‘Love On The Spectrum’ EPs Cian O’Clery & Karina Holden On Neurodiverse Representation For A “Character-Led Show At Its Heart”

For a long time, there was a very stereotypical representation of what autism looked like in traditional media. For Cian O’Clery and Karina Holden, Love on the Spectrum was a perfect opportunity to showcase a diverse cast of neurodivergent people. “It’s important to be able to have people tell their own stories and show that autism is something that represents different needs for different people,” says Holden.

Based on the Australian series of the same name, Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum follows a neurodiverse group of people on the autism spectrum as they navigate the world of dating and relationships. Although the series doesn’t follow the typical American reality show format, O’Clery and Holden have been thrilled with the reception from fans and the level of support every cast member has been given.

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'Love on the Spectrum'
David and Abbey in ‘Love on the Spectrum’

DEADLINE: What was the journey to bring the series from Australia to the U.S.?

KARINA HOLDEN: It’s been six, seven years, so it’s been a long journey, but what was brilliant is when Netflix came on board and the Australian series launched in 2020, it was amazing to see how the global audience embraced the concept. And the American series that we’ve been producing is so true to what we originally created.

CIAN O’CLERY: When we were asked to make a U.S. season of something, we had some little concerns that they might want to put some bells and whistles on it and change up the tone and style to make it feel bigger, but Netflix was just a really great partner in supporting us telling the stories in the way that we did in the Australian series. We’ve been telling character-led stories in a certain way for a while, and I think one of the great things about this series, and the way we tell it, is that we do have rules in how we tell the stories and what the grammar is.

What’s probably different to some shows in the reality space is that we allow our scenes to speak for themselves. We don’t interrupt them with interviews that we shoot later on that then help us to tell a story. Our scenes are all self-contained, and if we do jump out to hear from somebody, it’s only from an interview in the moment, and it’s only at a time when somebody maybe walks away or there’s a shift within the space itself. So, we like to follow the grammar that we have done in the previous series as well and it’s served us well so far. It’s hard making a series that still engages an audience in this market where we have so much content, and where we don’t have conflict and we don’t have competitions and we don’t have villains. It’s because of the cast, whose stories are just so unique and interesting and engaging, that we are able to keep the series a character-led show at its heart.

'Love on the Spectrum'
Journey in ‘Love on the Spectrum’

DEADLINE: How did you find the cast?

O’CLERY: Imagine the way you would cast a usual typical reality series, and we do everything completely different. We cast it as a team of producers, so we don’t actually hire a separate casting team who does all of the work and then sends you tapes. We actually put out a call ourselves. We basically try and get the word out to as many people as possible that we’re looking for people who might be interested in dating and looking for love, and might want a bit of support along the way. And we put the word out through autism organizations, social groups, individuals, experts in the field, influencers in the autism community, whoever. We get a lot of people writing in and really wanting to be part of the series, which is great and it just shows that there’s a want and a need out there from a lot of people on the spectrum who want to date and find love and relationships.

HOLDEN: I think the other thing that’s really important in that casting process is making sure that the representation of autism is really broad. Until recently, and it’s through series like Love on the Spectrum in particular that this is changing, there’s been a sense that autism looks a certain way, and it’s important to be able to have people tell their own stories and show that autism is something that represents different needs for different people. There’s a lot of people who operate very independently who want to date neurodiverse people, or neurotypical people, who have as many wants and needs as diverse as the spectrum itself. So, that’s something that we really have to take into consideration as well in wanting to make sure that the show itself is something that increases the move away from the stereotypical view of what autism is.

O’CLERY: The best thing for us is being able to present all these different voices and all this incredibly diverse group of people that are real people on the spectrum that have not really been represented in traditional media. And what’s so great about it too is that the cast is being so loved and adored by audiences around the world just for being themselves, and that there’s people now who are reality stars, who are autistic characters from Love on the Spectrum.

HOLDEN: Especially that journey for some of them who have been bullied and misunderstood, and now to have the support of an entire country and, in some places, be globally recognized because they have this desire for love and they have the support of this production team around them as they’re going on this dating journey. They have their dreams out there for us to all experience and people are rooting for them in such a positive way, and I think it’s increased so much confidence in the people who participate in the show.

O’CLERY: When we first started filming with Abbey, one of the things her mom said that was quite striking was that she was really worried and scared that people would see Abbey walking down the street talking to herself, acting a little bit different, and that people would cross the street to avoid her and look away. And she was afraid that when she’s not around, that Abbey’s not going to be okay because people don’t understand. And to go from that thought to now people are running up and saying, “Abbey, I love you, you’re amazing!” That just shows what this kind of representation can do, and other people who are behaving in a way that maybe neurotypical people haven’t been that familiar with are hopefully going to be more accepted through the representation in the show.

'Love on the Spectrum'
Connor in ‘Love on the Spectrum’

DEADLINE: One thing that I find really interesting is kind of a willingness to get involved on your part. For example, Cian, when you mentioned to Connor that he shouldn’t mark people down as a no while they are sitting in front of him at speed dating. Could you talk about having that connection to the cast?

O’CLERY: It’s an interesting thing because when we first made the series, we didn’t plan on us necessarily being involved from behind the camera. It just sort of happened that way, and there’s just the occasional time where you feel like it’s probably a good moment to mention something or let somebody know something and it just felt right at the time. That’s definitely a moment I think people really resonate with in the series. He’s dating for the very first time in his life, and he doesn’t know the rules and he’s not sure how to do things. It just felt like the right thing to do, to mention that at the time and to not let him keep going with it, without maybe having a little hint that it could be affecting his speed dating chances.

HOLDEN: I think that you’ll notice also that Cian would never intervene in the middle of a date or change the dynamic of somebody trying to navigate their relationship. But when there’s a break and someone leaves the table, he’s just checking in with them. It’s like having a wingman with you really. I think that’s the role of the director there, because he’s shooting as well as directing and he’s formed a relationship where these are people who he’s built trust with and he’s spent time with their family and it’s just being able to check in and make sure that they’re reflecting on what’s happening in a positive way, and letting them know that if they need help that they can ask for it. In some ways, it’s an extension of the duty of care that kind of crept its way onto screen, because it also revealed a truth for that person.

DEADLINE: You mentioned having this diverse cast of neurodivergent people, what do you think that’s done to combat this idea of the stereotypical “one type of autistic person” that we usually see represented in media?

O’CLERY: Representation and understanding has really changed a lot in recent years. When we first started making the series, it was still pretty much just Rain Man and I think The Good Doctor had just started, but there was not much at all. Things have changed a lot, even just since we started making the series, but what better way to raise awareness and understanding that it’s a super diverse condition than having a series with so many people that the audience is getting to know.

HOLDEN: I think that it’s showing that there are people who embrace their condition and see it as part of their identity. They don’t see it as a disability. The spectrum’s really wide. There are people who have autism, who have really high needs and who go through life with a lot of support, who are nonverbal and struggle with a lot of situations. I think that that whole idea of changing words like disability and moving things to condition, and seeing things as a difference… We’ve had some really great young people who have talked about it, inspiring people who’ve been given this diagnosis not to be fearful of it and to embrace the difference. The diagnosis that you might get isn’t such a terrible thing, and it could be something quite unique to yourself.

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