This International Women’s Day, we’re looking back at the year of Anne Hegerty, a professional quizzer who plays The Governess on the hit ITV program, The Chase. Last November, Anne was a contestant I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here! and sparked a national conversation when she opened up about autism in front of an audience of twelve million people…

A national news story broke last year that caused our website to overload with traffic. Calls to our helpline increased by 70% and we were inundated with mentions on social media. For five minutes, Anne Hegerty spoke about being autistic on the ITV reality television programme set in the Australian jungle, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here!

Anne Hegerty opened up to her fellow contestants about being diagnosed as autistic at the age of 45. Her fellow campmates commented that one of the characteristics of autism is not picking up on social cues and Anne didn’t seem to have this problem. Anne replied, “I have worked on picking up social cues since I was a teenager, I was absolutely useless at it,” and added that her house was “messy” because she often feels overwhelmed by “all the things there are to do.”

In print, drama and on breakfast television, it’s safe to claim that discussions about autism have increased in the last few years. Anne stated in an interview with our charity that she’s “actually… been talking about [her diagnosis] for some time, but nobody listened!” But as the surge in our website traffic after she briefly discussed her autism suggests, we still have a lot of work to do to create a society that works for autistic people.

Hiding autistic traits, often referred to as ‘masking’, is a common experience among autistic women. Various evidence suggests the ratio of diagnosis between men and women ranges from 2:1 to 16:1. While we don’t know exact reasons for this, it is increasingly theorised that the way society expects women to stereotypically behave leads to autism being missed in women and girls. From anecdotal evidence, we understand that growing up, autistic women are often encouraged to change their behaviour to fit in with the people around them. Anne began seeking an autism diagnosis in 2003 after she watched a documentary on autistic children, recognising their behaviour in herself as a child. She told us that, “Teachers thought I behaved really well at school… my mum couldn’t understand why I suddenly went bonkers at the end of the day.”

Alongside talking about her struggles, Anne also made sure to highlight the positive differences of being autistic. She told us that, for her, being autistic means having a “sticky memory” that “makes [me] very thorough and meticulous... I’ve always read a lot and retained it, partly [because] 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.” We know that only 16% of autistic people are in full time employment, and over three quarters of the people we surveyed said they wanted to work. Anne explained that she was on benefits for two years due to being unable to get jobs finished without the right support. It wasn’t until she was the highest scoring woman in the UK in the World Quiz Championships that Anne met fellow chaser, Mark Labbett, who suggested that she watch a small ITV upstart named The Chase.

Although Anne is open about what autism is like for her, it takes courage to be vulnerable in front of an audience of twelve million people. Responses poured in when we collected a book of messages for Anne, thanking her for starting discussions about autism among the UK press and public. Bit by bit, changes at an individual level help us to create a wider social change, be that finding out more about autism, seeking professional guidance, employment support or opening up about experiences to family and friends.

Anne Hegerty

Some of the personal stories we received from autistic women thank Anne for “showing me personally that it’s okay to say no when you're at a limit rather than push through it like so many do and that ‘no’ is a sign of strength” and “helping me to accept my autism. After seeing you in the jungle, such a wonderful, beautiful, kind, caring and very brainy lady, talking about autism and pushing as hard as you can through your struggles, inspired me to talk more about what autism is like for me. I even posted about it on social media, which is huge.” Lots of children wrote to Anne saying that they wanted to be a professional quizzer when they grew up.

We’ve highlighted Anne for International Women’s Day because, by being brave enough to talk about what autism is like for her in front of an audience of twelve million, Anne sparked a national debate about what we can do to create a society that works for autistic people. Continuing to embrace what makes her different encouraged hundreds of women and girls to share their stories and seek the right support, a remarkable achievement.

Anne Hegerty has put together a Spectrum quiz for World Autism Awareness Week 2019, running from 1-7 April. Want to walk in Anne’s footsteps? Take the Spectrum quiz…

Check out our free module on autism in women and girls.

Women and girls