On Love on the Spectrum
Over the past week, my wife and I have been watching the Netflix series Love on the Spectrum, an Australian reality show about the dating lives of people living with a variety of conditions that place them on the autism spectrum. I rarely ever watch television—usually my viewing is restricted solely to nature documentaries and other such programs that aid my sense of wonder at the world—and have been hostile to “reality TV” since its very inception. This show, however, provides a fascinating and extraordinarily humane glimpse into lives often hidden from view, and more importantly into details of said lives that many of us would rather ignore.
I’ve long noted that our culture’s increasing sensitivity to, e.g., the word “retarded” maps directly onto the rapid disappearance of neurodivergent and disabled people—intellectually or otherwise—from the public world. The impulse in each case is, I suspect, one and the same, and one that masks a crude, aesthetic desire for cleanliness, purity, and ultimately toward a bourgeois etiquette of politeness—one that the last decade has seen imposed upon our common world with increased aggressiveness—with a pseudo-ethical language of “sensitivity” and “marginalization.” This is not to say, of course, that encouraging kindness toward those different from you—however uncomfortable those differences may be—is wrong, or is in all cases a way of laundering aesthetics through ethics, but one need not be a cynic to recognize that calls for kindness and understanding can be done in bad faith. But just as Phil Ochs noted in 1966 that the average liberal “loves Puerto Ricans and Negroes / as long as they don’t live next door,” middle-class progressive language activism remains a way of signaling good intentions without having to put any chips down. And more often than not, the same right-thinking liberals who inveigh against “the R-word” condone, if not encourage, the eugenic abortion of children with Downs syndrome or other genetic defects.
For “we moderns”—in the Nietzschean sense of the term—the disabled are a wretched reminder of our mortality, of the inherent frailty of bodily existence and the total contingency of our cherished intellectual and physical powers. The beautiful souls of our age detest suffering, believe pain and hardship to be the greatest evils that can be visited upon a person (eternal torment after death now excluded from the realm of possibility), and thus hate being reminded of how little control we really have over the integrity of our bodies and mental faculties. So we push all of these uncomfortable reminders out of sight, and continue to dream our silly dreams of being powerful and whole, like little gods.
In its lovingly unadorned portrayal of life with autism, Love on the Spectrum asks us to reconsider some of the most fundamental assumptions of our “normal” day-to-day lives. 21-year-old Kelvin, a Chinese-Australian living in an apartment with his single father, learns about love and girlfriends from the anime his life revolves around. (Anime and cats are common obsessions for the show’s subjects.) He’s eager to meet people—girls, especially—but his severely stunted social skills afford him dim prospects for romance. So his father arranges a meeting with a relationship counselor who specializes in the difficulties of autism, and what follows is a truly remarkable several minutes of footage. Jodi, the counselor, slowly and patiently walks Kelvin through the otherwise unspoken rules of polite conversation, and Kelvin—up to this point only barely conversational and quite impatient with the documentarians—follows along beautifully, though with difficulty. By the time of his first date—obviously incompatible, but amiable nonetheless—Kelvin has become a courteous and impeccably-dressed suitor, capable of precisely the kind of small talk he was incapable of comprehending just weeks earlier. It’s a startling and inspiring transition, but one woven into most of the subjects’ backstories: 27-year-old Mark was non-verbal until his early teens, but has matured into a deeply kind, articulate, and beautifully optimistic gentleman whose attention to and reverence for the small, beautiful things of life should serve as a model for us all; Chloe, whose autism is matched with deafness, tells a moving story of turning the sadness she felt being bullied by classmates into a loving concern for people like her best friend Broidy, a fellow deaf young woman with Downs syndrome; Olivia didn’t receive an autism diagnosis until her late teens, and channeled her social discomfort into a love of theater acting.
Watching these young people navigate the challenges of social life with intensified but nonetheless familiar problems, I can’t help but ask the question: What the hell is autism? What are its boundaries? The individuals profiled in the series struggle to learn social rules implicitly—but when they’re spelled out for them, they often become masterful interlocutors. I’ve already made a note to include “. . . don’t you think?” into my own conversational repertoire, thanks to Mark. And when I watch Jimmy become apoplectic over the color of the socks he brought on vacation and think: “Maybe not so angry, but how many times have I done something like this?” When it comes to the mind, what is normalcy, what pathology? Here I have no clear answer, and can only stand dumb before the mystery of the question.
I couldn’t help but compare Love on the Spectrum to another recent filmographic inquiry into autism and social alienation, Alex Moyers’ documentary tfw no gf. The film follows a handful of eccentric alt-right adjacent Twitter enthusiasts—liberals writing for billion-dollar media conglomerates might call them “incels”—as they go about their normal day-to-day business: wandering aimlessly through urban landscapes, smoking cigarettes, buying tallboys of malt liquor from the corner store, feeling sorry for themselves, and—of course—using Twitter almost constantly. In the lingua franca of the subculture depicted in tfw no gf, most of them are “autistic”: though only one (Kantbot) has a genuine diagnosis, the others—however ironically—write backwards to a pathology from their awkwardness and isolation.
But if Love on the Spectrum is, subtly, a celebration of the patient work of loving parents—who weep with pride at the strength and resolve of their beautiful children—and of dedicated counselors who devote their professional lives to helping these young adults rise above their challenges as best they can, then tfw no gf is, perhaps entirely accidentally, a celebration of the power of friendship. Just as Mark’s parents and Kelvin’s counselor occasion a broadening of the world and a surmounting of rough circumstances, so too do friends (and in one case, a girlfriend) help pull in tfw no gf. The brothers Charels and Viddy might enable each other’s worst habits and tendencies, but they’re also inseparable friends and sources of support for one another. Depressive, mild-mannered Sean is inspired to lift weights by online comrades, and gains a sense of agency and hope for the future as a consequence. But the transformative influence of friendship is perhaps most beautifully articulated by Kantbot:
“I am not that close to my family, so the idea of belonging to this group or community so you can all work together and create this historical moment that can transcend the limitations of your era, and then create a whole new way of thinking about things, a whole new form of consciousness: that’s what I’ve always wanted to feel with other people.”
Belonging, togetherness, community: a longing to achieve something like this is written deep into the hearts of every human person. Some find it easier satisfied than others, in the family one is born into or in the people they grew up around. Others, for a variety of reasons, find themselves alien to their fellows: maybe due to a simple disharmony of sentiment, or a confusion with custom, or a dogged longing for an indefinite something else that keeps one from feeling satisfied with what they have. “One of the biggest misconceptions that I’ve found about people on the spectrum,” Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson says in Love on the Spectrum, “is that they are perfectly happy not being social, not dating—and that is just very rarely true.” No autist is an island. We are all looking for “each other,” whatever that may mean—and for some, the journey is just a little bit harder.
Joseph M. Keegin is the Society editor. He is a graduate of the St. John's College Graduate Institute (Annapolis) and former teacher currently working as a bookseller in Chicago.