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Why Netflix’s ‘Love on the Spectrum’ is TV’s most honest dating show

Thomas and Ruth celebrate their anniversary in Netflix's "Love on the Spectrum."
(Netflix)

When “Love on the Spectrum” first aired in Australia, it was promoted with a glamorous photo shoot: sleek black suits, floor-length gowns, a single rose. It strategically resembled the key art of the dating reality shows that have dominated pop culture for nearly 20 years.

“We thought, why not represent these people in their best light, just like every other series does?” director and creator Cian O’Clery told The Times. “The fact that people have a disability or condition shouldn’t affect the way we represent them.”

That’s just about the only resemblance that the heartwarming docuseries, which is now streaming on Netflix, bears to shows like “The Bachelor.” It centers on people on the autism spectrum as they venture into the world of dating — a premise that debunks the long-believed myth that the neurodiverse community is not interested in intimacy or romance.

“Look, it’s not for everybody, which is the case in the general population as well,” said Jodi Rodgers, a relationship specialist for people with autism. “But what I’ve found is that once people on the spectrum hit adolescence and early adulthood, they desperately want those relationships. The difficulties they’ve had weren’t for lack of warmth but the complex social skills needed to develop and maintain those relationships.”

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Take Michael, whose greatest dream in life is “to become a husband.” And Maddi, who prefers a partner who is also on the spectrum because “similar personality traits is quite good” for a successful relationship. These two, along with a handful of other singles and two long-term couples, were chosen from hundreds of applicants, identified through social groups, employment centers and organizations serving Australians with autism. (Studies, treatments and support services for the disorder have historically overlooked women and people of color, which is arguably reflected in the series’ majority white and male cast.)

Jodi Rodgers talks to Michael about dating in "Love on the Spectrum."
Jodi Rodgers talks to Michael about dating in “Love on the Spectrum.”
(Netflix)

O’Clery, who has made numerous projects about the neurodiverse community, made sure the production accommodated the particular needs of the subjects. Filming took place over five months and often spanned only a few hours per day. Crews remained limited to the same three people, who aimed to be invisible but supportive — even if that meant taking multiple breaks during a date or calling it quits on any particular session.

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“A lot of dating shows often want a heightened experience of the fish out of water,” said executive producer Karina Holden. “But for many of the young people who were part of the show, this was their very first experience of dating. That in itself can be quite emotional, so the tension and the drama comes from them feeling comfortable enough to open up to another person or the audience, as opposed by being pressured by producers to create a certain emotion.”

The result is a series that captures dating moments recognizable to anyone and everyone: the awkwardness of greeting a blind date (hug? handshake? Help!), the struggle to keep a stale conversation flowing, the shuffle of deciding who pays for either or both halves of a meal. Rodgers and other specialists coach the singles through these situations by leading them in exercises onscreen.

“We as a society have focused a lot on supporting people on the spectrum when they’re young, and equipping them with independence skills for the rest of their lives,” she said. “But we’ve collectively dropped the ball [when it comes to dating].”

Michael Richey White, who is on the spectrum, explains how he creates the art for Netflix’s “Atypical,” whose lead character has autism.

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Most refreshingly, the dates in “Love on the Spectrum” tend to conclude with direct conversations about whether or not a second date is on the table. No one needlessly strings anyone along; nobody tries to win anybody over by playing hard to get. Defining the relationship is just another part of the date, before sharing a kind goodbye.

Kelvin goes on a date with Jessica in "Love on the Spectrum."
(Netflix)

“It’s difficult to talk about any particular trait of people on the spectrum because the community is so diverse, but one thing that did come across is this great honesty,” said O’Clery. “There was no game-playing — everyone was keen to leave things so that everyone knew where they stood.”

Those chats were not prompted by producers but encouraged by the specialists who taught the singles about proper dating techniques. “It’s giving the other person on the date that respect,” he added. “I think anybody watching this could stand to learn that one.”

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