Neurodiversity, review, television review

Love on the Spectrum U.S.: Representation or Exploitation? A Review

A neurodivergent friend of mine recently recommended the Netflix series Love on the Spectrum. This is a reality dating show centering autistic, neurodivergent, and disabled adults as they try to find love. There are series set in Australia and the U.S.

I had some reservations with this rec. I’m generally not that interested in romance-reality content. I’m also generally not that interested in how autism is portrayed in mass media, as is evident in previous essays I’ve published here and elsewhere. I was afraid that the series would be demeaning, ableist, generally cringe-inducing, or otherwise frustrating.

I started the U.S. series (released May 2022) and finished it in less than 24 hours. And I have thoughts.

Autistic / Disability Representation

Rather than casting the show with stereotypical presentations of autism (read: what a neurotypical audience might expect to see a la Rain Man), Love on the Spectrum seems to have purposely chosen people with a wide range of support needs, communication styles, and so forth, what the scientific community might call a wide range of “functioning.” As someone who has been told that I don’t “seem autistic,” I appreciated this full representation of autism. I definitely saw myself represented in the cast.

Regardless of support needs, autistic and disabled people are treated with respect as consenting adults. This gives them the freedom (that they have innately but which is not always allowed to them by mainstream/abled society) to want and to pursue romantic and sexual relationships. They are not infantilized. If they make decisions that seem strange, the people in their lives and the show runners may ask clarifying questions, but they are never told that they are wrong or are making decisions that are illogical. Their wishes are respected. They are adults engaging in adult relationships.

Autistic individuals are portrayed with a high degree of empathy. We see them moving with confidence in their environments, running their own businesses, attending Ren Faires and conventions, and interacting with loving friends and families. We also see them discussing their experiences in the larger neurotypical world (like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, feeling out of place, losing the ability to talk) and we see them bravely working through the anxiety-inducing ins and outs of exploring new relationships.

In general, a neurodiverse philosophy seems to be in place; whenever autism is described, it is usually identified as a difference in brain function, though there are references made to disability, and at least one parent cried when talking about receiving a diagnosis for her child, which felt a bit like mourning the child you wanted rather than celebrating the child you have. However, that emotion faded to the background as the series progressed.

There are moments when I was unsure whether an autistic person was meant to be laughed at for their idiosyncrasies, but these were few and far between. I fell in love with each of the show’s cast members–hard. They are sweet, kind people who respect boundaries and personhood: asking permission before shaking hands, checking in to see if others around them are feeling okay, hypersensitive to never hurt anyone’s feelings. The storytelling of the show has the audience rooting for good connections and positive social experiences. I was so hopeful for each blind date, so elated when pairs hit it off, and crushed when things didn’t go well.

Granted, as a neurodivergent (autistic and ADHD) person, I may be watching the show entirely differently than a neurotypical audience member. Love on the Spectrum doesn’t seem to be made for an autistic audience (it would be perhaps bad marketing to do so, since the target viewer pool would be smaller), but neither does it exclude that audience by offending it, at least as far as I’m concerned. I can’t speak for all autistic and disabled people, of course.

Overall, I think Love on the Spectrum does a ton of fantastic work bringing autistic and disabled people into public awareness as individuals with autonomy and educating about the vast spectrum of what autistic and disabled people look like, want, and feel.

Gender Roles

Love on the Spectrum U.S. submits to traditional gender roles. Dating means a man and a woman go out for dinner or drinks. Men bring flowers. Men initiate payment for the dinner and drinks. Men broach the subject of a next date. There’s nothing wrong with this on its face. I imagine a lot of viewers might not even notice or care. However, this isn’t a complete representation of the autistic and disabled communities.

There is a higher percentage of LGBTQIA+ folks who are autistic than in the general neurotypical population. It would have been nice to see that reflected in Love on the Spectrum U.S.’s casting. I believe the Australian series is more inclusive in this respect.

There was at least one individual (maybe two) that I suspected might not be attracted to the opposite sex, based on their interview comments and how their dates went. I’m not going to speculate on anybody’s sexual orientation so I’m not going to name them, but it seemed to me a good example of how autistic people with rigid/structured thought processes try unsuccessfully to fit themselves into the wrong boxes, and then wonder why things aren’t working out. With a fuller example of what options are available, I wonder if those individuals might have an easier time figuring out what they want and then finding intimacy.

Dating “Norms”

I find it awkward that the show forces neurodivergent individuals into neurotypical concepts of dating and relationship building. For example, many of the first or blind dates occur at busy restaurants. An environment like that, for me, is not conducive for getting to know a stranger. I’m distracted by the hustle and bustle, I’m nervous in a setting that is new to me, hypervigilant, and I imagine with all of that, on top of meeting a stranger, in front of cameras and a film crew, that most participants were masking within an inch of their lives and experiencing high degrees of anxiety. How can anyone know if they’re genuinely connecting to another person if both they and the other person are in that state?

Would it have been difficult to tailor the dating environments more to what the participants were comfortable with? Is the “fish out of water” experience necessary to make good reality show content?

In general, participants went along with the pre-set scenarios with bravado. They have lots of practice with this, since the neurotypical world almost never makes room for alternate preferences. But it would be refreshing to see first dates that help rather than interfere with the larger goal, as opposed to dates that follow the neurotypical concept of What Dates Look Like.

Common Interests

As I have realized in my own life, having common interests with a person I am trying to build a relationship with is crucial. The participants in Love on the Spectrum emphasized this too. Without common interests, autistic people had almost zero chance of hitting it off. But if common interests were present, the couple were eventually able to merge even the interests that weren’t in common to include each other.

A great example of this was with Abbey and David. On their first date, they walked around a zoo. Each person talked about the animals and movies they liked, but they didn’t really exchange ideas. It felt like watching two people in bubbles float next to each other. It was hard to tell if they were hearing each other or taking one another in. But by their third date, they were exchanging information. There was no monologuing. They were creating new ideas together, applying something the other person said to a new situation to make a joke that they both laughed at. Their bubbles had merged. They were creating a shared reality: a relationship.

And I’m back to representation.

Autistic people often have what is described as rigid thinking. I touched on this a bit in terms of attraction and orientation, but it applies across the board to all life experiences. It can be difficult for some neurodivergent folks to conceptualize things they have never seen examples of. They don’t know what the options are if they haven’t been presented to them. This can be paralyzing and can severely limit what autistic people do. They can’t imagine themselves in a relationship, moving, getting married, etc. etc. etc., so they are unable to do those things at all, or even take steps toward them.

Watching autistic relationship building was revelatory to me in helping me think through previous relationships and the ways in which I interact with people. Too, I had so many mini-breakthroughs about myself and my neurodivergent friends just seeing autistic people talk and think and process and move in the world. Little things I’ve experienced and logged away on a subconscious level broke through to my conscious awareness by seeing these examples on screen. This allows me to analyze and understand my experiences, rather than blindly intuit my way forward.

This is huge. This is why representation matters. And this is why I think autistic people need to be watching this show.


I find Love on the Spectrum to be a delight. Yes, there are problem areas, but in my estimation, the positives outweigh the negatives. Autistic people are shown as empathetic, humanized individuals with a variety of abilities and skills, with agency, as adults, in romantic situations. The format of the show is recognizable and comfortable as reality television without feeling overblown and exploitative.

Honestly, as far as romance-based reality TV goes, Love on the Spectrum is a breath of fresh air. I fully intend to watch all other series and versions of this show.

I am also interested to see what other people think! Do you disagree? Agree? Did I miss something? I love respectful discourse and debate about pop-culture media, so please drop a comment and let’s talk!

4 thoughts on “Love on the Spectrum U.S.: Representation or Exploitation? A Review”

  1. Allison, as expected, you show yourself to be an excellent writer and thinker. I haven’t watched the show, but it is interesting to to read about it from the perspective of someone who identifies with the subject matter. Your analytical skills are also strong. Your continued voice and perspective is truly needed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this. I needed to be reassured by someone with lived experience before I sat down to watch.
    I get so angry watching programs that focus on the deficits and disorder of autism. I’m giving it a chance bc of this review.


    1. Thank you for sharing, Sherry, and for reading! Of course, there is always the possibility that my take (as one autistic person) may vary from yours. I do hope you enjoy it, but feel free to update us here if you do discover issues/triggers/problematic things. Happy to discuss, learn, and grow from others. 😀


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s