How Heartbreak High Did It Right!
Previous mainstream media outlets that have featured autistic characters have struggled to capture or reflect the true lived autism experience. This has either been down to stereotyping, a lack of research, or casting non-autistic people into these roles. This has negatively impacted society’s interpretation of autism and the autistic community. But Netflix’s newly rebooted hit series, “Heartbreak High”, expresses the complexities of being a young woman with autism through a realistic and relatable lens.
Heartbreak High spoilers follow.
Image source: Netflix
One of the main storylines followed throughout the show is of the young, bubbly, queer teen, Quinni. Quinni is a young autistic woman, and it’s great to see the series eschew the typical stereotypes of maths-genius who lacks empathy and instead present an authentic rounded character. Quinni is an exuberant creative thinker who loves fantasy novels, bold makeup, frogs, and winning school competitions. Played by Australian award-winning actor Chloe Hayden, she’s making history by being Australia’s first mainstream autistic actor, and one of the first autistic actors in history to play an autistic character. Chloe was diagnosed with autism at age 13 and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at 22, she is also a disability activist, motivational speaker, author, and TikTok star. All these intersect with her passion for creating change, celebrating diversity, and pushing toward a better future for people with autism. Chloe brings so much depth to the character of Quinni, that she is easily recognised and relatable to the broader autistic community.
One moment, in particular, is where we see Quinni, telling Sasha (Gemma Chua-Tran) she’s autistic. Sasha is very taken aback, and asks how she didn’t already know Quinni was autistic, because “I’ve met autistic people” before. This is where Quinni expresses how she’s “good at masking”. This quick on-screen exchange highlights the apparent stereotyping and assumptions the wider community often holds about autistic people and highlights the ways in which women with autism feel compelled to hide their true identities. "One of the reasons we put that in was because I had conversations with the writers," Chloe tells Refinery29 Australia, "and they were like, 'What happens when you tell people that you’re autistic?' and I’m like, 'They don’t believe me because I don’t look like Sheldon Cooper and Rain Man and Shaun Murphy and What's Eating Gilbert Grape. I don’t look like that.'" Chloe explains further that when Hollywood chooses not to cast autistic individuals into autistic roles, those actors cannot fully comprehend or capture the true lived experience of autism. "The thing is, media has such a hold on us as to what we believe is real life. So, people see autistic people represented in media played by non-autistic men and they go, 'That’s what autism is'," she says. "So then they see me and they’re like, 'You’re a young woman who knows how to speak and who can make eye contact and is doing OK for herself. You can’t be autistic, that’s not what my idea of autism is, therefore you cannot be autistic'."
Chloe says this experience isn’t unique to her - it’s felt by many others in the autistic community. "I really wanted to showcase that in the series because that’s not a personal thing. I don’t know a single autistic person who hasn’t had someone say to them, 'But you don’t look autistic'," she explains. "So, having that shown and having that said by this girl who Quinni is infatuated with is a really important thing to show. That is real life, and this is the first time we’ve actually seen what a real-life autistic experience is like because it’s played by someone who’s autistic rather than someone who watched a 20-minute YouTube video on, 'What is autism?'" That’s why it is so crucial for people to be able to see themselves represented in the media. It’s important for people who know they are autistic to be able to see themselves represented, and it can be even more important for people who don’t know about their autism. The autism spectrum is incredibly diverse, and individuals can experience autism in many different ways. It’s critical that we see an array of different experiences and portrayals of autism from lots of perspectives in our media, this way people can relate to these stories, learn more about autism, or even seek a diagnosis. It’s also essential for neurotypical people to be more informed and not subjected to such typical stereotypes of autism. These uni-dimensional views of autism in the wider community can be detrimental to autistic people, many of whom have spent their lives ‘masking’ - hiding their autistic traits to appear more neurotypical and fit better within this cookie-cutter world, just like Quinni did. Including a diverse array of autistic portrayals in the mainstream media means autism will be better understood within society as a whole.
With more socially accepted inclusion it means it can be safer for autistic people to actively live their most authentic lives. You may be wondering; how do we diversify autistic representations in the media? The easiest step each of us can take is to make sure the information we are obtaining about autism is from autistic people, for example, by following them on social media. This isn’t a complete solution; the mainstream media is still important for increasing an understanding among people who would otherwise have no interest in autism. People within the industry need to invite autistic people to get involved. Autistic actors, writers, reviewers, if the media is portraying autistic people it needs to be willing to integrate them into their productions. Autistic people are the experts on autism, they’re the ones who can provide the most authentic voice about the autistic experience and best present characters like Quinni in a realistic light that portrays autism. These authentic representations are so important to better help normalise autism in our society.
Hopefully, we see more brilliant autistic depictions in more up-in-coming mainstream media. Read more about Quinni and Heartbreak High here https://www.smh.com.au/national/how-chloe-hayden-became-one-of-the-first-autistic-actors-to-play-an-autistic-character-in-a-major-tv-series-20220921-p5bju6.html or find out more about media representation and autism here https://www.accessibility.com/blog/autism-representation-in-the-media-and-how-it-impacts-real-life