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'Love on the Spectrum' shows what dating can be like for people with autism

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A new show on Netflix chronicles the challenges of dating for people on the autism spectrum.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOVE ON THE SPECTRUM U.S.")

KAELYNN PARTLOW: No.

ABBEY ROMEO: Everyone is different...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Correct.

ROMEO: ...Whether you're on the spectrum or not.

JENNIFER COOK: We are, however, all looking for the same thing - respect, understanding and a whole lot of love.

PFEIFFER: "Love On The Spectrum U.S." is the American version of a documentary series first launched in Australia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOVE ON THE SPECTRUM U.S.")

CIAN O'CLERY: What age were you diagnosed with autism?

PARTLOW: I was 10.

O'CLERY: And what does it mean for you?

PARTLOW: It definitely - it affects my social interactions, and that's kind of, I think, contributed to my dating life and how it's so difficult.

PFEIFFER: That's Kaelynn Partlow of Greenville, S.C. She's one of the participants on the show. You heard her talking with "Love On The Spectrum" creator Cian O'Clery. I spoke with both of them. And one of the things I asked Cian O'Clery is why it was important for him to make this show.

O'CLERY: When we were pitching the series, "Love On The Spectrum" to the public broadcaster here in Australia, some of the initial reactions were, oh, you want to make a whole series just with people on the spectrum? Isn't it going to feel same-same? Isn't it going to feel - you know? So - and that was the - kind of the point of making the series was - what people's hesitations were was that, no, it's not going to feel the same because there's a huge diversity within the autism community. And that's the most important thing, you know? For me, that's the most important thing we can do - is help audiences understand the diversity of autism and that you can't make assumptions about somebody because of a label, you know? Everybody's so very different.

PFEIFFER: Kaelynn, you're featured in this series, so the public is following along on your dating adventures. And that meant sharing a lot about your dating life and what you would like in a romantic relationship. Why did you want to be part of the show?

PARTLOW: I think for me, part of the reason I wanted to participate was to be able to show everybody part of the, I guess, diversity of the autism spectrum. I think there's a lot of misconceptions about what autism looks like, especially in the media. And I think "Love On The Spectrum" does a phenomenal job at highlighting the differences just between individuals who maybe share the same diagnosis but it presents in different ways.

PFEIFFER: How do you think the media portrays it? It sounds like you don't think the media does that well.

PARTLOW: Generally not. I think they often use white males, and kind of the stereotype is that they have advanced IQs and have advanced abilities in different skill areas. Most people on the spectrum have average intelligence. Most people on the spectrum are not savants and do not have some, you know, gifted abilities in a certain skill area. But the media - you know, think "Big Bang Theory" or "The Good Doctor" or "The Accountant" are some that come to mind where people are extraordinarily gifted. And that does happen, but kind of the narrative is the same. And I think "Love On The Spectrum" does a great job at highlighting that, I think, maybe what it really is rather than what we might wish it to be.

PFEIFFER: Cian, as I watched your show, I often wondered how much editing was involved and whether you edited the film in a way that emphasized people's differences because they're autistic. What's your filmmaking approach there?

O'CLERY: No, no. I mean, it's - sure, you can, I guess, emphasize certain things in an edit or take certain things away. But for us, the most important thing is that it feels like a truthful representation of the person who we've been filming. And, you know, we get to know people well. And, to me, they're the most important critics of the show, and hopefully everybody's happy with how the edit has been. But, you know, we're not sitting in edit suites trying to kind of make people look a certain way. We're just trying to portray them as truthfully as possible.

PFEIFFER: Kaelynn, I think you've pointed out in the past that many people have described you as high-functioning autistic, not what they think the stereotype of someone with autism would be. What do you think when you hear people describe you that way?

PARTLOW: Generally, I think when people say high functioning, what they really mean is that somebody has strong abilities in their language - so they understand a lot of language, and they're able to express a lot of language. But that doesn't necessarily account for a lot of other skill areas - so social skills, maintaining relationships, knowing what to say and when to say it, or how to say it, even. Executive functioning - so time management, self management - that's always been a struggle for me.

PFEIFFER: Kaelynn, in one episode, your roommate says it can be challenging for you to find someone who doesn't write you off based on your diagnosis - that's how she put it. How do you think your autism affects your dating life?

PARTLOW: I think we talked about it briefly in the series, where I had kind of encountered some negative responses when disclosing my diagnosis to people early on as it relates to dating.

PFEIFFER: Meaning the relationship ended as soon as you mentioned it?

PARTLOW: It did, yeah.

PFEIFFER: Oh, that's - oh, that's sad.

PARTLOW: When I went on that date with the firefighter, I had disclosed my diagnosis, and he basically stood up and walked away.

PFEIFFER: Really?

PARTLOW: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: How do you decide, by the way, when to try to introduce that to a relationship?

PARTLOW: What I think I would like to do, in an ideal world, is get to know the person and give them an opportunity to get to know me. By the time I would be able to disclose, they would already be comfortable with me and have enough information and be comfortable, I guess, enough to ask clarifying questions.

PFEIFFER: And do you feel like that's working?

PARTLOW: Theoretically.

(LAUGHTER)

O'CLERY: Can I actually just jump back and say something about Kaelynn and what...

PFEIFFER: Please.

O'CLERY: ...She was talking about just now?

PFEIFFER: Please.

O'CLERY: Kaelynn being a part of a series like this is going to change that - only maybe a little bit for now, but it's incremental changes. And that's why we - you know, for me, as somebody who's kind of putting this out there and hoping that people respond to it and understand it, what I really hope is that those misconceptions do get slowly broken down and taken away because it shouldn't be the case that if Kaelynn tells somebody straight away that she's on the spectrum, that there's a judgment there and that they get up and walk away, you know? So hopefully, the more people understand about the diversity of the spectrum, that those misconceptions can be kind of torn down. That's the hope, you know?

PFEIFFER: Kaelynn, without giving too much away about how your dating experience went on the show, what have you heard from audiences about your participation in the series?

PARTLOW: I have heard a lot, actually. I have been gaining about 1,000 followers on Instagram every day, and they have been messaging me quite frequently. And a lot of the messages I'm getting are from other autistic women saying that they see a lot of themselves in me. And then I've gotten a couple messages from people saying that watching the show had made them cry because they had never seen somebody who was so relatable to them. And I thought that was really important, and I didn't anticipate getting messages like that. I mean, I thought, you know, people would like it, but I didn't anticipate so many people having such a strong reaction to it in that way, or mothers of autistic children - specifically autistic daughters - saying that their daughter really looked up to me and really admired my participation in the show.

O'CLERY: That's so great, Kaelynn. That's great. And you've probably had a few proposals for...

PARTLOW: Yeah.

O'CLERY: ...Dates online as well?

PARTLOW: Quite a few...

PFEIFFER: (Laughter) Is that true?

PARTLOW: ...Yeah - none of them very intriguing. And a couple of them led themselves to being blocked online just because of the - just excessiveness of it, but yes.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

Kaelynn Partlow is featured on the Netflix show, "Love On The Spectrum," and Cian O'Clery is its creator and director. Thank you to both of you.

PARTLOW: Yeah, thank you.

O'CLERY: Thank you. Thanks for having us. Appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.