Unless you are a fan of daytime TV you may have no idea who Anne Hegerty is so first of all, let me enlighten you. Anne is one of a few resident ‘super brains’ on the quiz show ‘The Chase’ who go up against contestants as they try to win money by answering trivia questions. Her steely and formidable persona, as well as her incredible level of general knowledge, has earned her the title of ‘The Governess’ on the show and she has been much loved for many years.
Recently, she has entered the Australian jungle as a contestant herself on ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!’, a show which always draws healthy viewing figures with the nerve testing, critter full challenges. But as the show has just started,it has been in the news for more than just snakes and adrenalin rushes. Anne Hegerty has revealed to her camp mates that she has a diagnosis of Aspergers syndrome.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the name for a range of similar conditions, including Asperger syndrome, that affect a person’s social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour. Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome are considered to be on the continuum of Autism. Often, but not always, individuals appear to have more typical language development so consequently individuals with Asperger Syndrome appear to have fewer problems with talking and understanding verbal communication. (Autismni.org) However, they often struggle socially and need routine. Aspects of Aspergers can vary from person to person but Anne has been praised online for explaining how it affects her now and how it has done so in the past.
This isnt the first time she has opened up about her diagnosis, having spoken earlier this year about her life with Aspergers but her discussion in the jungle seems to have really created a movement of interest in the condition.
On the evening that her conversation was aired in the UK, the website of the National Autistic Society crashed because it was overwhelmed with people wanting to know more about the condition. This can only be a good thing in terms of improving awareness and understanding. Having thought about Anne’s conversation over the past couple of days I wanted to just mention a few other reasons why I think discussions like hers are so important.
They challenge age and gender assumptions.
People often wrongly assume that only children can be diagnosed with autism so Anne’s revelation that she was 45 years old before she received a diagnosis would have really opened the minds of those who had previously believed it to be a childhood condition. By the very nature that Anne is female, she is also highlighting the fact that girls and women are on the spectrum too. It is a known fact that there are more diagnosed males than females but many argue that the numbers of undiagnosed females are much higher due to coping mechanisms such as ‘masking’. Carol Povey, Director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism, said: “We’ve loved seeing the outpouring of support for Anne Hegerty. We hope this will be the start of better representation of autistic women in the media and help everyone understand the diversity of autism. There are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK. But public understanding of autism is nowhere near as good as it should be – especially the often unique experiences of autistic women and girls” (mirror online)
They dispel the ‘typical’ idea of Autism.
Mention autism and many people will conjure an image of screaming children mid-meltdown in ear defenders or a solitary non-verbal child lost in their own world. Few people would expect to find that a highly intelligent and articulate person could also have a diagnosis and so in Anne speaking out, she is showing that Autism can present itself in very many ways. The success of the film Rain Man often means that people automatically assume that those on the ASD spectrum are incredibly gifted with memory or certain skills and while this is true for some, it’s not true for all. My own son taught himself how to play the piano before he was three years old despite being non-verbal and only having one ear but many people have other talents which may or may not be linked to their diagnosis. If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism.
They show that its possible to function well and be Autistic.
Although Anne has admitted that she can find aspects of socialising challenging, what her discussion in the jungle has shown is that it is perfectly possible for people on the ASD spectrum to have good jobs and opportunities. Whereas people may have previously thought that a diagnosis of Autism or Aspergers would hamper their chances in life Anne is showing that success is possible with work. And after all, we can all define our own success and achieve that with the right attitude and support.
It makes people appreciate the difficulties.
Many ‘neurotypical’ people take the steps of simple activities, such as going out for the day, meeting new people or simply preparing a meal, for granted. A person on the ASD spectrum may have to plan and visualise things several times before they can actually complete a task and or may feel incredibly overwhelmed and stressed in new situations. This can leave people feeling exhausted before they have even started and so extra awareness serves to not only help people understand the strength it takes to ‘perform’ in life as many others do naturally but hopefully fosters some compassion for those who may need a little extra time and consideration.
It shows that ASD can be worked with
In one clip of the show, Anne explained how hard she worked as a teenager on reading the social cues of other people. The small indicators of mood or reaction that we take for granted can often be missed or misinterpreted by those on the ASD spectrum but in Anne’s case, she was able to work with this aspect of her condition. This isn’t to say that everyone can do this but its certainly a sign that the diagnosis of a condition doesn’t mean it cant be managed. I have to say here as well that I am not advocating finding a ‘cure for Autism‘ as I don’t see my son as afflicted with his Autism (even though it can be challenging at times) but I do know that some people can find aspects of ASD difficult and look for ways to make life a little easier in parts. Its great to see that Anne has managed to do that.
That you can have as much in common with people with ASD as differences.
I think one of the lovely things about Anne being in the jungle is that her camp mates are relating to her in other areas as much as they are different from each other. During their conversation, Rita and Anne agreed that they were both ‘messy’ people and so its great to see the common ground as well as the differences. As part of my charity with More Than a Face, I always ask the children I work with who likes pizza, trampolining and youtube. Many hands shoot into the air and when I reveal that these are also my son Harry’s favourite things to do, many smiles appear as the children realise that his facial disfigurement doesn’t mean he isn’t just like them in many ways. Equally, I am sure that Anne will be able to show the person behind a label in the same way that Chris Packham has managed to do.
Generating conversation to raise awareness and access support
If Anne’s appearance on ‘I’m A Celebrity’ means that more people are aware of Aspergers in general, in friends or family members or even in themselves then hopefully people who need support will be able to access it sooner. One of the big issues around ASD is that many people aren’t diagnosed until they are older and this in itself can mean that they have hard a challenging time understanding why they feel ‘different’, expressing themselves and maybe explaining their feelings and behaviours to others. Sometimes, a label can give people a shield to raise against small-minded assumptions and opinions and provide some answers to peoples own questions.
When someone in the public eye reveals something about themselves as personal as a medical diagnosis, it’s natural for people to be curious so I am hoping that this will continue to generate some positive and constructive conversations around ASD. While people will be saying that Anne is ‘brave’ for revealling this part of herself, I think she is simply owning her diagnosis and being herself and it is brilliant to see all aspects of her and not just The Governess alter-ego. I think its great that she is challenging herself in a situation that she knows full well will test her more than most people, and I look forward to watching her time in the jungle. I sure as hell couldn’t do it. ‘I’m Not a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!’
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