Recently, I have had many people tell me about Netflix’s show Love on the Spectrum. This show has been trending amongst both neurotypicals and neurodiverse individuals. I have heard both positive and negative reviews on the show. So, I wanted to check it out for myself and see what it’s all about to determine whether it stays true to what I know about dating on the autism spectrum.
One of the main reasons why I felt that it was important to watch this show is because I feel like there’s been a distinct misinterpretation and underrepresentation of autism in the media. And, as an autism therapist, I was hopeful that this show would represent the neurodiverse community in a kind, responsible, and accurate way. Today, I would like to share my reflections on the show with you.
Many of my autistic adult clients can relate to the cast of Love on the Spectrum As They Too Are Navigating Dating on the Autism Spectrum
Love on the Spectrum is a limited series, set in Australia, chronicling the dating lives of seven neurodiverse adults over 5 episodes. The show’s description is “Finding love can be hard for anyone. For young adults on the autism spectrum, exploring the unpredictable world of dating is even more complicated.” And, I think this rings very true. The neurodiverse clients I work with at my autism therapy clinic in Palo Alto often bring up issues around dating and being in romantic relationships.
Overall, I found the quirkiness, humor, kindness, and blunt candor from the autistic adults in the show delightful and endearing. I really loved the moments where the person was authentic. I felt connected to them even though I was watching them on a TV screen from the other side of the world. Their overall good nature and honesty is refreshing to watch.
Many Adults With High-Functioning Autism Desire Connection
The autistic adults on the show had a deep desire to connect and be in a relationship or married. One autistic man said his greatest dream was to become a husband. This reminded me of so many of my clients who desperately desire to be in relationships or married. The autism life coach on the show made a very enlightened comment. She said “It’s just a difference in the way they do things. People with autism have incredible affection and deep love.” I think this is very true. A common misconception is that neurodiverse people do not show empathy and lack the ability to fall in love. But, that’s simply not true. They are very empathetic and passionate people. I appreciate that this show showed that while sharing some of the challenges they have while dating on the autism spectrum.
Dating on the Spectrum Can Be Very Stressful
For most people on the show, dating really was outside their comfort zone. For example, one woman went on a date that felt “too formal.” Then, she became overwhelmed and had to leave the date before dinner even started. I think this is very common amongst neurotypical adults who struggle with the social skills that are necessary to meet potential partners and facilitate a relationship. For example, many of my clients struggle with social anxiety, making small talk, and showing social smiles. They may also now know what to say or do when they are interested in someone because the concept of flirting and those specific social nuances are hard for them to understand.
However, one thing that really impressed me about this show was the thoughtfulness shown by so many of the autistic people towards their date. Especially when they checked in with their date to see how they were feeling. In fact, one of the autistic men asked how his date was feeling because they had been on a prior date and she got so anxious she had to leave the date early. He said “I want you to feel comfortable. That’s all I care about right now.” That line melted my heart. What an incredibly sensitive and compassionate statement. The way he cared for her feelings is what deep down I think many want in relationships. To be kindly cared for, supported emotionally, and not judged. This is just a perfect example of the huge capacity autistic people have to show love and empathy to others.
Many Adults with Autism Have a Very Innocent and Black and White View of Love
When asked about love, there was an innocence and idealism in their answers. I think an innocence most can relate to at some point in their past. These idealistic answers also reminded me of some of my autistic clients. They often share how complex other humans are, especially neurotypicals. Often neurodiverse people view others in a rigid and one-dimensional way. This is commonly referred to as black and white thinking. Their desire to simplify things helps them deal with the confusion and anxiety that comes from dealing with humans, who are inherently unpredictable, and ever changing, complex social rules. This show made me think more about the importance of helping people with autism consider the multi-dimensional nature of their dates or romantic partners. Because, you can’t fit someone into a perfect box, life and human nature does not work that way. People are nuanced. Getting to know someone so deeply that you understand their nuances is a privilege. And, it is the making of a truly great relationship.
Anxiety and Dating on the Autism Spectrum
Another thing I noticed while watching the show was that the cast’s anxiety was painfully apparent at times. There were a few scenes where an autistic individual had to exit a date mid-sentence. You could see their breathing quicken, their chest rising and falling bigger and faster, eyes looking away, and their speech degrading to um’s and uh’s. Seeing this level of anxiety during a real live date gave me a deeper appreciation for how hard dating on the autism spectrum is. It also reminded me of how courageous an act it is to go on a date with this much social anxiety.
Many clients with autism that I have worked with have told me how small talk is like the worst thing ever. It seemed like the individuals on ‘Love on the Spectrum’ have similar feelings. It was obvious just how difficult it was for most of the autistic adults on the show to engage in small talk. They also struggled to ask each other follow-up questions or elaborate answers to questions asked of them. They often gave short answers that didn’t facilitate a conversation with their dates. There were such long pauses between the time a person asked a question and when they answered that I could feel my own anxiety rising. I kept noticing how awkward and anxious they seemed to be. I wondered how much self-doubt they were feeling or what worries were going through their head. After thinking about it further, I think maybe they were more comfortable in the quieter moments. Maybe, they like the break from social stimuli. I would have loved to have seen thought bubbles appear above their head providing insights into their thoughts.
Adults with Autism may struggle to connect with their date if they don’t share common interests
In my social skills groups, we really work on reciprocity. Learning how to ask open-ended questions to keep a conversation going so we can dig into more meaningful content. And, we place focus on learning how to answer questions by providing more in-depth responses rather than one-word or simple answers.
The importance of a shared interest
Many of my clients have a special interest or something they are very passionate about. Their passion often causes them to be disengaged with things that don’t align with their interests or people who don’t share their interests. So, dating can be difficult. One thing I noticed and loved is how most of the cast looked for partners who share their special interests. I also really loved some special moments in the show when autism shined. Like when an autistic couple was on a date talking about anime which was a shared passion. Then, the man, a self-taught pianist, got up and started playing on the bar piano a song from one of his date’s favorite anime shows. Moments like these were so sweet, thoughtful, and charming.
What to do when your date does not share your special interest?
When a date did not share the autistic individual’s special passion, the effect was often painful to watch. For example, when one of the characters went to a speed dating event for neurodiverse people, he struggled to connect with and didn’t have much to talk about with dates that didn’t share his interests. This lead both of them to feel very uncomfortable.
Another example of the challenges the cast faced with dating happened when one of the characters went on a second date with a woman and brought her to a museum. When he was there he incessantly talked about his special interest. In the autism world we call this info dumping. His date even commented that she couldn’t get a word in edgewise. And, this reminded me of how important it is to engage in back and forth conversation with your date, especially at first. Most people don’t like being talked at. They feel like they are just a stand-in and could be replaced by any warm body. It’s a very disconnecting experience for the partner who is being held hostage listening. Furthermore, the autistic person sharing about their special interest might actually feel more connected to their special interest than they are with their date. They don’t realize that their date doesn’t share this interest.
So, how important is sharing a special interest?
This raised the question for me, how important is it to have a shared “special interest” with your date? At one point a cast member reflected on this and said they didn’t understand why opposites attract. Sharing the same interest always gives you fodder for conversation. In cases such as this, I think it’s important that the partners reflect what they actually want out of a date and the characteristics that are important to them. If sharing a special interest is important to them, then they need to focus on finding someone who feels the same.
Dating on the Autism Spectrum from an Autism Parent’s Pont of View
As an autism therapist, my heartstrings were really tugged during some of the scenes with the autism parents
This show did a fabulous job of depicting the unconditional love these autism parents had for their neurodiverse adult or teen. For example, they showed parents choking up and becoming tearful as they expressed pride in their child. I could feel what a long journey the parents had been on with their child, the heartbreaking lows, and exhilarating highs. I could see that their child getting to the stage of going on their first date was a big step for the whole family.
While I could see their pride, I could also feel the anxiety these parents had when they navigated their child dating on the autism spectrum. There were scenes where parents were interrupting their child to coach them on what to do or say to the point of overwhelming their child. I could see their child trying to be independent and how scary it was for the parents. They compensated for their anxiety and tried to protect their child by offering unsolicited advice.
It’s important to let your twice-exceptional child navigate dating on the spectrum without too much feedback
Loosening the reigns is so scary for parents, especially for parents of a child with developmental delays. Parents just want to see their children thrive. So a part of them thinks if they offer a lot of guidance, it will help promote a positive outcome for their child. I completely get where this comes from. However, in one interaction between a girl and her parents from the show, I could see how overwhelming their feedback was. They just kept giving her suggestion upon suggestion and did not take her cues to stop. In my parent groups, we discuss a lot about how as their child transitions to adulthood, their parental communication needs to shift, too. Transitioning from a more directive, coach-like feedback style to a less directive, more exploratory conversational style. Being open to giving their child space to process their own thoughts and feelings is important. Parents need to let go of their agenda or controlling the outcome to empower their child. Allowing their child mental space to thoughtfully consider things can help their child build up self-confidence.
Social Skills Groups Can Help You Navigate Dating on the Autism Spectrum
If you’re interested in learning and practicing social skills, or discuss dating on the autism spectrum, then I want to invite you to check out one of my online social skills groups in California. Here you will work with a group of your neurodiverse peers to develop skills that will help you in life, dating, and relationships.
My online social skills groups include:
- Women with Autism Group
- Neurodiverse College Group
- Autistic Teens and Caregivers Group
- Neurodiverse Working Professionals Group
For the autism parent:
If you’re an autism parent struggling to help your high-functioning neurodiverse teen or adult, I have an online autism parent support group designed to support your needs as well. In this group, you will be given the opportunity to talk to parents sharing similar struggles. And you will learn tools to support your child from our team of autism experts.
Begin Online Autism Therapy in California:
If you’re on the autism spectrum or are an autism parent, we have a variety of autism therapy options designed to cater to high-functioning autistic teens and adults and their families and would love to help you. To begin online autism therapy in California, follow these steps:
- Schedule a free 30-minute phone consultation using this link. During your call, you will meet with one of our therapists and can discuss the issues you’re having and how we can help.
- Like us on Facebook. On our page, we post useful information that will allow you to stay up-to-date on Open Doors Therapy and our autism services.
- Sign up to receive our newsletter.
Autism Therapy Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
Our Palo Alto autism therapy clinic serves teens and adults on the autism spectrum. We help high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed autism traits, etc. and their families. Right now we are providing all our autism therapy services online. Our autism experts provide a variety of autism counseling services including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. Also, we run several different social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, autistic adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. Please reach out to our Palo Alto, CA autism counseling office for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation.