My final paper for the class, Neurodiversity and Mad Studies, Fall 2021, BS Psy program.
Queering Normal: A Critical Analysis of the Netflix Show, Love on the Spectrum
Love on the Spectrum (LOTS) is a show on Netflix about autistic 20-somethings in Australia, seeking love (2019). Over the course of two show seasons, we follow these participants on dates—for many it is their first ever. They attend speed dating events; they show us their rooms, their hobbies; we met their families and friends; they receive dating advice from relationship specialist, Jodi Rogers; and, because it is a reality show, they sit and talk directly with the camera. Their ages range from 19 to 27, there is a fairly even mix of single men and women, and most, but not all, live at home. There are also two couples who were already together when the show began.
Neurodiversity is the natural order of humanity. Considering this fact, it becomes important to recognize that since no two people are exactly the same, neurodivergence is not only an organic expression of life itself, but it is also a huge relief. There is no normal! Nevertheless, our society has, for hundreds of years, persisted on striving for a fictious ideal, based on standards of normal, typical, and general averages. Normal is built on generalizations. When there is a normal, there is by default, an abnormal. The pathology paradigm looks at people through the lens of their disease and disorders; humans become a problem to be fixed. This kind of distorted thinking is especially harmful and stigmatizing for neurominorities such as autistics, whose uniqueness and quirks are inherent to who they are; there is no curing or fixing their brains. The problem, therefore, lies in society, in what has thus far been considered acceptable and correct, and what has not. One of the ways that the neurodiversity paradigm is queering normal is through employing neuropositive language.
In LOTS, the most significant element that is out of alignment with the neurodiversity paradigm is some of the language, with the title being the most obvious example. The term ‘on the spectrum’is used often, sometimes by the participants, but especially by the narrator, the parents, and Jodi, the relationship specialist; ‘autistic’ is also used, more so by the participants. The term ‘high-functioning’ is used by two of the female participants; ‘low-functioning’ is not used.
While the terminology may still be rooted in a pathology paradigm, the energy and intention of the show comes through as one of love and kindness; and in so doing, this is challenging neuronormative assumptions of autism. Michael, a 25 year old male, when asked how he feels about being on the spectrum, replies, “…autism is just a neurological disability. People with autism or Asperger’s, they just learn things a different way. As far as I’m concerned, if anything it’s actually more of a gift” (2020, 1:22). The other participants share Michael’s attitude; they know that their brains are unique, and while some say it took them awhile, they now see their neurodivergence as an asset.
The opening image shows each person posed glamorously in evening wear attire, perched in various positions against a luxurious sofa in an empty loft warehouse space. This image is the marketing picture that one might see on a billboard, or the side of a bus. Everyone looks glamorous, but the image itself conjures up another reality TV show, The Bachelor. It is this evocation that is problematic. Although, LOTS is the total opposite of pretentious, this image shows a lack of creativity at best, and at worst, paints a false picture of the show, namely that it is aligned with trashy sensationalism. As if The Bachelor is the pinnacle for anyone who is dating? There is some mention made here and there from participants, claiming to either love, or love to hate, The Bachelor. Fortunately, the opening image and the fact that are both are reality shows are the only things LOTS has in common with The Bachelor. Unfortunately, by using that image, LOTS unknowingly forges an alignment with neuronormative assumptions around love and finding a partner.
Some of the participants are multiply neurodivergent, but even among those who are solely autistic, each participant’s unique traits and quirks manifest in different ways. It is no surprise that humans are a neurodiverse species; just like stars in the sky, we all have our unique sparkle. And yet, a persistent neurotypical belief is that autism looks a certain way. We see this stereotype confronted head on when Chloe, who is deaf and autistic, tells the camera, “When I tell someone that I’m autistic, people go, ‘Really? You don’t look autistic’. And I can say, ‘What does an autistic person look like?’” (2020, 5:15). Other participants echo this experience. Seeing the many faces and manifestations of neurodivergence works to challengs deeply rooted beliefs and societal assumptions of autism.
Humans tend to fear the unknown. Because autism has been so stigmatized throughout history, it has, by and large, been oppressed, denied, and hidden, which further perpetuates stigma. This is fertile ground for fear, shame, blame, and guilt. If we don’t know what autism presents like, then it is disturbing when we see an autistic who is stimming, or rocking, or having a meltdown. LOTS gives us a portal view of autistic anxiety and the ways it can manifest.
Out on a blind date, and struggling to make conversation, we see Kassandra getting nervous and she tells the camera she needs a break. She goes to the restroom but returns in a more anxious state than before. She tells her date that she’s on the verge of a panic attack, and politely takes her leave (2021). The heightened levels of anxiety and stimulation that autistics experience can be overwhelming and debilitating. While we can never completely know what is happening inside, Kassandra gives us a glimpse from the outside, and her vulnerability fosters a bridge of compassion and kindness for what she might be feeling. And even small bridges take us to new paths. We begin rethinking our thinking; cultivating new acceptance and respect for what may have previously been unacceptable. And now we are taking the necessary baby steps to the elevator of a new paradigm.
In season 1, episode 4 (2020), Olivia explains that it is extremely difficult being an autistic girl and getting diagnosed. This is because, she says, there’s no criteria for girls, only boys, and so, “…You get assessed on how male you are” (12:29). This was a candidly real moment, and potentially helpful for parents of a child who is yet to be diagnosed.
The matter of how participants are being matched and with whom is a gray zone that may be connected to bias. Many of the participants are explicit in their interest for dating only fellow autistics, because of relatability. A couple of the autistic female participants go on dates with allistics, but there is no spark. Per his own request, Michael attends a speed dating event (2021) that has both autistic and allistics. He chats with three women while there. We learn through the narrator that one is autistic, the others are not. Michael likes all three, but it is up to the women to confirm their interest for it to be considered a match; he waits to hear from the event’s coordinator. It turns out that his interest was only reciprocated by the autistic woman, Heather, and this gives Michael a brief pause, while the camera focuses on him. We cannot fault the other two women; it is all about chemistry after all. Yet it did create a question in my mind as to who is choosing the matches and what the parameters were. While Michael requested to attend that event, are all the other participants given the choice? Whether or not this is an actual issue or something that is not detailed in the show, remains unclear. It may simply be irrelevant within the scope of this paper, due to the inherent speculation that arises from a gray zone.
LOTS is helping to queer normal, and neuronormative concepts around what autism is and how it presents. Additionally, by seeing other people’s struggle, and finding common ground through the search for love, I believe it may offer the spaciousness for neurotypicals to be a little more themselves, and to loosen their grip on perfection.
While LOTS can do better in their application of neuropositive language, I felt a definite underlying intention of neuropositivity in each episode. The director (who is also the cameraman) does an excellent job showing the highs and lows of autistics looking for love. Their struggle is relatable and that has nothing to do with neurotype; dating is difficult and awkward no matter who you are. This relatability creates connection, taking the viewer outside of any Othering that may have been there, replacing it with fellowship. We all want love, and finding it is never easy. There is no normal, and we are all more alike than we thought.
O’Clery, C. (Director, Creator). (2019) Love on the spectrum. [TV series]. Northern Pictures; Netflix.
O’Clery, C. (Director, Creator). (2020) Episode #1.1. (Season 1, Episode 1). [TV series episode]. Love on the spectrum. Northern Pictures; Netflix.
O’Clery, C. (Executive Director). (2021) Episode #2.1. (Season 2, Episode 1). [TV series episode]. Love on the spectrum. Northern Pictures; Netflix.
Walker, N. (2021). Neurodiversity: Some basic terms and definitions Neuroqueer. https://neuroqueer.com/neurodiversity-terms-and-definitions/