I spent most of my life, until my mid-20s, believing I was unlovable. Many of the relationships I have had, both romantic and platonic, have broken down without warning, leaving me alone to assume that I’ve broken some social code that others understand instinctively. Without clarity, I could never possibly atone. So I internalised the idea that it was my fault, that I was innately “bad”.
I had a long-term boyfriend who, during fights, would confirm these fears. In his worst moments, he would tell me I was evil, that the friends I did have just didn’t know me yet. In my own worst moments, I believed him. What I didn’t know then is that I am autistic.
In the 90s, girls were rarely diagnosed, and while I was considered “gifted” and “different”, my behaviours were put down to other things. I struggled socially but managed to make a few close friends, and as I got older, I saw how easy they found dating. I stayed in that not great relationship for most of my formative years - partly because I didn’t believe I deserved more, and partly because dating strangers was impossible. I struggle intensely with new environments and making small talk. More than that though, I couldn’t bear the idea of having sex with someone who didn’t know what I needed, that the sounds, smells and sensations might send me into sensory overload.
A new docuseries, Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum, follows several autistic people as they date and aim to find love. In it they acknowledge that many don’t date or have partners, although not for lack of desire. The producers set them up with strangers and communication professionals to guide them and highlight areas of difficulty, filming every awkward second of their dates with other autistic people. For all its intent to break stigmas, in observing autistic people rather than putting them in control of the narrative, it falls short.
Love on the Spectrum was painful to watch, laying bare the ways neurotypical people view us. Before I was diagnosed, I went invisible as people freely discussed their opinion of autistic people: that they are blunt, cold, distant. In the first episode, 25-year-old Michael’s mother reveals that she was warned, “he probably won’t have any empathy for others.” Understanding of autism is still in its infancy, and harmful studies by eugenicist Hans Asperger on “autistic psychopathy” pervade many people’s understanding. Michael is agonisingly self-deprecating, calling himself a “double scoop of dog shit”, his view of himself based on societal expectations.
The people followed in the show are all relatively young, mostly in their early 20s, and their romantic difficulties aren’t necessarily that different to their neurotypical peers. Watching them “struggle” from the outside, their differences emphasised, I felt a deep discomfort. Their parents often speak for them or about them while they’re there, as if they’re invisible, laughing at the “rude” things they say. Leading questions from producers force the young adults on the show to consider their differences, and despite its attempts, Love on the Spectrum is still presented through a neurotypical gaze.
It exposes a painful reality: people often either see us as cold or naïve, without the autonomy to make our own decisions. A glance at the hashtag exposes the infantilising voyeurism of non-autistic people: so pure, so wholesome, as if we aren’t adults capable of full lives. People meme the subjects - they’re “so obsessed!” with Kelvin, or they “just love” Michael, as if he’s a pet.
Learning how other people see me has been the most agonising part of being autistic, and watching Love on the Spectrum tore open those wounds. I hate remembering that people see me as other, that even when they don’t consider me distant or rude, they still find it appropriate to condescend to me - a 27-year-old with a career and Master’s degree. On learning that I’m autistic, a psychiatrist recently switched her tone from professional to cooing about my lovely nails in a second. I want to be seen as a whole person – one who might need accommodations, sure, but a person nonetheless.
With research and hard-earned self-love, I know now that difficulties I have are often the fault of an inflexible society that expects the same behaviours from everyone. I spent a lifetime struggling without a diagnosis because girls present differently to boys, and I learned to copy others while masking my own autistic traits very young. This is reassuringly discussed in Love on the Spectrum, and through Chloe, the show acknowledges the fact that girls were previously four times less likely to be diagnosed. Ultimately, though, Chloe is only 19, experiencing the same hurdles that any teenager might romantically. But, she’s been led to believe her autism is at fault. Heartbreakingly, she says, “I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life”.
Being autistic is different for every single person. For me, it means that I am capable of powerful, overwhelming love and empathy for everything: people, animals, objects, nature. On the flipside, I have limitations. I need people to be absolutely honest with me, to realise that I won’t always get what they are inferring, and to understand that it takes me a while to open up and be myself. A lifetime of being told I talk too much means that I often err on the side of quiet rather than letting myself talk endlessly about my special interests. It’s a complicated tightrope trying to understand how much is “normal” of myself to give away, and I watch the easy way other people interact with curiosity and jealousy.
Despite that, my own love story has a happy ending. I have been with someone, a neurotypical no less, for over two years. Early on I told him I thought I was autistic; I wanted him to love me in my entirety. I was upfront about what I needed: patience, straightforward communication and understanding. He gives me that and more, encouraging me to push myself while respecting my boundaries.
I was conditioned to believe that needing those things made me difficult, but when I am kinder to myself I see the things he gets in return. I give love freely, I am empathetic, I am relentless in my affection. He knows my love comes from a place of truth because I am utterly incapable of lies. We have had to learn how to communicate, but the very intentional way we do so means that we are better at it than most couples.
Many of the autistic people that I’ve spoken with about Love on the Spectrum felt similarly to me: a show that emphasises our differences from the perspective of neurotypical people, only showing us dating one another, others us further. If you’ve watched the show and feel tempted to talk about it, rather than observing and memeing us, I want you to interrogate your own prejudices and educate yourself on autism.
Look at the ways you communicate, too: you won’t always know someone is neurodivergent, so consider being more flexible in your expectations from people and identify which social norms can be abandoned. Expand your view of what love, affection, communication and friendship looks like. Enter conversations prepared to learn others’ limits and needs rather than expecting the same from everyone. By doing so, you will likely both make life easier for autistic people and deepen your existing relationships.
What Love on the Spectrum has shown autistic people need, more than anything, is the opportunity to tell our own stories, to not be observed and fetishised. I hope other producers will learn from their mistakes and put us in charge – we understand ourselves, and each other, better than anyone.
You Might Also Like