The Media’s Constant Cry That ADHD Isn’t Real is Deliberately Ableist Misinformation

White middle-aged men gatekeeping ADHD is not new, but the floods seem to have opened over the past week and every outlet is suddenly crying out about this “epidemic”.

Except it’s not an epidemic, is it? Because ADHD isn’t an illness, and it’s not true that everyone is suddenly qualifying for a diagnosis.

Most of these articles talk about ADHD being the latest “trendy mental health condition” – but it’s not a mental health condition, showing from the very first sentence that they have no idea. 

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You Don’t get to Change my Identity to Make you Feel Better

What is it with people trying to force toxic positivity into my identity? 

Enabled, different abilities, special abilities, people of determination. The common theme is trying to make my identity into something that doesn’t make non-disabled people uncomfortable.

Society has decided that “disabled” is a negative term. People think it means we’re being down on ourselves, but for many, the term is neither positive nor negative. 

The social model acknowledges that much of what disables us is the barriers put in place, and changing the word we use to describe ourselves is not changing that any time soon.

If anything, changing it places the pressure back on us just to get on with it and push through the barriers in ways that we simply can’t or shouldn’t have to do. 

My identity isn’t going to be twisted for your comfort. Your discomfort comes from the ableism you have been taught, compounded by every aspect of society, and it is your responsibility to unlearn it. 

Why do I need to use polite, nondescript language to be respected?

“Disabled” is a descriptive term, and an accurate one. The idea that using it means I’m putting myself down didn’t come from me – that’s come from your biases and your ableism. 

The thing is, if you can’t even accept the language we use, how can we get you to understand our needs and push us towards disability justice and liberation? 

When you try to enforce a new word for disability, you don’t make us feel empowered – you take our empowerment away from us. 

For a lot of us, being disabled is something that comes with not only pride in ourselves, but with a whole community of people who we wouldn’t have otherwise. 

Certainly, there is a form of grief that can come with understanding and embracing your disabled identity. 

Knowing you will always be up against an ableist society, knowing that something like chronic pain will never go away, finally understanding why you’ve been different all your life – those are all things disabled people can face during this acceptance. 

But there is beauty in it. There is a liberating feeling in embracing yourself, in finding the people who get it. 

There is resistance in being proud of being disabled no matter how many times people say “you shouldn’t call yourself that!”. 

When a petition went round last week arguing the UK should exchange disabled people for “people of determination”, it pushed a flare of irritation around my body and made me immediately protective. 

This term originates from the United Arab Emirates, and whilst it may work for their culture, it will not for the UK and its disabled population. 

It isn’t language that supports our needs or discussions around them – anyone can be determined, and we shouldn’t need to be determined to get the equality and access we need.

All of these terms based in toxic positivity, whether that be determination, special or enabled, are inherently linked to the inspiration porn that disabled people face every day. 

Society loves to tell us we’re strong, we’re battling against the odds, an inspiration to us all. Sometimes I just want to go to Sainsbury’s without it being compared to climbing Everest. 

Of course, sometimes these terms come from disabled people themselves – we certainly can’t pretend it doesn’t. I’ll always respect those who chose their own terms, but I will not allow them to be pushed 

On a purely practical level, acknowledging I’m disabled gives me certain rights – but it does so much beyond that. It helps me communicate my needs, and helps people understand that I need more support. 

The disabled community saved me when my entire world tipped upside down. 

What does special abilities do, except maybe make people think I can fly or turn invisible? 

Toxic positivity doesn’t help anyone. I am disabled. Yes, I have talents, hobbies, other things that make me unique. But the term doesn’t negate any of that, it never did. 

You were the ones who decided that disability is a negative or makes any of my other characteristics mutually exclusive to it.

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Heartbreak High’s Quinni is the authentic autistic representation we’ve been desperate for

Age fourteen, after my mental health crisis, I sat in front of the first professional who told me I was probably autistic. It didn’t make any sense – the very specific notion I had of autism was of a cisgender white boy, one who was good at maths and didn’t want to speak to anyone. How could that be me? 

It took several years of unpicking to understand what being autistic really meant, and what it meant for me specifically – it certainly wasn’t being good at maths or liking trains. There was nothing in the mainstream media that looked any different to the boy I knew from primary school, constantly compounding the idea I always had. 

Rain Man is still cited for autism representation today, The Big Bang Theory caused the savant idea to be pushed even further, and Atypical, though more recent, is not much better. They all have much of the same characteristics in common, as well as being played by non-autistic actors. Sia’s Music was no more than a caricature of autism, causing ableist harm, particularly to non-speaking autistic individuals. 

But seven years later, enter: the Netflix reboot of Australian TV series Heartbreak High – a beginning to the representation we have all so desperately needed. 

Chloe Hayden, autistic actress and well-known TikToker, stars as Quinn Gallagher-Jones, known more commonly as Quinni. From the moment she steps on screen covered in glittery makeup and star stickers, it is obvious she is not your male autistic stereotype. She is a queer, autistic girl, there as part of the main cast of school kids, and there is no fading into the background here. 

For those of us who are autistic ourselves, the representation is there quickly – Quinni bypasses social norms, asking difficult questions in a room gone silent, and is shown stimming in the first episode. 

But it is the second episode where Quinni comes into the forefront and the representation becomes more than something background or implied. 

We watch as Quinni faces something so many autistic people will relate to, where she sits in a restaurant unable to focus on the words of Sasha So (Gemma Chua-Tran) as they fade into the background. The editors of the show managed to master the way that we get to see Quinni’s overload through her eyes, zoning in on sensory input as she becomes increasingly overwhelmed.

She masks her overwhelm until she is in a safe space with best friend Darren, who already knows how to support her when in a meltdown, telling the others not to touch her.

The conversation that follows later with Sasha is one which is almost identical to many I’ve had, Quinni blurting out that she is autistic as she is being told her face wasn’t expressive enough and she didn’t seem interested in what was going on, things so many autistic people will have been criticised for too. 

Part of the beauty of the authenticity Quinni provides is not only the exposure it will provide to non-autistic people, but the liberation I feel, seeing myself on screen for the first time ever. I have never seen someone like me on a platform like this. I got to watch her have a meltdown like mine, sat on the floor at home, and watch her heart break as Sasha says that sometimes it’s “a lot for her”. 

Had I seen Quinni when I was younger, the way I felt about myself for years might have been different. I might have felt more self-assured, like I wasn’t broken, and like I could have been myself in school instead of hiding that I was autistic until I had left sixth form. 

Quinni’s part in Heartbreak High will be normalising so many aspects of being autistic that are seen as weird. The opening scene of one episode shows her following a multi-step daily routine to the letter, which is later challenged by Sasha; it is clear to the viewer that this is just a part of Quinni’s needs. She is not forced to speak when she experiences a non-verbal period after her meltdown, her friends again telling others that it is just a part of who she is. There’s no trying to “fix” or “cure” her.

Heartbreak High has managed to engage with so many of the nuances and layers of being autistic within its eight episode season. There is no pretending here that we don’t face significant ableism from our peers or when we are trying to engage with allistic society and relationships, feeling like we are too much and questioning everything. 

But, easily and effectively contrasted, there is also celebration of the beauty of autistic joy when we engage with our special interests, as we see Quinni do when she is enveloped by a blue wig, talking to her favourite author. 

The most crucial part of the representation we see here is the way it is intertwined into each episode regardless of whether Quinni is the focus. We see her stimming openly, infodumping to others, and taking things literally across parts of episodes where someone else is taking main stage. Her noise-cancelling headphones become a part of her outfits, silently signalling her looking after her sensory needs. 

We see an autistic, queer, non-male character getting to engage with relationships and embracing their sexuality, something almost unheard of. She talks about sex, she drinks alcohol and goes to parties, she swears – there is no infantilisation here, no acting as if we can’t engage with “taboo” topics.

Chloe’s Instagram post after the release of the show

Quinni is not the end point of authentic autistic representation; she should be the start, opening up the eyes of the media. Every aspect of her character is not only important for putting it on our screens, but the way it comes acted genuinely from Hayden’s lived experience. 

We need more of this, with every aspect of diversity – we need Black autistic people on our screens, non-speaking autistic people, autistic people with physical disabilities.

Hayden has given us something we have had so rarely until this point. I want to see more of it, because we cannot underestimate the way representation changes and saves lives. 

Heartbreak High is available to watch on Netflix, along with the original series.

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Short Film LOVE shows why Neurodiversity in Media is So Vital

Editors note: the writer of this piece was given the tickets for free, this did not affect their review.

“One day he said to me, he could never imagine himself to be a lead in a film.”

LOVE is a short film starring Jules Robertson, an autistic man playing Oscar – but the production team says it is a film about unrequited love from his perspective, rather than a film about autism itself.

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No Spectrum 10k, Autistic People Don’t Want to Know the Cause and We Don’t Need to be Cured

Trigger warning – This article discusses eugenics in relation to finding a “cure” for ableism.

This week, we saw the launch of Spectrum 10K – a project aiming to gain DNA samples from 10,000 autistic people and their families to examine our genetics, to see how our experiences “shape our wellbeing”. It aims to be the largest study done, but after its launch by celebrities such as Paddy McGuiness in the media completely uncriticised, it has quickly raised alarm bells across the autistic community. 

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I’m not Responsible for the Misconception That all Disabled People are Asexual

There wasn’t much time between when I realised I was asexual and when I was diagnosed as autistic – only around a year. Ironically, the first person I ever came out to was a therapist I only saw once, when I originally began to fall into the mental health crisis causing the realisation that I was autistic. It’s been six years since then, and I’m still asked – or alternatively told – whether the two are one and the same.