A Chat About ‘Love On The Spectrum,’ The Greatest Dating Show Ever Made, With Director Cian O’Clery

I don’t say this lightly: Love On The Spectrum might be the greatest dating show ever made. At the very least, it’s the most earnest. So much of the conversation on shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette (and its 27 other spinoffs I can’t keep track of) consists of contestants asking the question: Is he/she here for me?

Which is to say, is this other person on the show really trying to find love or do they just want to be on a show? On virtually all dating shows the question is practically rhetorical. Obviously they’re there to be on a show; otherwise they’d just find love on their own dime and their own time.

By contrast everything about Love on the Spectrum feels like some kind of normal veneer has been torn away. The subjects, all young, autistic Australians, are hoping to find love, without, in some cases, seeming to entirely grasp what that means. As if dating wasn’t hard enough already for the non-autistic, these subjects have a condition whose first defined attribute is “difficulty communicating and interacting with other people.”

It’s impossible not to identify with them, and experience every relationship up and down right along with them. The characters are mostly inexperienced with dating, and seem to have such a detached, God’s eye view of what a relationships even is that going on the journey with them is a little like taking mushrooms. You experience all the things you normally would but with the jadedness of your own experience stripped away, such that the familiar feels brand new — dating as it might be experienced by a baby, or a visitor from another planet.

It also helps the show’s binge-ability that one of autism spectrum disorder’s chief effects seems to be producing fascinating eccentrics. Michael dresses and speaks a bit like a politician, always seeming to be projecting to the back of the room even when he’s just chit-chatting at the dinner table. He’s consistently hilarious, often not on purpose, and can recite Spongebob episodes verbatim. Mark wears a constant, slightly pained smile and is filled with various facts about dinosaurs. Thomas loves being a bus driver, seemingly more content with his job than anyone I know and even more so since he met Ruth, an Earthy animal lover. I watched them all try to find love with a mix of wonder and mortification, so impossible was it not to experience every emotion along with them, at times maybe more intensely than the subjects themselves. You can’t help but want the best for all of them.

Love On The Spectrum was at points heartwarming romance, at others comedy of errors. I can never forget the look on Chloe’s date’s face the moment he accidentally squirted himself in the eye with a lemon while trying to eat salad. It is fascinating, edifying, occasionally hilarious television.

Naturally I wondered how it came about. The awkwardness was at times too intense to watch, I can’t imagine being there to shoot it. And then there are the questions about how it came about, what organizations are helping these characters in their love quests, and the specific challenges of filming those with spectrum disorders. Love On The Spectrum director Cian O’Clery, an award-winning director of multiple previous documentary series, was on location this week but agreed to answer a few of our questions by email.

How did you come up with the idea for this project, and who did you first approach to make it happen?

Having previously made two documentary series telling the stories of people with disabilities looking for employment, we spoke to and worked with many young adults on the autism spectrum. We were hearing from many of them that they wanted to find love but were struggling to meet people to date. Looking into what supports there were for young adults on the spectrum when it comes to dating and relationships, we found there was very little, and felt there was an opportunity to tell these stories. We approached some key autism organizations here in Australia as well as psychologists who specialize in the area, and of course many young adults on the spectrum and their families. This confirmed that the dating and relationships space was one where more support would be very welcome, and that telling these stories would be a positive thing.

What are the specific aspects of being on the spectrum that making dating hard?

I think dating is hard for anyone, and it’s important to make it clear that the autism spectrum is really diverse, each person has their own unique experience. Difficulties with social interaction is one of the more common areas people on the spectrum can struggle with, which can make dating tricky. For the many young autistic adults I’ve met, the most difficult thing seems to be meeting people to date, not necessarily the dating itself. Finding people who are on the same wavelength, maybe share some interests, which can be hard for anyone.

What are some of the organizations that are helping people on the autism spectrum learn these skills?

Again, the autism spectrum is very diverse and plenty of people on the spectrum don’t feel the need for support and have happy healthy dating lives, but many do find support helpful. Teaching social and dating skills is slowly starting to become more common, sometimes it can be government-funded, sometimes it isn’t. Navigating disability services in Australia can be complex. What we found that can be really helpful for many people are social groups and events that help people get together and meet others. Often these are run by parents in their own time, which is why arguably there aren’t enough of them.

As viewers, we care about them all so much that certain moments are kind of mortifying. What was it like to film the ups and downs and awkward moments?

It’s important for us that audiences do care about the participants and their stories, and it’s great that people have been so engaged with them. It’s a credit to them all for being so open, honest, and, well, they’re just nice people! I did feel for people when things weren’t going so well, but we were always making sure people felt as comfortable as possible given the situation. We made it clear that people could put their hand up if they were feeling stressed or overwhelmed, we weren’t pressuring people to keep filming if they weren’t comfortable.

Can you talk about the importance of pop culture to people on the spectrum? I notice most of them were incredible at remembering and mimicking, and sometimes they seemed to struggle with the “off switch” part.

Many people with autism have very strong interests and passions, and yes often pop culture, video games, movies, anime, etc. can be something they are into. But not always. For Mark it’s dinosaurs, and when you get him started talking about them his passion comes out and he can maybe struggle to switch off – but it’s great for people to have a strong interest in something. The way Thomas (from Thomas and Ruth) described it to me recently is that it’s like seeing the things you’re into in technicolour.

I loved the series, and I feel like it was pretty respectful. But when you’re talking about depicting disabled people there’s always the question of whether you’re exploiting them. Did you have any rules or thoughts on how to do it the “right” way?

It’s a good question, and this is something we were acutely aware of throughout the whole production of the series. I think it comes down to one important word that you have referenced: respect. People are people, regardless of a disability or condition they may have, and we treated everyone as we would want to be treated ourselves. When it comes to filming and editing a series like this, there is a line you don’t want to cross, and this line is something you just have to use your judgment about. The most important critics of the series are the participants themselves, and thankfully they are all happy with how we have put the show together.

Did the parents have any qualms about participating? Does that come into play at all? Because you’re dealing with subjects on the spectrum, but they’re also adults, so where do you get the okay from in terms of filming?

Again, good question, and all depends on the participant and their individual situation. If someone lives at home and their family is a big part of their life, absolutely it was important for them to be on board and supportive of the series. Not only were we filming people in their homes, we also wanted to see them with the people they are close to.

Certain characters, like Michael especially, seemed almost hyper-articulate and funny almost in a way that he didn’t realize he was being funny. Did you find yourself trying to put your finger on the missing ingredient on how they relate to others?

I wouldn’t refer to people missing anything, it’s just a different way of seeing things. It is interesting though, Michael loves making people laugh, regardless of whether he is doing it on purpose or not. He says himself, when he tries to be funny, he isn’t, but when he isn’t trying to be funny, he is. And the fact that he likes making people laugh regardless of his intentions means it felt ok to show this, and for audiences to find him funny. If Michael’s happy with it, we’re happy with it.

‘Love On The Spectrum’ is available now on Netflix. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.