It can be extremely daunting when it comes to dating rituals and giving our heart to someone else, especially if you have never dated before and are overwhelmed by the entire process.
This is why Love on the Spectrum U.S., a charming six-episode dating series on Netflix, is delighting us with the personal stories of young men and women with autism who are getting over their concerns and fears to make bold steps and life changes. The show is changing lives, one date at a time.
Several adults with autism dive headfirst into dating experiences and explore the unpredictable world of dating and romance – learning about the lows of heartbreak and the euphoric feeling of connection.
From Cian O’Clery, the same co-creator-series director as Love on the Spectrum in Australia, which has been streaming on Netflix for two seasons, the new show is about the lives of real people trying to find connection, friendship, and possibly love. They are navigating the world of dating, many of them for the first time.
Helping them on this often daunting journey is autism advocate and author Jennifer Cook, who visits the participants in person or virtually to help prepare them for their dates.
Cook sees many beneficial takeaways from the series and encourages wide viewership. “I hope people watching this can come away from it being a bit more thoughtful and intentional about what we’re doing and saying and how we interact with one another,” she exclusively tells Monsters and Critics. “I think the world would be a much better place.”
Here is a look at why audiences have taken such a liking to these Netflix shows, what we can learn about dating from those with autism, and how the show may be helping to positively change attitudes – and promote acceptance for — adults with special needs.
Monsters and Critics: Did you ever think about if typical adults who were dating took the time and energy to prepare, bring flowers and little gifts, and show care and concern for the other person as much as the men and women in your series that our lives would be totally changed for the better?
Cian O’Clery: Absolutely. I think there are lessons to be learned from everybody in the way that our participants take on their dating experiences. The dating world these days is such a frivolous thing now in so many ways, which is a real shame.
Jennifer Cook: Yes, I think if your average person on the street showed the kind of bravery that these participants do, I think we’d have a very different world.
M&C: What are some of the other takeaways that each of you got from this series first and also from the Australian series?
O’Clery: Well, I guess the most important thing overall in terms of the big picture is to highlight the diversity of the spectrum and be able to introduce people to such a great range of different people with different lives and different personalities. I think that’s the most important aspect in terms of what an audience can take away from the series. I think making the US version was just a great opportunity to just keep on exploring that and keep introducing people to the diversity of the autism spectrum.
It’s great to be able to include Steve, for example, in the US series. He is a bit older and has only recently been diagnosed. This says so much in that story about how much awareness has changed and how much things are getting better compared to when Steve was young; back then, people didn’t even know what autism was.
And when another participant, James, who is in his early 30s, was younger, it was still very much a thing people didn’t know about it. So, for me, the biggest thing is just the awareness and understanding of the diversity of autism, and therefore you can’t make any assumptions about somebody just because they have autism.
M&C: How do you find the dating participants?
O’Clery: We use any possible way you can think in terms of just trying to spread the word. But basically, the opposite of how you would cast a typical dating series or your average dating series. We try as much as possible for people to hear about the opportunity and then write to us. We reach out to autism organizations, support groups, psychologists, individuals who know lots of people, and influencers who may be on the spectrum.
Cook: For me, it’s about the fact that we’re all on the human spectrum. And when it comes down to it, I think that my greatest hope for a takeaway would honestly be the sameness – generally, all of humanity is a spectrum.
I think that it’s a beautiful thing to see in this microcosm which is the autism spectrum. Whether it’s age, gender, or sexuality, there are so many, so many different kinds of simply being. If we can extrapolate from that, then we can all be a bit kinder and more respectful to one another.
M&C: I think you would agree with me that finding a date or mate is difficult for most of us. How does adding autism make it more complicated since many adults on the spectrum are lacking a lot of social cues?
O’Clery: Well, that’s interesting, even in the series. You’ll see when James meets up with his brother; they’re talking about him approaching his first date in a long time. And James says, ‘Well, I suppose it’s probably not a good thing for me to comment on her body?’ So, he’s trying to work that through, which is, I guess, similar to the story you’re saying in terms of trying to work on what is and is not socially acceptable. Yes, absolutely, social challenges can be there for people on the spectrum.
Cook: I was diagnosed with autism 11 years ago. So, one of the things that I did when I was newly diagnosed was I started a journal that became the best-selling of my books, called The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules. I looked around at everybody and realized, Okay, it’s literally like everyone’s playing the game of life, and they all got the directions, but nobody gave me the directions. So, I’ve got to figure this out. I’ve got to unzip everything and spot them as I go and then write them down. And then figure out the reasoning behind them. Because if I can figure out the reasoning, then it became much easier to make them feel natural and more fluid.
So yes, dating and relationships are tough stuff no matter what because communication is a challenge for everyone. For those of us on the autism spectrum, you’re talking about the added trickiness of not naturally being able to step into the other person’s shoes. The plus is, though, that once we learn how to do that, once it is explained to us, you see that folks on the spectrum are often among the most empathetic, polite, caring people that you’re ever going to meet.
M&C: Were there surprises between this series and the one in Australia? Is everyone kind of the same even though they are thousands of miles apart?
O’Clerly: Well, the awareness of the previous series and the opportunity to be people made people really keen to be on board in the U.S. Everyone is his/her own person and has their own story; but apart from that, there are a lot of similarities.
M&C: I know it just started streaming but do you have a clue of when you’re going to hear if there’s going to be a Season 2?
O’Clery: It’s so hard to say. These things all depend on how many people engage with it. And are people loving it, which hopefully they will. It’s starting to get traction. It would be great to just continue to tell the stories of some of the people we’ve already featured in the series. We have our fingers crossed.
M&C: Will there be a Season 3 for the Australian version of the show?
O’Clery: It’s on pause at the moment, but you never know. We’re just exploring other projects at the moment back in Australia, and we will see.
M&C: How did Jennifer come to this project?
O’Clery: We spoke to a lot of people who are experts in the field and who do coach people in terms of social skills, dating, and relationships, and Jennifer was a standout and happened to also be on the spectrum, which was amazing. We were very happy that she agreed to be part of it.
Cook: I was thrilled. I was honored. Once you become cognizant of what the impact can be of something if you care, and Cian does, then you have to. You have to act that way. You have to behave as if you’re holding something precious. He’s very humble. He’s a very gifted person who truly treated this entire thing.
One of my social rules for myself is that if I think something positive about someone, I say it. I feel like often enough, people do quite the opposite, but I think that Cian does this work for the right reasons. From absolutely every step of the way, there is such respect. For each person that’s involved. Who’s truly checking in and truly making sure everyone’s feeling good about what they’re doing. I’ve been approached before to do TV projects, and I turned every single one down because they always felt exploitive to me. So, this felt so celebratory and treated with such dignity and respect.
M&C: When you prepare one of the participants, Subodh, who is dating for the first time, his mother becomes quite emotional and says, ‘Finding a nice woman for my son would complete my mom journey.’ This brought tears to my eyes. As you are filming it, how does that moment feel?
O’Clerly: You always know when a moment like that is really strong. It’s so touching, and you can tell that it comes from a really deep place because this means so much to him and his family. So, I’m understanding that it’s important, but also making sure that I’m paying attention to the content, how we are filming it, that she is in focus, and all of those other details.
M&C: Your series is often called sweet, lovely, heartfelt, and beautiful. How does that make you feel? Also, do you realize you are changing attitudes and changing the lives of the participants by helping them step out of their comfort zones?
O’Clery: Thank you, that’s a really nice thing to say. I went to see Abbey and her mom yesterday, and her mom said, “You’ve changed our lives.” It is so lovely to be able to do that. The reaction to the show has been amazing. I knew that the people we were filming and their stories were fantastic. I knew they were just great, wonderful, endearing, and caring people. So, it’s nice to see that the rest of the audiences and society have come along, agreed, and feel the same way.
You never really know the outcome when you make a show. I think we try our best to tell their stories in the most authentic and truthful way possible. We’re not trying to manipulate their stories in any way; we’re not trying to create drama or conflict in people’s stories.
It’s really lovely to hear when people appreciate it. We get messages from all over the world of people telling us stories of their child who has been inspired by the show and has now found the confidence to get started on a journey that they were afraid to step into. It’s been an honor to tell these stories and very gratifying to hear how they have touched so many lives.
What I wasn’t expecting when we made this little Australian TV series is the responsibility in terms of providing this platform for all of these voices to be heard. I feel honored that I’ve been able to do that. My hope is just that people continue to feel that we’re doing it in a respectful and honest way. I always say the most important critics of the show are the participants themselves. For me, if they’re happy with how they’re portrayed, that is the most important.
M&C: Why do you encourage my readers to watch the new series?
O’Clery: I want them to understand more about autism, and the experience people go through. I want them to understand the diversity of autism. Everybody is a human being who has wants and needs, and there are just as many commonalities as there are potential differences.
Cook: It’s a feel-good show. It has been called marvelously, joyfully, human and I agree. You cannot help while you are observing their lives to think good thoughts and embrace positive feelings. We live in a time of unprecedented levels of global depression and challenge, and so to be kind to one another, to be vulnerable and brave, and do good things can’t help but inspire some of those feelings in ourselves. I think if we could all be a bit braver, feel the fears we are feeling, but do it anyway, we would be better off.
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