Anne Hegerty is shining a light on Asperger's: Here are 4 things autistic people want us all to know

20th Nov 18 | Lifestyle

The Chase 'Governess' has been open about her autism since entering the jungle - and the response has been fantastic.

National Television Awards 2017 - Arrivals - London

Anne Hegerty might have a stern reputation as the ‘Governess’ on ITV’s The Chase, but she’s revealed another side to herself on the new season of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!

Since entering the jungle, Hegerty, 60, has opened up about her diagnosis of Asperger’s, one of a range of syndromes recognised within autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Before going on the show, Hegerty said: “I do respond well to structure. I think it will be quite structured in there. I will understand, ‘At this time I have to fetch wood and water’, doing that will make sense. But being surrounded by people I can’t get away from, or those who talk all the time, can be a source of stress.”

The reality TV show has tested the London-born TV personality, who told fellow contestants on Sunday: “I’m just really, really close to saying I can’t do this.”

Hegerty has won a barrage of praise for opening up, from rugby referee Alex Lambe who has also been diagnosed with the syndrome, to fellow Chase quizzer Jenny Ryan.

While talking about the topic with fellow jungle contestants, she added: “I didn’t raise the autism issue. It’s not like: ‘I want you to know I have this interesting disability that you have to accommodate’. If someone else raises it then I make it quite clear that I’m happy to talk about it.”

According to the NHS, around one in every 100 people in the UK is thought to be on the autistic spectrum – and Hegerty’s doing a lot to open up conversations around autism and what it really means.

With this in mind, we spoke to Robyn Steward, ambassador for the National Autistic Society, to find out some of the key things you only know if you also have been diagnosed with the syndrome, and important points to be aware of…

1. How you talk about autism can really matter

Steward’s main piece of advice for anyone talking about autism or Asperger’s syndrome is to “use identity first language”. This means instead of describing someone as a “person with autism”, you would call them an “autistic person” – which puts the identity first, before the personhood.

Of course, this can be very individual and some people may feel differently about how they like to describe themselves and any conditions they may have – but it is an important point to keep in mind. Many people with autism and disabilities have been campaigning to highlight how important the language around their identity can be. “A lot of people feel really strongly in terms of their identity, that they’re ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ – for them that’s how they identify,” explains Steward.

In fact, language in general is extremely important when referring to autistic people. Even though you might go to the doctors and receive an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, Steward says: “A lot of people dislike the word ‘disorder’, and prefer ‘condition’.”

2. Asperger’s isn’t merely ‘mild’ autism
Another generalisation many people make about Asperger’s syndrome is that it’s a ‘mild’ type of autism. “Having Asperger’s doesn’t necessarily mean the impact of being autistic is mild for that person,” Steward explains. “There are people with Asperger’s who can’t work, and there are people with Asperger’s who need round the clock support.”

3. Stereotypes should be avoided
The representation of autism in books, on TV and in the media can often be a bit one-dimensional, which can lead to stereotyping and assumptions being made.

“People have this expectation that somebody who’s autistic is going to like trains and be really good at maths, and be shy or act in a shy way,” Steward says. “It’s really important to acknowledge everyone is incredibly different. Anne is the only person who’s going to know what it’s like to be Anne, because everyone’s different.”

4. A lot of autistic people develop coping strategies
Just because you don’t think someone ‘acts’ like they’re autistic, doesn’t mean they aren’t. “A lot of autistic people develop coping strategies – it’s called ‘masking’, which basically means you act like a non-autistic person would,” Steward explains. “Eye contact might not be natural to you but you’ve learned that eye contact is something non-autistic people expect you to do, and so you do it – but that makes it really annoying when people then assume you couldn’t possibly be autistic.”

This can particularly be an issue for older people, who may find it harder to get a diagnosis because they’ve spent so much of their life developing coping strategies to mask their autism.

© Press Association 2018

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