Anne Hegerty in the jungle  

I'm a Celebrity star Anne Hegerty spoke to us for our Winter 2017 edition of Your Autism magazine and talked frankly about being autistic, struggles at work and how she became one of ITV’s top stars.

For many autistic people, their school days were a very unhappy time. How was school for you?

I didn’t enjoy it much to start with. When I was about five, I used to come out of school, fling myself on the ground and kick my mum violently on the shins. The teachers thought I behaved really well at school and mum couldn’t understand why I suddenly went bonkers at the end of the day. It was simply the transition. I did get bullied a bit and I remember being baffled by a lot of things. Baffled at the way so many kids seemed to just instinctively know stuff that I didn’t seem to know. They understood how to make friends, they also understood why to make friends. I can remember being told ‘so and so wants to be friends with you and thinking ‘no, that’s fine thanks, I’m OK, I’m not really looking for a friend’. The girl in question was sitting on the staircase and I asked if she’d let me pass and she said ‘no, you’re not my friend.’ OK, so I have to be either a friend or an enemy, right? Why can’t I just be a cat who walks by themselves? 

When I was eight I was walking around the playground clutching a book called Intelligence tests can be fun. I don’t know where I got that book but I’m sure my mother wouldn’t have given it. I probably got it from my dad, he was in favour of me doing things. My mum would say, you can’t do that but I love you anyway. Thanks mum.

Between the ages of 11 and 13, I went to the local comprehensive and the teachers told my mum I wasn’t doing my homework. And I wasn’t, because I just felt quite bewildered about what I was supposed to be doing. Information that comes in through the ears can be subject to processing issues and a lot of the time I simply didn’t get what people said to me if it wasn’t written down. The local authority eventually agreed for me to go to boarding school under special needs legislation. They weren’t sure what my special needs were, they just thought I’d got some. I think I was labelled as maladjusted. 

After the initial shock, it was very good for me because it was much more structured. At the end of the first month, they posted up the grades and I was last. And I thought, I can certainly do better than some of the others here. I had something to work towards, so I actually started working. By the end of the year, I was top.

You’ve said in recent interviews that in 2003 you saw a documentary on autism and recognised you had some of the traits. What did you recognise in yourself?

It was this film about autistic children and it was the way that one of the boys, when he was really upset about something, he just squealed in this desperate way and I thought, I used to do that, sometimes I still do that. I suddenly realised there was this list of things that had nothing in common apart from being criteria for being on the spectrum and they were all things I used to do as a child.

Is that when you sought a diagnosis?

I did an enormous amount of reading, went on the Internet a lot. I figured out some places I could get a diagnosis from. When I walked in, the receptionist was quite startled when I said ‘Hi I’m Anne and I’m here for the appointment.’ She expected me to be non-verbal. The doctor reckoned I had it. I’d done that test that everyone does. I’ve had friends say to me, oh yes, I did that test and I was between 29 and 33 so that probably places me pretty much on the spectrum, doesn’t it? And I’m sitting there thinking, I scored 40 without any difficulty at all so if you’re on the spectrum, I’m definitely on the spectrum.  

How does your Asperger syndrome affect you now?

I can’t think fast. It’s one reason why I plan ahead really carefully. I’ll have a plan B, C and D. Driving somewhere, I won’t just put the address in the sat nav, I’ll go on Googlemaps and Streetmaps and see exactly where it is and I’ll make sure I can park. Some people will just type the address in the satnav. If I did that, I’d be completely dumbsquizzled.

How do you cope with being on TV in front of millions?

That’s different. I quite enjoy working with the audience. Partly because, for reasons best known to themselves, they like me. That astonished me. In a sense, I expected that I would become famous. I never expected I would become popular. But I don’t really get nervous when I’m doing The Chase because I know what I’m doing. It’s just requiring me to be a nerd. I get more stressed driving down to Elstree. 

Has having a diagnosis helped you? If so, how?

Yes, it made me feel better. I feel if people ever say to me ‘I understand you identify as autistic’, actually I don’t do any ‘identifying’ at all. Objectively, I conform to scientific criteria drawn up by people who aren’t me. I kind of feel that distinction is important. What I do mind a bit is people going around claiming that they are neuro-atypical and I think what they mean is simply they are depressed and anxious, shy and introverted. It’s perfectly possible to be a shy introvert, who’s not on the spectrum at all. I feel that the difference is that the introverts often want to have a really intense friendship or relationship with one or two other people and just sit there and talk to them for hours and I hate that. 

And I also get some people who claim they are neuro-atypical and they’re mentally ill. And you think, no, no, no – you’ve got an issue with brain chemistry which can be adjusted with drugs or therapy. There’s nothing unusual about your brain structure. So it’s nice to have the diagnosis and say look, other people believe in me. I can produce the spreadsheets that I made and I swear I did this. I drew up some charts with the autism criteria down one side and then a load of ‘I do this now’ ‘I used to do this when I was a child’. That alone made my GP think I was on the spectrum!

What’s the most positive thing about being on the autism spectrum?

It makes you very thorough and meticulous which was very good for me when I worked as a proofreader. And it gives you that sticky memory which means that I know a lot of stuff. It’s partly that I’ve always read a lot and retained it and partly that I have this tendency to come across something that interests me and just dive down a rabbit hole, learn everything and get immersed in it. 

What was your experience of the workplace?

I was a freelance academic proofreader. It’s a very good job for someone who wants to stay at home and read books. I would only have needed to be able to work for three hours a day to make a reasonable living but I couldn’t even do that. Things were upsetting me more and more. I’d get a phone call, they’d be a ring at the doorbell and I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day. I was just so jittery. And I actually produced an extra page for my CV to explain to people what I needed from them because I was autistic and even that didn’t seem to help. There were people who just wanted, what seemed to me, to be unnecessary amounts of communication. 

Our research shows that just 16% of autistic people are in full time paid work. Why do you think this is the case?

That doesn’t surprise me. I’m very fortunate that The Chase pays well enough that I can take the amount of time off that I need to take off. For most of my life, I just thought I was lazy or that I lacked energy. It’s just simply that if I’m stopped in the middle of something, it’s hard to get started again. I always remember the story of Oliver Sacks going to see Temple Grandin. He was on the phone to her and she was reading out directions to her house. He interrupted her and she started all over from the beginning. And he realised, let’s not interrupt the autistic person! 

Basically, what happened was that everything was just grinding to a halt. I was just unable to get jobs finished. I went on benefits in 2008 for two years. I don’t know where I’d be if The Chase hadn’t suddenly happened. 

How did you get involved with The Chase

In the late 1980s, I did Mastermind and found out about the UK’s high level quizzing circuit. Then I auditioned for Eggheads and got it. I went along to the world quiz championships next year, and ended up being the highest scoring woman in the UK. I met the largest man I’d ever seen in my life and he said, “Hi, my name’s Mark Labbett – you just beat me, who are you?” So we chatted a bit and he recommended that I watch The Chase. Then I went to another of these quizzes and the person who ran it put my name forward to be a chaser. It took a few auditions but I got the job.

Who came up with the name and persona of the Governess?

I was going to be the headmistress. During rehearsals, Bradley started calling me the Governess and I preferred it. A headmistress is a bit circumscribed, with a lot of rules she has to follow. The Governess can make it up as she goes along.

What’s been your proudest moment?

I’m delighted that The Chase has won two national television awards. And we won Let’s sing and dance for Comic Relief this year, without Bradley. I think Bradley is the main reason why The Chase is so successful. And because of that, you always feel am I any good at anything or is it all down to Bradley? So it was nice to do something where it was us doing it. I’m very proud of that.

Anne Hegerty’s current challenge is facing the bugs, rats and snakes Down Under. Find out how she is doing here.

Find out more