When the producers of the Netflix show “Love on the Spectrum” first asked Jodi Rodgers to join, she turned them down. A sexologist and counselor who specializes in autism spectrum disorder, she was reluctant to appear in the series, where her private work helping people navigate the challenges of dating would be made into entertainment.
“Originally I said that there’s no way that I’m going to be filmed doing my work on television because it’s very vulnerable,” Ms. Rodgers said over Zoom from her home in Alstonville, on the east coast of Australia. “I hold my job to a really high standard, and I really believe in developing a genuine relationship with the people that I work with.”
Her concerns were assuaged when she realized she’d have hours to work with each client, though the time seems much shorter once the taped material is edited. “People say, ‘Gee, you did so well in three minutes,’” Ms. Rodgers said. “Or I’ve got somebody saying, ‘How dare you say that to so and so?’ I’m like, ‘That was 30 seconds of our conversation.’”
“We all know the anxiety of first dates,” she said. “We all know how complex it is, how nerve-racking. We all know that we spend hours prior to going out grooming ourselves. Being autistic is not different from the rest of us in that way. But there’s just some innate difficulties that autistic people have in this area.” (She has a forthcoming book on the subject, which will be published by Little Brown Spark.)
In the interview below, which has been edited, Ms. Rodgers spoke about those particular challenges, her techniques for confronting them and what parents can do to support children who are ready to find the one.
Can you describe your approach to counseling people who are on the autism spectrum and want to begin dating?
Before somebody comes to see me, I might find out that they’re really, really into motorbikes. I don’t know anything about motorbikes at all, but what I would do is that in my office, I’ll put a motorbike magazine down, or I’ll put something in the environment that would give us a connection.
With a lot of typical counseling, we would mimic each other. I’d be watching your body language at all times. With an autistic person, you’ve got to throw all that out the window. It’s like being in a foreign culture sometimes. You’ve got to throw away all of your understanding of body language and social skills and really just see that person as their own unique self. It’s so individual the way their autism presents, let alone, you know, their past and culture and gender.
Some people would say something like, “Why are you teaching autistic people neurotypical social skills?” And I’m saying, “I’m not. I’m teaching them what neurotypical people expect of them. I’m not expecting them to act that way.”
What are some areas you focus on with clients?
The presentation of autism is so diverse, it will be very different for every single person. One of the common themes for people that I find is just getting yourself out there.
But then a lot of it is just reading the room. When you’re on a date with another person, you are constantly scanning that person, constantly picking up on the nuance of their body language, facial expressions. Many people that I work with and help on the show really like clear, blunt, straightforward communication.
Part of the neurotypical experience is that when we’re flirting with each other or when we’re trying to give each other a little signal, we don’t just come straight out and go, “Man, I think you are the sexiest person alive.” We, as neurotypical people, do this dance around each other all the time.
The other thing I work with people on is having self-advocacy or self-esteem within those first moments. Being able to express, “here are my communication needs” or “here are things I have difficulty with.” When we go out on a first date, sometimes we don’t want to talk about our flaws or our needs straight away.
How did you get into this work?
What I realized was that when people were leaving school, we weren’t talking about adult relationships. I wanted to kind of get into that. I started working within the community sector, in adult disability services and sexual health counseling and education.
And then I went and got more degrees, a counseling degree and then a master’s in sexual health counseling.
My understanding of sexuality isn’t about the act of sex. My understanding of sexuality is about body image, self-esteem, our capacity to give consent, our capacity to negotiate with an intimate partner, our capacity to compromise with another person.
I think that it leaves a lot of people quite vulnerable and open to abuse. We have really neglected to provide a really good, comprehensive sexuality education and comprehensive relationship education.
How has your life changed since the show premiered?
Before this, I was a therapist working in the office. I didn’t have social media. I was just seeing the same people every day. And now people are interested in what I’ve got to say. I’m getting requests from all over the globe.
I noticed you often use visual aids in your coaching sessions. Why is that?
When I’m drawing, I’m trying to support the learning of people whose preferred way of learning is visual and not auditory.
The other thing with drawing is that, if you and I were doing counseling together, I would sit opposite you like this and we wouldn’t have anything between us. That can be really confronting to an autistic person. If I’ve got my head down and I’m drawing, I don’t put the pressure on somebody else to interact with me socially.
There are so many people whose auditory processing is supported if they’re doing something else. Clicking their fingernails, plaiting their hair. Neurotypical people might say to you, “Stop doodling and listen to me.” But what they’re not understanding is when you’re doodling, that’s helping you to listen.
What are some ways that parents who have neurodiverse children can support them as they enter the dating world?
Sometimes somebody will get to the age where they want to start dating, but they actually can’t even name one friend. Dating is another layer to friendship. It’s kind of pulling people back a little bit. Let’s look at the things we need to do before we can run out and go on a date.
And the other one I always talk to people about is self-confidence. To put yourself out there, to go on dates, and to enter a group to meet people, you have to have a level of confidence to do that.
I ask many autistic people when I first get to know them, “Tell me three things that are great about you,” and often they’ll say something like, “I’m really good at computer games.” No, no, not what are you good at? Name three things that are good about you. It’s really about helping people have a good sense of self-identity.
That’s a great lesson for everyone.
People are attracted to people that say, “I’m a good person and I’ve got lots to offer.” You don’t actually say it. But we show another person that we’re likable because we like ourselves.
For so long, there’s been a cultural understanding that a disabled person is lesser than an able-bodied person. We’ve got to change the narrative. Autistic people have really got a great sense of pride that’s coming through now. They’re talking about autism as a strength and not a disability. But you can’t have a cultural shift of language and you can’t have a cultural shift of perspective unless we’re all doing it.