Ellie Middleton is an activist, speaker and writer committed to breaking taboos and empowering neurodivergent people to thrive in and outside of the workplace. Her book, Unmasked, is out today. Here, she shares an exclusive extract with FGRLS CLUB.
This time two years ago, if you had asked me to picture an autistic person, my imagination would probably have gone as far as somebody that looked like Rain Man’s Raymond Babbitt – a socially awkward, white man on the brink of genius with unusual skills like being able to count matchsticks on the floor. Similarly, if you’d asked me to picture somebody with ADHD, I would have been imagining a naughty little school boy who was rocking backwards and forwards on his chair and causing chaos in the classroom. I had been subconsciously taught by portrayals of neurodivergent people in the media that “autistic” was synonymous with a “socially awkward, rude, white man on the brink of genius” and that ADHD was synonymous with “a young boy running in rings and struggling to take a breath between their words”. I was absolutely not alone in my misconceptions; they’re the ones that, now I am diagnosed and speak about my conditions publicly, I come face-to-face with time after time.
In fact, these misconceptions, which are hugely common thanks to the media’s limited representation of neurodivergence, are probably a huge part of the reason that it took me until the age of 24 to be diagnosed, despite showing numerous signs that are glaringly obvious in hindsight. I never considered, and the people around me never considered, that I might be autistic or have ADHD. This was probably mostly because we had never seen anyone that looked like me, acted like me, or had anything in common with me who had those labels assigned to them.
Neurodivergent representation across the media (by which I mean everything from fictional TV series and movies to music, radio, press, sports and even reality TV) is extremely limited. The representation our community does get is predominantly made up of:
- Shows opting to avoid outright labelling of autism, and giving the characters a combination of “quirky” (aka autistic) traits
- Using neurotypical actors to play autistic characters, which feels a lot to me like appropriation.
- Including autistic characters or actors but from the same subset of people discussed earlier in this chapter – cisgender, white men – which reinforces that stereotype.
- Shows like Love On The Spectrum which used autistic people as a form of entertainment while infantilising and dehumanising them, and suggesting that they needed to “learn from” neurotypical people.
Over the last year, the neurodivergent community have started to get a little bit more media representation – including Elliot Garcia voicing an autistic train in Thomas the Tank Engine, Chloe Hayden playing Quinni, a queer autistic woman in the Netflix series Heartbreak High, and celebrities such as Matt Haig, Dr Alex George, Fern Brady, Nadia Sawahla, Christine McGuinness and Melaine Sykes sharing their real-life experiences. It really cannot be underestimated just how huge this is – both for those people individually and for the neurodivergent community as a whole. I am confident that the introduction of this representation will have a life-changing effect on hundreds of thousands of neurodivergent people, showing them that it’s OK to be different and that their matter-of-fact communication, sensory sensitivities and lack of eye contact are nothing to be ashamed of.
With that being said, there is still so much work to do. Although it is fantastic that authentic and positive neurodivergent representation is starting to appear in the media, we need to ensure that it is inclusive and reflective of a wider range of neurodivergent people – people of all genders, races, sexualities and backgrounds.
We need neurodivergent women on talk shows, we need neurodivergent people of colour on soaps, and we need trans neurodivergent people in movies. We need young neurodivergent people in the spotlight, and we need older neurodivergent people in the spotlight. We need to see people with higher support needs, and we need to see people with lower support needs – and we need to highlight that those support needs might change from day to day. We need to see non-speaking autistic people, and we need to see hyperverbal autistic people. We need neurodivergent representation to actually be representative of the whole neurodivergent community.
Being neurodivergent does not have a ‘look’. It is not confined to one particular subset of people. Neurodivergent people are as diverse as people in general – and, thus, neurodivergent representation in the media needs to be reflective of that. We need to bring more neurodivergent people into the public eye, and we need those people to represent a more diverse range of neurodivergent people – of all neurodivergences that fall under the neurodivergent umbrella.
UNMASKED: The Ultimate Guide to ADHD, Autism and Neurodivergence by Ellie Middleton is available now (Penguin Life, £16.99)