratives, produce our interactions, and act as our mentors. While supportive allies are great in their capacity, I would’ve loved to see autistic advocates providing the real expertise. This could’ve shifted the focus to strengthening the participants’ natural abilities, rather than adhering to arbitrary norms (which are far less relevant when dating other autistic people anyway). Otherwise, who is it helping?

 

'But why are we only interesting when distilled into something binge-worthy and saccharine? Why do we need to sugar-coat our lives?'

 

If this were an autistic-led production, I could argue the community benefit of depicting healthy relationship-building. But in the tone of Love on the Spectrum, it feels like quintessential inspiration porn. Why should autistic love and longing be a remarkable surprise? Many autistic people have an autistic parent, and parenthood usually occurs from relationships, sex, and all that (figurative) jazz.

The neurotypical lens also means that the audience is invited to comfortably laugh as participants exhibit their usual behaviours. The camera zooms and lingers when Ruth drinks milk from a carton, and when Marcus eats somewhat clumsily. A distinct type of music plays when someone infodumps or behaves ‘awkwardly’ — not unlike the music that occurs as a Bachelor contestant ostensibly makes a fool of themselves.

I can say with confidence how patronising it is for people to emphasise the ‘quirkiness’ or abnormality of my mere existence.

I wondered — perhaps cynically — whether they cast participants to suit this exact purpose. The enduring, exhausting Sheldon Cooper archetype of being ‘quirky’ enough to be laughed at, but not so ‘quirky’ that people will feel bad for doing so.

Infantilising autistic adults also allows for potential harm to go unchecked. On a few occasions, some participants in Love on the Spectrum make comments with a casually bigoted undertone. Social gaffes are inevitable for autistic people, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible for learning, particularly if our behaviour inadvertently feeds into stereotypes. An essential balance exists between relaxing the neurotypical standards of etiquette, but not condoning hurtfulness as funny or innocuous. Living in a society steeped with bigotry, we may be more vulnerable to toxic beliefs; as an extreme example, this is evidenced by the autistic men drawn to radical misogyny.

Autism is not our fault, but it’s still not an excuse for perpetuating ignorance once we know better.

While I’m likely stuck with an icky, paternalistic feeling about this type of programming, I did note some areas for further improvement — besides revamping the whole format through an autistic lens. There is limited representation of autistic people of colour, queer and trans autistic people, autistic people with intellectual disabilities, and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) users. These groups are frequently excluded from what little mainstream attention we receive, even from an intracommunity perspective.

As participant Olivia says, ‘what does autism look like to you?’ And, significantly, who isn’t being seen?

Good autistic representation is, admittedly, rare. Alongside a general lack of diversity and sensitivity in our portrayals, we tend to be tokenised both in reality and fiction. However, there’s hope for this to change. Another recent show, Everything's Gonna Be Okay, features autistic characters played by autistic actors — something that doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should. Another well-received source of representation is Princess Entrapta from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, whose key traits and storylines were largely influenced by an autistic member of the show’s crew. Autism presents differently in each person, so there’ll never be one form of ideal representation, but the role of autistic people in shaping their own narratives cannot be overstated.

A lot of viewers may appreciate Love on the Spectrum and The Undateables as feelgood, low-effort ways to learn about disability. But why are we only interesting when distilled into something binge-worthy and saccharine? Why do we need to sugar-coat our lives? There are plenty of autistic people speaking directly about their experiences — about their joy, their pain, their loneliness, even their complete and utter boredom. You just need to listen.

 

 

Alex CreeceAlex Creece is a writer, poet, student and average kook living on Wadawurrung land (Geelong, Victoria). She also tinkers with other people's poems as the Production Editor for Cordite Poetry Review. Alex was awarded a Write-ability Fellowship in 2019 and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship in 2020.

Main image: Couple kissing behind bouqet (Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Alex Creece, autism, disability, Love on the Spectrum, The Undateables

 

 

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Existing comments

Fantastic article Alex, super proud of you for being able to write during this difficult time. I always appreciate your viewpoint, and it was super informative considering this show was reccommended to me the other day. x
Katherine Mia | 11 August 2020


Thanks, Alex. Your words "I can say with confidence how patronising it is for people to emphasise the 'quirkiness' or abnormality of my mere existence" confronts the, often unconscious, bias shown by the majority of people who consider themselves free from particular categorisation. Each one of us is unique, complicated and valuable. And the sooner each one of us can learn that deep truth the sooner we can share love, in all its wonderful complexity.
Pam | 11 August 2020


As a very late diagnosed person with Aspergers I really feel for any one trying to find happiness in marriage especially if one is expected to marry someone who is not your first choice . I know that my parents thought they were right but it destroyed my life as he wasn't serious in his commitment and went off with someone else!
Elizabeth Craven | 11 August 2020


As a grandparent of a man with Aspergers, and former teacher of students with special needs , I appreciated the presentation about the young people and their dating experiences.As a non-autistic person, maybe I missed some of the nuances noticed by people on the Spectrum but believe the program was valuable in that we met some pleasant people who were eager to form relationships and the friendships that ensued. Last year our family was delighted to attend the wedding of my grandson as we were the wedding of his brother some years ago. People living on the Autism Spectrum are often seen by others as not having the same desire to form close relationships as mainstream people so this TV program enlarged our perception and , hopefully understanding of their lives.
Mary Samara-Wickrama | 11 August 2020


Thanks so much for this! <3
Kristin Gillespie | 12 August 2020


I fully agree with your assessment of the show. However, please don't use the term 'neurotypical' to describe non-autistic people. The opposite of Autistic is Allistic. There are many people who do not have autism, who are definitely not neurotypical.
Mae | 12 August 2020


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