L-R: Carly Jones, Erin Ekins, Emily Swiatek, Rose Hughes  Left to right: Carly Jones, Erin Ekins, Emily Swiatek, Rose Hughes

Our charity decided a few years ago that it was worth putting in the time and effort to work directly with people creating films, books and TV shows involving autism – particularly with companies developing factual or drama shows for TV. We know that some of the biggest leaps forward in public understanding of autism have happened because of films, books and TV shows. They reach millions of people in a way the charity can’t do on its own, and it’s worth us getting involved so we can do all we can to ensure they portray autism as accurately as possible.

So we were really pleased when Betty, the company that made The Autistic Gardener with Alan Gardner, approached us with an idea for a new programme about autism.

We gave them lots of advice and, most importantly, introduced them to autistic colleagues and contacts to help them shape the programme.

Here, Emily Swiatek, from our charity’s Employment Training team, gives an insider’s perspective on her experience of working on – and appearing in – the programme, which is being broadcast by Channel 4 at 10pm on 28 March.

"Since getting my diagnosis when I was 28, I’ve made it my mission to help raise awareness of autism in women and girls. After all, if I couldn’t spot it in myself after nearly 10 years of working with autistic people, it would make sense that your general person wouldn’t be able to spot it in themselves. The stereotyped narratives we have around autism are still so strong, and the media often reinforces those.

From much of the media we see, you’d be forgiven for assuming that all autistic people are white, middle class, male and probably under the age of 18 – and that all autistic people are shy, terrible at public speaking and only really interested in maths or computers. As a mixed-European, working class, 31-year-old woman who is outgoing, chatty and still counts with her fingers, I break the mould a little.

Which is why I leapt at the chance to work with Betty on their show Are You Autistic? In my role, I often provide initial consultation for TV companies and have previously worked on a number of different projects both behind and in front of the camera. But this felt… different. Betty seemed genuinely receptive to hearing the autistic voice and were keen to create something that felt fresh and positive.

A real focus on women and girls

One of the main things that struck me about the programme is that they wanted to have a real focus on women and girls – not just those of us on the spectrum, but also in the scientists they worked with.

I think you’d be hard pressed to find another TV show with such a strong female line up (aside from Loose Women) – over half of the scientists are women and a whopping two-thirds of the autistic people featured are as well.

The production team at Betty were really keen to do things as well as they could – they listened to feedback, not just from me, but from the Youth Council at Ambitious About Autism after their initial launch of the programme wasn’t well received by the autistic community. Their initial name for the show - How Autistic Are You? - understandably made people feel concerned that the show would be reinforcing the myth that you can be a little bit autistic.

They listened to the feedback and changed the name and recruited two fantastic autistic women to present the programme, Georgia Harper and Sam Ahern.

Georgia Harper and Sam Ahern who present Are You Autistic?Georgia Harper and Sam Ahern who present Are You Autistic?

An autism-friendly filming experience

The whole production team attended training (which I delivered) and the result was one of the most autism-friendly filming experiences I’ve ever been involved in – we were given photos in advance, clear guides on everything to do with the day and had our every need met.

For the section I’m directly involved in, this included asking the pub we filmed in to turn off the music and stop using their coffee machine, just so the four of us could eat our dinner without meltdowns. No request was too big and the most important thing, as far as the production team were concerned, was that our needs as autistic women were met.

Understandably, there’s still been scepticism from the autistic community – it’s understandable because sadly, the autistic voice has not been front and centre on TV very much. We’ve spent a long time being spoken about and being excluded from the conversation.

My hope for this show is that it’s the start of something. Change is gradual – it’s a process. It involves working together, autistic and neurotypical alongside one another, to try and make the world a better place.

The thing that strikes me the most about Are You Autistic? is that it’s positive. It’s joyful – there’s a humour and lightheartedness running through the show that is so refreshing. Yes, our struggles are acknowledged, but they aren’t the only things that define us.

And crucially, the autistic voice is strong. More air time is given to autistic voices than neurotypical ones. Autistic people were involved from consulting at the initial idea stage right through to post production. Autistic people present and narrate and feature at its heart.

And that gives me hope for the future."


If you didn't manage to see Are you Autistic? last week, you can catch up over on Channel 4 until the end of April.