headshot photo of Jane Harris 

Millions of us have really enjoyed watching Anne Hegerty take on the celebrity jungle. But what does her role in the show mean for the public’s understanding of autism? 

Anyone who knows anything about autism knows that everyone’s experience is different. So of course, Anne's experience cannot reflect that of all autistic people. Some of our supporters have worried that people watching the show may get the wrong impression of what it’s like to be autistic. And it’s true that Anne’s experience will be different from that of autistic people who are non-verbal or who have learning disabilities as well as being autistic. Reality TV is about individuals’ stories and Anne is only one individual. 

However, we cannot understate the power of Anne’s story in introducing autism to those who have not heard enough about it before. Over two weeks, for anything up to five minutes every night, an autistic woman spoke about her experience of autism on prime time TV to an audience average of 12 million people. That is a wonderful step to get the nation thinking about autism. And even more importantly her camp mates showed the nation how to support someone who’s autistic, who struggled with things that some of them found easy. They did things that Anne was familiar with - holding quizzes for example. They listened to her and asked her questions about her condition - not in a nosy way, but a supportive and friendly way. And it has had an impact. 

During the first week of “I’m A Celebrity”, calls to our National Autistic Society helpline increased by 70% with people wanting to know more. 

Any one individual on TV can only represent their experience - not that of every autistic person. We must remember that had Anne not been there, the alternative is that no-one would have been talking about autism to millions of viewers each night. It’s hard to see how that would have improved the public’s understanding of anyone’s experience of autism. 

What unites autistic people and their families, whatever their race, gender, sexuality or their level of need is what they want the public to know about autism. People of all backgrounds have told us the most important things for the public to understand are that autistic people need extra time to process information, that unexpected changes and intense sensory experiences are huge challenges and that anxiety and meltdowns are really difficult for autistic people. Given Anne’s appearance has shown her struggling with new environments and with extreme sensory overloads in trials, there’s good reason to believe that more of the public will understand these things than before watching the show. If the show has got these messages across, especially to people who wouldn’t have heard of them otherwise, then this will help hundreds of thousands of autistic people. 

The real way to get the full range of autistic people’s experience shown, we need more representations of autism - in reality TV, in quiz shows, in documentaries and dramas. We should celebrate every time we get another representation of autism on TV. 

We need women’s experiences to be reflected as well as men’s, people of all races and different sexualities. We need to demonstrate the full diversity of the spectrum and understand the impact that culture, upbringing and background could have on how autism presents itself in different people. Anne's presence on the show was a good reminder to the public that women as well as men are autistic and will hopefully inspire some undiagnosed women to find out more and get support if they need it. 

Anne Hegerty in the 'I'm a Celebrity' jungle

Anne has introduced autism to people who never would have understood before. But of course there remains more to be done to improve public understanding. We will continue to do our part by running public awareness campaigns and working with TV companies to increase representations of autism in the mass media. In the last couple of years, we’ve worked with production companies on The Autistic Gardener (with Alan Gardner), Are you Autistic and The A Word, as well as working with programmes like This Morning and of course the first ever autism-friendly version of Loose Women. While none of these programmes can tell anyone everything about autism, together they represent a huge step forward in educating the public about what it’s like to be autistic in 21st century Britain. We will keep working with all kinds of media to change attitudes because we know that only when the public understands autism will society really work for everybody who is autistic.