By Nils Skudra
During this holiday break, I had the opportunity to watch Love on the Spectrum, a Netflix miniseries which provides a unique examination of the lives of people on the autism spectrum searching for their soulmates. Through its profiling of several autistic individuals in different parts of the U.S., the show demonstrates how people on the spectrum are equally determined to have successful romantic attachments and the ways in which their autism shapes their outlook and their approach to meeting potential partners. Since there are countless young adults with autism seeking romance, I felt this miniseries would offer an excellent opportunity for them to learn important insights from their peers about dating and building meaningful relationships.
The show opens by introducing Dani, a young woman with autism who lives with her aunt and uncle in Los Angeles. Dani is deeply passionate about animation and possesses an expert knowledge of various animated series and their creators. She has made animation her full-time career, teaching animation workshops for children with autism and traveling across the U.S. for animators’ conventions. This is illustrative of the tendencies that many individuals with high-functioning autism (also known as Asperger’s Syndrome) display since they have very specialized interests which they excel in, although this can also make other subjects more difficult for them. In addition, while this narrow focus can make them highly knowledgeable about their topic of interest, people with high-functioning autism can still have significant social challenges, such as difficulty with understanding certain social cues, which are critical areas for improvement so that they may build effective social relationships, including romantic ones.
As Dani elaborates upon her interests in finding an ideal male partner, she reveals some of the key desired traits that are important in a serious relationship. These include open and honest communication, an easygoing and confident personality, and having at least some shared interests. Since Dani’s lifelong passion is animation, she hopes to find a partner who shares that interest, as well as an understanding of autism and an acceptance of her identity as an autistic individual. In pursuit of this goal, she actively uses dating apps to search for male candidates who fit her criteria. The show then introduces Abbey, who also lives in Los Angeles with her mother and brother. Abbey has a passionate love of animals, as her room is filled with various stuffed animals and characters from Disney films such as The Lion King. She shares a series of profound and heartfelt insights about living with autism, stating that autism is like “having someone trapped inside me” and comparing her experience to that of Ariel in The Little Mermaid since she has struggled with her communication skills growing up, and she is concerned about figuring out what she should say when going out on a date. Therefore, Abbey’s mother arranges a meeting with Jennifer Cook, an autism expert who specializes in teaching communication skills to young autistic adults. Since Jennifer is on the spectrum herself, she can strongly relate to Abbey’s experience, and she offers her encouragement about the potential to achieve her goals. They engage in a series of role-playing scenarios in which Abbey learns about the proper questions to ask on a date and how to reciprocate the other person’s interest. Through this approach, Abbey develops a growing confidence in her ability to date successfully, and she begins searching for prospective male candidates through dating apps.
The next individual to be introduced is James, a young autistic man living with his parents in Boston, Massachusetts. He relates that during his formative years, he was frequently bullied by his peers, and consequently he struggled with fear of large crowds and going outside his family’s home. However, James maintains that he has improved upon these issues over the years and is now more confident about venturing out in society and meeting other people. This struggle is very common among individuals on the autism spectrum since they are often subjected to bullying and social ostracism, which can severely impact their self-esteem and their willingness to step outside of their comfort zone. Nonetheless, through support from family, friends, and social skills groups, they can develop greater self-confidence in their ability to make connections with peers, which is critical for approaching the dating sphere.
Like Dani, James possesses an expert knowledge of his subject of interest, in this case medieval European and Japanese history. This is reflected in the setup of James’ room, which includes two medieval swords on the wall, and in his recounting of certain information about medieval armor, such as the fact that Darth Vader’s helmet was modeled after a Japanese samurai helmet. However, James’ social challenges are made readily apparent as well, including a tendency to become highly agitated during moments of stress or aggravation. For example, when he misplaces his wallet after going to the bank, he becomes extremely anxious and panicky, telling his parents that he cannot find it until he finally discovers it in his room, although this does not bring immediate relief since he perseverates over the frustration of stressing out over the wallet when it was in his room the whole time. This is also common among people with autism since they tend to fixate on sources of stress for an extended period after they have already passed. Managing this anxiety is an important skill for social interaction, particularly since dating requires calmness and confidence from both parties.
The viewer is then introduced to Kaelynn, a young woman with autism who lives in Greenville, South Carolina. Kaelynn works with children on the autism spectrum, and she relates that she has been diagnosed with a variety of other learning disorders, including dyslexia and ADHD. In discussing her autism, she shares some of the distinguishing traits that are common among people with ASD, including an appreciation for structure and routine and a tendency to be very literal in her processing of information. In addition, she has a specialized interest in birds, stating that she could name every bird by its flight pattern from a young age. Kaelynn reflects that disclosing her autism has negatively impacted her dating life in the past; on a previous occasion when she brought her service dog on a date, the person whom she met kept asking about the dog’s presence, which prompted Kaelynn to disclose her autism and explain that the dog was a service animal. This revelation resulted in rejection, which left her devastated for a while. Nonetheless, Kaelynn is determined to find a partner who accepts her autism, and with her best friend Gracie’s encouragement, she takes part in a speed dating event, where she meets Peter, a young autistic man who shares her interest in rich desserts and agrees to meet with her for an official date.
The next featured participant is Subodh, a 33-year-old Indian American man with autism living with his sister in Long Beach, California. He has a passionate interest in international travel, as he elaborates upon the various places that he hopes to visit around the world. He states that he has been single his whole life, and he is eager to meet someone his age, though he pointedly tells his parents that he doesn’t want a girlfriend from India since they went through an arranged marriage, which Subodh does not wish to replicate. With the help of his sister, he uses dating apps to find a potential partner, leading to his first date with Rachel, a young woman with Downs Syndrome who shares his interest in global travel and is very receptive to his outreach. They subsequently meet for a second date at Huntington Beach, where they have an idyllic time walking by the ocean and flying a kite, leaving the door open for a potential relationship.
The final participant introduced in the series is Steve, a 63-year-old man living in San Francisco. Despite his advanced age, he has never been married or had a serious relationship, and he relates that he is afraid he won’t meet anyone. With the help of his assisted living aide, Shorae, and autism life coach Elaine Hall, he works on polishing his dating skills in the hope of meeting a potential partner in his age range. Steve subsequently meets two different women, Candida and Connie, both of whom he has an enjoyable experience with, but while he does not follow up with Candida, his prospects for a serious relationship with Connie seem more promising by the end of the series.
In summation, Love on the Spectrum is a deeply insightful and heartwarming miniseries that captures how autistic individuals strive for romantic relationships and the ways in which their autism influences their approach to dating. Since there is a widespread misconception that people with autism are neither interested in, nor capable of, forming social connections or relationships, the show offers a compelling examination which debunks that belief. Given that many autistic individuals have strong social anxiety about dating, Love on the Spectrum is a must-see documentary that will encourage them to find romantic partners in their lives. Furthermore, because the individuals in this miniseries are open in the discussion of autism, viewers can be encouraged to develop greater comfort and self-confidence in disclosing their autism to potential partners who will hopefully accept them for who they are.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with autism, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.