Photo: a couple in the outdoors, one laying on their back with their head in the others lap as they sit cross-legged with their back to the camera.

I do not know a single autistic person who has worked up the courage to watch the show “Love on the Spectrum.”

That’s not to say that none have – just that I do not personally know any.

Why would an autistic person have to work up the courage to watch a “sweet” show about autistic people dating?

Because of two words: inspiration porn.

Mariah Nichols with Unpacking Disability defines inspiration porn as:

“1. Definition of Inspiration Porn: “Inspiration porn is the portrayal of people who experience disability as inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability.” (wikipedia)

“It doesn’t celebrate us; it makes you pity us and/or feel guilted into trying harder or doing more for yourself.

“It objectifies us.

“We’re more than our disabilities BUT we are very much our disabilities! Our disabilities are very much a part of who we are!

“Most of us don’t want the disability aspect of ourselves negated, minimized or expanded. It simply exists. So, don’t make us more or less than we actually are, and don’t say it doesn’t matter when it does.”

Why is a show like Love on the Spectrum in the category of inspiration porn, especially when there is no shortage of dating shows featuring people of predominantly neurotypical brain types?

Because those other dating shows focus on the normal activity of dating without centering it around a person’s neurotype, as Love on the Spectrum does.

From my understanding (as, again, I have not watched and probably will never watch this show, as I do not want to be triggered by it) the show features exclusively autistic people who are set up on dates together, given dating advice, and have their interactions and dates and experiences filmed.

Neurotypical people who I have spoken to, who have watched the show, describe it as “wholesome” and “sweet” and couldn’t imagine why an autistic person might be scared to watch it. It is described as “feel good.”

But the fact that the show makes autistic people uneasy and neurotypical people feel good should be all you need to know about whether or not it is inspiration porn.

And while autistic people can absolutely do well dating other autistic people, this show seems to imply that we can, or should, only date each other. It seems to separate us from “normal” people, posing us as forever-innocent creatures, who should only be dating one another, and perpetuates harmful and inaccurate perceptions about us.

Firstly, autistic people can and do interact with and date neurotypical, non-autistic people. What’s more, it does not make the neurotypical person a “hero” for dating an autistic person, nor does it make the neurotypical person immoral or automatically predatory for dating an autistic person.

People only think a neurotypical person is a “hero” or a predator for dating an autistic person when they view the autistic person as a charity case or as infantile and defenseless.

It seems to be implicit in the premise of the show, given that the autistic participants are only being set up with other autistic people, that we can’t or shouldn’t be dating non-autistic people.

Secondly, the show isn’t about the normal human behavior of dating, it is about specifically autistic people dating. There is simply no equivalent for this in other dating shows.

Just based purely on statistics, every other dating show that has ever aired has most likely included a predominance of neurotypical, non-autistic contestants and participants, simply because there are more non-autistic people in the world than there are autistic.

You also can’t tell just by looking at someone whether or not they are autistic. If you could, neuropsychiatric evaluations for autism wouldn’t take six hours, involving multiple standardized tests with controls built in, interviews with relatives who have known the person being evaluated their whole lives, and wouldn’t take several weeks of analysis following testing to finally arrive at a diagnosis. People nevertheless like to believe that they can observe someone for five minutes or less and know whether or not they’re autistic, but that’s just not the case.

My point being? On these other dating shows, there have undoubtedly been some (probably undiagnosed) autistic contestants and participants, people that no one suspected were autistic (maybe only regarded as “quirky” or “weird”) so these other shows are not equivalent to ‘Love on the Spectrum’ because they do not exclusively focus on having neurotypical participants only.

That is what makes ‘Love on the Spectrum’ so unique. It plucks autistic people from their lives (obviously, or hopefully, will full informed consent, but still), sets them down in front of a camera, and spectates them as though they are animals in an exhibit.

All of that said, because of differences in social communication, autistic people are statistically at much higher risk for every form of abuse, and much of this happens at the intersection where autistic and neurotypical people meet. I know this has been the case with me.

Behavior, mannerisms, facial expressions, tones of voice, unspoken rules – these represent the most important aspects of neurotypical social communication. These also represent aspects of social communication that are very, very different in autistic social communication.

As autistic people, we rely, almost notoriously, on the literal meaning of words. We are known to take people at face value and to trust that how someone presents themselves is how they really are. It is not that we are forever-children or forever-innocent, but that we operate using very different social communication parameters from non-autistic people.

Therefore, it is easy for predators to pull the wool over our eyes and take advantage of us and harm us.

But that does not make all neurotypical people predatory in relationships with autistic people, and that is not what I am suggesting. It just means that autistic people are more susceptible to neurotypical predation than other neurotypical people who might otherwise pick up somewhere in the unspoken social cues that a person is a predator or that they are in danger.

As stated previously, neurotypical people are neither heroes nor automatically predators simply for dating autistic people. But shows like ‘Love on the Spectrum’ might create that perception. And that is a pretty gross perception to create, because it is so warped, and so based on ableism.

I am an autistic person. I wasn’t diagnosed/discovered as autistic until the age of 34. That means that for my entire life up to that point, I did not understand why I so regularly missed the red flags that should have alerted me to the fact that someone was manipulating me or abusing me until it was too late. And I did receive an inordinate amount of abuse from romantic partners, compared to my non-autistic friends, because of those social communication differences causing me not to sense the danger I was in.

Predators love vulnerable people. And when there is such a vast chasm of difference between the neurotypical social language and autistic social language, this does make autistic people vulnerable. But we are not vulnerable because we are just little defenseless lambs, as a show like ‘Love on the Spectrum’ might portray us.

Instead, we are vulnerable because in our social communication language, we are direct, up front, largely honest, and literal, things that can be easily and overtly seen and known, and neurotypical communication relies on things which are virtually invisible to us – euphemisms and sayings whose implied meanings don’t match up with their literal meanings, tacit understandings of unspoken social rules that “everybody just knows,” nuanced facial expressions, tone of voice, body language.

Perhaps it is unfair to call autistic social communication honest and to call neurotypical communication dishonest, because those are highly charged words. Perhaps it would be better to describe them as direct and implied, respectively. But however we describe them, it is clear that these differences set the stage for possible exploitation, if someone prone to exploiting others becomes aware of these differences and the vulnerability they create.

So, does ‘Love on the Spectrum’ have a point, then? Should autistic people only date other autistic people, in order to protect them from possible exploitation and abuse?

My answer? Hard no.

First of all, while studies (and my personal experience) bear out that autistic people are routinely very moral and honest and not inclined towards exploitation and manipulation, it is important not to idealize all autistic people as angels who never do any wrong. We are human, and we are diverse. Some autistic people can have co-occurring mental health conditions, even substance abuse conditions, previous trauma or other personal factors that might contribute to them mistreating others. In other words, it is unfair to say that neurotypical partners are the only ones ever committing abuse, and this needs to be noted before I go further.

But on the whole, this type of exploitation does tend to stem from the blind spot we as autistic people have – that we assume that everyone is presenting themselves accurately and honestly – and the neurotypical tendency to rely on implications and unspoken understandings rather than literal presentations.

And again, I am not saying that all neurotypicals are predators, but I am saying that if a neurotypical person happened to be a predatory type of person, and they noticed that someone believed them and gave them the benefit of the doubt when they presented a false image of themselves, they would be highly likely to exploit that blind spot.

So having said that, why don’t I think it’s a bad idea for autistic people and neurotypical people to date? Because autistic people, and neurotypical people, for that matter, are capable of learning.

I have had my natural trust taken advantage of many times in my love life. I have been betrayed, abused, manipulated. And now, I know better than to take anything at face value when it comes to dating. Because I can learn.

And neurotypical people can also learn. They can learn what the differences are between their own social communication and autistic social communication and do their part to help bridge the gap.

And when that gap is bridged, beautiful partnerships can occur. We can learn so much from each other. We can each bring unique strengths to the table. Autistic people can open their non-autistic partner’s eyes to ways of thinking and being in the world that they would not have considered otherwise, and vice versa.

Where there is sufficient love and respect and willingness to meet the other person where they’re at, incredibly successful unions are possible between autistic and neurotypical people. And this enriches and unifies our human family – bridging the gap between neuro types, weaving together a diverse tapestry of human potential.

It can also be incredibly cathartic, speaking from experience, to date other autistic people. I’m not trying to beat the drum only for autistic/neurotypical relationships in saying everything I have so far. I am just trying to point out that while there are pros and cons to different neuro types dating, it is untrue to assume that autistic people can, or should, only date other autistic people.

My first husband was also autistic. We had an instant rapport. We spoke the same social communication language. We showed our love by taking long walks and info dumping to one another about our favorite subjects, studying together, exploring together. We “got” each other in a very natural way. The only issue with us was that while we had the same strengths, we also had the same weaknesses. We were both undiagnosed as autistic when we were married and were both trying our hardest to succeed in a neurotypical world, according to neurotypical standards. We both needed more support than we realized, and were unable to give each other that support. We are still great friends, but we couldn’t sustain our relationship without the supports we didn’t even know at the time that we needed.

Had we had the proper support and accommodations, perhaps we could have sustained it. So I would add the caveat that if autistic people date other autistic people, support needs absolutely should be taken into consideration.

And support needs should be taken into consideration with autistic/neurotyoical pairings, too.

What I have experienced in my autistic/neurotypical relationships up to this point has been that my neurotypical partner, especially when I was undiagnosed as an autistic person, became, essentially, not just my romantic partner, but also my carer. When I didn’t understand what accommodations and support I needed in order to navigate life as an autistic person in a predominantly non-autistic world, those accommodations usually fell to my partner, simply out of necessity.

I am actually going through my second divorce right now, this time with a neurotypical partner. While I won’t go into our personal details and reasons for divorce, I will say that when we got together and got married and had children, we were both completely unaware of the fact that I am autistic. I was still in full masking and coping and survival mode when we met, trying my hardest to “fake it until you make it” as a neurotypical person that I would never be.

It wasn’t until several years into our marriage, when we suspected our son of being autistic and had him evaluated, that I was also evaluated, and diagnosed.

I was only diagnosed as autistic three years ago and it has changed the entire paradigm of how I relate to myself and to the world around me. I am still processing it. And this will be the first time in my life that I am going to go forth as a single person while also having the knowledge that I am autistic.

But when I do date again, I know it will be different. I am armed with the correct understanding of myself, in the correct context. My blind spots are no longer blind spots in quite the same way. And while I haven’t magically acquired the ability to read neurotypical social subtext, or accurately decipher nuanced facial expressions, tones of voice or body language, I at least am aware that I struggle with these things now. I am at least aware that I cannot safely take people at their word or at face value, and that I need to be more careful and observant when getting to know someone.

When I date, I will go into it not only understanding the accommodations and support I need, but actually having those accommodations, myself. I will not have to make my partner, whether they are autistic or not, into my carer (though having said that, that was never something I did knowingly or consciously in former relationships – rather it was something that evolved naturally from needs becoming apparent and those partners that weren’t abusive wanting to meet those needs.)

And I know one thing for sure – I do not want to date someone who regards themselves as “woke” or a “hero” or “morally evolved” just because they are dating me, an autistic person. I do not want to be patronized, idolized, infantalized, and I certainly don’t ever intend to be abused again. And it would be easier to achieve these goals in a world where shows like ‘Love on the Spectrum’ weren’t warping the narrative surrounding neurodivergent love.

Autistic people are so much more than the contracted narratives the media, and society, clings to, and we are also far more diverse and individual than these narratives permit. I know speaking from experience, I am hyper-empathetic. I feel deeply. I love deeply. I have an almost overly varied tone of voice. I have a strong desire for connection with others. I have a deep love for the arts, music, poetry. I shatter a lot of the stereotypes of what autistic people should look like, and yet I am very much autistic, and this does very much inform my dating experiences.

It’s impossible to say that love is this way or that way for all autistic people because we’re all so individual. There are asexual and aromantic autistic people, and there are heterosexual and very romantic autistic people. There are queer autistic people, there are trans autistic people, there are cis autistic people. There are speaking autistic people, semi-speaking autistic people, and non-speaking autistic people. There are autistic people with intellectual disabilities and autistic people without intellectual disabilities. There are autistic people with co-occurring ADHD and there are autistic people without. There are autistic people with comorbid physical and mental conditions and autistic people without. There are autistic people with high support needs and autistic people with medium support needs and autistic people with low support needs.

We are a vast panorama of human diversity every bit as much as neurotypical people. Just as we can’t say love is always one way or another for neurotypical people, because each is so individual, we can’t say that for autistic people. And again, I haven’t seen Love on the Spectrum, but from what I have heard of it, it does attempt to portray autistic love as being just one way, when it is so much more nuanced, and when it is often shared with members of another neurotype; not just within our own.

So I caution anyone reading this to take that show with a giant block of salt, and to realize that autistic people are human. We are differently human, but we are human. We don’t want to be applauded or patronized for doing basic human things like dating. We simply want cultural exchange, for neurotypicals to make an effort to understand our social communication language as much as we try to understand theirs. We want the respect to be treated as equal in our humanity.

And we want and deserve love, just like anybody else.

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