Hannah Gadsby

Hannah Gadsby
Gender and Autism

On June 20th of 2019 when Hannah Gadsby’s show, Nanette, which explored gender politics and the nature of comedy, debuted on Netflix. Since then, the comic’s life has been permanently altered. The special delved into the powerful and often painful topics of homophobia, sexual assault and comedy’s relationship with trauma. Her next show, Douglas, delivered another Hannah Gadsby experience which puts further emphasis on gender within the context of her autism diagnosis. We were lucky enough to catch Hannah during her performance at Bórd Gáis in Dublin to discuss this further.

You’ve spoken extensively about your experience growing up in Tasmania and trying to be your authentic self in a small community. How do you think this extends to autism?

I think in a strange way living in a small community is easier with autism. The rhythms are more predictable. Nothing ever changed, it was always the same people. The issues arose because I was queer as well. As far as the stresses of my autism the small town appealed. A small town is great if you’re included in the community but not if you’re viewed as a mistake. The life you can lead is perfect, but sometimes small towns, especially isolated ones aren’t great for difference.

In Nanette you have a touching story about your mother. She expressed regret that she raised you straight when you knew you weren’t. Is there a similar struggle being raised neurotypical?

Yeah, I think that the neurotypical assumption is one we should knock off. The way I understand it, autism isn’t a spectrum on its own, I mean the brain is a processing spectrum and autism is a set of traits that happen. I think most people have something they don’t understand about their thinking and processing. It would be great if neurotypicals started to question the way they thought. I like doing that; once I started considering the way I think it helped take a lot of pressure off.

When your framing yourself, your narrative, your story it’s good to throw in the way you perceive the world and share that. That’s just neurobiology, your identity. Just because it’s typical doesn’t mean their neurobiology isn’t part of who you are. Your neurobiology plays such a large part with gender, hormones and identity. It’s a complicated mix and I don’t think autistic people are the only ones who have processing difficulties.

I think when you’re an outsider, particularly with autism, thinking is manual. You’re always bouncing off against what is supposed to be normal. The only thing I’ve got going for me is that I’m white. I don’t have to think about my race!

The combination of autism and sexuality meant I was constantly told I was a miserable lesbian. I grew up thinking that.

Hannah posing with her dog Douglas

That’s a great point. Women on the spectrum often go unnoticed in a lot of research. You describe the prevailing view of autism in your show as ‘Men what are good at maths.” How do you feel this stereotype impacts autistic women?

I guess firstly there’s a lack of research into it which is a lot to do the sexism of science. There’s not a lot of research into women with autism. That’s true of a lot of things because hormones throw out the numbers. Studies often stick to men because the numbers are more reasonable. The data seems more reliable. It would help everybody if we could bridge that gap. I don’t know if that kind of thing is on the rise. It certainly needs to happen more. Not that I’m volunteering; I’m very busy at the moment (laughs).

I do think it’s hard for men on the spectrum. People on the spectrum are very empathetic; the world is a lot so we tend to close down. There’s ways of coping, but it doesn’t come from a lack of empathy that you have this. It’s nature / nurture there because there’s so much more expected emotionally from women.

There’s plenty of men at my point of the spectrum who would never need to be diagnosed because life wouldn’t be as difficult for them! Because of the gendered place we live in these things aren’t noticed as much in men. If I was diagnosed as a man hitting my stride in the 1950s, I wouldn’t have autism, I’d have a secretary, wife or a mother who did things for me. I don’t have autism when I’m on my own; it’s relational and women are raised and expected to do all those things.

You named the new show after your dog, Douglas. You opened and closed Nanette with a cinematic scene of you coming home to your dogs. Did that represent you entering a safe space from a busy world?

That’s precisely what I was doing. At that stage I knew I’d be in the Sydney Opera House which is an amazing venue. It looks like that’s my natural habitat. I top and tailed the special with that scene because although I’m very comfortable on stage I wanted people to know that’s not where I live. For me, I live in my head, in my home with my dogs with the quiet with a cup of tea. I don’t get nervous on stage but I panic if someone asks me what coffee I want! A lot of comedy specials open with the performer running through the rows cheering. I wanted to do the opposite of that because the stage is where I go to have a chat with the world but not where I see myself living.

In Nanette you discussed seeing a Pride Parade for the first time and that despite feeling hope in seeing yourself represented you asked “Where are all the quiet gays supposed to go?” How do you feel about autism friendly queer spaces?

I mean it’s tricky because I’d say less colour and brightness. But autism is a spectrum and some people like lots of colour. I wouldn’t like to suggest how people should socialise. I’m not a party planner! Personally, I just like to witness rather than socialise directly. When I was younger I was desperate to be involved but I didn’t know how to be involved. I didn’t understand why because I didn’t have a diagnosis. I’d do all the things it looked like I should do. Then I’d get really distressed and I would have several weeks of downtime. Now that I’m older I don’t want to do those things. I’m happy they exist and it’s really important these places are there, especially for younger people. Just want to pat my dogs and rearrange my furniture.

“It never occurred that this distress was environmental.” Before her diagnosis, Hannah suffered from burnout regularly

In an interview with Skavlan you had a profound line about your diagnosis “I was trying to climb buildings. Once I found out I couldn’t I stopped.” Would you say that was referring to burnout and overexertion?

When I was younger I’d go out and socialise and drink and all that. It exhausted me, I was unhappy and distressed most of the time. It never occurred that this distress was environmental. I thought it was something wrong with me. I kept trying but once I was diagnosed I stopped trying to do those things. And stopping gave me ability to do those things! Now I can socialise every now and again, but I have to be really well rested and in the mood and be comfortable and know the environment. I have to pick and choose. It’s about navigating from a position of self-knowledge. I can’t fill out forms so I outsource that.

But the important thing is I’m in a place in my career I can afford to pay people to do these things. People are vested in me being able to function. Being a star is perfect for autistic people because you get all that external scaffolding to flourish. I set my boundaries and say “I can’t do these things.” But people still say, “But you’re fine.” And I have to explain if I do certain things I’m not fine. Jenney is my external scaffolding on this tour. Jenney and I have worked out a language for communicating this.

People don’t give disability help like that in the real world. You’re given enough to just cope, not to flourish. They need to see you can’t cope before they give you anything. Those services really help people be active participants in the world.  I don’t know how I’d cope in the world if I wasn’t in the position I was in. If I was trying to hold down as a job, for example, imagine the fluorescent lights!

The world is not built for people like us, but people like us have brains with problem solving skills that could change the world. As a tribe we have that perspective and the drive to solve problems. We couldnot only help ourselves but help design less toxic environments for everyone. For example if autistic people helped build shopping centres I think it’d be everyone would be happier shopping. I call it ‘Spectrum Gazelle.’ Just because it doesn’t upset other people doesn’t mean it’s not doing damage. You have the herd of gazelle, the autistic one’s going to hear the twig snap and alert everyone. We’re hyper alert in this environment because it feels like danger. Lights and noises feel like a warzone half the time.

Even though it doesn’t seem to bother neurotypicals I think it stresses everybody. It just debilitates people on the spectrum. No, the environment is the disability. I keep going on about this. We’ve got plastic plants. We know that plants make people less stressed and bring oxygen in the room. We’re not building the world right. We know people are calmer when they hear birds singing. You go into shopping centres and it’s like death metal. Well it’s country music but it sounds like death metal when you’re not in the mood!

You ended Nanette with an address the men in the audience to ‘pull [their] socks up.’ It’s a powerful call to action in the context of your experience with homophobia and assault. If you could make a similar call to action to neurotypicals what would it be?

They don’t have a monopoly on communication. It’s a dialogue and I think people discount what’s happening inside of us because they’re reading us on a certain level. If neurotypical people wanted to find a way to communicate with autistic people, they could. We’ve done that, we’ve learned to communicate with neurotypicals. It’s exhausting but it’s worth it because it’s the world and we want to be part of it. I think if they returned the favour they’d get quite a bit out of it.

We’d like to thank Hannah and her team (particularly Erin Zamagni and Jenney Shamash) for making this happen.