Autistic people don’t get listened to — least of all when they’re talking about their own autism.
“Loads of people saying to me that they thought I could be [autistic]. And then the second you get diagnosed, it’s like a switch flips and people start telling you, ‘you don’t look autistic.'”
Fern Brady gets it. In her new book “Strong Female Character” (which comes out June 6), the Scottish comedian uses her incisive, sardonic wit to recall her own painful path to being diagnosed. Autism is chronically under-diagnosed in women, and Brady’s memoir is practically a play-by-play in exactly how institutions keep failing them. She encounters sexism from the medical establishment, ignorance from her supposed support network and intolerance on countless other occasions.
Yet “Strong Female Character” is not preachy, and certainly it’s tone is not self-pitying or tragic. Instead Brady shrewdly inverts the traditional narrative of helpless autistic people being buffeted about in a world of neurotypical cruelty: This time an autistic women is holding up the window through which she views the world and inviting the public to gaze into it with her.
“Strong Female Character” follows Brady as her autistic traits — her struggles picking up social cues, her sensory problems, her meltdowns — are used to criticize her as a woman, even as her femininity makes it near-impossible to get diagnosed. Like so many autistic children, Brady is bullied, befriends an inanimate object (in her case, a tree) and is direly misunderstood by her working-class Catholic parents and school system. All of this culminates in Brady being sent to a psychiatric facility by her frustrated parents. Ultimately it was Brady herself who took charge of her mental health needs; Brady was finally officially diagnosed at the age of 34.
By that time, Brady had already lived an incredible life. She has been a stripper, a prisoner, an aspiring comedian and finally the breakout star of the British comedy panel TV show “Taskmaster.” In her interview with Salon she talks the intersection of womanhood and neurodiversity, dealing with intolerant neurotypicals, her admiration for Courtney Love and obsession with “Edward Scissorhands.”
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This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
What is your advice for people who are neurodivergent and face skepticism from their loved ones? In your case, you talk about your family, but loved ones can mean friends, employers, anyone. What would your advice be based on your experiences?
I dunno if I can give advice. One of the reasons I wrote the book was because from very early on I learned it’s not really safe to talk to most neurotypical people about autism. I knew I wasn’t gonna hear what I wanted to hear, basically. I’d say the best thing to do when you get diagnosed is seek out other autistic people and seek out podcasts by autistic people or autism-informed therapists. More and more people I know seek out therapists who are autistic themselves, which I think is great. I think all the progress and change that’s happening is gonna come from autistic people themselves. A lot of the useful information I got on how to deal with sensory issues and meltdowns, it came from other autistic people. So I would say, if you’re newly diagnosed, don’t look to your family and friends to be the people who are going to tell you comforting things because in my case, it didn’t happen. Like I couldn’t even talk to my best friend about it. Not that she says anything horrible, but she didn’t say anything new because she’s really neurotypical. Obviously most of my friends are comedians, so when I got diagnosed, he texts me: “So I hear you’re mental now.”
I feel there is an important difference between good-faith comedy and lack of understanding as an autistic person. When other people make jokes about me being autistic, I can laugh as long as the comedy comes from an informed place, if what they’re doing is poking fun at the realities of who I am. That is okay. It is when you use comedy to invalidate my experience that I object to it, that is my own feeling. How do you feel though on that subject, on the use of comedy?
I’d need a context to try and think of an answer there.
That’s fine. I appreciate your candor. I don’t mean to ask super-abstract questions, it’s just the way my mind works. I don’t know if you have trouble with that as well.
That is my life. I’m always thinking in abstractions, and then everyone says, give a tangible example. And it’s like, “no!”
Oh my God, it’s so good hearing someone articulate that! Because when I had the meeting with the publishing people and the marketing people, they were like, “What are your hopes for this book in the States?” And it was such an open-ended question that I was like, “I hope Reese Weatherspoon reads it and realizes she’s autistic. I hope Oprah realizes she’s autistic.” Like, what? It’s hard to know what to say when it’s a big open question. So I tend to just answer with something ludicrous or shut down.
“So often with neurotypical people, they don’t look at the content of what you’re saying, they look at the style in which you say it, whereas for autistic people we tend to look at what the person is actually saying.”
I think what I was trying to ask you with that question is: You’re a comedian, so your profession is understanding comedy by definition. And yet one of the debates within the world of comedy is, when do jokes help and when do jokes hurt? And so I was observing in terms of my own life that I have friends who will poke fun at me for doing things that are autistic. For instance, part of my autism, I have prosopagnosia, which makes it difficult for me to recognize individual faces. A manifestation of that is that I can’t recognize cars. So whenever my best friend Brian Davis has to pick me up for a ride, I never recognize their car. I’m always wandering around the parking lot aimlessly and Brian will joke about that. But I know that he does it affectionately, similar to your comedian friend. Does that distinction make sense? And if so, what do you think on the subject of comedy, helping versus hurting as I’ve articulated it?
The example you gave there is good because if my friends who know me well and know autistic things that I do make fun, it comes from a place of knowing me. I’ll give you an example where I feel weird. Another reason I wrote the book was because I didn’t want to do a full standup show talking about my autism because I would have to talk about it in a way for an audience that largely is gonna be neurotypical, I have to frame my autism in a way that they understand. So talking about social awkwardness, right? And talking about stereotypes about autism. So I tend to do my stand up from an autistic perspective — like you were saying, as a comedian part of my job is understanding comedy — and a lot of my job is trying to understand why people are the way they are, and then pointing out the inconsistencies in what they do. I have a really hard time with the gap between what people say they’re like, and then how they actually are, and hypocrisy and things like that. Even though I don’t talk about autism a lot in my standup, I do stand up artistically, if that makes sense.
In your book you discuss doctors dismissing the possibility that you’re on the autism spectrum because you don’t fit the stereotypes. And I think that’s an important theme in your book. There’s one sentence: “The public perception of autistics is so heavily based on the stereotype of men who love trains or science that many women miss out on a diagnosis and are thought of as studious instead.”
There is another part where you say, “I didn’t fit the criteria because I was making eye contact and anyway, I was a top student who’d just been accepted to Edinburgh University to study Arabic and Persian. So what exactly was the problem?”
Then the third example is, “He thought that all autistic people are unattractive sea monsters with no interest in forming meaningful relationships. Or he mistakenly assumed that the men I dated were capable of picking up on my autism rather than seeing it through a manic pixie dream girl lens.” In terms of those three examples, what is the broader theme in terms of how stereotypes of autism have interfered with your life, as somebody who is autistic but doesn’t fit all the stereotypes?
The main thrust of the book was to be about how much people project stuff. This happens to women generally, people project ideas of what they’re like onto them, depending on your accent, or how fat or thin you are, or how pretty or ugly you are. Not just women, but also to a lot of people. There are a lot of stories of women being the brunt of medical misogyny because doctors don’t take their physical pain seriously. There have been lots of scandals with various contraceptives over the years; it’s not just autistic women that suffer from doctors projecting ideas onto them.
I think there’s also a thing where if a woman is good-looking or young, she’s not seen to be sick. And there have been women with physical illnesses that have been overlooked because they’re “cute.” A thing that gets repeated all the time now is that for autistic women, their autism doesn’t get picked up on Because they’re so good at masking and there’s such great chameleons. But I mean, to me, I’ve seen myself on screen now. I seem autistic. I think there’s something about the way I move and speak that is just off, just slightly off-kilter, enough that people pick up on it. Every environment I’ve ever been in, every work environment, every study environment, people pick up that there’s something weird about me. And no doubt you’ve had the same thing. There’s something about us people just pick up on.
Sometimes the reaction is hostile, which is another major theme of your book. It is dealing with people who dislike you for reasons that they can’t put their finger on… but it’s definitely autism. How do you deal with that?
I’ll go back to the first question and then go to the second. So people keep saying, women don’t get diagnosed because they’re so good at covering up their autism. Evidently we’re not. Right? Because then people are on up telling me to get diagnosed. I remember my agent saying, if you’re not autistic, what are you? Or something like that. Loads of people saying to me that they thought I could be. I thought that I could be. And then the second you get diagnosed, it’s like a switch flips and people start telling you, you don’t look autistic. What made you think that you’re autistic? Then the second thing you said about people being hostile. So I’ll tell you this is most autistic people’s experience: In jobs or in in group settings, they’ll say their own thing and they don’t know why everyone’s offended at what they’ve said. Or they get excluded in social situations. Often autistic kids are like the one person in their class to not be invited to a birthday party, and then people wonder why the suicide rate for autistic people is so sky high.
“I tend to do my stand up from an autistic perspective… and a lot of my job is trying to understand why people are the way they are, and then pointing out the inconsistencies in what they do.”
There was a program I was on last year that I really enjoyed doing, but I always used to think something about me is wrong. I need to get plastic surgery on my face, or I need to lose weight, something is just wrong. It was my very autistic-ness. That is the thing that you end up hating yourself so much because you can just see that thing where you move slightly differently. And other autistic people were picking up on it too, when they were watching this programmer was on, they were tweeting saying, “It’s such a relief to finally see someone who moves and speaks the same way as me. It’s such an indefinable thing, but I know it when I see it. Because I see it, and so do other people who haven’t been diagnosed yet.
I do the same thing. I would argue that it’s even minor characters. For instance, there is a movie called “Trick ‘r Treat.” It’s a horror film from 2007. It’s an anthology. And one of the stories has a little girl we’re introduced to her because she was invited to a jack o’ lantern carving party, but she carved too many because she got too into it. I think when you’re autistic you seek out people in pop culture who are like you and when you find them. Do you have the same experience?
A lot of the quotes that I put in the book, they’re there for a reason. It’s because I suspect those people were autistic, but I couldn’t really get away with saying that. I’ve got a quote from Courtney Love in it because she says that she was diagnosed autistic. She seems autistic to me, because even when she’s not on drugs, she has an off-kilter way of speaking.
I suspect she is maligned so heavily in part because she is autistic. I do not doubt that misogyny also plays a major role, as does body shaming at one point including from how you quote her in the book. But in addition, I think Courtney Love is so clearly intelligent and so clearly awkward that it just reads autistic. Even though people don’t say to her, “We hate you because you’re autistic,” it’s in the subtext. What is your sense?
Exactly, exactly! I’m obsessed with this because so often with neurotypical people, they don’t look at the content of what you’re saying, they look at the style in which you say it, whereas for autistic people we tend to look at what the person is actually saying. And I think autistic people are great at seeing when someone’s bad and when someone’s a fake person, we can pick it out a lot faster. That’s why I mentioned Courtney Love. And then also I think I quoted “Frankenstein” because there have been some people who have speculated that the novel “Frankenstein” has quite an autistic story. When I was little I used to watch “Edward Scissorhands” again and again and again, and I’ve since found out that’s a story about autism and you’re like, “Oh, of course.” Because you can’t hug people.
Can you go back to “Frankenstein “and explain why you think the novel is autistic? I also think Mary Shelley might have been autistic. She wrote it when she was 19.
People have speculated Mary Shelley is autistic.
“A lot of the useful information I got on how to deal with sensory issues and meltdowns, it came from other autistic people.”
But why do you think the novel is about autism?
I haven’t read it since university, but it’s really similar to the “Edward Scissorhands” story. It’s about someone who looks like a human but isn’t, or doesn’t quite feel like one, and is looking at humans with alien eyes and trying to copy with the way they talk because socializing isn’t intuitive to them. Humanity finds them monstrous. Although hopefully we’ve progressed a bit since then.
The best thing that’s happened since getting diagnosed is finding other autistic people. There was also a study which found when you put autistic people with neurotypicals, there are always gonna be crossed wires because we communicate differently. We have to think really hard to work to get to try and imitate their way of communicating.
I don’t know if you know that in Britain class is a huge thing. I know that Americans are sometimes baffled by the British class system. So for example, I’m working class — or I was working class — and if I met a really posh person, normally it would be difficult to integrate into their social group. But I have posh autistic friends and when I’m with them, it’s just much easier because they, I don’t know, there is less regard for hierarchies or something.
I feel like neurotypicals are obsessed with hierarchies. Neurotypicals want everything to have a structure with a pyramid. “These are the people on the top; and then it’s these people; and these people; and these people…”
In our country that just spent billions on a coordination program against homeless people everywhere. You don’t have to tell me!
So what the hell is it with neurotypicals? As an autistic comedian, what is it with neurotypicals wanting everything to be a hierarchy?
They’re just very driven by communities and things like that. But then also neurotypicals also blur hierarchies. And I find that frustrating. So I talked about this in the book. There is a thing in TV with TV execs called studied informality which is where TV bosses will just wear jeans and trainers and then they’ll say things like, “Hey, I’m not the boss.” Like, even though they’re the boss of a TV channel and they’ll act like they’re just your friend. And that’s very confusing if you’re an autistic person because you then take that literally, even though there is still a hierarchy in place. So I found that very difficult when I was moving up in comedy. Do you know what I mean? I found it very difficult to network and know what to expect.
I think it’s because for neurotypicals they expect everyone to intuitively understand the rules. And if you’re a fellow neurotypical, you can intuitively understand the rules. But if you’re autistic, all you see are the inconsistencies because we don’t have the capacity to read behind those layers. So all that appears to us is that surface. And if the surface isn’t logically consistent, we become confused. What do you think?
Oh yeah, I get that all the time. I get that when I get given a fake reason for not getting a job and I’m like, “Please just tell me the real reason so I can improve my system and move on!” Because I think autistic people work in terms of creating systems and improving systems. All comedy is, you establish a thing to see, then if it doesn’t work, you go back, rework it and you’re trying to make your system better all the time. I find it weird when people are surprised that autistic people go into comedy because there’s a lot of those. There are a lot of autistic people in comedy.
I would love to see a whole bit just roasting neurotypical people. Because really they need to be roasted. Everyone else gets roasted. Everyone else gets made fun of. Why are neurotypicals given a pass?
There are people, going back to what we were saying earlier, there are people out there making autistic coded art. So there’s a film director called Todd Solondz. He’s never said he’s autistic. There is nothing online to say he’s autistic, but to me his films have an autistic sense of humor. He did a film called “Happiness,” and just the humor in it is so bleak and dark and trustful.
I would say Courtney Love’s music has an autistic subtext.
Yeah, a lot of Courtney Love’s stuff is about being frustrated with this artifice that you have to put on to be a successful woman, and another thing that screamed autism to me was when she got asked about her nose job on a TV show and she said it was the best decision I ever made. My whole life changed. Everyone started being nicer to me. Whereas most actresses, if they got asked about their nose job, they would say, I never had plastic surgery, or if they admit to it, they would say, “I had a deviated septum and it was just to fix my breathing” — because you have to say the thing that appeals to people rather than tell the truth.
Fern Brady’s new book, “Strong Female Character,” is being released on June 6, 2023 in the United States, and is available for pre-order now.