As an autism mom and blogger, I was eager to watch the documentary series Love on the Spectrum. Of course, my daughter Samantha watched with me. Filmed in Australia and recently released on Netflix, Love on the Spectrum features autistic men and women in their early 20s who are all struggling to find romantic partners. Most of these young people had never dated or sustained a romantic relationship. Poignantly, each of these very different autistic individuals yearn for a love match as intensely as any neurotypical person. A few of them worked with an “autism dating coach” before going out on a date. All five episodes feature a mix of young men and women on the spectrum, each one seeking different qualities in their ideal mate. In the first and last episodes, the viewer meets two very different young couples who are living together and end up getting married.
The documentary begins with introductions to each young man or woman. We learn why each one is seeking lasting love, and what qualities they are looking for in an ideal mate. The audience quickly gets to know each young man and woman. We are told what they love – origami, video games, dinosaurs, shooting pool—and also what they hate—slurping drinks, rude words, surprise parties and the sound of drilling.
As I watched the awkward onscreen attempts by these young people to communicate on first dates or at speed dating events, I felt their anxiety, their pain and their longing. What came across loud and clear is that the trial and error process of meeting and falling in love is basically the same for everyone. We all have deep human desires despite our individual differences in how skillfully we communicate those desires.
I applaud the TV series for including an autism dating coach for the first-time daters. Not only did the coach boost the confidence and hopes of the awkward young cast members, but she also provided a blueprint for autistic audience members and their families. Love on the Spectrum offered me and my older, more experienced daughter inspiration for continuing her search for a love match. As Samantha pointed out, the coach deconstructed a delicate and complicated process down into “small, manageable bites,” making it more accessible to people on the spectrum who are looking to build relationships.
Also helpful and reassuring was the inclusion of some of the daters’ parents. These moms and dads continued to encourage their kids and give them pep talks, regardless of any unsuccessful dates. Seeing other autism parents continue to guide and believe in their young adults was comforting to me (and hopefully other autism parents) who worry about their kids living alone after we die. Love on the Spectrum made me feel less alone in my determined optimism.
I also appreciated the stunning cinematography—especially at a time when the world is locked down and we are all isolated in our own countries. I have never visited Australia but I was impressed by the beautiful scenery: the fields of flowers and the romantic location of a glassed- in restaurant overlooking the water (where I’d love to go on a “date” with my husband!) Such a lovely “virtual” tour of Australia persuaded me to add this faraway country to my bucket list when it’s safe to travel again.
My daughter Samantha loved the series (and so did I) for its authenticity and unvarnished honesty. In many ways, Love on the Spectrum was the documentary version of Keep the Change. Could there be a bigger compliment from KTC’S co- star and her proud mom? As most of my readers know, Keep the Change won Best Narrative at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and earned Samantha a Best Actress Nomination. An autism documentary could not be in better company!
I hope Love on the Spectrum opens the door for more individuals with autism (including talented actors like my daughter) to tell their stories, create art and encourage the world to recognize and respect their (neurodiverse) talents.
Speaking of diversity, I also appreciated the show for including an equal balance of genders, with a segment on bisexual attraction. In future episodes, I would love to see older adults navigating relationships mid-stream, instead of going on their very first dates or getting married. Of course, I loved the happy ending in episode 5 and it brought tears to my eyes. But it would be fascinating to see what older, more experienced adults learned from a previous failed relationship. What would they do differently next time? What sort of person would they seek?
I couldn’t help but notice that most (if not all) of the individuals in the documentary were diagnosed very late, even in their teens. When the series resumes filming in the U.S., I think the producers will find many more autistic adults who were diagnosed as toddlers. It will be interesting to hear from those adults and to learn (if and how) early intervention enabled them to reach a higher potential and give them a better chance at a love life.
Samantha was diagnosed at 12 months (exceptionally early for 1990). My daughter’s developmental issues were recognized unusually early because she has a neurotypical twin brother. Samantha has achieved much more than most people ever imagined (including her super optimistic mom). Yet she continues to be challenged by some of the same symptoms she experienced as a child. She hates nicknames, ice in her soda, and anyone who wants to “help” her by touching her without permission or before she’s ready. Obviously, Samantha loves singing and performing. She also enjoys green apples, swimming and hugging friends and family.
Perhaps future episodes could explore the twin/sibling element when filming resumes. There are many sets of twins where one has autism while the other is neurotypical. It would be interesting to see what—if any—influence the neurotypical sibling plays in a brother or sister’s ability to cultivate a love life. Of course, what I’m describing could be a whole other series…
Meantime, I urge all audiences to watch the first five episodes of Love on the Spectrum. This documentary is entertaining, educational and touching. Trust an autism mom. This is the real deal.