My sister and I started watching Love on the Spectrum on a whim, flicking through Netflix’s newest titles on a lazy summer weekend in 2020. We devoured the first season in one sitting, and it has since become a favorite for our whole family. Amongst a sea of gimmicky dating shows, Love on the Spectrum revels in the plain, beautiful truths of courtship through the eyes of autistic twentysomethings. No one is being voted off or set up for failure or gossiped about in dark corners. The participants genuinely want to find love, just like the rest of us.
After two seasons set in Australia, the show has returned to Netflix with its first U.S-based season. It follows six hopeful romantics aged 23 to 63: smooth-voiced sweetheart Steve; animator and businesswoman Dani; 34-years-single (but hopefully not for much longer!) Subodh; animal lover and TikTok star Abbey; Renaissance fair fan James; and bubbly educator Kaelynn.
Over the course of six episodes, we follow along as they try a variety of dating experiences, from blind dates set up by the show’s producers to local speed dating. Jennifer Cook, an autism advocate and best-selling author of books about life on the spectrum, serves as a sort of coach for Abbey and Subodh, helping them practice social skills before their dates. In an interview with Mashable, Cook and show’s creator and director Cian O’Clery chat about playing matchmaker, the public reaction to the series, and capturing the autistic dating experience.
Mashable: I adore the show. I watch it with my family. It’s helped me understand my family better. I was diagnosed with ADHD last year, at 28, so I’m still learning to communicate with them about why my brain functions differently, undoing 28 years of expectations around what I can and can’t do.
Cian O’Clery: That’s three of us!
Really! All three of us have ADHD?
Jennifer Cook: Autism and ADHD go hand in hand. I’m just under the umbrella, I’ve just got all the letters.
CO: When I started getting to know lots of people on the spectrum through making an earlier series [called Employable Me] about people with disabilities, I found I often shared many traits with people I was speaking with, specifically around sensory sensitivities, social anxiety, and reading social situations. [Like you], I have recently been diagnosed with ADD [also referred to as ADHD], which sits in the same ‘family’ as autism, and many symptoms are shared. This likely explains where those similarities come from.
Right! I can relate to that and to a lot of the participants, but obviously don’t understand their experience firsthand. How did Jennifer get involved?
CO: It was really important to find someone who could take on a role of mentor and coach, teaching some of the people who wanted to learn some more skills when it comes to social interaction and dating. We were lucky enough to find Jennifer. The fact that she herself is on the spectrum is really great. But that’s not why we asked her to be a part of it. We asked to be part of it because she’s great at what she does.
JC: What Cian just said about how I do the job and then the autism happens second, that was such a gift to hear. I think so many of us on the spectrum come to think that our autism is either the factor that loses or gains us an opportunity. It’s a wonderful thing to hear that it’s like icing on the cake, but it’s not the cake.
Jennifer, when you coach someone, how much revolves around leaning into the uniqueness of the autistic experience, and how much of it is masking? How do you encourage them to be themselves in a neurotypical world?
JC: The worst thing you want to do is ask somebody to be less themselves. What it comes down to fundamentally is noticing which hidden social rules are tripping an individual up the most. Once you can put your finger on those, it’s like you’ve become bilingual; you can choose to use [that new information] and you can choose not to. You’re empowered. Masking would be, ‘This is what you need to do in order to succeed.’ [My approach] is ‘hey, here’s an option. Give it a whirl if you want to or know it’s there and kind of figure your own way through.’
[People on the spectrum] do not naturally, organically step into someone else’s perspective; it’s called “mind blindness.” That’s where you get the misunderstanding that people on the spectrum aren’t empathetic.
We can, however, be taught [to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. After that,] we become like the most empathetic people you’re ever going to meet in your life, to a level that can be painful sometimes. That’s why you see so many people who are autistic in caring professions. So it’s teaching that: to be able to “perspective take.”
Cian, you’re making a show for Netflix which is a large distributor with an audience that is majority neurotypical. And you’re also in a format, whether you want to call it reality TV or documentary, that sort of assumes or expects a certain level of…
CO: Conflict and drama
Right! I think you walk the line very well. I saw an autistic reviewer on YouTube say, “Why are they putting autistic people in overstimulating situations like a noisy restaurant?” noting that the ensuing discomfort might make for good TV. But I think if you didn’t set dates in restaurants, people might say, “Why aren’t they treating the participants like neurotypical people who regularly go on dates at restaurants?” How do you make creative decisions around, for example, taking them to restaurants?
CO: We film on their terms, it’s all about what that particular person wants and needs. Some go to a restaurant if they want to go to a restaurant. We’re never pushing people to have a particular type of date, it’s always worked out with them. We’re not saying, ‘Dani is representing autism.’ Dani is Dani. So Dani does what Dani wants to do. And we work with her on her wants and needs and expectations. If Dani’s happy with Dani’s story, if Steve’s happy with his story [and] feel like we told their story with respect, then I’m happy.
Since we’re on the topic of feedback from the community, I wanted to ask you about feedback regarding greater diversity of participants. After reading and watching many reviews, I’ve heard suggestions including racial diversity, sexual orientation diversity, and the inclusion of nonverbal communicators. What’s the casting process like for you?
CO: It’s very thorough and very much about spreading the word as far and wide as we can within the community. Of course, it’s important to us to try and represent diversity in all its forms. At the end of the day, what was most important to us was diversity of autism presentation, of showing that people are very different — with different support needs, different personalities, different lives — and that this spectrum is a spectrum. There’s always room to explore more areas in further series, if they happen.
There was also some discomfort around the format that the show uses when introducing dates. A voiceover shares a few of the person’s likes and dislikes over b-roll of those things. For example, on the first season of Love on the Spectrum Australia, one introduction went “Lotus loves drag queens and the sound of parrots eating. She hates people talking all at once and loud machinery.” Some reviewers thought that it infantilized the hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity autistic people experience.
CO: I stole that from [the film] Amélie! It was a nice way to introduce people that was fun. There was some criticism of some of the likes and dislikes being related to someone’s autism, for example, a sound or smell. So we did change that to make sure that we didn’t include those things [in the U.S. version]… which is a shame because that still says something about them. We can see where people are coming from, but it had absolutely nothing to do with [hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity].
Are there any other areas that you made adjustments to based on feedback?
CO: Some people thought the music was a little bit silly at times, but if you look at some dating shows, [for example] a show called First Dates in the UK, [the music] is sweet and fun. It’s dating! I think that was people interpreting the music [as having] something to do with the people we’re following, whereas it was dating show music [to me]. But we’re always very conscious; we don’t want to offend people, so we do our best. And if we can improve, we do.
I’m particularly interested in how you go about sourcing dates for your cast.
CO: That’s often much harder than finding [the main cast]. For example, finding people to match with Steve [a 63-year-old in San Francisco where the average age is 38] was really hard. But I knew once the show went to air we were gonna get people writing in. I didn’t realize we’d have as many as we have! We’re starting to compile a list.
JC: Lucky Steve! I’ve been getting Instagram messages for him, too.
CO: Hopefully, we’re gonna find Steve love! [Laughs] It’s tricky, it’s really important to find people that we think they’re going to get along with. If they don’t find romance, would they be friends? The first port of call is [asking the participant] what kind of person do you want to meet? What are you interested in? We did pretty well this series, it’s pretty amazing what’s happened. For one participant to have never gone on a date in their life to now having a girlfriend and being in love, [and to have another couple who met on the show still going strong], I think is pretty special.
Given the success rate, maybe you should just quit and become a dating coach.
JC: Be a matchmaker!
CO: I also had a message from someone [saying] they want to date the boat captain from the date Steve went on with Connie.
I remember the boat captain because I thought he was very handsome!
CO: Was it you who sent the message?
I’ll never tell! For both of you, how difficult is it to consider what kind of questions to ask the participants that don’t feel exploitative?
CO: It’s hard to really answer that. I think just [ask] whatever feels right. Like I said, every single person is very different. It’s respect. Simple. I’ve heard in general that some people with disabilities will get spoken to as if they are a child, in a way that is maybe a little patronizing. It’s about talking to them in a way that isn’t starting to feel like you’re talking down. But that’s how you should live your life, regardless of whether you’re filming or interviewing people or not.
JC: A lot of it had to do, for me, with respecting the bravery of what was going on around me. One of the things I’ve taught my kids is that being brave means feeling afraid and doing it anyway. And I would say, on any given day, people on the spectrum are being brave in ways that others just kind of take for granted.
There was a moment in the show when Abbey asked me if I take medication, and that definitely threw me for a loop. I could have said something like, ‘Why, do you?’ or, ‘Well, we’re not really going to talk about that.’ But I said ‘yes’ because I felt like if we were going to ask them to be on display — and I don’t mean that in an observational, circus kind of way, but I mean really put it all out there — that I had to be willing to do the same thing.
Right, like, “Would I answer this question if they asked it back?” I feel like that’s a good tip in general. Is there anything else that you wanted to chat about that we haven’t covered?
JC: I’ll just add one thing. You were talking a lot about the different critiques and, I will be honest, I’ve been waiting [for them]. But my inboxes have blown up since this started, and there has yet to be one single negative comment out of thousands. That is saying something because, in the world of disability, it’s highly charged. It’s an emotional issue to love someone who’s had to fight a little bit more. It’s really easy to get hung up on small things, because you’re used to being in a fight stance. It can then be really easy…[to] be in a reactive place. I haven’t seen a lick of that… This is the most unified I’ve ever seen the autism community, [though] we are in no way a monolith. I have been getting feedback from all sorts of demographics within the community: people who serve the community; people who are brothers, sisters; people who are on the spectrum; kids; grandmas. I had a whole conversation yesterday in Spanish with an aunt in Peru about her nephew. Everyone just recognizes there’s genuine heart in it.
CO: It is kind of a strange kind of responsibility in a way that a show like this is doing really well, and that people are seeing it. I don’t take that lightly, that responsibility of telling these stories, but all I can do is try and tell them in the most authentic and truthful way possible.
Love on the Spectrum U.S. is now available to stream on Netflix.