Anne Hegerty and dismantling autism stereotypes

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Credit: ITV / Rex Features

Lewis Paterson
Online Editor

“I’m just really, really close to saying I can’t do this.” Those were the words of The Chase star Anne Hegerty on her first night in the I’m a Celeb jungle, who emotionally explained to her campmates her own experience of Asperger’s syndrome in day-to-day life and how it made participation in the show challenging for her. Hegerty’s honesty garnered sympathy and praise from many quarters, and her openness about autism on what is a highly popular reality show was inspirational for other individuals struggling to deal with and explain their own autism.

But this exposure on national TV is interesting in another way too – the way that it subverts the traditional idea of what an autistic person is. Anne Hegerty is a middle-aged woman, not the presumed stereotype of someone with autism: they are often imagined as nerdy white boys, who spend all their time thinking about numbers and stats rather than seeking any interaction with the outside world. By appearing on I’m a Celeb and being open about her autism, Hegerty is not just giving autistic people a platform on a wider stage, she is changing the public perception of what an autistic person actually is.

What benefits can this bring? For one, women with autism are woefully underdiagnosed. In 2015, the National Autistic Society found that there was a 5:1 ratio of boys to girls in their schools. There have been different reasons given for this inequality, including that the process for diagnosis is weighted toward the male profile for autism rather than the female and that girls are better at “fitting in” and masking their autistic traits than boys. Whatever the case, the issue is known and needs to be dealt with so more autistic women can get a diagnosis and begin to feel more comfortable and knowledgeable about who they actually are. This might also allow them to get support that can let them live their life to its fullest. Hegerty herself was not diagnosed with Asperger’s until she was 45, and this experience is not uncommon – how many more autistic women are suffering in silence because they know they are “different” but do not quite understand how?

But Anne Hegerty is not the only high-profile figure to speak openly about their autism in the media recently. This summer, Love Island contestant Niall Aslam left the show early on for unexplained “personal reasons”, which came as a shock to many. He later revealed his reasons in a heartfelt Instagram post, which were that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s as a child and that it caused him to feel “out of place”. Niall’s appearance on the show again broke down harmful stereotypes associated with autism: to viewers, he seemed socially confident and attractive, and not at all a outcast who would be separate from the rest of society. His appearance and subsequent reveal of his autism helps show to the world that there is not one universal “type” of autistic person – everyone is unique and deserves to be viewed based on their individuality, rather than their autism.

Another important note from Niall’s public declaration is that it also means he is a person of colour with autism. Famous people with autism are overwhelmingly white (and male), and from my own personal experience, almost every other autistic person I have met in my life has been white. Considering the demographics of our society, this should not be the case. According to the National Autistic Society, parents of a minority background often face barriers and discrimination in getting their children diagnosed. This issue is perhaps less-discussed than the one of diagnosing autism in women, but is just as important in order to ensure that all groups of people get the understanding of their mind they are entitled to.

Both Anne Hegerty and Niall Aslam’s frank accounts of their own condition have and will continue to go some way in breaking down the stereotypes associated with autism, but more needs to be done. We need to continue giving platforms for autistic people to be forthright about their lives, and for marginalised groups to be better diagnosed and represented. Ultimately, this is the best way we can stop the stereotypes and begin a greater acceptance of the full range of autistic people in our society.