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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