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Two Shows Portray Autistic Relationships With Sensitivity

"Love on the Spectrum" and "As We See It" show that autistic people want love.

Key points

  • Contrary to stereotypes, surveys have found that most autistic people want romantic relationships and many have been in one before.
  • Of those in relationships, one survey found that autistic people reported more satisfaction when in a relationship with someone on the spectrum.
  • "Love on the Spectrum" and "As We See It" manage to capture these facts in a sweet and entertaining way.

A common belief about autistic people is that they are less interested in relationships and social contact than non-autistic people. But, as psychologists Vikram Jaswal and Nameera Akhtar have argued, this is probably a misconception. Instead, autistic people may just express their social interests differently than non-autistic people.

One source of this misconception may be how autism is portrayed in movies and TV, which I've written about before. Autistic roles have generally been narrowly defined, offering a limited view of what autism means to people whose primary exposure to the condition is through media.

However, this is changing, as evidenced by two recent and lovely shows that serve to broaden the scope of autism portrayals and increase representation of autistic people on TV.

"Love on the Spectrum".
Source: Netflix

The first is "Love on the Spectrum," an Australian show that released its second season on Netflix in 2021 (an American version is planned for 2022). It's a dating show in which (mostly) everyone is autistic. What makes the show so wholesome and a joy to watch is that it's not a competition, and the producers are mostly there to observe and help when they can, not drum up drama. In other words, don't expect "The Bachelor."

The dates are sometimes cringingly hard to watch. After all, the show is almost entirely blind first dates. Some are rough. But some of them go great, and you get to see the start of a burgeoning relationship.

Surveys Show That Autistic People Want Romantic Relationships

"Love on the Spectrum" is a sweet and vivid illustration of what several past surveys have shown about how autistic people feel about relationships. Contrary to the stereotype that autistic people aren't interested in others, most want romantic relationships.

For example, in 2016, a team of psychologists led by Sandra Strunz conducted a survey of autistic people from both an outpatient clinic and an online German forum popular in the autistic community. After screening for those who scored above a threshold on a test of autistic symptoms known as the Autism Spectrum Quotient and excluding those who hadn't received a professional diagnosis, 31 patients from the clinic and 198 online participants were included (they ranged in age from 18-58 with a mean age of 35).

Overall, 73 percent of respondents said they were currently in a relationship or had been in one before (44 percent said they were currently in a relationship).

These results largely agree with a similar 2017 survey of 675 autistic adults and adolescents in the Netherlands led by Jeroen Dewinter. The researchers asked the autistic people to take a previously used survey on gender identity, sexuality, and relationships, which allowed for comparison with a large (8,000+) control group.

Consistent with the 2016 survey, the researchers found that about half of the autistic respondents said they were currently in a relationship, though this number was lower than in the control group (70 percent). Of the autistic respondents not in a relationship, 29 percent regretted being single, supporting the idea that most autistic people want social contact, and romantic relationships in particular.

Amazon Prime Video
"As We See It".
Source: Amazon Prime Video

"As We See It," which debuted earlier this year on Amazon Prime, is another recent show to prominently feature adult autistic relationships. The show, created by Jason Katims, is about three young adults with autism, played by autistic actors, who share an apartment and a behavior aide; the show was inspired partly by Katims's experiences with his own autistic son. Throughout the show's first season, all three of the autistic main characters struggle in their own ways with dating, love, and friendship. One way in which the show excels is in depicting a wide array of autistic experiences within a single show: Sometimes even the autistic characters have trouble relating to and understanding each other's quirks and personalities.

Autistic People Report Being More Satisfied in Relationships with Other Autistic People

Sue Ann Pien delivers the strongest performance as Violet, an autistic young woman who desperately wants to be seen as "normal" and to find a boyfriend. Her rocky journey eventually leads her to stubbornly accept that an autistic friend may be a more compatible partner than the non-autistic men she insists on pursuing.

Violet’s experience is supported by survey research. The 2016 survey found that autistic people who were in relationships with someone on the spectrum were more satisfied in their relationships than those in relationships with someone not on the spectrum (an average difference of about 20 on a 196-point test of relationship satisfaction).

In their article arguing against the misconception that autistic people aren't interested in social contact, Jaswal and Akhtar open with the following quote from Owen Suskind (taken from Ron Suskind's book, Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism):

"The way people see autistic folks is that they don’t want to be around other people. That’s wrong. The truth about autistic people is that we want what everyone else wants, but we are sometimes misguided and don’t know how to connect with other people."

More expansive representation in TV and movies (especially great TV like "Love on the Spectrum" and "As We See It") can only help non-autistic people to better understand this.