Art by Stella Engel
“Heartbreak High” brings authentic autistic representation to Netflix. Autistic advocate Chloe Hayden treats the audience to what some consider to be the new gold standard for television neurodiversity representation and teen dramas, according to Rhianna Malas for Collider and Jonathon Wilson for Ready Steady Cut.
Hayden portrays Quinni Gallagher-Jones as an optimistic neuroqueer teenage artist. In the series, the audience gets a view into her classroom, home, romantic, friendship, creative, cosplay, cognitive, emotional and sensory life. Viewers get to watch a wholistic portrait of what her life is like from both an interior and exterior lens.
Early into the second episode, Gallagher-Jones discloses she is autistic. Instead of the all-too-common ableist tropes we see typically in the Netflix arsenal, Hayden portrays Gallagher-Jones a popular teenager with a close circle of friends who is a powerful force for social inclusion at her school.
Writers of the show do not present her as an out-of-touch savant as often happens in media depictions of autistic characters, according to the Organization for Autism Research. Gallagher-Jones does not fall into the socially awkward “Good Doctor” or the “Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper tropes of exceptional abilities or Albert Einstein-like genius.
Instead, the audience meets a genuinely autistic person playing an autistic character with depth, empathy and advanced social skills. Gallagher-Jones gives her friends pragmatic life advice and mentors them to successfully repair their faltering relationships.
Her emotional intelligence shines in practical ways which helps both her and others around her. For example, in one scene Gallagher-Jones helps her friend script a way to get his girlfriend to forgive him, which ultimately restores the relationship.
Gallagher-Jones also has her own relationship challenges. These mostly involve sensory dissimilarities between her and her neurotypical girlfriend. Gallagher-Jones resolves this through her honesty and the strength of her social skills.
These sensory issues first appear in a crowded restaurant scene where the atmosphere is very noisy and harshly overwhelming for Gallagher-Jones. The director shot the busy and loud setting using visual and audio effects from Gallagher-Jones’ viewpoint.
This production choice gives the audience a window into what it is like to be autistic from the view of Gallagher-Jones’. It makes the series an excellent educational vehicle for those seeking to understand an autistic sensory perspective.
The first date is a bust, but once Gallagher-Jones discloses she is autistic and explains why the sensory experience at the restaurant was not an ideal first date, the woman she likes understands and relates. The two become a couple who has the usual high school relationship hiccups — for example, one loves fantasy books and the other loud parties.
The show diverging from typical heteronormative teen relationship tropes and showing a loving lesbian high school relationship is a strength of the series. Additionally, it is a welcome departure from a tendency in the media to present autistic people as straight or asexual and a better reflection of LGBTQ + autistic people’s lived experiences.
Popular media tends to either erase the sexuality of autistic people or depict it in heteronormative ways, according to Toby Atkinson. Yet, autistic people are more likely to be LGBTQ +, according to the Autism Research journal, despite that type of autistic representation rarely making it to television.
Instead, there is a crop of ableist heteronormative representations of mostly male emotionally stunted straight or asexual autistic characters portrayed in childlike or immature ways such as in “Atypical,” according to Teen Vogue and Time, and Sia’s “Music,” according to Teen Vogue, Varsity and The Guardian.
Those representations are so widespread that looking for authentic autistic female representation becomes a challenging quest, according to NeuroClastic.
The “Heartbreak High” script writers criticize ableist caricatures of autistic people in the media through a quick jaded reference to Sia’s “Music.” There is an ironic moment in the show when another character says something ableist to Gallager-Jones and she claps back with,”OK, Sia.”
This is a reference to the cringe-fest that was musician Sia’s demeaning representation of autism. In the movie a non-autistic actor is depicted as an ableist representation of an autistic girl, which offended many members of the autistic community, according to research from USA Today.
Fortunately, “Heartbreak High” represents an autistic person’s sensory needs in a more balanced and realistic way. The series serves not only as riveting television, but also as a teachable window for those wanting to understand the sensory sensitivity some autistic people have.
Additionally, neurodivergent and LGBTQ + individuals will likely see themselves in this series and feel seen and affirmed. The ensemble cast is something all can appreciate — featuring diverse representations of races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations.
“Heartbreak High” is heartwarming because there is true representation of diverse teenage experiences. Neurodiversity shines in the forefront within it in a positive, educational and affirming way.
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